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
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)