In their own words:
A Gallery of Contemporary Clown Women
They Self-Identify as Women, They Self-Identify as Clowns, Here are their Stories...
Reminder: just click on the images to enlarge, including this one!
But start here if you missed these:
Women in Clowning, Part One
In the Circus (pre-1975)
Women in Clowning, Part Two
A Research Guide to (pre-1975) Clown(esque) Women (outside of the circus)
The year 1975 was when I finished writing my book Clowns. It was also around then that a whole lot was starting to change in the world of clowning, all of which is detailed in Clowns, Volume 2 (which I will write when I'm 90). But these were some of the major developments:
• The world changed. Slowly but surely, the feminist movement changed society's prevailing attitudes and opened up many professions to women. When I was a boy, a female doctor was rare. Now they're the majority in med school.
• Alternate theatre movements showed that there were other ways of creating shows that were less commercial, more interactive, and more daring, and that this could be done by non-professionals who had talent and a dream —and were willing to work very hard. These non-elitist convictions led many experimenters to explore traditional popular entertainments, especially circus and the variety stage.
• The evolution of the mime and movement arts, as articulated (get it?) by such French maestros as Étienne Decroux, Jacques Copeau, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau, and especially Jacques Lecoq contributed to a new approach to clown that did not necessarily depend upon the world of the circus.
• The definition of what a clown could be broadened dramatically. New vaudeville and clown-theatre became recognized as valid styles of performance. The small red nose associated with Lecoq and Gaulier became an acceptable alternative to full clown makeup. As did no nose at all.
• Circus and clown arts started to find their way into university and professional theatre schools.
• Social clowning blossomed locally in hospitals and eldercare facilities and internationally in refugee camps and other situations of crisis, often bringing with it more of an emphasis on personable and heartfelt interaction than on slick, highly polished material.
But let's cut to the chase and let the women speak for themselves. Just keep in mind that this is an incomplete gallery that I offer as a contribution toward a more thorough effort by someone else. I live in New York and don't know all the clowns here, much less in the rest of the world, so there is no way that this gallery is comprehensive. I'm sure every reader will want to point out glaring omissions. But let me point out that there are also only 24 hours in a day, and I didn't have the time to do more than I did. This is a single blog post, but maybe someone else will (soon!) create a website with ten times more clowns and where each one gets her own page and more than 150 words! And I also wouldn't be surprised to see some budding authors tackling the subject as well. Yes, I mean YOU! Yes, I mean BOOKS! Yes, I mean SOON!
France & New York City
While studying classical theater, it quickly became clear that I was a Clown. Since that liberation, my mission has been the Art of the Fools. I have explored Clown and Bouffon as a performer, director, and teacher for over 15 years, crackling the varnish of prettiness to unleash madness and beauty. We are the outcasts of society, the ones who mock and laugh in its face. We play with our fear of death and magnify the reality of oppression. We take no sides and rejoice in conflict. But there is one dirty secret I have learned over and over... Bouffons are the true masters of compassion. Sorry! As my alter ego Valérie Chameaux has preached all over America and Europe, "It is all your fault! Live you fools, Live!"
“… a fine talent for comedy”— the NY Times
“…has an extraordinarily expressive face and grand presence." —American Theater Web
(Antoschka Ekaterina Mozhaeva)
|at right is with Oleg Popov|
YouTube Channel: KLUNNI TV
Molly Brennan practices the active State of Clown through the notion of "Herself as Poetry. Raw and Refined. Chaotic and Ordered. Magnified and Specified with an Acute Awareness of the Environment and Immediate Access to Impulses and Responses." She brings her emotional availability and physical prowess to the stages of Chicago: the Goodman, Lookingglass, Steppenwolf, Second City, American Theatre Company, and more. A pivotal role was Harpo in the Goodman's "Animal Crackers". She was "Kevin" of 500 Clown from 2000-2012. She is the Director of Physical Theatre at the Actors Gymnasium, and consistently builds new solo and collaborative work. She was named “Chicago’s Queen of Mischief and Make-Believe” by American Theatre Magazine in 2015, and was one of New City Stage's top 50 Players in 2018.
In spite of everything, I am a female clown. With no female examples to watch and learn from in the pre-internet era, becoming a clown was like learning to play the piano and writing the music at the same time. As a female, you can’t simply be "one of the guys." What works for them won’t work for you, was a painful lesson from the early days, when I bombed to infinity and back. It took years to find out what clowning was about and to discover and develop the character. For me, character is everything. Being an organic clown, I keep my emotions right underneath the surface, as I transform into my out-of-control alter ego. And from there, when lucky, funny stuff magically happens.
When I was touring one of my solo shows in Orlando years ago, Elizabeth Mauphin wrote in the Orlando Sentinel: “Her fearlessness is breathtaking.” I think this is true of all women in comedy. Still, in this day and age, women are expected to act a certain way, talk a certain way, dress a certain way… who better than the clown to blow up these expectations? I think that’s my favorite thing about playing my clown Izzy, she flaunts her flaws, says what she thinks, dresses how she pleases, wears her heart on her sleeve, follows her impulses – and has tons of joy doing it! Perhaps Lucille Ball said it best, “I’m not funny. What I am is brave.” To all my fellow fabulous female clowns, I salute you!
Rome & Barcelona
I served for 17 years as an officer in the national police force in Italy, but I was not happy. I knew I needed to find out more about life and change it! I began to dive into the art world of theater and cinema, enrolling in the 3-year theatre school La Scaletta, earning my diploma in 1998. I discovered that the stage was the habitat that attracted me and it was the clown art I loved the most! To follow the clown's art I left the police, but I am happy now!
I focused on the art of clown, completing several master class programs, training with Jango Edwards, Leo Bassi, Virginia Imaz, and others. I studied corporeal mime at Escuela de Mimo Moveo in Barcelona, where I founded the female clown company, Las Enclownadas. I created, produced, and toured three solo shows: Zero Zero Clown; The Secret Annex; and Yaya in the Moon. I am an assistant director at the Nouveau Clown Institute (NCI) in Barcelona, where I also present my workshop. I have a degree in art therapy and I did my apprenticeship as an art therapist for the blind at the Institute Sant'Alessio in Rome.
After theatre studies in Italy, I came to London to join the National Centre for Circus Arts. Mick Barnfather was my theatre teacher at the circus school, he allowed me to be free on stage and I owe to him the discovery of my clown. Since then it has been an amazing journey of freedom, anarchy, love, and presence. Discovering clown for me was like coming home. Accepting my stupidity was extremely liberating. I saw that people liked me when I was not pretending to be good, when I was not trying to do too much. I love games, I love to play. Clowning allowed me to express my desires, my anarchic inner child, and my innocence. For me, clowning is about loving life, being full of fun, accepting yourself, and loving the audience. I was lucky to learn from many clown masters, including Philippe Gaulier, John Wright, Marcello Magni, and Dr. Brown (Philip Burgers). I have performed my own acts and with many companies in the UK and abroad. I create absurd characters that fuse acting, clowning, dancing, and circus.
