Thursday was our final day. Our numbers were smaller but we were the stalwarts who'd been part of some or all of the previous days. The day started with a swing dance warm up thanks to Oliver Broadbent. It was a delightful, silly way to begin the last day of an intense week.
We had programmed two open space sessions so began the task of asking what we wanted to explore further. The stipulations were that they had to have come from what had bubbled up during the week. In the first open space we had two sessions. One group researched the Butoh Clown pieces some more, playing with different options such as nose, no nose, eye contact, all clowns, no clowns etc. Meanwhile another group discussed and then played with ideas of White Fragility.
In the afternoon Open Space Sesssion there were three breakouts. One group explored the Climate Crisis as the Trickster though a trickster story and reinactment. One group talked about Irony - continuing conversations from Franki's changing stories workshop. And another group rounded up the Clown Congress with an improvised song and performance.
We rounded up the day with some dancing and a closing circle led by Franki. It was beautiful and connecting end to a truly rich week.
On the third day our focus expanded beyond systemic influences to incorporate the whole planet. And from here we came back into ourselves. Prior to the day I had been thinking about how disconnected and disassociated we can feel to the climate crisis so perhaps we need to first locate the climate crisis within ourselves.
I introduced the day and began the first session exploring a workshop I had been developing bringing together clowning with one of my movement practices, Butoh. Butoh is a protest dance form that developed in Japan after the 2nd World War, as the country faced a cultural identity and emotional crises that left a paralysing scar on the national consciousness. Dance artists reacted to the horrors that had been witnessed by portraying them through the body with grotesque and playful results. I had been playing with Butoh as a way for us to connect to the complex feelings I had been feeling in relation to the Climate Crisis. The process was to create choreographic scores using evocative images of climate collapse or capitalism for instance. Once those were set we performed them as clowns. During the process we started to research further by adding a nose, adding music, playing the nose and/or connecting with audience. The varied results raised a lot of reflection and critique. As an audience, do the images connect more or less with each element? Are we seeming to mock these serious issues? Does adding the clown bring lightness where we don’t want it or feel we deserve it?
The second workshop was a collaboration between Saskia Kraftowitz and Pan. The session was prefaced with an introduction to grief work from Pan and a discussion about the importance of these processes in relation to moving beyond climate anxiety and into action. The session continued with a writing exercise to explore our areas of numbness, anger, rage, despair. Then Saskia led their ‘Giggling with Grief’ workshop, drawing on grief tending, voice and clowning practices and the idea that the expression of laughter and crying are closely connected. We were invited to choose a mascot from an enormous pile of soft toys Saskia had brought, and invited us to take our new friend outdoors, into nature to explore and share our grief. The process ended by sharing our experiences with a partner and creating a shrine out of our friends and clown noses, leaving our grief with them.
After lunch an open space session asked how we might practically use clowning to address the climate crisis. We split into a five practical exploratory sessions; ‘Laughing with nature’, ‘Guilt: the Musical’, playing with extreme emotions, switching emotions and the space in between; the power of expressing no emotion and how it creates abstract meaning – drawing on the experiences of the Red Brigade; and a clown theatre piece very simply and playfully exploring inequality of resources.
The day ended with a session from Franki talking about changing our stories. To explore the narratives we tell ourselves. We chose a story from our past, a trauma the had had a lasting effect on us. We then danced with our stories from different points of view; as the victim (a tragedy), as the hero, ironically and finally (although time ran out and we didn’t quite get there) comedically, when we realise all our stories are universal.
The day helped settle my thinking into ways and territories that clown and clowning can work in in these times of climate crisis:
by Jon Davison
On the second day we explored clowning from an anti-racist perspective and how to decolonise our artform.
Session 1 - Halima Habil – Clowns Without Borders Anti-Racist Training
Halima Habil shared the anti-racist training she has been developing for the last 2-3 years at Clowns Without Borders. As a response to the dangers of white saviourism in the charity sector (including clowns), Halima is part of an advisory board that produced an inclusion, diversity and decoloniality policy. They provide advice to CWB chapters on challenges, best practices and accountability.
The session guided us through exercises in self-reflection on:
Me and White Supremacy https://g.co/kgs/Q8WPCD
Cohesion Collective Www.cohesioncollective.com
Session 2 - Fatina Cummings and Jon Davison - ‘Contested Workshop’
We decided to ‘play ourselves’, which meant:
Jon: white cis male, older than many present, author of books, clown teacher internationally – gets to speak and tell others what to do
Fatina: black cis woman, ‘new’ to performing, challenged by her white and black peers, often excluded by programmers, teachers, etc.
