between clowning + activism: A trickster laboratory at COP26 took place at Surge in Glasgow from 25 October to the 4 November. A talented crew of clowns, theatre makers and activists (from across the UK and Scotland) joined Jay Jordan and I to continue our exploration of the meeting point of clowning and activism, this time against the backdrop of the UN Global Climate Conference.
We arrived the week prior to the start of the conference but already the streets were teaming with police. A record 10000 police were going to be deployed each day, with officers drafted from across Scotland and the rest of the UK. The conference site was zoned off, with access to certain sites limited to delegates or ticketed public. Our residency was based in the centre of Glasgow so we kept our focus and play in our immediate location.
There were various elements we wanted to explore during the week including:
After a very heady Trickster Lab in Bristol I really wanted to root our week in the embodied practice of clowning. We began each day with movement explorations and clown, butoh, bouffon exercises, all the while building group trust, listening, complicity and the ensemble.
Not to say discussions didn’t happen. JJ employed quadrant and spectrum lines which allowed us to explore the degree to which we felt like an artist or activist, whether the future was utopian or dystopian and how willing were we to get arrested.
I proposed that we approached the ten days in the spirit of research; with a willingness to try, and to fail, to reflect and try again.
Over the residency we were able to try THREE different experiments.
Experiment #1 - Clown as Shaman
We had explored psychomagic and ritual in our previous residency and working with the theory that clowns are actually out of work shamans. We were interested if the clowns could reclaim their roles and work as shamans for this epoch.
We also wanted to explore clown ritual as a form of direct action; as a reciprocal type of theatre. In the carnivalesque and ritual, the boundaries between audience and performer dissolve. The same happens during Samhuinn (Halloween – 31 October) when the veil between the worlds thins. This date also marked the start of COP26.
Inspired by the international delegates attending the conference, the clowns enacted a 4 hour ritual as delegates of Inverbellow on Samhuinn night. Inverbellow is a fictional, inbetween world, a place beneath the earth, an alternative reality in which the clowns pulled down the statue of James Watt in George Square at the start of the event. It was Watt’s invention of the steam engine that was integral to the birth of the Industrial Revolution and to mime pulling his statue down was a symbolic and transgressive act that set the tone of our play.
The clown delegates then walked a pentagram across the city to invoke the five elements: Earth; Water; Air; Fire; and, Spirit. A ritual was conducted at each point to bless and protect life, or to hex the institutions’ (including HMRC, an energy firm, an investment bank) who’s business as usual threaten our existence.
The ritual was helped by the people of Glasgow who we encountered or meandered with us including a homeless man who took on the spirit of Donald Dewar, a group of Emos who wondered what drugs we were on… and special thanks to the police van who spotlighted our Fire Sex Magic Ritual with their van headlights. We ended where we began, at the top of Buccannan Galleries, with a giant ceilidh with crowds spilling out of the concert hall, which sealed the spell.
The conclusions of that work and the spells that were cast are still to be determined as this work is energetic and magic can take a little while to take effect.
Reflecting more practically on the clown ritual, this action created interesting tensions between different elements; enacting a ritual theatre, creating spectacle for an audience and responding to the world through clown play. Each element pulled in different directions and I found I never fully lost myself in any particular element nor am I sure we did any of them very well. There were certainly magic moments, but over four hours you would certainly hope that would be the case.
As the second week at Surge started COP26 was underway and offered us the opportunity to be more targeted in our experiments. This also provided context to our play.
Experiment #2 - Operation Confuse aka Builders of the New World
As a group of construction workers we attempted to go undercover and join a heavily policed Greenwashing march run by XR. There was an expectation for a lot of spicy actions so the police were on high alert and out in huge numbers. We exited Surge’s building in pairs, hoping to avoid police attention, but our props drew attention: a wheelbarrow filled with a balloon, a kid’s plastic spade and bucket, a thermos of tea and biscuits; a plastic road barrier and a piece of 2x4 wood.