Since I bumped into clowning by accident, it’s been the center of my life. Understanding it, fascinated by its unlimited possibilities, enjoying its beauty and the thrill of creating humor and magic, along with the passion I feel in sharing it with students … has been my creed, healed me, and kept me sane. So far reaches my love for clowning that I created a residential clown school in the middle of nature and I have been living with my students for years intermittently. It amazes me how easily students tune into the natural knowledge and healing of clowning. After that, the science of how to create numbers is also a real turn-on! My new fascination is to teach and coach clown using technology online and looking for ways to clown from home and reach many people through video. If only I could make films like Chaplin or Tati!
New York City
It was never my intention to become a clown; I trained as an actor and I was heading to Broadway! Red noses and suspenders had nothing to do with my idea of who I was. I loved the clown work I saw, but it was almost exclusively men and I just didn’t fit into that world. I didn’t understand the depth of the clown and felt that, as an actor, I would get more respect. Then it happened; I began to understand that I didn’t have to fit into anyone else’s image of a clown, I just had to be myself. It was suggested early on that I should make myself look funny, but I wanted to challenge the idea that you have to look funny as a woman to be funny. When things fall apart in my high-status world, my loss of dignity has much further to go. Why shouldn’t a beautiful woman get laughs! That said, I’m always game to look ridiculous.
New York City
B&W photo by Sulai Lopez; group color photo by Niav Conty
I dreamt that I was in a world where women were free to be funny all the time. Where if they ran and their skirts hiked up to reveal their underpants, it was comical and not scandalous. No one saw London. No one saw France. Oh, for a world where dropping your drawers meant comedy, not promiscuity! A world devoid of vanilla caricatures, but rather filled with the complex, deep, multi-layered, poignant fools that women can be. A world where a woman, too, can claim the job of village idiot, or be anointed the skewering high jester of the realm.www.ClownsExMachina.com
In the beginning of my work, I did find it challenging to create material, as most frames of reference for clown and variety were male-oriented. Bowler hats and canes were just not true to me, and hurt penis gags were just out of the question. (And that’s A LOT of material right there! ;) Not being able to rely on stock material and the existing image of what a clown looked like actually thrust me into a whole other realm of creation. I began to explore high heels and twirls, and came to realize there was a whole world of fresh, funny material yet to be discovered from a female perspective.
Jackie Leigh Davis
As a young mime artist, I had been too snooty to fraternize with clowns. That is, until: (1) my inner clown escaped at a retreat with the Bond Street Theatre Coalition; and (2) I married one! Best way ever to fall in love with clowning (Rick Davis, Clown College class of ’74; Ringling Blue Unit). We performed for a couple decades, then discovered a passion for teaching circus to kids. Fast forward: Nowadays I nourish my clown by teaching the lore to the next generation. Once they get past the Creepy Clown Bias, kids love clowning -- the old gags, the business —it’s all new to them. And truly, laughter is something kids need now, more than ever.
Reminder: just click on the images to enlarge!
My love of clowning began when I helped develop Oberlin College’s first circus, “The Plum Loco Circus.” I went on to study at the École Jacques Lecoq. This experience formalized and expanded my skills, and gave me the foundation for my next step, joining Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba.” I developed the role of The Green Bird, performed in over 2500 shows, and traveled worldwide with their events company. In 2013, I co-produced “on the nOse,” a show that alternated live performance with original video interviews of clowns discussing clowning. Based in Washington, DC, I direct, perform, and teach.
I have been performing since I was 17 years old, beginning in my native Brazil, where I acted in theatre, film, and television, and was director of my own theatre company. In 1986 I moved to London to pursue my dream of studying, performing, and reclaiming theatre clowning as a modern art form. I've toured the UK and internationally with major contemporary theatre and circus companies and have had great success with my master class "How To Be a Stupid." For me, the combination of the work of the actor and the clown is of vital importance as it creates a new way of performing. Theatre clowning is my life’s passion and a way of life. I don't stop working. I'm always working on shows, directing and mentoring other companies, developing my own clown personas, and learning how to play the ukulele. When I have any free time, I can be seen browsing around street markets, riding my beloved motorbike, and feeding the ducks in the park near my house.
I think Clown is the power of creation. Love. Everything is about love. Clown is to pursue the power of creativity you feel very clearly when you are young. When it is broken, you grow up fighting, searching, studying, doubting, chasing, solving. In and out. From the social point of view that I have, clown has a big heart, big empathy and —I like to say— a big mouth. At the same time, clown has no lines to define. A denominator? Fun, for better or worse. Some people ask me if I think what I do is clown…. If creativity comes to me that way and it sounds to you as truth… I wanna dance, sing, talk, jump, play, fall, especially in "everyday life" and then eventually in performing. Clown is one of the major magic channels for love. And I have big dreams. As my first master Michael Jackson says, Keep the Faith.
Anna de Lirium
When I was 18, a friend of mine said she was going to become a clown and I said: "Me too." It was a sudden instinct; I didn't really think about it beforehand. Today I know that I really made the decision in that very moment —which would become my life. Being the youngest in school for twelve years let me experience pure naivety, which has always been the biggest source for my clown character. Even though I was one of the first female clowns in Austria, I never questioned if it's possible for a woman or if it's different ... I just did it! Out of an instinct ... and out of naivety. Sometimes being naive is a huge blessing.
Anna de Lirium (Tanja Simma) was the first female Austrian artist to perform in Cirque du Soleil and was a cast member of "Palazzo" for several years. She's the engine behind the Comicompany, co-founder of Theater Olé (the first clown theater in Vienna), and one of the "pillars" in the team of the Red Noses clown doctors. Currently, she's working on a new show with her French partner, Colette Gomette (Hélène Gustin). Her solo show, "The Substitute" (directed by Jango Edwards), has been touring throughout the world.
I started thinking “funny” at an early age. My dad said so. Then the circus taught me that I could live out my crazy ideas. I believe comedy and humor change lives. I know it has changed mine. Throughout my career, I don’t think I can imagine a time when comedy, or “thinking funny,” didn’t play a large role. From the circus ring, to the stage, to the boardroom – laughter brings people together. I think that is what I am so drawn to. The coming together of humans for the common goal of being happy.
