by Holly Stoppit
Greetings dear reader! Holly Stoppit here, with a blog all about day one of the Clown Congress 2023. If you don’t already know me, hello! I am a clowning and fooling teacher, process facilitator, dramatherapist, autobiographical theatre director and recently qualified Internal Family Systems (IFS) practitioner. I was at the Clown Congress as a facilitator, helping to hold the space and offering Creative Clarity workshops at the end of each day. This blog focuses on the thought-provoking sessions from two of our wonderful guest contributors, Saskia Solomons and Jeremy Linnell.
A Little Context
The theme for this year’s Clown Congress was CLOWNS & IDENTITY; Exploring Difference in Clowning. The invitation was for a bunch of clowns from all different backgrounds to come together for three days in October, to attend a range of workshops, talks and discussions exploring “…how our differences and who we are impact the way we clown...” The invitation was to “… explore how clowning is influenced by our individuality and how society sees us today.” (Clown Congress Blurb)
Send In The Clowns!
A pick and mix assortment of 50+ clowns of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds shuffled, shimmied and stormed their way into Bristol University’s drama department. There were clowns who work in hospitals, clowns who perform in theatres, circuses and streets, clowns who teach other clowns, clowns who disrupt the status quo with clown activism and the clown curious.
Session 1: Multiple Me's: Parts Based Clown
The first session was presented by Saskia Solomons, a Lecoq-trained clown-idiot, physical theatre performer, deviser, storyteller and facilitator. Saskia is also an Internal Family Systems (IFS) practitioner.
If you’re not familiar with IFS, this is my take: IFS is a therapeutic system which is based on the theory that we are all made up of many parts (ie feelings, sensations, thoughts, memories, dreams, fantasies…). In an IFS session, people are guided to investigate their inner parts, to find out where the parts live in or around the body, to discover what their roles are, how the parts feel about their roles and what their fears are. Through this exploration, people can develop a more compassionate relationship with their parts, which in turn can enable parts to let go of their burdensome roles, which frees up the bound-up energy in the system.
Saskia has been exploring how IFS combines with clowning in her/their recent Edinburgh Fringe solo show, ‘Fool’s Gold.’ Their Clown Congress workshop was based on some of the processes they’ve been developing, described in the programme as follows:
“In this short, practical intro workshop, we will welcome our multiple inner selves into the room. Through introspective listening, embodied play, witnessing and reflection, the theme of ‘identity’ (or rather, identities) will be explored: who on the inside wants to be seen? Who is ready to play? Who is hiding under the table? And how can listening and responding to our inner needs and desires develop a ‘clownspace’ founded on internal consent, freedom and delight?”
The Art of Noticing
Saskia invited us to walk around the space and notice how we are.
They invited us to notice the space and the things in it before inviting us to notice each other and to notice the impact that being noticed was having on us.
Next we moved into pairs and sat down together. We took a moment to be together and notice whatever we noticed - both outside and inside our bodies. Then we took it in turns to say what we were noticing. This went on for a few minutes.
Next we moved to music, led by our various body parts, noticing our changing feelings and sensations as our elbows, bellies and chins led us through the space.
Then we sat down with big pieces of paper and felt tip pens. We were invited to turn our attention inwards and track our way through the warm up, remembering the sensations and emotions we’d experienced and sensing into where each of those feelings live in or around our bodies. We were invited to focus in on each feeling one at a time, to get to know them more, before capturing them with an image on the page.
Next we were invited to embody these sensations and emotions (or ‘parts’ in IFS language), one by one, to have an opportunity to notice what they are like, from the inside. We were asked to stay aware of any other parts that popped up in relation to this process. These reactionary parts were also invited to be felt in the body, find their place on the page and to be embodied.
For the final exercise, we moved into pairs and took it in turns to witness each other doing this process of finding parts, mark making and embodying. We were invited to notice the parts that came up in relation to being witnessed. The witness was also invited to notice the parts coming up for them.
I experienced Saskia’s holding as gentle and clear and saturated in permission for everyone to genuinely choose their own path through the workshop. There were people who dived in, embodying their parts loudly and confidently and there were other people huddled in corners, looking a bit frightened (to me the whole room looked like it could be any one of us, with all the people representing the many conflicting parts inside). Saskia validated everyone’s experiences, naming the various energies that they could perceive and offering invitations for everyone to notice and include whatever was going on for them.
