Who are we centering when the clowns arrive in protest spaces?
The Clown Congress began on Saturday 28 November. As we entered the room; clowns, performers, activists, facilitators, hobbyists and more for three days of play and exploration, it was against the backdrop of events in Gaza. Following weeks of bombing, Gaza had just been plunged into blackout by Israel, and to our knowledge, the opportunity for IDF to further conceal bombardments and what is becoming a genocide. For me it was difficult to land and settle while such atrocities were playing out in the world. In an Open Space session that day a group gathered to ask if there is a space for clowns in protest. And in particular, what could it look like to take clowns into the ceasefire march and rallies happening in Bristol on the same weekend.
On Sunday 29 November there was going to be a ‘peace march’ from Easton to College Green, just down the road from where we were working at the Wickham. The group were keen to explore the idea of participating in the march as clowns, so 15 of us gathered to discuss and plan.
I proposed a question at the start; “who are we centring when the clowns arrive in protest spaces?” This valuable question came from Amrita Dhaliwal and Nathaniel Justiniano in their essay series, When Clowns Fight Power and it led to further questions; “why come as clowns?” And then “how do we come as clowns?” “What elements of clowns and clowning are we bringing into the space?”
The protests, rallies and marches for Gaza were going to be such sensitive spaces, where emotions were complex and high. So we had to ask if it is appropriate to ‘play’ in these spaces. If we don’t ‘play’ what are the clowns doing?
As with all this work, and whenever I have gone into protest spaces, the conversations and speculations about how it will be, can go round and round. I’ve always found the best thing is to just do it. And from there you have a concrete experience from which to discuss its relevancy and efficacy. So we decided to go; continuing to keep our questions alive as we prepared.
These were some decisions we made:
Discoveries as we rehearsed:
We were exploring hugging each other, which we felt could present a strong image for any onlookers. But as 11 clowns began to hug each other on repeat, it began to feel staged and slightly mocking. So we decided to drop that, sticking instead to ‘flocking’ as a way of moving together.
Finally ready we walked down into town along part of the route of the march. In typical clown fashion we walked against a tide of people leaving. We had missed the march and most people were already walking home. There was still a small crowd gathered for speeches at College Green. We came to the edge of the crowd, huddled up and then put on our clown noses, turning outward, holding our lone sign, “Clowns for Peace”. We stayed on the edge of the crowd for some time, sometimes still , sometimes moving slowly. People looked at us; some curious, some were confused but there was very little interaction. A group of film-makers with a Tik-Tok channel interviewed us asking why we were there and how we felt about what was happening. And a small group of clowns headed off to interact with the police. After about an hour we reconvened, took of our noses and headed back to the Wickham for a debrief.
We had made lots of discoveries during the outing:
I also discovered an interesting tension for me. To put on my clown nose, I am inviting in connection. I felt a real need to connect, to look at people and be seen. But that came with the question, has this become about my need and my clown’s need? Am I centering myself? But making connections seems enormously important too; to see each other... to really see each other, in the way the clown allows me to look into peoples eyes and hearts. Providing another way to connect in solidarity, in shared grief.
I think I found this space too sensitive for me. It was challenging to negotiate this sensitivity with a big group or a group that doesn’t know each other very well. And as a clown I feel happier in spaces where we have a clear target and can play in mockery of bad players.
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)