I’m a unique mix of circus, theatre and healthcare clown. When I started my clown training in Canada in 1994, I was fascinated with the idea that your clown can have many personas. To date, I have four different personas. I am particularly drawn to gender fluidity so Foo and Dr. Flap are gender-free. Some of my clown personas speak in gibberish; a wonderful tool to connect emotionally and physically with an audience regardless of their language. In addition to performing in theatre and circus internationally, I also train healthcare and theatre clown artists around the world.
youtube: Foo at Play in the Circus
After spending three years studying serious theatre at university, I knew that what I really wanted to do was make people laugh. However, I wasn’t very good at it, so I trained for three years and then headed to Barcelona, where I found a thriving clan of professional clowns. I have never looked back! I performed for 30 years and have taught clown around the world. Wanting to share all I had learnt, I wrote The Clown In You. In it, I reveal little-known aspects of the clown universe and clown formation. I am still an absolute enthusiast!
When I tell people I am a clown in Canada they say: “Do you do birthday parties?” I always say the same thing: ”Yes. For two thousanddollars I will come to your house and scare the s#!t out of your kids!” I do not do birthday parties. After seven years of post-secondary education, I realized I was not an actress, I was a clown. Early in my acting career, I saw that clowning was one area of my life where I could be an A+ student. I had always been “too much," “too intense," ”too dramatic,” and yet in clown these were assets. I failed grade 8, got kicked out of ballet school, but master insult-clown teacher Philippe Gaulier told me I was “f!#ing funny!” That was an A+. It has taken me years to accept my unique skill set and now I use it in every area of performance, from visual art to stand-up comedy to characters.
Thanks for asking. Audience connection and fierce vulnerability are my biggest turn-ons. Clown opened me up to what it meant to really see and be seen by audience members, creating myprofoundest highs as a performer. I tend to only identify as a clown among those in-the-know about clown work —a conflicting feeling, just because it means so many different things these days. I say that I blend clown, bouffon, improv, physical theater... really who the eff cares.
The last 10 years I've been doing Butt Kapinski, an immersive comedy featuring a speech-impediment-laden Raymond Chandler-wannabe wearing his/her own streetlight. It is a beautiful ride, but now I'm feeling less interested in building a new show to tour and more interested in two things: teaching and escape rooms. Facilitating others' finding their fierce vulnerability is my jam, also trying to get out of a room in an hour—SERIOUSLY, ESCAPE ROOMS ARE SO FUN.
Barcelona, 1980s: I was a drama student and took a clown course. I remember the moment perfectly. With that little red nose on my face, I made people laugh just saying: "I want to sing!" I was in love with clowning and singing, and decided to keep exploring. I combined acting jobs with clowning experiences until I met Jango Edwards, a partner in life and on stage, who convinced me that clowning was my place in life. Never stop till then. I am a woman clown. I love to be on stage, it’s my happy place, where I release my freedom, craziness, feminine absurdity, and share it with the audience. Working solo, in duos, in trios or big ensembles is not a problem for me. With clowning, I connect my humanity with the audience's humanity, and we laugh, and it's great.
New York City
“A clown doesn’t have to be funny, but a good clown is.” —Uri Weiss
I studied clown, I read clown, I analyzed clown, I performed clown, but I wasn’t really funny until I went to the street. Nothing is harder, and nothing will make you stronger, than an audience that can walk away. Every woman has to figure out how to break cultural limitations. For me, one answer was to go prepubescent, back to the days when girls were faster than the boys. I grew some horns/ponytails, wore exactly what my male partner wore, and broke all the rules.
Montgomery, New York
A founding member of three circuses: Big Apple; Circus Smirkus; and the traveling Quaker show, Friendly Bros. Circus. I’ve performed as a comedy acrobat and clown in one-ring tented shows and circus festivals abroad as well as in three-ring circuses across the U.S.A. and Canada. For one of the 3-ring tours, John Towsen and Fred Yockers were my partners and personal Uber drivers! Ultimately, all my long-practiced juggling and acrobatic skills became secondary to the pursuit of honest expression. The aging process makes paring down a bit of a necessity. The ability to be painfully vulnerable and prescient (of self, environment, and audience) is a virtue worth learning. It’s still about finding those vital “Ahhhh” moments —simplifying interactions until they are clear and connective: the discovery that finding one’s personal heartbreak as a clown is more elevating than convulsing an audience in laughter.
Facebook artwork page: Art by Karen E. Gersch
My childhood dream: to create laughter.
After high school, I trained as an actress and explored mask play, and having done dance was a real plus. I worked with burlesque companies and then, in 1995, the clown came to me. A jubilant shock! Rubber body, broom hair under the arms, primitive and unpredictable, a rolling stone. A clown in perpetual discovery, wanting to be adopted by humans, imitating them like a sponge. I want to present an organic character to the audience, one who lets herself be looked at without being aware of it, primitive and unpredictable, naively delivering up all of herself. I want to bring the audience into a comic poetry, a very personal universe. Let them laugh and be moved and find meaning, all at the same time.
Colette Gomette has wowed audiences in France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Quebec, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras ... in theaters, festivals, streets, and everywhere else ... adaptable to all situations. Her latest creation, "Colette Gomette Prézidente,” is currently touring.
New York City
|Photos: Carl Saytor, Luke Stambouliah|
Reminder: just click on the images to enlarge!
New York & Los Angeles
Performance for me is all about the love. That rush and excitement I get when I connect with the audience or an individual. When I was in Zumanity or solo in Amaluna by Cirque du Soleil, my greatest joy came in the realization that this suspended world they were in was a moment to forget their outside woes. Just laugh and play and let go. My “job” is to escort and encourage people to enjoy the lunacy. A good belly laugh, a chortle or a twinkle in someone's eye indicates to me that I was successful.
Jessi "Wonderfool" Hoffschildt
California and Japan
Laughter is really one of the greatest forces in humanity. This idea that a clown can cut out all the crap and get the essence of what it means to be human, sharing that with an audience of one or one thousand is truly awesome. Clowning to me has always been a place I felt a sense of belonging. It gives me the greatest joy when I can pass that onto the audience. To create something that gives everyone a feeling of togetherness, being special, and making the world suck less. As a woman is this harder? I haven't found it to be so. Laughter is from the heart, not the groin. And after all, women can wear the pants too.
Jessi has spent the past seven years touring with Kinoshita Circus in Japan, where she misses sarcasm but loves the bad puns.
It took me a while to move past the androgynous mime of my early training. My clown work seemed stuck in the ubiquitous man's hat-and-coat clown silhouette. Why was I casting myself in a stereotypical male role (sports fanatic or Capone style gangster for example) and where were the female equivalents? And what was the female version of the automatic laugh for a man in a dress? When the BAC Clown Care Unit opened in Chicago I was determined to go for the slapstick AND wear a fluffy skirt since I was “the girl” in a team of boys. And now, over the past ten years, I've created dozens of female characters – most of them inspired by a crazy outfit – and my show has sound clips of my favorite female comedians and features five decidedly female clown characters. About time, Karen!