I was really happy that Saskia’s session was the first session of the congress, in that it seemed to give everyone a chance to consciously land into the experience of being in a massive room full of clowns. For some of the clowns, this was the first time they’d been in a big social situation since before Covid, but even for the mega sociable clowns, stepping into a huge room full of 50+ peers / strangers / professional show-offs can be daunting to say the least! Saskia’s workshop gave structured opportunities for people to get curious and conscious about their feelings and sensations around coming into a strange space and entering into connection. I feel like this laid a foundation of consciousness, curiosity and permission for the rest of the Clown Congress.
The workshop was almost entirely practical, Saskia chose to not go into the IFS theory and this seemed totally appropriate to me. Saskia’s pedagogy is based in the body and creativity, so it seemed right that delegates could get to experience the method through their bodies and creativity and find out from the inside what it could do for them. Saskia held a small group discussion later in the day during the Open Space session, where they discussed the various possible applications of this method. I wasn’t at the discussion, but I can post a link to the notes here once they are live.
I’m excited about this work. I can see it being incredibly useful for clowns / performers / actors / directors in the rehearsal room, by helping them to access their intuition, work with feelings that block the creative process and generate material for performance. I can also see it being useful in live performance, helping clowns and improvisers to access and play with their authentic feelings, which in my experience, makes for a very deep and resonant quality of connection with self, other players and the audience, which in turn, makes for a vibrant, resonant quality of unforgettable improvisation.
Session 2: Disability & Art – The Pressure to Make Art About Your Lived Experience
The second session was led by Jeremy Linnell, a neurodiverse & disabled bouffon based performance artist / live game designer / all round professional idiot and curator of mischief from Cardiff.
Jeremy’s session explored the following provocation:
“In the creative industries it seems there is an implicit pressure on those in marginalised groups to make work about their “lived experience” – a pressure that reduces them to their protected characteristic and often involves some degree of trauma. Does this pressure exist? Should it?”
Jeremy offered a series of provocations, followed by big group discussion, interspersed with Bouffon games. This report focuses on Jeremy’s provocations and the discussion, as there were so many great points being made. I was handwriting notes as quickly as I could and I didn’t capture who said what, but here’s the gist of what was said.
Trauma Tourism / Trauma Porn
Jeremy introduced us to the notion of “Trauma Tourism,” aka “Trauma Porn.” This is when an artist puts their lived experience, ie neurodiversity, being disabled, being a woman, being a person of colour, etc, on the stage for an audience to consume. Jeremy proposed that negative lived experiences all have inherent trauma within them and putting them on stage can prevent the artists from moving on in their lives, reinforcing their trauma by having to relive negative experiences night after night. Jeremy expanded on his proposition, suggesting that putting trauma on the stage can give audiences a false experience of having done something to fix the societal problem from where the trauma originated. ie “I’ve done something about that, I’ve watched a show!”
Mining Personal Trauma For Art
Jeremy remembered an experience in a workshop where a theatre director had asked the group to close their eyes and “think about the worst thing that’s ever happened” to them. Wanting to keep himself safe, Jeremy stood up and left the workshop. To all the directors who draw out trauma irresponsibly, Jeremy says, “It’s not your stuff to play with!”
One of the delegates said, the important thing is “HOW people are [making work about trauma].” They offered the following questions for theatre makers to ponder on: “How am I able to contain [my trauma]? How am I able to have distance from it? Is it possible to sit in a place of safety and comment on those feelings from the outside?”
Another delegate talked about the difference between personal and private, saying “When its private the person is still very much in it.”
What happens to the audience when you put raw trauma on the stage?
Someone said: “I need a bit of lived experience;” qualifying that as an audience member, this helps them resonate with the performer’s experience, which helps them connect with their own authenticity.
Someone asked: “Do we have a duty of care to the audience?” Jeremy explained his view: “If you’ve not made sure you’re safe, you’re putting the audience in the role of caregiver.” Jeremy suggested that the audience in the role of caregiver feels an obligation to applaud, “to make the performer feel OK.”
Drama Requires Conflict
Jeremy proposed: “Drama requires conflict”. He asked; “Can you make a piece of theatre about your lived experience that doesn’t focus on the negative?”