Two blocks down the road and each pair of builders had a tail of cops behind them. The wheelbarrow was searched numerous times, there were several attempts to take our barrier away and the plank of wood was forcibly removed.
We had caught up to the march and thoroughly enjoying creating confusion for our large police escort. It also took 15 MET officers to remove and then stand guard around our barrier.
But as we got separated from the march our ‘power’ and ‘status’ diminished until an annoyed Welsh policeman, berated the clowns like children threatening to confiscate the wheelbarrow if we moved…literally anywhere. We finally managed to escape back into the Surge building with no further losses but all a bit shaken by the oppressive force the police demonstrated that day.
Experiment #3 - Operation Imitate aka Mock the Police
For our final experiment we had built up enough courage to imitate the police. At the Greenwashing March the day before the clowns had had first hand experience of the bullyish, heavy handed and oppressive behaviour of the police. This put both fear and fire into the clowns. For those who were game they returned the next day. We devised a set of choreographies that cop clowns could do including; inspections, peeing against a wall and joyless skipping.
We headed to an XR march that was heading to BAE Systems (a British multinational arms, security, and aerospace company) in Govan. This gave us an opportunity to play with our target. The heavy police presence was once more protecting the wealth rather than the citizens, found lined in stupid numbers outside the gate.
The peaceful XR protest had culminated in speeches, so the clowns hung back, aware of not wanting to pull focus. As the speeches wrapped up the clowns swooped in, conducting uniform inspections to police desperately not wanting to engage.
The clowns then found themselves sandwiched between police and press and photographers. Here an absurd spectacle unfolded as the clowns, firstly standing with and imitating the police began to strip off their clothes because climate change made them ‘hot’. Unable to move, the police had become both audience and backdrop and highlighted the absurdity of their presence.
These images ended up in the Guardian and on Sky news.
Some of the learnings from the Trickster Laboratory @ COP26
CONFUSE – rather than confront
One of the learnings as construction worker was that it was more effective to confuse rather than confront the police. For the clowns who leaned into the conflict, their force was met with force and you can’t win against the police like that. There are more interesting possibilities if you do the unexpected and absurd and it keeps authority guessing.
PARODY – mock authority
The clown cops standing alongside police and then descending into chaos and nudity provided a priceless image, one which mocked authority and diminish its power.
Here the clown is able to be utterly subversive: through them the boundaries that give authority its power disappear; the clown can inhabit a place outside these power relations. In a way they become untouchable.
And it shows the audience, the onlooker, the public and the police the reality of their own roles in coercion, self-censorship and inhibition.
NOSE – or no nose?
The ‘nose’ offers a clear signpost that we were clowns and that we were playing and non-threatening. This gives onlookers a choice to watch or to join in. From this non-threatening place we can get away with a lot more. The clowns were able to get really close to police; inspecting their uniforms, standing alongside and sitting on their van. The serious mode of the policing role means they cannot ‘play’ along with the clowns, and to move against them could show their own absurdity and create great or ridiculous press images. For the most part, the clowns in ‘noses’ were left alone unlike the builders who were harassed and berated.
For performers, the ‘nose’ helps them to access the clown state more easily. From here a sense of wide-eyed wonder, of complicity, of play and bafflement can be accessed. Performers were able to follow clown logic with more playful and satiric results than anything dreamed up on paper or in conversation.
FAILURE - the spirit of discovery
In the spirit of the clown we approached the laboratory as research, with curiosity, questions and a willingness to fail. This proved invaluable because we saw every outing as an experiment. We built in reflection so we could to uncover what worked and what to do next time. Rarely as activists do we have time to try, hone, repeat, tweak as we’re on the treadmill of urgency and immediacy, so this provided an exciting model for moving forward.
The clown provides a constant invitation to play. Which I believe play is enormously political act.