Since 1981, Gardi Hutter has taken her clown theatre halfway round the world, putting over 3,600 shows in 33 countries so far. She has created 8 theatre and 1 circus productions and been awarded 17 prizes for her art. She performs in theatres and barns, concert halls and culture factories, festivals and favelas —greeted with enthusiasm by public and press wherever she goes. Whether she appears as washerwoman, mouse, prompter or tailor, her almost wordless solos uncover tiny, absurd universes in which the characters put up a brave but forlorn fight for happiness. The tragicomedy is remorselessly carried to the limit, to the delight of the audience. Gardi Hutter’s stories are tragicomic parables of the today world, with moll and without moralizing. Her characters show all facets of female non-virtues: tousled, fury, nasty, crazy, touching and poetic. The press calls her a “comic phenomena.”
New York City
I am a performer and writer of comedy mainly, with some songs, poetry, and dance thrown in. All the characters I create come from one detail or phrase I’ve overheard from a real person —then morphed into something resembling a parody with strong clown overtones. Most recently I performed in a duo with Emily James called James & JF —creating the clown/character show Channel One. We also made countless video shorts and a TV pilot about two women living in the closet of one boy who they entertain with their show, We’re Not Here. Prior to that, I ran a theatre company, Coffee Cup, and created many actor-driven, real-life inspired shows. Reaching further back, I lived and worked in London and created a clown show about the live organ trade called A Pig Behind Their Eyes with my company Bouillabaise. Find me on www.ishahjf.com.
New York City
Penelope is my first clown. She is the fountain of my childhood passion and joie de vivre. She embodies the quick, fun, playful instincts that had lain dormant in my body’s memory. I had bottled them up! The first time I played her, I laughed and cried —and then, laughed again— so hard I thought my diaphragm was going to fold up into my throat. With Penelope, I can be a big, goofy, messy, completely stream-of-consciousness silly, emotional wreck. I can flow openly through some intense emotions and make people laugh at the same time. I grew up feeling that my emotions were, at best, invalid nonsense and, at worst, total hysteria. Penelope has taught me to listen to them, trust their wisdom, play them out, and give them a big, unapologetic voice. I love how my clown is ever-evolving. Penelope is the seed of a greater journey as a clown, performer, change-maker, and woman. I’m excited to see where it all goes.
New York City
|Photo credits: Paolo Salud (left); Julie Lemberger (right)|
Co-Founder and Director of Training and Education for Healthy Humor Inc.
Creator/performer: Veni Vidi Vici; Buried Alive!; Leave Nothing But Footprints
My clown character Spirulina was born in 1995, in Lume's renowned Núcleo de Pesquisas Teatrais of the University of Campinas, São Paulo. I worked as an actress for a long time. I did theater, tv, and movies. The clown brought me a new look at the world, a lot of freedom, and the joy of playing. In 1999, I had another transformative encounter, working with the Canadian Sue Morrison, and the sacred clown of the Indians. Gradually I realized the importance of this work, its balancing role in society, and how it works well for those who do and for those who watch. To choose the clown is to delve into precariousness, to seek the flower in the mud, the perfume in the grass, the light in the darkness. They said women could not be clowns. I think we're inventing new ways to do it. I continue to present my solo Spirulina in SPATHÓDEA, giving workshops and training, directing, creating and participating in shows in the language of the clown.
Born in New York in 1952, Lory started her career as a dancer, actrice, clown, director, and teacher over forty years ago. After discovering clowning at the École Jacques Lecoq (1989-91), Lory has never looked back. She has been a clown, teacher, and coach for Le Rire Médecin (professional clowns in hospitals) since 1991, in France, where she makes her home with Bernie Collins (BP Zoom). Since 2002, Lory has been one of the principal teachers at Le Samovar, a school for clowning and burlesque, next to Paris. She teaches mask work as well as clown play and writing for clowns. Lory gives workshops all over Europe, in Japan, Taiwan, and Guadaloupe. As a director, she has created pièces with musicians, singers, actors, circus performers, as well as clowns. She is also a member of La Bec, un groupe of wonderful crazy creative clowns, headed by Hélène Gustin (Colette Gomette).
I am not a traditional clown, but my performance work is definitely clown-informed. As Three Women Mime (1980-83), we mixed clown with mime, design elements, and object play. As a solo theatremaker (1983 onwards): in Hiroshima Mon Amour (no relation to Marguerite Duras), I played a Piaf impersonator –a clown with a clumsy manner and a big heart. Invocation includes a clown take on the hero’s journey and in Chastity Belt, clown is mixed in with spoken word, song and gently wry satire. I teach clown and over 30 years I developed a genre I call Dark Clown. I delivered a paper: The Comedy of Terrors –Dark Clown & Enforced Performance at Bath Spa University and my Dark Clown work is cited in Jon Davison’s Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice (Palgrave MacMillan 2013). There is also a documentary Dark Clown: Taking Laughter to the Limits.
Santa Cruz, California
I never decided to become a clown. I studied math and physics first, got my PhD in Astrophysics just to become a clown much later. Over the years it came to me. First of all, I was a juggler and focused all my time and energy on learning tricks, to impress people I guess. But the more I performed as a juggler, I realized I needed more, there is so much more to it. I wanted to get deeper into the performing. And that was clowning for me! I was able to use all different skills like mime, juggling, music, all circus skills, storytelling without saying one word and take the audience with me on a wonderful journey. To be able to touch them deeply with joy, tenderness, and wonder. This made me decide to become a clown.
New York City
|Photo: Whitney Browne|
I've always been a performer. My parents are both visual artists. I was brought up surrounded by art and also hard work and doing a lot of things to earn a living that have nothing to do with art. I worked for many years on traditionally rigged schooners, wandered around inventing and re-inventing myself. Early on I decided to dedicate my life to the cultivation of whimsy. I've done a lot of theatre; I've dressed up in 18th-century costumes and recited poetry at farmers markets; I write and paint. I studied the Lecoq pedagogy with Dody DiSanto in DC and when we arrived at clown, I fell in love. I also met my future husband/creative partner in that clown workshop. For ten years I worked for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program as a hospital clown and I am the Founding Artistic co-Director of Happenstance Theater, a professional company that uses clown as one of our fundamental guiding principles. I tend toward low status, but can be bossy if the need arises.
I was voted class clown in high school but I never imagined that I would make a living doing it. I never saw anyone like me doing it, so I didn't think it was possible. Amy Gordon dragged me kicking and screaming into the business of clowning. I told her that "I was a classically trained actress" and she told me "you are a clown, silly". As soon as I stopped fighting it, my world totally flipped. The skill of clowning is challenging and still makes me uncomfortable, but the journey it has taken me on has been humbling and rewarding. I think I'm uncomfortable because there are so many mistakes and so much failure. But with each mistake and each failure comes opportunity. So, I guess I just keep tripping over opportunity and if I remember to look back, all is good?
Reminder: just click on the images to enlarge!