Someone from the congress asked: “What’s your experience of “negative?”” They argued that theatre can transform “negative” experiences, both in the performer and in the audience. They argued that if they themselves are comfortable with their own material, then it’s not a negative experience to play with it on stage.
Someone else proposed that life is full of conflict and put forward that perhaps theatre can be a great space for exploring that.
Clowns and Conflict
Someone talked about the innocent quality of clown, which allows clowns to wade in and “nonchalantly” play with whatever conflict is present. This quality of innocence can paradoxically allow clowns to get closer to the knuckle of conflict.
Someone spoke about a friend of theirs who has been in Gaza, clowning for children in refugee camps. They said it was their job is to distract from the conflict. Someone else spoke about clowning for the people of Grenfell tower, in the wake of the disaster - their job was to “help kids smile for 5 minutes,” in their experience, “giving people a reason to smile, gives faith and that brings hope”.
Someone wondered whether this is the true power of the clown? Someone else mentioned the old adage: the clowns’ job is “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
“What is the purpose of theatre?”
Jeremy argues that theatre audiences are passive observers. He cited a video essay by Lindsay Ellis, where she talked about the Revolution Play Problem [I haven’t been able to find this video]. Apparently, Ellis spoke about how plays such as Hairspray, Rent, Les Mis and Hamilton have not changed how people engage with direct action. Jeremy pondered: “What’s the point of telling these stories?”
Someone responded: “There’s no point to anything! We’re living in the wild west of existence!” They continued, suggesting that theatre allows us to explore “the shadow of humanity.” Someone else described a recent play session with a 5 year old, who said: “You stand there and shoot me and then we’ll do my funeral.” Kids are often naturally drawn to explore darkness through their play, perhaps it’s a human need? Someone else said: “We need the evil witch in the forest!” Bemoaning the “sanitisation of children’s theatre,” they reminded us that, “stories were created for communal responsibility.”
“Where’s the pressure coming from?”
Jeremy asked where the pressure comes from to make work about lived experience. He asked: Is it the funders? Is it the venues? Is it the artists themselves? He cited a Patrick Willems video essay - ‘Who Is Killing Cinema?’ [I haven’t watched it, but it’s here if you want to.] Jeremy told us how this video essay explores how cinema audiences are trained to like whatever the studios want them to like, but that can change, as the recent Barbenheimer phenomenon proves.
Jeremy stated that just because he is neurodiverse and disabled, he doesn’t have to make work about it. He suggested, “If you want to make autobiographical work, protect yourself!” Jeremy spoke about exaggeration, mockery, parody and character work as good tools for personal protection. He described this as “telling an autobiographical lie.”
A congress member talked about Le Coq’s mask theory, explaining that bouffon, clown and theatre can all be seen as masks; “When we wear a theatre mask it doesn’t touch the skin but it allows us to play - otherwise it’s the mask of death.”
Jeremy finished with a plea for artists who want to work with their traumatic experiences to find a therapist and to shop around until they find the right therapist for them.
Jeremy’s provocations sparked a very lively debate. As a dramatherapist, it was heartening to witness a room full of clowns discussing trauma and safety for performers and audiences, bringing into consciousness the stuff that is often buried, unseen or ignored. The autobiographical solo show can be seen as a right of passage for many, but how many artists and directors understand how to safely work with trauma in the rehearsal room and on the stage?
There was so much in this debate that I could comment on, but the thing that comes through for me most strongly is the theme of distance as a safety mechanism for both performers and audience. I appreciated the thoughts around the difference between private and personal and how to find a place of safety, where you can comment about your experience from the outside. I appreciated Jeremy’s thoughts around using theatrical forms such as exaggeration, mockery, parody and character work to create an “autobiographical lie” and Le Coq’s theory around the mask that can both protect and give freedom to the performer.
There are many different therapeutic approaches to working with trauma, some seek to lead you away from the trauma, helping you to create new behaviours, new self-beliefs, new neural pathways, others create the conditions that allow you to look trauma straight in the eye and understand it cognitively or compassionately, thereby releasing the grip of it, others seek to help people process and release trauma through the body. What all the systems I’ve come across seem to have in common, is that they seek to help people create healthy distance between themselves and their traumatic experiences.