In play we can activate our imaginations, create collective new worlds and inspire hope in these dark times.
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?
Gaulier said, “Theatre equals the pleasure of the game plus play”. But it is literally the hardest thing to do; to tap into your pleasure when you’re in a state of panic, terror or frustration.
So while I’ve learned that this style of pedagogy is not really for me, it’s got me thinking a lot about how to and access pleasure and play. Games can be a key. In our movement class with Carlo we explore games as the starting point for improvised scenes with a myriad of effects:
Authentic reactions – how the actor plays, how competitive they are, as well as their emotional response to winning and losing all become apparent while playing a game. And when we see this we can fall in love with them.
Impulse – the game can provide an impulse that drives the text and the scene
Connection – simply by playing high stakes game the players connect, through eye contact as well as action and reaction
Life – games create a sense of immediacy and liveness for a scene as opposed to getting stuck in our head, restricted by thoughts
Jeopardy – a bit of healthy competition can raise the stakes and the energy of the scene and the actors
Subtext – in some cases a playing hidden game can provide an interesting subtext to the scene
In class we play the following games:
Grandma’s Footsteps - to train the ensemble to work together and play with the opportunity of ‘getting caught’ by grandma. From here we try to be charming so we can get closer like singing a song or creating a dance
Steal the tail – while improvising a basic scene between two actors each has steal the tail (a scarf tucked in the back of their trousers). Whoever has the tail plays in major and should taunt and tease the other with the stolen tail. The aim is to let the game and its impulses drive the scene and the text.
Hand slaps – also known as slapsies and red hand, the same improvised scene begins with the actors playing the game of slaps again using the impulses of winning and losing, and of pleasure and pain to play the game.
The trick now is to take those risks to play and find pleasure…even if I fail.
"Calling all clowns, rebels and activists and everything in between! It’s time to dust off the cobwebs, unfurl and emerge from a long hibernation!"
This was the callout for The Rebel Clown Project; my five day residency with Bristol Rebel Clowns around town. Supported by a Launchpad Residency with Invisible Circus I invited local clowns to join me and dive back into the world the Activist Clown with training, conversations, experiments and play.
There were two sessions a day with space for 10 in each session, in line with Covid restrictions. Over five days and ten session, 18 clowns joined the residency. We worked with the concerns and skills in the room. In the socially-distanced training space we explored and trained performance skills in clowning, street theatre, bouffon and ensemble. Hilary Ramsden, co-founder of The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army joined us for some sessions as well sharing her training techniques of the original Rebel Clown.
My intention had been to build on conversations and training from The Activist Clown Toolkit – the workshop series exploring tools and techniques to build power and efficacy of clown based activism in the fight for equity, social and climate justice. I also wanted to explore various themes including and not limited to women in public space, decolonisation, historic perspectives of clowning and protest.
As it happened the residency took place against a backdrop of massive protests in Bristol. Thousands of voices and bodies united in the city against a draconian policing bill. This was met with police brutality and subsequent riots. In the street the issues mingled including; a resurgence in the call for safe spaces for women following the murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a cop; alongside stories of 95% of women experiencing sexual harassment; vehement opposition to the new policing bill that would affect the right to protest, bring in trespass laws that will criminalise travellers and affect our human rights. Participants of the residency would arrive having just experienced the police violence in response to peaceful protest, so before we began the issues were palpable in the space.
In The Activist Clown Toolkit I wanted to tell a story through the programming of my four guests.
Inspired by the political podcasts, The Activist Clown Co-lab series is part workshop, part interview and part discussion. Each 2.5 hour masterclass on zoom is a playful, embodied investigation into how to use clowning for political activism with expert clowns and activists on the ground. Through discussion, play, experimentation and reflection I wanted to explore a whole bunch of questions including:
- Can clowns be political?
- How can clowns challenge authority?
- What can we borrow from activists, art movements and theatre forms to increase our efficacy?
