Friday, October 14, 2016

On the Inevitable Triumph of Clowning and Circus

[post 425]

Dario Fo
It seems that the world we know is being torn asunder. I speak not of Donald Trump and the wreckage and foul taste of his campaign, though it's in some ways related. I'm thinking of all the wonderful clown sages we've just lost —first Dimitri, and then in the past two days, both Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix. (Which reminds me of U.S. presidents #2 and #3, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, staying friends and pen pals in their later years, and then dying on the same day.)

These losses were inevitable, but more stinging in a time when the media is suddenly obsessed with sightings of so-called "clowns" frightening people, as if these idiots were the real deal. Dressing up as an astronaut wouldn't get me on the space shuttle, but a costume, make-up, and fright wig somehow make me a clown.

The craze started here in the United States, spread to England, and is apparently headed for the rest of Europe. It is not only damaging the image of clown performers, but costing them gigs as well.
Pierre Etaix
Just as the media has allowed Trump to drastically lower the level of discourse, they have allowed these masqueraders to be taken seriously. Once again, real clowns have to defend their art and answer the same stupid questions, which are  on a par with "when did you stop beating your wife?" And that's if they can find anyone to interview them. Part of me wants to write an Op Ed piece for the newspapers, patiently explaining that these are "Halloween clowns," people dressing up as clowns with an exaggerated, macabre look designed to scare people, and have nothing to do with the noble and quite loving tradition of clowning.

But I haven't bothered to write this, and won't. The media is the media, and they will take this and run with it until it runs its course. Which it will. It's a fad, and even its shallow-minded perpetrators will soon grow tired of it. The good news is that true clowns, who value and delight in the tradition of Dimitri, Fo, and Etaix, will honor these grand fools by continuing to do their good work tomorrow, next year, and centuries from now.

Here's an à propos discovery I'd like to share with you. As some of you may know, I am working on a revised and expanded version of my book, Clowns. I'm not updating it, which is why I think of it as Clowns: Volume 1, but but but I know a lot more than I did forty years ago, when it was first published (Nov. 1, 1976!), so some sections are being significantly improved. One of them is the very beginning of the book, which starts with the clowning traditions of the native American cultures of the U.S. southwest, especially the Hopi peoples. What I am emphasizing more this time around is that the clown is a central part of the Hopi creation stories; the clown is there from the very beginning, is part of the fabric of life.

For the Hopi, in the beginning was The Emergence, and it was the clowns who led humans from the underworld to a higher level of existence. It was the clowns because they were the ones who could cross borders and teach lessons. And this is not just some myth gathering dust in the archives; rather, versions of it are re-enacted time and again in countless Pueblo ceremonies. Which is why this wonderful sculpture, The Emergence (1989), by Hopi artist Roxanne Swentzell, will be the first illustration in the new edition of my book.

But that's not the discovery, this is:

This Mimbres bowl, whose subject shows a clear kinship with Hopi koshare, is from the same southwest region and dates all the way back to between 1000 and 1250 A.D. I know what you're saying! "It's been a thousand years and they couldn't even afford a new costume?" Point well taken, but that is how we know this stuff has been going on forever! My point is that what we should be talking about when we are talking about clowns is an elemental life force, and a very positive one. When pundits trash politics as a "circus" and politicians as "clowns," my only response is, "ah, if only they could rise to that high level..."

And here are some more reasons to remain positive. Those performance traditions that we group under such labels as clown, circus, vaudeville, physical comedy, etc. —and which are repeatedly pronounced dead— are actually becoming a more widespread part of our culture. Clown training and performance is everywhere, with hundreds of times more practitioners than half a century ago. Clowns are in circuses and hospitals; in the theatre, in the street, and in refugee camps. Circus training is no longer just a family tradition. There are professional schools everywhere, especially in France and Australia. Circus education that's not just for those with career goals is now contributing to positive youth development throughout the world. Social circuses —yes, I'm thinking of you, Circus Harmony— are doing amazing things to bring people and cultures together. There may be no formal vaudeville circuit, but countless individuals have embraced the variety arts as a means of self-expression, of sharing what they do best and what they love... and the staggering variety is a wonder to behold.

Likewise impressive are all the self-taught enthusiasts who do it for fun and only occasionally for profit. Think of all the slackliners executing incredible tricks between two trees. Or all the excellent jugglers who juggle because they love juggling. All the subway acrobats doing amazing hat moves with baseball caps. All the bartenders learning flair juggling to impress their customers. All the trick cyclists and parkour practitioners.... Clown and circus have indeed arrived, they just take different shapes and forms.