Following a BFA in theatre and a degree from l'École Jacques Lecoq, Karen McCarty began her career in Serious Foolishness, an international performing arts company producing original material. She later performed in the first national tour of the musical, Barnum. Her true destiny began as “Dr. Ginger Snaps” as a member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care. After a 30-year career with the circus as Creative Director of Community Programs, she co-founded Healthy Humor, dedicated to creating joy, wonder, laughter and comfort for hospitalized children and all others who are most in need. Her book, Serious Foolishness, is currently in production.
Ana Adán Modrego
My experience with the clown has been intense and direct to my heart. It has been and it is an experience of LOVE. Loving myself, loving my dark side outside all the protocols and rules the human system has, and respecting who I am. Clown has given to me the opportunity to grow as a person, to make people laugh, to understand the world in different ways, and to reaffirm my own way of doing in life. Clown has given to me the chance to explain to the world on stage my intense and deep reality, my freedom. I think I can understand and better respect others through the experience of clowning. Now I am happy because, as a teacher of languages and drama, I can apply lots of clown strategies (and within the scholastic system, believe me....IT IS REALLY NECESSARY AND USEFUL) and I can offer different opportunities to children to develop and discover themselves...I only hope they can discover and love who they really are. Clown has given me the bravery to create a better world and to feel free.
One day, over 20 years ago, I put on a red nose and I understood that everything could be imperfectly wonderful. That I could become something like a mirror through which the audience could celebrate, laugh at and fall in love with their own absurdity, their clumsiness, their ineffectiveness and their weaknesses. I also understood that laughter could be an infinite bridge to try to do something about some of those things in the world that I find intolerable. And to get closer to other human beings in order to provoke them, move them, invite them to think differently. Some time later I understood that I could also accompany others in this task: to open the door to a horde of clowns. To repair this world a little bit and make it a better place to live. That’s what I’m up to, every day, even if it’s in tiny steps.
Sara MooreSan Francisco
Clowning was, at first, a way for me to become a human cartoon, having fallen hopelessly in love with Bugs & Daffy as a child. I discovered there is a wondrous emotional freedom in being a clown, a kind of pathway to bliss like no other I’ve known, maybe because it’s the fearless exposure and performance of being really human in all its paradoxes. We are all beautiful-ugly. We are all clumsy-graceful. Clowning brings precision to the idiocy! The practice of this ancient art form also reminds me that, no matter what, my love is never misplaced, even when betrayed. I can find humor, and even bliss, in the darkest of places, and this is a beautifully potent thing to share with the world. What is laughter anyway but the most buoyant form of love?
Deborah Remus Muñiz
aka Coco DeMokoloko
I was lucky to have started my clown training with Jef Johnson, exploring the possibility of playing without concern for gender, age, race, or specific social attitudes. Bringing this exploration to the stage, in sharing small moments of interaction I have discovered the joy that comes when we collectively play and find ourselves liberated from social, economic, and political impositions. There is a space of innocence and freedom that comes in these magical moments. I currently play two characters: Cocodini, the Magician “La Maga Más Gaga,” and Hada Helada, the Ice Cream Fairy. I enjoy existing in the space between fantasy and the mundane. Bringing others to share and play in this space is a reminder of what is possible. For this opportunity I am always very grateful.
Facebook page : Coco DeMokoloko
I became a clown when I lived in London and I felt instantly a sense of belonging and a great comfort of being myself and existing 100% visible to the world. I started exploring social clowning before the creation of a more theatrical character. That came later on and was the result of an exploration through photography and life and emotions in stillness. I not only understood entirely who this woman was but I also felt a great empathy in narrating my stories through her. To me, clowns are poets, inventors, philosophers. They will throw themselves into the abyss without wings, hoping to build them on the way down! Clowns tell epic stories as heroes who can lose everything but might also win the whole world embracing their own stupidity, vulnerability, and heart. I started communicating with sounds more than words when I was a kid, and I still do. I very often feel the truth and honesty of clowns and their universe is evoked in silent moments, when we get to see what lies beneath.
New York City
I'm part of a physical comedy trio. Our latest show is about an art heist gone stupid: three thieves strive to become senior-level members of the “Thief Society,” an exclusive club for accomplished thieves. I'm the sole female member of the trio. When developing work, we look for all of our characters to be funny. Each character has their own vision –and lack of it. As a spectator, I've, um, been known to cry when I see women onstage or onscreen not as sensible foils or sex objects or peripheral characters, but as comedy powerhouses central to the work. I feel relief. I feel victory. When I step onstage with my ensemble mates, I aim to be a part of that reality.
|Photos by Joan Sánchez (left) and Roser Arques (right)|
Pepa Plana, Catalan actress and clown, recipient of the 2014 National Culture Award, is known for the quality of her performances and for her contribution to the status of female clowns. She established her company in 1998 with the clear intention of creating clown-theatre for adult audiences. After nine productions, five of them on tour, each new work generates wide expectations.
I was playing my sketch show “Upper Cuts” in Calcutta (now Kolkata). This conversation was overheard between two small boys.
Boy who had not seen the show: “What is he like, this Nola Rae?”
Boy who had seen the show: “First of all, he is a she!”
“But what is she like?”
“Well...sometimes she is a clown and sometimes she is a...Nola Rae!”
I can explain myself more fully, but never better!
youtube: "Nola Rae Selections"
I was born in 1985 in Carnaxide, Portugal. My adventure in the performing arts began in 2003 in the form of street theater. I graduated in 2007 in Theater, Staging and Acting at Oporto's Superior School of Art and then in Physical Theater at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (Paris). From 2006 I studied clown and physical comedy with several international masters. I have now performed in more than ten countries in Europe and South America with my shows. I teach regular clown classes in Porto and I organize different events and workshops concerning contemporary clown research. I started the Madame Nez Rouge project in Porto in 2011 with Catarina Mota, with whom I participated in different festivals and collaborated with companies in Portugal, France, Spain, Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, Romania, and Slovenia. In 2016 I gave wings to my work as a social clown with the artistic project of social solidarity, A Visita, where clowns visit old people in Lisbon and Porto homes. I live, breathe, and work at the moment in the Porto area, but I am taking my art everywhere because for the art of the clown, there are no borders.
After graduating with a BFA in acting from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I almost immediately shifted my passion to clowning. Along with my partner, Dick Monday, we have been featured clowns with the Big Apple Circus, Circus Sarasota, Circo Atayde, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the Hanneford Circus, and Lone Star Circus. I co-founded the New York Goofs in 1998, and we have been producing clown theatre around the globe for the past twenty years. My great passion has been to advocate for the impactful work of Healthcare Clowning, first as a clown with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, and for the past twelve years by creating Funnyatrics and the Laughter League. Last May I completed my Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies at Southern Methodist University and am working on publishing my first book about the work clowns are doing in healthcare settings.