Until that distance is obtained, trauma can stay in the body for years and can be re-triggered by a remarkably wide selection of obvious and seemingly innocuous things. As a life-long theatre maker and workshop leader, I can confidently say it’s nigh-on impossible to predict the things that might trigger people. What you might think of as a lovely, silly, playful group activity could be a living nightmare for someone who has childhood trauma coursing through their body. Learning how to work with trauma when it arises has been very useful in many situations.
I’ve directed a lot of autobiographical clown shows, exploring big themes such as depression, eating disorders and grief. Because of my dramatherapy training, I’ve been able to spend time as part of the devising process, helping performers to process their trauma. Without this vital step, I’ve found that not only are they unsafe (ie liable to become re-traumatised), they are also too close to their material to be able to play with it. If a performer can’t play with their material, there’s very little life or space in it and the material can’t breathe.
This has a knock-on effect with audiences - tightly held material can generate tension and discomfort and a weird sense of voyeurism in audiences. I’ve felt it myself, as an audience member; that uncomfortable sense of “Am I allowed to watch this?” which makes for a very complicated experience. I mean - it could be an interesting artistic choice to engineer this feeling of alienation, but I sense that often this is not what the artists are going for.
Putting raw, unprocessed trauma on the stage is likely to trigger trauma responses in audience members. Some of the more responsible artists put trigger warnings on their work. Others have a quiet space where people can retreat to if it gets too much. I spent time with some of the artists I’ve worked with, co-designing after-show care packages for audiences, exploring ways of honouring, holding and containing their experiences and/or signposting for extra support.
Because of financial constraints, rehearsal periods are often not long enough to fully process trauma to make it safe enough for performers and audiences. I would say, the healthiest way would be to slow everything down. Slow down the rehearsal process, put in breaks and integrate personal therapy. Directors should consider getting some trauma training or working alongside a therapist in the rehearsal room and it would be amazing if more people thought about the audience experience from beginning to end - what could you provide to make it safer for them?
I really respect Jeremy’s position - why should people feel like they have to make work about their lived experience? But if they want to, I think this debate has a lot of useful questions to help people get conscious about why and how they want to make autobiographical work.
I wholeheartedly enjoyed the contrast between these two sessions. Saskia’s practical and physical workshop and Jeremy’s theoretical and thinky debate offered two very different ways of connecting with the congress theme of identity. While Saskia was inviting us to use our personal experiences in our performance, Jeremy was giving us full permission not to. To me, this beautifully represents the spectrum of experience of clowns and applications of clowning today. There is no one way to clown and that should be celebrated!
This event was a wonderful opportunity for clowns to find out about the work that other clowns do, to find their place in it all, to broaden their knowledge, to stretch out their limitations, to be inspired by each other and to play together. Long live the Clown Congress!
The Clown Congress 2023 brought together 55 clowns, academics, performers, artists, theatre makers teachers, therapists, activists and hobbyists from across the UK and Europe to interrogate our practice and explore what it means to clown in these times. This year's congress will focus on the themes of Identity and Clowning. We wanted to understand how our differences and who we are impact the way we clown as well as exploring and celebrating diversity, inclusion, disability, race, neuro-divergence in and through clowning.
Over three days we came together in the Bristol University Theatre department at The Wickham Theatre in Bristol. We embedded ourselves in the large black box theatre, making use of the large space for massive circles, games, embodied exercises and explorations. We spread out across the building into smaller rooms for open space sessions, in the lounge areas for breaks and lunch and outside onto the steps to get some sun and light during the breaks. They were long and beautifully intense days; from 10 – 6pm.
Each day had two 75 minute workshops with invited contributors, one open space session and one reflective workshop with Holly Stoppit.
The organising committee were Robyn Hambrook, Jon Davison, Jan Wozniak, Aerial Mel Stevens and Holly Stoppit.
An online programme curated by Jon Davison ran simultaneously and included interviews, discussions and workshops by international practitioners tackling the same themes. Around 275 people across the world engaged with that programme.
This year’s Clown Congress was only the second of its kind. The idea behind the Congress had come from a collaboration between myself, Jon Davison and Hilary Ramsden in 2022. We had connected on Zoom during the Pandemic as we begun to research and interrogate ways of working and performing with clown both in the studio and on the street as we sought to create new forms and processes that address political, societal and environmental issues. We received funding to carry out research in Athens and had wanted to extend our questions, experiments and discussions to the wider clown community.
