a trickster laboratory in Bristol
between clowning + activism: A trickster laboratory took place at The Arts Mansion from the 6th to 12th September. A motley crew of 22 activist tricksters, rebel clowns, and mischief makers (from across the UK, Scotland and Belgium) answered the call from Jay Jordan, Hilary Ramsden and Robyn Hambrook to dive into a week of exploration, research and play exploring clowning as a form of creative activism.
Over the last year, through various online collaborations I reunited Jay Jordan and Hilary Ramsden; the original founders of The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (C.I.R.C.A.). This formed the starting point for a new experiment to critically reflect on past history and methodologies of C.I.R.C.A in order to develop new forms of rebel clowning in 2021.
During the week we aimed to explore what it means to be a Rebel Clown in the current epoch of social and ecological crisis, how to address issues of diversity and decolonisation to have any meaningful impact on issues of equity and social justice, and how to invent forms of action that are both effective in the streets and healing on our inner body-minds.
The aim was to develop new methodologies for street action that will be tested ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November.
Our residency began on Monday evening with presentations by JJ and Hilary about C.I.R.C.A. These explored the ideas and events that led to the formation of the clown army and images of the 4 years of actions during which the rebel clown form evolved.
The following day we arrived at our stunning home for the week; The Music Room of The Arts Mansion, with windows overlooking the South lawn and breathtaking views of Bristol. Our spaces extended beyond the room onto the sprawling gardens that surround the building. These provided space, nature and inspiration to enrich our explorative process.
The week comprised of a stimulating mix of sessions including:
We also had presentations that included:
Decolonisation and Radical Inclusivity from Aisha Ali
Examples of the work and principles of The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination from JJ
The work Ocean Rebellion presented by Sophie and Rob that erupted into a lively debate about their approach to police liaison and protest
As I process the week, here are some of my notes, questions, ideas and thoughts that begin to coalesce…
What are the elements needed in a rebel clown methodology?
JJ shared 10 principles of effective creative action:
Resonating ideas from Sophie Miller’s experience in the Red Rebels and Ocean Rebellion
‘Keep it awkward’ the power of performing arts, clowning, absurdity can really wrong foot authority, so lean into things that are deeply uncomfortable, unusual for the police and other figures of authority
‘Move slowly’ the idea of malicious compliance, you’re not saying no but you actually are (link to the yes and no)
A workshop on psycho-magic and clown ritual led by Zuma Puma on the final night left a lasting impression on me. It came at a moment in the devising process when I lost hope in finding the right form for the clown that could be used in activism at this time. Zuma led with some context about psycho-magic and explained that a ritual exists when there’s an intent and a container (a beginning, middle and end) and participants transform through gaining something or releasing something.
Entering the open, creative, playful state of clowning we created our own collective rituals, journeys and mini-transformative experiences including fire, dancing, moving through thresholds and lots of naked bums. The clown in a state of creative flow, ritual and magic was enormously powerful. It came back to something JJ said about the clown being the out-of-work shaman - as we have lost our sense of connection to nature, community and ourselves and the rituals which marked these we also lost the guides who led us. So can the clowns reclaim their roles and work as shamans for this epoch?
From here our next steps take this research to Glasgow. I have a weeklong residency with Surge which leads into the first week of COP26. For me the learnings of the week that I will take into the next phase are:
To start with an embodied practice – beginning the research and devising process from the body through clowning, butoh, bouffon and clown ritual
These practices serve the process by:
Building group trust, listening, complicity
Creating ensemble and choreographic elements
Play leads to improvisation and devising from an embodied state
Provides performance forms, characters and aesthetics
What is unclear is how these performance outcomes move beyond spectacle into direct action. This is where I think JJ’s work intersects. Through his questions, provocations and challenges can we elevate the work beyond representation to meaningfully transform performers, spaces, people and power structures?
Creative research into the meeting point of clowning and activism
Robyn is a Bristol-based director, teacher and performer. With over 20 years experience she is a passionate practitioner of clowning, physical theatre, circus and street arts. She has a MA in Circus Directing, a Diploma of Physical Theatre Practice and trained with a long line of inspiring teachers including Holly Stoppit, Peta Lily, Giovanni Fusetti, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma and Deanna Fleysha.
Robyn has collaborated with companies including Let’s Circus, The Sexual Health Circus and Whispering Wood Folk and performed with acclaimed physical theatre companies including, Derevo, Akhe, Oceanallover, and Gappad as well as her own award-winning company, Fun in the Oven Theatre.
During the pandemic in 2020, Robyn set up The Online Clown Academy with Holly Stoppit and developed a series of Zoom Clown Courses. Robyn’s research, started during her Masters, has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism, online, in the real world and with international collaborators. With this drive to explore political edges of her work she has also dived back into the world of the Bouffon; training with Jaime Mears, Bim Mason, Nathaniel Justiniano, Eric Davis, Tim Licata, Al Seed and the grand master Bouffon-himself; Philippe Gaulier. She has also set up the Laboratory of the Un-beautiful; a collaboration with Deborah Antoinette Bard, exploring the bouffon & grotesque with womxn theatre makers.