When I was five, I earned a pearl necklace from an Xmas cracker by entertaining the old aunties with knock-knock jokes, a puppet emu, and trick chewing gum. I think from there the dye was cast. I went on to university to study theatre and for a time really wanted to be a serious actress, but even in my serious moments the audience giggled and deep down I realised I loved playing the idiot, I loved the feeling of making people laugh, the honesty, the immediacy, the connection. I sought out clown teachers and still do! I performed in the street, for Cirque du Soleil, with Clowns without Borders, and in the theatre. I’m happiest devising with other performers and teaching!
I feel like clowning chose me. It’s not an easy path, but it is a fun, creative, and fulfilling one. It’s challenging because I am a person who it's hard for an audience and my colleagues to put into a box. So I decided to not be in any boxes. I have the most fun exploring gender, stereotypes, and racism in my work. I am most encouraged by the discovery in creating and partnering with others, especially the audience. I allow the space for people to engage deeply, but also to laugh and get caught in the play.
|Left: Ratapuce with Palais des Merveilles and Marie Nimier. Cente: |
Bennington College with Beth Skinner. Right: with Margot McLaughlin
Left: My senior year at Bennington. I had dropped out of pre-med to plunge into theatre. Every time I opened my mouth, everyone laughed. My theatre professor suggested that I become a clown. I was offended and had NO idea why anyone would laugh at me. After a junior year abroad in Paris and having fallen in love with Remy’s book, Les Clowns, and seen Mouchkine in Les Clowns (Théâtre du Soleil, 1969), I declared that I was a clownesse, « Zeep ». Center: I returned to Paris in 1971 and performed in the street with « Le Palais des Merveilles » for 10 years as Lili Ratapuce, a fairy-like, musical, acrobatic, botanical and zoological clowne. I did not utter a word for those 10 years. I returned to NYC and joined the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit as Dr. Giraffe. (Marie Nimier, the now famous author, as my white clowne). Right: I have been in Paris since 1991 running Le Rire Médecin, Europe’s first Hospital Clown program. We have 28 programs in 48 pediatric units and 97 amazing professional clowns, always in a duo. Why the duo? for the conflict and the love!
Reminder: just click on the images to enlarge!
New York City
How fortunate I am to have found CLOWN in my life. To embrace its art, perspective, and live in its wonder is extraordinary. Being a founding member of the New York Goofs and the all-female troupe Those in the Nose gave way to years of performing, teaching, and experiencing a life of presence, play, and possibilities. With the addition of my clinical license in social work, I now also promote the positive therapeutic benefits of clowning through workshops that I design and facilitate. All exploring the empowering and healing aspects of LAUGHTER, PLAY, and CLOWN. Through research, inspiration, teaching, and performance, my goal is to continue to open up the Art of Clowning to all. To Clown or Not to Clown … is not a question.
Pop-pop (my paternal grandfather) taught himself accordion at age four and was playing in between vaudeville acts at the age of nine. Grandma worked as a domestic from age 13-70 but was a performer at heart, a beautiful singer and versatile dancer. She would have me perform for whoever happened by the house: “Play Charlie Chaplin!” “Sing a song!” “Stand on your head!” She always told me, “You’re doing what I always dreamed of doing.” My maternal grandmother Oma was a writer of children’s stories, a teacher, knew many languages, could grow anything, and always called the plants by their scientific names. These were my first teachers. Age ten, I began to take mime and acting classes. Dropping out of college, I attended Garbo & Berky's Antic Arts Academy and was inspired to create my own material using mime and clowning. I came to know Tony Montanaro and studied with him in the mid-80s. 1989 took me to the Pickle Family Circus by way of Judy Finelli, where I partnered with an extraordinary actress and clown, Joan Mankin, as Queenie Moon and Pino. The first female clown duo to be featured in an American circus! Joan left the Pickles the following year to pursue her acting and Jeff Raz was hired as my partner. His bigness and my smallness complemented each other perfectly for acrobatic stunts taught us by LuYi, who had been Artistic Director of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe. I have been gifted with amazing teachers in this life who continue to inspire me even if they are not of this earth anymore. I am so very grateful to them. In regards to being a female and clown, my goal has always been to connect with the audience. Whether funny or sentimental, portraying a female, male, animal, or object, I personally have never set limits on a who, or what. Any limits have come from the rules set from the outside.
Susan Avino (1954–2000)
by Deborah Kaufmann
|Right: Cheryl Cashman, John Towsen, Susan, and Joe Killian|
Susan was a dancer by training who got into clowning through several summer "Clownshops" with Bob Berky and Fred Garbo, where she studied alongside such budding clowns as Diane Wasnak, Hilary Chaplain, Judy Gailen, Ellen Heck, Joe Killian, Michael Zerphy, and myself. In New York, she studied with Richard Pochinko and many others who taught at the If Every Fool studios. She co-directed and performed in the New York International Festival of Clown-Theatre in 1983 and 1985. Her character, Kukukana, in “Lost and Found” received this rave Village Voice review: “The highlight for me was when Susan Avino finally coaxed the audience into singing a lullaby, then lay down on the stage to snooze. What a nice change for the audience to put the performer to sleep.” She was also featured in “The Right Stuff, ” an all-female clown version of the film of the same name, and “Bocci Brides,” a commedia-inspired romp. All three pieces were directed by her husband, John Towsen. Her performance career was cut short by breast cancer at the age of 38, which took her life at the age of 45.
Nancy Buell (1954?–2000)
by Dikki Ellis
|With Dikki Ellis (left) and with Michael Christensen (right)|
Though she was flexible, her strength was as the lower status clown, and to partner with her meant I had to play the voice of reason most of the time. When improvising, her favorite place to be was in trouble; drawing the watcher in slowly till all inhibitions were gone. Once we established trust, all things were possible. Her face was warm and trusting, and she made people feel good. Her costume and props were earthy; you knew she was a clown but not where from. She carried a small box which took forever to open, then finally out popped little raviolis on springs bouncing all over. It took her just as long to get them back in. We had a pizza box which, when opened, you could stick your face into to become a talking pizza telling bad jokes. She had a duck puppet that ran up and down the hallways that looked great on the security cameras, and a “third-arm” puppet in a bucket named Otto the Otter. We sang songs and the Otter could do a few circus tricks.
Nancy had other opportunities elsewhere and decided to move back to Paris. On the day she left Mount Sinai, she was quite weepy. I assured her we would still be friends and she said, “I know, but I will really miss our routines and props." What can I say? The thing that made Nancy the best at this work was her accessibility, vulnerability, compassion, and commitment to being the best. She used all her training to create a lovely character who spread love and cheer to all those who saw her.... including me.
We lost Nancy in 2000. She was 46 years old. I think of her often, and certainly every time I make hospital rounds. Missed, not forgotten.