We had agreed on jointly presenting one of Jon’s exercises
After an introduction, Jon explained the phases of the exercise, where you can only perform your script when the audience are laughing. Shortly into this process, a participant challenged the fact that this seemed like just Jon giving a workshop. My (Jon) response was, and is, to note that this is ‘us playing our roles’.
Fatina then took the lead by describing some of the challenges she faces as a black performer and how she has sought to meet those challenges.
We then jointly presented the main phase, asking participants to take a recent news story relating to colonialism and to stage it. They then performed according to: only perform the script when we laugh.
Some performances revealed quite a lot of discomfort, about: refugees and racism (Ukraine and black refuges).
My own big learning point was around the group of 5 white participants who I and Fatina both coached during the process, who expressed firstly that they felt no connection to the news story (about a young black man killed during the previous weekend’s Notting Hill Carnival), but who felt so much (discomfort) when having to perform that they refused to perform (the only group who refused). Fatina’s reflections on this were very clear, about the privilege white people have to not feel discomfort. So, although black and white clowns have different discomforts, we can all play and clown those discomforts.
‘Colonialism is our script’
Session 3 - Open Space – discussing issues relating to decolonising clown and anti-racism
Groups formed to discuss some of the issues raised earlier, such as:
How do CWB behave when they travel to a different country/culture?
Racism in the clown workshop
What is the lineage of racist clown exercises?
There’s a reason we feel discomfort
Online Panel Discussion – Clowning, Equity and Social Justice
This online panel discussion was be moderated by Amrita Dhaliwal from the Idiot Workshop in Los Angeles. She posed some of the Clown Congress’s key questions to clown artists who are actively working on issues of social justice.
Panel guests: Jacqueline Russell, Barry Bilinsky
20 people attended online
by Hilary Ramsden
Day 1 of the Clown Congress focussed on Clowns: Power, Protest and Authority. Dr. Bim Mason, (former Artistic Director of Circomedia, researcher, mask-maker and street theatre practitioner) presented perspectives on a brief history of the clown as provocateur in the forms of jester, fool and trickster, and followed this with references to contemporary provocateurs such as Leo Bassi, Sacha Baron Cohen, Banksy & Pussy Riot. He then continued with a presentation of his own most current work, Big Heads, and spoke informatively and in depth about response from and impact on audiences of this particular performance work. Maggie Irving (clown, researcher and educator) followed Bim with a lecture-demonstration of Feminist incursions into Clown practices drawing on her own work and experiences as a female clown. Dr. Hilary Ramsden then completed the more formal presentation part of the day with a talk on the radical phenomenon that was CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) from its inception to its demise!
After the morning break Hilary facilitated a 90-minute workshop that drew on the 2-day Basic Rebel Clown Training that CIRCA used to offer on its UK tour to different cities before arriving at the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles. The focus of the workshop was to explore some of the games and exercises we’d worked with at that time and to see how it felt 20 years on – what still worked (of course, some of the exercises are regularly used by many kinds of facilitators, not just clowns, rebel clowns or activists and not only performers), why and why not.
Bim facilitated an after-lunch workshop ‘Contemporary Ideas & Actions’: Big Head Mask Workshop where Bim outlined his approach to creating mask actions for the G7, COP26 and other events. Congress participants were invited to put on the Big Heads, and to explore the possibilities for embodying power and trying out iconic gestures and attitudes that might accompany these masks of a number of UK politicians. As an audience we looked at and discussed their impact in terms of power relationships and audience response.
The last session of the day was framed with a number of questions (listed below) that were intended to invite participants to create some practical work around the themes of the day.
Practical session: What kinds of actions might we work on? What new ways can clowns invent for usurping authority? Drawing on ideas from the previous sessions we formed small groups around a variety of topics to discuss and create some ideas for future actions. We then gathered for a show and tell after 40 minutes….which in fact was more of a tell rather than show.
The Congress kicked off with a one-day workshop offered by Portuguese clown, Eva Ribeiro. A friend and prolific clown & activist, I had met Eva online during my Activist Clown Co-lab Series in February. At her invitation I went to Porto to deliver my Activist Clown Weekend. Continuing our conversations on the political possibilities of clowning I invited her to join us at the Clown Congress. This was also a chance to see elements of her own practice in action.
12 lovely clowns joined us on a gorgeous sunny Sunday in the grounds of the Estate to explore Clown Diving in Nature. It was a gently-led invitation to tune into our senses, tap into our intuitive selves to play and respond to nature. Each sense; sight, sound, touch was explored with the playful, lightness of the clown. The day culminated in solos, duos, trios and group presentations by clowns responding site-specifically to the woodland.
