I saw The Antidote at the Festival of Clowns last weekend. Smartypants and Smartyboots (Diana Kolpak & Shantelle Simone Landry), cute but murderously competitive clown buddies, stage a circus wherein each act ends in disaster.
The show got me thinking more seriously than usual about clowning. Not the balloon-animal/singalong variety most of us grew up with, but the adults-only kind whose thousand-year-old roots lie in the European bouffant tradition and whose contemporary practitioners are seldom encountered outside fringe theaters. And, while I am about as far from a clown as anyone I know, it turns out that, without being fully cognizant of the fact, I have been up to a little buffoonery myself.
Archetypally speaking, the buffoon is a monster and a misfit. He is physically deformed and/or disabled and therefore scapegoated, reviled, abjected by society. But instead of slinking quietly to the margins where we don’t have to deal with him, the buffoon takes center stage. He lollops about, farting noisily and singing his cracked tunes. He taunts and flaunts, and–oh, dear!–it turns out he’s monstrously virile, too. Grotesquely oversized genitalia are thus a common costume element for this x-rated clown (in the Enfants Terribles video above, the lead singer has removed his chest-high, erect phallus, presumably so as not to get censored on Youtube. The great Gustavo, too, has discussed the drawbacks of attempting publicity spots with bulging trousers).
So what could this fellow possibly have to do with me? First, he has something do with–and say to–all of us. The buffoon turns us, quite literally, inside out: all the flawed, weak, dirty, aggressive, cowardly, greedy, perverse and otherwise miserable stuff we repress so efficiently is worn right there on the surface of his skin. When we watch him do his thing we crawl with discomfort; we wince as we laugh. Halfway through a Mump & Smoot show I attended back in university, I surprised myself by bursting (quietly, of course!) into tears.
For the last year, I’ve been part of what can be only very loosely called a choir, directed by vocal artist Fides Krucker (the voice teacher I keep raving about). In Fides’s sure hands, eight of us women have been exploring breath, emotion and sound toward the development of a collaborative vocal alt-reality. So far, the choir’s repertoire consists mostly of sighs, yawns, squeaks, shrieks and howls.
It’s excruciating. The first half-hour of every session has me writhing with a combination of self-consciousness and intellectual impatience. This is exactly the sensation I have to battle within myself as an audience member at the outset of a clown show (“you are adults; why can’t you talk? Why are you so silly?”).
Then, as I give in and attempt to connect with authentic emotion, comes a panicky kind of stripping-down of my rational, articulate self. Whether we’re singing some drunken clown-song (Tom Waits is a favorite) or drawing vocal “portraits” of one another, a terrible ego-helplessness sets in. The only thing left to cling to is the group itself, like a still-blind puppy in a litter.
But. But then, once the raw materials are there and we’re starting to shape the piece, something else occurs. My voice, in all its emotional rawness and vulnerability, is amplified by the other women’s. Suddenly what’s been inchoate and undignified becomes an intentional declaration: expansive, confrontational, disturbing, seductive. It becomes powerful. And yes, it even becomes funny, when we steer it that way.
This is what bouffant clowns achieve, right? A mixed-up stew of raw emotions dredged up, dressed up, and served up for an audience to chew on or choke over. Hysterical, in all the best and worst senses of the word.
According to The Clown Farm admission criteria, my choir experience probably puts me into the category of “baby clown.” But one has to start somewhere, now, hasn’t one?