Dikki Ellis is co-founder of the Hanlon-Lees Action Theater, now celebrating its 40th year; founding member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, now Healthy Humor Inc, 30 years; Director of Clowning for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 20 years; and founder of ARCH, Artist’s Reaching Children in Hospitals, an ongoing program that trains young artists to make bedside visits in Children’s Hospitals, 25 years. He lives in West Orange, NJ with his wife Robin and dog B-B.
Valerie Dean (1951-2011)
by Don Rieder
Valerie Dean was a director, choreographer, performer, circus artist, and clown. Her passion was movement, whether it was human or animal behavior, the secret life of water, the movement caught in a photograph, or the traces of emotion and memory that water, pigment, and brush leave on paper. For more than 40 years this passion for expressive movement inspired her performing, teaching and directing.
Valerie was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and raised by the sea. Her insatiable curiosity, her sense of adventure and the desire to pursue her own expressive potential led her to train, perform, and teach throughout Canada, Europe, Mexico and the United States. Valerie’s performances have been described as Felliniesque angelic perversity, and her choreography as kinetic, articulate and athletic.
Valerie was a gifted teacher who guided circus artists, actors, dancers, and musicians to achieve technical mastery and self-expression. These artists have included medal-winning circus artists, Juno award-winning singer/songwriters, high-performance competition athletes, and classical musicians. As a master teacher, she was guest faculty and artist-in-residence at colleges and universities across Canada and the United States. She was also an instructor at the National Theatre School.
She was an important figure in Montreal’s vibrant and internationally recognized circus community. Her eclectic theatre and dance background and her innovative teaching approach created bridges between traditional and contemporary circus training and performance. She was a faculty member of the École Nationale de Cirque from 1994-2002 and artistic coach for movement and expression for the Cirque du Soleil from 1999 - 2007.
Don Rieder is a performer, author and gag writer. In 1978 he and Valerie Dean, his partner both onstage and off, founded KLAUNIADA, their clown-theatre company, which toured across Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Annie Fratellini (1932–1997)
by Dominique Jando
Heiress to the legendary clown dynasty, Annie Fratellini was born in the circus, left the circus, and returned to the circus to become one of France’s most celebrated clowns with her husband, Pierre Étaix and, later, with her daughter, Valérie—before creating a circus school in 1975, which has become one of her country’s major state-sponsored circus schools, L’Académie Fratellini.
She was born in Algiers, where her parents were touring, on November 14, 1932. Her father was the clown and acrobat Victor Fratellini, son of Paul (Paolo) Fratellini and nephew of François and Albert, of the illustrious trio, and her mother, née Suzanne Rousseau, was the daughter of Gaston Rousseau, the director of the defunct Cirque de Paris, the gigantic circus building that stood Avenue de la Motte-Piquet in the French capital from 1906 to 1930.
Like all true circus children, Annie was trained in acrobatics —by her uncle Albert— and since her father was a good musician (as all European classic clowns were meant to be), she was also given a solid musical education. As for her clowning skills, she just had to watch her large family’s comedy and clown acts to learn all the basics. She made her performing debut at Paris’ Cirque Medrano at age thirteen, entering the ring within a big rolling globe, from which she emerged to balance on it while playing the saxophone. It was deemed “charming,” but it was not, by any means, an act destined to stardom. (A gifted musician, she also played the violin, the vibraphone, the piano, the accordion and the concertina.)
At eighteen, she ran away from the circus and formed a small Dixieland jazz band with which she toured the variety circuit, before starting a new career as a variety singer and recording artist, and eventually becoming a movie actress. In 1954 she married the film director Pierre Granier-Deferre, with whom she had a daughter, Valérie. In 1965, she had a major role in Granier-Deferre’s hit film, La Métamorphose des Cloportes. Then she met Pierre Étaix, a former comedian who had been Jacques Tati’s assistant before becoming a very successful filmmaker in his own right, specializing, like Tati, in very visual and relatively silent comedies.
Étaix had a passion for the circus, especially for clowns, whom he often used in his films instead of actors. In 1965, he had produced his masterpiece, Yoyo, the story of a clown who becomes rich and leaves the circus —before realizing that life out of the ring is just emptiness: He eventually returns where he belongs. Annie Fratellini was touched by the movie and met Pierre Étaix. They fell in love and Pierre asked Annie to star in his 1969 film, Le Grand Amour —in effect, a paean to the woman he loved.
Étaix was quick to notice Annie’s innate sense of comedy, and he convinced her to return to her roots and try the family craft: Clowning. So, together, they formed a clown duet in which Pierre was the clown, all whiteface and sequins, and Annie the auguste. In 1970, they went on tour with Cirque Pinder, one of France’s premier circuses. Both were already well-known, and Annie had a magic name: Fratellini! On top of it all, Étaix had been right about Annie’s talent. There were immediately successful.
While they continued performing, they made plans for the creation of a professional circus school, something that didn’t exist in the West and was, they believed, sorely needed in France. They opened the École Nationale du Cirque in 1975, and with it, the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, its traveling performing arm —a high-end, intimate circus modeled after Paris’s defunct Cirque Medrano, albeit in an itinerant form. They were, for several years, the stars of their own circus.
Annie Fratellini and Pierre Étaix divorced in 1987, and Valérie Fratellini (Granier-Deferre) replaced him as Annie’s clown—a “clownesse” this time. She continued expanding her school and touring with her circus, where many of her students made their debut. Sadly, she died of cancer on July 1, 1997; she was only sixty-five years old.
As a clown, Annie had a wonderfully childish and rebellious character —with a poetic aura. Dressed in a large overcoat and oversized shoes reminiscent of her uncle Albert’s, and wearing a very simple and identifiable makeup (with a red nose, a blackened mouth and sequins on her eyelids), a red wig and a bowler hat, her appearance was not feminine, but she didn’t look like a man either. When asked if her character was male or female, she always answered, “clowns have no gender!”
Dominique Jando collaborated with Alexis Gruss in the creation of France’s first professional circus school, and of Le Cirque à l’Ancienne. For nineteen years he served as Associate Artistic Director of the Big Apple Circus. His numerous highly-regarded books include "Histoire Mondiale du Cirque" and "Clowns et Farceurs."