- What can we learn from clown history and from the clowns who’ve dedicated their lives to playing on the front lines?
- Is the clown equipped to deal with power and make real change?
The first Co-lab Series took place in February 2021 with four fantastic co-facilitators; Nathaniel Justiniano -Naked Empire Bouffon Company, USA, Hilary Ramsden - Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, Greece, Sabine Choucair - Clown Me In, Beirut and Jay Jordan -The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France.
We were joined each week 20 participants from across the globe including; the UK, Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany and USA. A mix of clowns, activists, some already working on the front lines of social justice movements, others passionate activists seeking networks, tools and inspiration as well as relevant questions: “can the silliness of clowning address really serious, gravitas issues?”
“It was so inspiring to work with the guest facilitators for two hours and to feel that they really practice what they preach.” Participant from Activist Clown Toolkit
The work and discoveries were rich and the feedback incredible. Themes emerged and a collection of the Tools of the Activist Clown are beginning to take shape.
We are living in strange and turbulent times with great revolutionary potential. I am hit by waves of emotion as tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to have their voices heard. Calling for an end to the deaths of black people in custody. To speak out against the systematic racism embedded in our society and for an acknowledgement of our oppressive colonial history.
I grew up in apartheid South Africa where racism was written into law. For my parents generation, if you were white and opposed to that vile regime, speaking out could cost you your freedom. Liberal people were branded communists, and communists could be put in jail without trial.
Living under the politics of racism and segregation, the threat of army conscription for my dad and violent oppression of black citizens, was too much for them. We left in 1986. We were lucky (and privileged) enough to be able to leave and moved to a small green utopia in the pacific: New Zealand.
There I could grow up in a safe, liberal country. But Colonialism leaves a stain in more ways than one. New Zealand has its own racist history and institutional racism to acknowledge and root out. “Māori are six times more likely to be handcuffed, 11 times more likely to be subdued with pepper spray, six times more likely to be batoned, nine times more likely to have dogs set on them, ten times more likely to be tasered and nine times more likely to have firearms drawn against them by police.”
As the Black Lives Matters protests have highlighted, this institutional racism is still rife in the “liberal-democracies” of the USA and UK. Working within these political systems has not enabled people from BAME communities to be heard. If it had there would be no need for them to protest. And if you protest (even in the UK or USA): pepper spray, rubber bullets, beatings, cavalry charges and kettling are all potential hazards. On top of the risk of arrest due to anti-protesting laws.
But we must continue to speak out. We need to speak up for truth and justice, against oppression and inequality. We can use our voice to echo and amplify the voices of others who need allies and support. We can offer our voices in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we must raise our voices together.
Clowning can offer a unique and beautiful voice to work with in protest. Clowns speak truth to power. That is one of their historic roles as the court jester or fool, able to highlight the king’s failings with relative impunity. Clown can hold emotional spaces and are able to explore difficult subjects with playfulness and innocence. The clown also reminds us of our humanity. They can see past the anger and the fear to the scared child beneath and ask the simple question, “do you need a hug?” And let's not forget that the clown can also bring joy to the oppositional spaces of protest; connecting us all through humour and play.
Would you like to explore your voice through the clown? Here are three wonderful clown workouts to find, unlock and raise your voice:
“I am, I am, I am" – is a wonderful exercise led by Jacqueline Whymark that helps you connect to your voice by drawing strength and power through 3 simple sentences, each beginning with ‘I am…’
“Singing the Sound” – Aisha leads us through a joyful exploration to find the sonic resonances of objects around us.
“Voice workouts” – Artie Godden offers three different vocal exercises from different clown pedagogies to explore the playful spirit of the voice; ‘Opposites’, ‘Sing a Song you don’t know’ and ‘Asking questions’ bring a lovely connection to pleasure and authenticity and play.
