The Sacred Fool Learns Social Clowning on Zoom
She plays in and thinks outside the box.
Hello, my name is Marilyn, AKA, the Sacred Fool, and I study clowning. On Zoom.
Now you’re curious! I can hear you ask — is it like for birthday parties? Do they teach you about face paint and make-up? Do you wear a red nose?
The short answers are no, no, and yes.
When I say clown, most people go to one of three images —
Children’s birthday parties with a clown twisting long balloons into flamingos and party hats — or—
Circus clowns doing tricks and shticks — 25 of them climbing out of a Volkswagon or spraying each other and the audience with Seltzer — or—
Terrifying psychopathic clowns from Stephen King’s It or Batman’s villain, the Joker, laughing at their helpless victims.
But the world of the clown is far vaster, my friends.
Those three images above are just the stereo tips of the iceberg.
Clowns, fools, and buffoons have been around a long time. They have and do play important roles in the history of theater — going back to the Renaissance and the days of Comedia Del Arte, as explained here:
Shakespeare adapted the antics of the clown and endowed them with astute political shrewdness in his many (wise) fool characters — coveted parts by character actors.
Clowning continues to evolve and diversify thanks to many artists and their schools all over the world. One of those schools is Giovanni Fusetti’s Somatic Clowning. He mentored my teacher, Joan Howard.
She led our Stagebridge class through a series of Somatic Clown exercises. She had us each pick three physical traits to exaggerate. Then we watched with amazement as our clown personas emerged organically — reflections of our authentic selves.
I became Duddles, embodying my melancholy side while allowing intermittent bursts of joy to pop through. I wrote about her here. That class was cut short by virus interruptus.
I signed up for the next class offered — via Zoom — ready to take up where we left off. I had Duddle’s outfit — tight shirt, baggy pants, clashing sweater vest, jacket, tie, hat, and big orange glasses in a Trader Joe’s bag all ready to go.
But when I got to class, it was a whole new vision — social clowning.
What the heck is social clowning?
You may have heard of medical clowning where clowns bring cheer to patients in hospitals. Patch Adams is the most well-known medical clown thanks to his book and film.
Social clowning is a cousin of medical clowning. You’ve heard of Doctors Without Borders providing medical care in war-torn or deeply impoverished, hard-to-access places worldwide.
Clowns Without Borders is the clown’s answer to Doctors Without Borders.
A premier example of social clowns, Clowns Without Borders travels to places like refugee camps, impoverished or marginalized communities as well. The work tends to be with children and/or trauma victims. Social clowns provide psycho-support through play — allowing children to enjoy interactive games in a safe environment that gives them a sense of control when their lives feel most unstable.
So how do we do all that during a pandemic?
At the moment, we don’t. We can’t.
But we are learning some of the clowning skills and shticks that a social clown would do at a refugee camp or, more likely for us, at a nursing home or family shelter.
Simply put — we’re learning how to play together in rectangular boxes. We’re learning how to literally think outside our boxes as we pass imaginary donuts, hats, or moonbeams to each other.
We’re learning to swap planning for spontaneity. The idea is to go with what presents itself, involving people in games made up on the spot.
So is this just improvisation with a funny hat and a red nose?
If you think of improvisation as a performance with the audience throwing suggestions at the actors, then no. It’s different.
Again, think of children. They don’t want to just watch. They want to play! Or, if they’ve been through trauma, they might need to play. To relax, release stress and tension, feel things are in control, and they are safe.
I read a story about social clowns in Columbia — a country rife with civil war and violence. Kids in the villages and refugee camps’ most popular games were playing war — pretending to shoot each other and fall down dead.
But after a visit from Clowns without Borders, their favorite game was playing clowns!
Show up prepared and then let go.
Yesterday’s class focused on balancing structure and listening. In our playshops, we take turns leading the games. We come prepared with a few ideas — tricks up our proverbial sleeves. Just in case there is a lull, and we need to liven things up.
This could be a stunt we show off with — the sillier, the better. Or a new goofy dance step we collectively invent. Yesterday I invented a Moondance and taught everyone how to do it. Actually, all I did was say, right-left, hip, hip, hip, hip, and they did whatever. Laughing all the while.
The goal is to play off of each other.
So if Bob has his virtual background set on an image of outer space, we ask him to take us to the moon. We set our coordinates because that’s what you do in a rocket ship, right? And when you get to the moon, what do you do? A Moondance!
It’s a collaboration arising out of each new moment. Fully improvised, but not playing for a laugh at a punch line. Instead, aimed at finding the simple delights of a child.
Picture a tube of lipstick. You take off the cap and twist the bottom part. The stick of color extends farther and farther as you twist — no big deal.
But now, add a sound effect. A buzzing sound that gets softer and higher as the lipstick goes up. And gets louder and lower as it comes back down. Fascinating!
We could watch that again and again. Instead, we pass the tube and let others play if we’re in person. On zoom, we ask them to grab any object and show us how it sounds.
Will I sign up with Clowns Without Borders and go to a third-world country? I have no idea. But it sure sounds like a compelling way to make a difference. That goes on my bucket list.
I may not make it to Syria or El Salvador.
But I just might make it to Fairmont Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Department. After all, I used to work there in Occupational Therapy. I know who to call! Bringing delight to those faces would sure brighten mine.
Once it’s safe to do so, of course.
Till then, I’ll keep honing my skills and shticks. Even if it’s in a box on zoom.
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Marilyn Flower writes humor to laugh the changes she wants to see and make. She’s the author of Creative Blogging: Ninja Writers Guide to Character Development and Bucket Listers, Get Your Brave On. Clowning and improvisation strengthen her resolve during these crazy times. Stay in touch!
Wonderful article! Thank you for being such a true advocate for clown. I am very impressed and elated to find good, solid clown writing out here with such important morsels to the history. Huzzah!
Marilyn - you have introduced me to a new world! I never thought of social clowning as a way to help trauma victims heal. Thank you for this wonderful article!