Julie Goell (1951–2016)
by Hilary Chaplain & Iman Lizarazu
Julie Goell brought joy and passion to her work as a movement theatre artist, mime, clown, upright bassist, singer, puppet maker, teacher, and director. Having trained and performed extensively as a mime and in commedia dell’arte, her work with the audience was immediate, vibrant and totally connected. She coined the term “flash theatre,” magically creating entire worlds in a flash by physically embodying every aspect of the atmosphere —full of imagination and playfulness, she created a whole universe with a handful of props. She effortlessly switched from being a European traveler to a ditsy flight attendant to creating a hilarious in-flight film of preposterous beauty secrets, smearing paste and slices of vegetables all over her face. She was always ready with a supportive word, and her enthusiasm for the work was infectious. —Hilary Chaplain
Julie and I had a special relationship. She was my teacher from the very beginning. I met her in 2004 at Celebration Barn. We had an immediate connection with each other. Very quickly, I realized I had a very amazing friend who, as the years went on, became more than a friend. Julie and Avner became family. After a few years, I asked her if she was interested in directing my solo show. To my amazement, she said yes. I was so honored. What I loved and appreciated about Julie as a director and teacher was that she was so kind and brilliant. Her versatility from her varied aspects of training made her so accomplished and confident. It was amazing. Julie was so funny. She and I shared the same frequency of humor, finding comedy and goofiness in the same types of actions and events. Now that she is gone, I still hear her saying “Iman, keep the story going in your head, keep the story going!” Julie continues to be with me always and it is an incredible feeling to know that she is will always be an inspiration to me. I miss her so much! —Iman Lizarazu
In her last year Julie wrote a book, Life in a Clown House: A Manual and a Memoir. At www.clown-house.com one can order the book, see videos of Julie's work on stage, read her fiercely funny poems about her condition, read articles about Julie, and listen to her music. Also see Julie's article on female commedia servant characters, "Le Servette in Commedia dell'Arte," in the Routledge Companion to the Commedia Dell Arte
Nina Krasavina (1939?–1996)by Karen E. Gersch
|Center: painting by Karen E. Gersch; Right: photo by Peter Angelo Simon|
The most powerful woman I’ve ever known was all of four feet, eleven inches tall. Even in her 50s, there was a childlike demeanor to her elfin face and unruly curls. Nina Krasavina, born in Leningrad in the late 1930s and trained from an early age at the Moscow Circus School, arrived in NYC with her husband, Gregory Fedin, in the mid-70s. I met them both their second day in Manhattan. Nina spoke no English, and I knew no Russian. Yet we sat on a stoop in the East Village. conversing and laughing at our mutual responses and affection for the dogs that passed by. On a small mat in the basement of the Puck Building, Gregory made Nina demonstrate for me one hundred styles of handstands. She flowed from one subtle adjustment of limbs and spine and shift of legs into another. When she finally stood right side up, I was the dizzy one, confounded by her grace, strengthand ability. Her clown shyly giggled, then curtsied to me.
It was this mark of her charm and simple humanity that was engaging, not just to myself, but to every audience she faced. Without a prop, with the lift of a single eyebrow, she could bring down the house at the Big Apple Circus, as I watched her do night after night. Her remarkable physicality and acrobatic skills were one virtue, but her poignant character could play and improvise with ease. Audiences heard her with their hearts. As an acrobatics teacher, she was steely, serious and used simple metaphors to make us understand our roles; calling me an “oak tree”, admonishing my partner to “be like frozen fish —don’t move.” Most of all, she taught me the art of caring, connecting, and conjuring comedy out of thin air.
Joan Mankin (1948–2015)
by Judy Finelli
Joan Mankin was born on May 16 in 1948 and died at her home in the Little Hollywood neighborhood of San Francisco on in 2015. She was primarily an actor and a clown. She was a human cyclone and force of nature. I met her for the first time during the years Hovey and I taught at ACT during the 70s. After we arrived for the first time in the early 70s, we sought out the latest production of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, featuring Joan Mankin in the title role in the “Independent Female.” Joan was highly effective in the role and was adept at delivering a believable, broadly comic yet somehow intimate performance in the Mime Troupe’s signature presentational style.
I knew that Joan and Don Forrest had been clown partners in a much earlier version of the Pickle Family Circus, so when I knew that I would be artistic director of Pickle, I didn’t hesitate casting them as the only clowns in the 1988 show. My view then was that Joan was an accomplished actor. I had seen her in many productions and she always found her own interesting way into those parts. The second thing I knew Joan possessed was a physical basis for the acting work she did. She had been studying Bhagwan, a Chinese martial arts weapons form using one and 2 swords for several years. I knew she had everything she needed to become a complete clown.
But sometimes clowns don’t develop in a partnership at the same rate. Don had done very broad parts with the Dell ‘Arte Players, of which he was a founding member. He was used to being outrageous and over-the-top and yet still retaining believability. I saw a real clowning potential in Joan, although she didn’t know quite how to use it. I thought that perhaps there might be something about the way they approached working with one another that might be constraining Joan’s creative instincts.
We had an interesting apprentice that summer of 1988 by the name of Steve Labounty, so I decided to have Steve and Joan work on a clown magic act together. Joan did the clown magic act with Steve during the end-of-the-year holiday season show. It involved a famous illusion, called Houdini’s Metamorphosis, and used a trunk. At first, Joan is locked in the trunk and the magician stands on the trunk. He holds up a circular curtain and they switch places quickly. Steve played the egotistical “Rialto the Magician” and Joan played his ostensibly beleaguered, thankless assistant.
That’s all Joan needed. Soon she was relishing Steve locked in the trunk with demonic glee, lamenting about losing one of her “Lee Press-On Nails,” and looking as though she would leave Steve in the trunk, walk away and free herself from her restrictive, controlling magician forever. All it takes is the lightest touch to bring out the clown in someone who has the talent to become one. I marveled at how easy it was and enjoyed every moment watching Joan’s development.
After Don left the circus to go back to Dell ‘Arte Players, my dream of having a female clown partnership was realized when I found Joan the perfect partner in Diane Wasnak —after looking at more audition tapes than I ever wanted to. In the next season she became the owner of the "Café Chaotique," which was a continuation of our turn-of-the-century restaurant scene. She used the other performers as foils for her clowning. However, it wasn't until the following year that Joan emerged as a major clown through her work with Diane Wasnak, an East Coast clown who had trained with Tony Montanaro at the Celebration Barn Theater. They were a great clown partnership. Joan had met her match. They had it all: contrast in size, temperament, and cartoon stylistic movement. They could both play saxophones which led to a wonderfully inspired musical clown piece entitled "'Round Midday." They went on to do our clown dream play, "La La Luna Sea," the following year. I'll never forget that was the show when the dominant Joan as Queenie grabbed her crotch in an outrageous sendup of the male gesture we were used to seeing. Joan was fearless and crazy and a brilliant clown! Joan as Queenie Moon became a welcome presence in productions and events throughout the Bay Area up to her death. At the end of her life, she had serious health challenges and the more profound her illness became, the closer to her clown she came. This is the mark of a total clown.
Even when she was being a pain in the... I loved working with her. She was one of my dearest friends and I miss her daily.
Judy was an early contributor to the New Circus Movement. A former Artistic Director of the Pickle Family Circus, she currently coaches circus skills at Circus Bella, the SF Clown Conservatory, and Prescott Circus Theater, and is the founder of Notoriety Variety.
That's it —gratitude and bravissimo to all!! Be sure to check out...
Women in Clowning, Part One
In the Circus
Women in Clowning, Part Two
A Research Guide to (pre-1975) Clown(esque) Women (outside of the circus)