We are the Clowns of the Rebellion! The commentators, the rebels, the soothsayers. A new resistance movement; the Rebel Clowns are a performance group that I set up in the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019. But for a clown who says ‘yes’ to everything, how does a clown resist?
Clowning and protest was the focus of my Masters research exploring ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’. With the spotlight on the smallest act of all, the clown, I delved into the long history of clowning, politics and protest.
Clowns are no strangers to the circles of power. Since we have been performing clowns have had their place in ancient sacred festivals, in medieval courts of kings and queens and with the people in the streets and in circuses. They have served a unique and important purpose, "to turn established protocols on their heads, and to provoke a new understanding of, and appreciation for, the human condition through a celebration of foible and a mockery of power."
For clowns co-opted into politics they occupy an ambiguous and mutable position, “at once critic, police, hero, enemy, representative of the people and a threat to the social order.” This was the case with the Clandestine Rebel Insurgent Clown Army (CIRCA). A form of non-violent political activism, rebel clowning understood and utilised the unique power and position of the clown as a tactic against globalisation, war and other issues. The Clown Army arrived alongside protesters in 2003, dressed in flamboyant combinations of army fatigues, brightly coloured fake fur, stripey socks, colanders, carrying noisemakers, sex toys, glitter, bubbles, bouncy balls and whistles. The movement radically transformed public space and binary power structures of the non-violent direct action movement.
Clowning allowed participants to explore authoritarianism through parody and ridicule. “Instead of resisting, the clown collaborates; instead of obeying and hating, the rebel clown mocks and slips away”. Rebel Clowning provided another form of resistance; subverting and inverting the oppositional spaces of protest, of police and protester. It was also able to inject values often seen as distinct from the political realm: joy, pleasure, desire, diversity and horizontal power structures.
In my Masters research I aimed to explore mechanisms of the clown that could shift the balance of power; to resist. I discovered, like CIRCA, that through parody the clown can highlight the hypocrisy and absurdity of authority and implicit rules that maintain the status quo. Through playing games, the clown can encourage participation and interactions with others, unlocking the subversive power of play within each individual. While a simple game of mirroring can offer spectators a moments of self-conscious awareness of their complicity in upholding rules that maintain the current systems of power and authority. Parody, participation and play offer effective tools of resistance for the clown.
For the new generation of Rebel Clowns these mechanisms have been central to exploring important political, social and environmental issues of our time. Let loose on the streets of Bristol, the Rebel Clowns have created performances including bringing Black Fri(deity) to life to challenge the new religion of consumerism and capitalism. We have also created a playful healing space to help people deal with their grief...in all its stages, post Brexit and the Election in 2019.
Working with resistance can offer interesting tools for the clown and for us. Where we feel resistance we and can feel our edges, and know ourselves and our boundaries. Physically, resistance can give us something solid to lean into or to rest on. We can also push against and find new pathways and possibilities.
You can explore resistance in the following Clown Workouts:
In ‘Playing with Resistance’ Holly guides you through an embodied exploration of resistance, asking what do we do when we don't want to play?
In ‘Moving with Resistance’ Robyn offers an embodied experience of encountering different types of resistance in the air around us.
Can clowning be used to flip a difficulty or some adversity into something amusing? Maggie Irving offers perhaps another solution to meeting resistance in this video ‘Flipping It’.
 Clowns by Ezra LeBank and David Bridel, London and New York: Routledge (2015)
 Clown by Jon Davison J (2013)
 ‘We disobey to love, rebel clowning for social justice’, Isabelle Fremeaux, and Hilary Ramsden, H. Leicester, UK: National of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) (2007)
A giggle of clowns attempt to take back our public spaces
John Jordan’s work merges the imagination of art and the radical engagement of activism. He is a writer, lecturer, artist and activist. He set up C.I.R.C.A and works in the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination infamous for fermenting acts of mass disobedience. I found this fantastic video from him which outlines 16 Principles for creating beautiful trouble through art and activism. Watch here
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.