You can read about each day of the 2023 Clown Congress here:
Day One by Holly Stoppit
A grey drizzly day in Stockholm. I take cover under the awning of a shop as I watch a group of clowns in suits with red noses and red hats, ask passers-by if they want to be counted. One clown takes a tally with a giant pencil as more absurd questioning follows: how do they want to be counted, and how many people have they seen who can be counted too? These clowns are here to help the government carry out their census of every single person in Sweden. Claiming to not speak Swedish, I ask an onlooker what is happening. She explains that this is a joke, talking about the far-right policy aimed at reducing the number of ‘illegal’ people in the country. This policy speaks to the rising fascist policies being pushed through by a party that is not even in power.
It sounds racist and awful, I say. ‘Yes it is. This is really bad for Sweden,’ she replies.
‘Swimming’ up the road is another group of clowns. They sport brightly coloured swimming costumes, swimming caps, goggles and a banner that says ‘The ice-bergs are melting’. The group stops at a concrete plinth and creates slow moving tableaus of breaking ice-shelves, sea levels rising and suffocation from plastics in the ocean. Some break away from the group to offer onlookers swimming lessons and then training in how to hold your breath.
‘The sea levels are rising’ they say, 'we need to be prepared.'
These two actions are the culmination of a 4-day training in Stockholm exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism. This is the inaugural training of The Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy, a collaboration between myself and Hilary Ramsden. It draws on our collective experience, passions and desire to use clowning tools and methodologies to speak to the political, societal and environmental issues of our time.
On day one welcome 13 clowns, activists, theatre and change makers from across Sweden as well as one participant from London. We meet in a quirky circus space/artist space Hökarängen, a southern suburb of Stockholm. This was to be our home for the week, but following a gas explosion in the space on the first night, we quickly have to find new locations to work in. Thanks to the amazing work of Camilla and her networks we have new working spaces at Teater Tr3 on Söder (the southern island of Stockholm) near Maria Torget and the Clowns Without Borders co-working space in Sikla. I must admit, it is nice to get different flavours of the city.
We explore public space from day one to ensure the participants are comfortable with being and performing outside. We begin with a sensory walk through the streets on the first day, in pairs, with one partner eyes closed. The group returned to the space in one long line, all eyes closed, creating a spectacle for the locals.
The second day, in a pedestrianised square near Teater Tr3, explores the politics of public space asking;
On day three, two groups explore different issues using, what I call the Choreographies of Protest. These are ways we can move through public space in groups and the possibility that movement in protest can be organised and beautiful. We use ‘fishing’, ‘flocking’ and ‘socking’, ‘finding the game’ and ‘yes let’s’ as devising tools to create games and ways to move. Out in public space, the games and movement can now invite audience participation. One group explores the theme of isolation, the other borders and migration.
That afternoon we share resources about creative activism. We read examples of actions including detournement, hoaxes, creative disruptions and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. We remind ourselves of the issues that are forefront in our minds; climate justice, militarism, rampant individualism, fascism, capitalism. We think about our experiences in public space so far and how we want to engage spectators. We then spend time brainstorming actions that we could take to the streets the next day. The participants coalesce around shared interests and similar ideas; adapting, tweaking, compromising. We end up with two groups, each with a possibility, an action that can happen in the streets of Stockholm on the final day.
The final day is a beautiful alchemy of play, co-creation and action. After a game of Goblins, Wizards and Giants to train our group decision-making we prepare for the two creative clown actions; clowns counting for the census and those preparing for the climate crisis. The space is alive with costume trials, prop location, banner writing and lunch eating. We head out at 12.30pm.
The plan is for the groups to start at opposite ends of a long pedestrianised street in Slussen, play, parade and eventually meet in the middle. At one end is the harbour – where the climate clowns begin. The census clowns start in a big square. Their meeting is an opportunity for each group to watch the other.
Post action we walk back to the space to debrief and close the week. It has been a profound few days and some heartening positive feedback from participants:
We conclude with an impromptu clown funeral (of course), massages, cleaning, hugs, games and prolonged goodbyes. What a week! I sincerely hope I will get to return to Sweden to meet and play with these lovely clowns again.