And this just today, which gave me a chuckle: a NY Times article on a new craze for bottle flipping, which is flipping a bottle so it lands upright on its own. (Depressingly, the last line in the article quotes the mother of an avid bottle flipper saying, well, at least he's not dressing up as a scary clown —as if these were somehow either-or choices.)

Here's the short video they share, but you can find more on YouTube.

And why do I chuckle? Because in 1973, as an NYU grad student and TDR Assistant Editor, I co-edited a special popular entertainments edition of The Drama Review, and had to fight to use this Diane L. Goodman photo on the cover. We had seen this guy at a carnival in Ypsilanti, Michigan earlier that year. I knew what he was doing with that bottle, but my TDR colleagues didn't think it was clear enough. Maybe they were right... or maybe I was just 43 years ahead of my time!

So my conclusion is: Don't panic! Try to take the long-range view. This crap shall pass (so to speak) and the good shall endure. Meanwhile, here's my recent tribute to Dimitri, and a tribute to Pierre Etaix that I wrote back in 2010. I subsequently got to meet Etaix in Paris and he was a very sweet man. Such an honor. And in 1990, I was likewise honored to attend rehearsals at the Comédie Française for Dario Fo's production of two Molière plays. I wrote an article about it for Yale Theater, which I will share with you in a future post.

To be continued... so keep on doing what you're doing!


Jeff Raz said...

John, you are brilliant. Losing two clowns who have changed my life and a third, Pierre Etaix, who I wish I'd known better, makes for a bitter time. Having a bunch of folks put on make-up and fright wigs before heading out to bully the public doesn't make things any sweeter. Your post, and the thought of reading your next version of Clowns, helps us make sense of it all and, like the apple and honey we ate last week to celebrate a sweet new year, leaves a much better taste in my mouth.

Thank you!
Jeff Raz

jt said...

Thank you for the kind words, buddy. The older I get the more I appreciate what everyone in our field is doing. Kudos all around.

jt said...

P.S. -- stealing "fright wig" for one of my blog post edits (I go back and tinker A LOT; saw you sent this today and was happy thinking you'd probably read the most recent version)

Laura Fernandez said...

Dear John,

You are our voice...the voice of reason.

Thank you,

Bill Forchion said...

John, Thank you for your insight, your words and your wisdom. Reading this post reminded me of the great joy I have found through clowning over the past 30 years. I have been given a precious gift in the ability to clown which allows me to bridge worlds and commune with the divine. Thank you for you.

Bill Forchion

jt said...

Thank you Laura & Bill. Good to have readers!
And Laura, the next time Riley and I disagree on something, I'm going to quote you calling me a voice of reason...

Lisa said...

I am not a clown, but as a face painter I have many clown friends. It breaks my heart what you all are dealing with in the media and clown epidemic. I think it is ridiculous and I hope it ends soon. I pray that it doesn't change the world of clowning, I love clowns!!

Maarten Leo Reinard said...

I am working for 22 years now as a professional clown in hospitals and care taking homes for old people here in Belgium. I discovered my clown through reading about the Hopi clowns,then went to Edmonton for my clownsbirth with Jan Henderson, Pochinko clownsmethod. Thank you for this wonderful article!

Michael McGuigan said...

Well well done my friend! And check this out: I was doing a gig at Jefferson Market Garden (next to the amazing library at 6th and 10th or whatever) last weekend, and one of the kids kinda followed me around a lot and asked me to teach him to juggle etc etc and then said, "hey, I can do this!" and totally did the friggin' bottle toss just as you describe. Hand to God -- I don't think I can recall seeing it before (I must have, but can't recall - my brain must be full). Not two days later I was pulling books off my bookshelf for somebody, and paused a bit to peruse that very same Drama Review cover, one of my favorite issues. Thanks for bringing it all together -- I always did wonder why "somebody" chose that cover! But I always liked it for it's mystery.

jt said...

Thanks, all for your kind words.

Michael, I'll have to check with Diane, but I think we were at a state fair or carnival either in Michigan or upstate New York. She was always the photographer, but I'm pretty sure I said "ooh, ooh, take a picture of him!"

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Mark Donnell said...

I feel in reading this post that I have discovered a kindred spirit. I can't wait to get back to the city to come to your clown jam. Thank you for being a voice of reason in a world that seems to rejoice in clown bashing.

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