The day was a welcome opportunity for all participants to step out of our everyday experience of the world, letting anxiety drop away and a child like curiosity take the lead. It was a really beautiful way to start the Congress.
The Clown Congress was a collaboration between three clowns, teachers, activists and academics; Robyn Hambrook, Jon Davison and Hilary Ramsden. We had connected on Zoom during the Pandemic as we explored new ways of working and performing with clown that took us beyond studio and street-based methods and processes. Simultaneously we wanted to discover and create new forms and processes that address political, societal and environmental issues. Following a research residency in Athens in February we want to extend our questions, experiments and discussions to the wider clown community.
We wanted to collectively ask what does it mean to be a clown in this current era? In times of crisis and change, the old models of our artforms may need re-imagining to suit the times we are in. And as we face shifting and transitioning political power systems, climate breakdown and urgent issues of social injustice we are gathering to ask what is the future of clowning in these turbulent times?
Offered a residency and deciding to make the Congress 4 days long; Hilary, Jon and I decided to curate a day each to explore broad themes that in some way followed our own interests.
As an activist, her time at Greenham Common and experiences as the co-founder of CIRCA, it was obvious that Hilary’s focus should be on Clowns relationship to Power, Protest and Authority.
With 40 years experience teaching, and currently questioning colonial and potentially racist pedagogical practices, Jon Davison’s day focussed on Decolonisation and Anti-Rascism.
The third day’s theme was Climate and Planet. Addressing the elephant in the room of our present and real climate crisis, I have been asking questions about what the role of clowning is in these anxiety inducing times.
Our final day asked ‘What Next?’ and left the day to be curated by the participants; to give space to respond and research questions and ideas that bubbled up during the previous three days.
We were joined by Franki Anderson; who facilitated daily sessions that allowed participants to self-reflect and bring their attention back to themselves after touching on the huge global issues we were exploring. Franki was also in a support role, to feel the room, to ground us and support difficult processing through her therapeutic movement practices.
We were based at the Arts Mansion, set in the stunning Ashton Court Estate thanks to a residency offered by Artspace Lifespace. It was the venue of The Trickster Lab I held there in September 2021. The incredible venue offered a large wooden panelled Music Room, two smaller carpeted lounges, a bar area for catering expansive manicured grounds. Our beautiful setting however, was also a reminder of the deep inequality in Britain and of a dark history tied up in private land ownership, wealth and slavery. If were going to talk about decolonisation of our our artform we have to acknowledge this suffering and exploitation in the places we stand.
The Congress kicked off with a one-day clown workshop on Sunday and then four days of the Congress from Monday to Thursday. Over the 4 days 50 people joined us from across the UK. We also had visitors from Europe including France, Belgium and Portugal. You can read more about each day here:
Day 0: Clown Diving in Nature
Day 1: Power, Authority & Protest
Day 2: Anti-Racism & Decolonisation
Day 3: Climate & Planet
Day 4: What Next?
What a gift! The opportunity to travel to Porto to take my research and The Activist Clown Weekend workshop to a group of Portuguese clowns, artists, campaigners and activists. The wonderful human, Eva Ribeiro, suggested the idea back in February after she attended my online Activist Clown Toolkit Co-lab Series. Her work with clowning and activism is alive and vibrant. As well as nurturing a beautiful, politically engaged rebel clown community, she performs almost weekly, organising exchanges and projects and right now she’s in Senegal collaborating with the International Clown Lab. I would like to mention, Eva is also a brilliant and generous host and I felt so welcome and looked after.
For the workshop Eva has gathered 12 participants from all over Portugal that we meet in an spacious Working Men’s Club in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, across from Porto. We work in a large dance hall, we eat lunch together at a massive table and have a drink a the end of the day. I love these places, rituals and moments that feel so very European.
Over two days I pack a lot in. Maybe too much. Clown training, partner work, audience connection, authority and status, movement and ensemble work. We touch on the political potential of clowning and explore what the practice can transform or teach us about ourselves. We have the opportunity to take a clown posse into the streets on the afternoon of the second day. A crazy idea after such a full weekend...but the work belongs here, it comes alive in public space, with spectators and purpose. You can read reflections from our street action here.
What happens when you support the political messaging? And what if there is no clear target? The clowns become the target.
It’s Labour Day, Sunday 1 May. A bank holiday that internationally is used to defend workers’ rights. In the centre of Porto hundreds had gathered; unions, workers groups, veterans and anarchist groups, brandishing banners and flags to highlight their cause. We most certainly supported the event but wondered what would the role of the clown be if we went to play in that political space. Could we fulfil our role as commentators and also as activators and change-makers? As we began to discuss this the same questions arise; what’s the point? why are we doing this? is it insensitive to bring mockery and humour to those politically charged spaces? As always I ask the clowns to come with a sense of research; let’s try it and see what happens. If we intellectualise or talk to much, we’ll talk ourselves out of going.