Photo credits: Patrik Cevér, Mehdara, Stacey & Nicola
What a joyous thing it is to leave the UK in March. It’s a frustrating month; with the promise of spring and warm weather blown away by icy breezes and snow fall. Instead I headed to Lisbon for an Activist Clown Festival. Taking trains from the Bristol, via Potsdam for a Bouffon Intensive, I slowly journeyed south. I stopped in the historic and picturesque Luxembourg and then the trendy and vibrant Barcelona before crossing the border into Portugal.
The invitation cam from one of the most inspiring, hardest working clowns I know, Eva Ribeiro. Me and Hilary Ramsden joined 25 other clowns, artists and activists from across Europe for Jornadas ClownActivistas – a 5 day celebration and celebration of clowning and activism. The festival was organised by Eva, and two colleagues Sara Sofia and Catarina Mota, co-founders of Palhaç@s na Orla, an organisation of dedicated humanitarian clowns working towards becoming the Portuguese chapter of Clowns Without Borders.
The festival’s diverse programme included; two international online panel discussions, a fundraising gala, presentations, workshops, performances and film showings. Inspiring conversations with participants continued over lunch, as we treated to delicious vegan food prepared by the glamorous Bree and dinners in lively local streets. I love Europe street life. And its warm.
Each in-person day was located in a different venue, giving us a unique experience of different cultural spaces in Lisbon. The fundraising gala was in an old Army Barracks; Largo Residencia. The abandoned buildings are now home to artists, charity organisations, residency and gallery spaces and a bar. In small theatre and cultural space, Casa de Coreto, in a cosy northern neighbourhood, we spilled out into a square where our clown games infiltrated the lives of the locals. Our final day, at a central Lisbon theatre school, Escola do Largo, gave us access to busy tourist-filled city vibes. I particularly enjoyed a performance by Catarina Mota, set in a square, where the public passing by became part of the scenography.
I love workshopping and sharing practice so these parts of the programme stood out. Hilary gave a presentation on her work with the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. As co-founder of this non-violent direct action movement (2004-2006) she shared her frontline perspectives on the creation, tactics and efficacy. We then took part in a truncated Rebel Clown Training, experiencing games & exercises that had been part of the two day training. What a delight to play Giant, Wizards and Elves outside the theatre to the bemusement of local residents.
Catarina Mota led a workshop to physically explore ideas of personal and collective space. The embodied session was a continuation of her work around lack of housing through the gentrification of Lisbon. This is now a global phenomenon pushing up the price of housing, making our cities unaffordable and un-livable. I experienced full-body, visceral responses to the work; feelings of claustrophobia, freedom, intimacy and isolation.
I delivered my Butoh Clown workshop that has been in development since 2020. This unique workshop explores the the climate crisis through image dancing. Overlaying the clown into the research process moves, transforms and connects us to the overwhelming emotions that accompany the work with these subjects. Once again I am inspired by deep this work goes really quickly as well as its capacity to shift stuck emotions as we engage in the the realities and scale of the crisis.
On the final afternoon we watched an inspiring selection of films, creative and documentaries of different activist clown projects happening in Portugal, Lebanon and Brazil.
The parting of the ways is slow, over a final meal in the vibrant suburb of Chiado. As always its a sad moment as the participants leave for their respective homes. To Porto, Viana do Castelo, the Algarve, the Azores, Switzerland and Denmark. As for Hilary and I we journeyed north, separating for a time until we meet again in Stockholm or the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy in April.
All photos by: Rafa Santos
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?
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, Bim Mason, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma, Lucy Hopkins and John Wright.
Over the past five years she has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and a deep desire to address the injustices in the world. This specialism has developed through her Masters Research ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’, on the streets and in protests with the Bristol Rebel Clowns and in research residencies with The Trickster Laboratory.
Robyn’s Activist Clown research has led to collaborations with Jay Jordan (Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France), Clown Me In (Beirut), LM Bogad (US), Hilary Ramsden (Greece) and international Tricksters; ‘The Yes Men’ (US).
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.
Keen to explore the intersection of clowning and politics, Robyn is driven to create collaborative, research spaces, testing and pushing the limits of the artform to create new knowledge and methodologies for her industry and strengthen partnerships for future work. Some of her most recent collaborations and teaching projects have included the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy (5-day Activist Clown Training), The Laboratory of the Un-beautiful (Feminist Grotesque Bouffon Training for Womxn Theatre Makers) and the Clown Congress (annual gathering of clowns, activists & academics collectively exploring what it means to be a clown in this current era)