The group settled on the idea of dressing as a Syndicate of Bosses. Playing with authority and parody provided lots of games, both supportive and provocative. For instance, the call ‘Anti-stress’ resulted in long massage lines and culminated in a huge circle meditation that easily involved lots of participants in the game. The bosses could also congratulate workers on a job well done which had increased their profits. And when the bosses yelled ‘get back to work’ this elicited playful boos from one group of workers. Here the clowns provide a provocation that can help spectators to express unspoken or taboo ideas in a safe and playful way.
As always the territory the clowns play in is fluid and what we stand for is not always clear. Is that our power? Some spectators didn’t understand what we were doing, some violently pushed the clowns out of the way, which very quickly changed the playful atmosphere for the clowns. Some spectators were curious enough to watch for a bit longer, earning the reward of the ‘aha’ moment when they got the joke and our playful intention. What is certain is that these political spaces are sensitive and they take practice for clowns to remain connected, positive and playful and to greet all responses with open-hearted love. For love is truly what the clowns can bring.
I invited clowns to play in the streets of Bristol last weekend. We had expected to support counter-protests against a far-right fascist group, For Britain, who were coming to Bristol to rally against Black Lives Matter, the removal of the Colston Statue and what they called ‘mob rule’. The planned demonstration sparked a backlash in Bristol, with a range of campaign groups and organisations planning their own counter-demonstration at the plinth which was due to start two hours before. For Britain decided to postpone their rally.
Fascists are brilliant targets for clowns, as demonstrated by the Loldiers of Odin, an activist group from Finland who dressed as clowns to parody the anti-immigration Soldiers of Odin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n85LwLsvSfc
And the anti-nazi demonstration in Tennessee where clowns held up ‘Wife Power’ placards to confuse and undermine the white supremacists messaging.
Plus there's plenty more examples in this brilliant article that outlines a long history of clowning and humour being used as a powerful tactic against fascists.
The clowns were both happy and disappointed that the fascists wouldn’t be coming to play. Without a clear target we headed out to disrupt and enliven the space instead. There was a visible response to the clowns as we moved through the busy streets of Bristol. One of the clowns, Terry, had proposed a simple structure for play: ‘Find the Game, Play the Game, Share the Game and Celebrate the Game’. The final two parts were key – can we get passers-by to join in with us? Indeed we did, from a giant skipping rope to a slow motion race to worshipping a 2 foot Strong Man doll we named ‘Tiny man’; the people of Bristol joined in our play. “You really made me smile today” said one woman sincerely after we had conducted a convoluted photo shoot with her family.
Photos thanks to Leigh Perrott and Natalie Verhaegen
We headed over to the Antifa gathering at the plinth. Here the atmosphere was completely different. A serious, edgy vibe, with the Black Bloc holding a sombre space punctuated with heavy metal music, forced us to approach carefully. We supported their demonstration and didn’t want to disrupt or mock them or their messaging...we realised this was a challenging call for the clowns. After mingling in and around the protest we finally found our place; in the faces of the police. Here we could be as annoying as wasps: questioning them, offering to polish shoes and tie shoe laces. At one point a peanut offered by one of the clowns jumped out of her bosom and hit a policewoman. Shock quietened us all. The clown fell to the ground to prostrate herself and the clowns administered a punishment, as we asked the police if we should kick her. A truly powerful image and uncomfortable moment for the police. Most of them moved away to find a different places to stand. Our final play with the police was when we made them the finish line of a slow motion race. The play extended as they kept moving and we had to reorientate our race.
We had a lot of fun and made some interesting discoveries;
Photos thanks to James Ward
On 15 January 2022, the Cop Clowns (created at the Trickster Lab at COP26) joined a national day of action against the Government's new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The bill is a huge piece of legislation that includes major government proposals on crime and justice in England and Wales. One part of the bill covers changes to protests and how they are policed and the amendments are a danger to our freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest as demonstrators could face harsh penalties.
The Cop Clowns joined protesters in College Green - playing in the liminal space as both protester & police, using ludicrous choreographies and interactions to comment on the absurd & dangerous power of the police.
Robyn is a Bristol-based director, teacher and performer. With over 20 years experience she is 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, Giovanni Fusetti, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma, Deanna Fleysha, Igne Barkauskaite and Maggie Irving.
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, Eric Davis, Nathaniel Justiniano, Tim Licata, Al Seed and the grand master Bouffon-himself; Philippe Gaulier.