I dated a clown. Not for very long, just up until my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago. The relationship really unravelled after that news hit. The clown I dated had a regular job, a day job; he was a project manager for a company that sold lights for hydroponic plants. The clown I dated lived in a tiny house. He played a banjo. He was warm and sweet and kind and never said anything mean about anyone. He was gentle and a little childlike. He took me to Burning Man. He taught me how to ride a bike. He was extremely generous. Recently, I heard he got engaged.
Before that, I lived with a clown. For a year. My roommate clown had studied with a master clown teacher in France. My roommate clown had a tiny dog and two cats and lived in a big three story house in San Francisco. He exercised every day and always got a dozen brand new ideas while he was out walking. He’d come home and tell me all of his ideas, and I’d say what fabulous ideas they all were, and then he’d list several water-tight reasons why he couldn’t execute any of them. Then he would retreat to his room where he’d draw or organize old photos or listen to music. His basement was full of memorabilia. One day after he thought that his dog had eaten a package of my chocolate cookies, he asked me to move out. I wish that I had taken a photo of the rooms of that old Victorian house in San Francisco. It was a magical place and I’m grateful that I got to live there.
Years before either of these experiences, I was introduced to the art of clowning through a show I worked on called Clown Bible. I made a bunch of friends while I was stage managing the thing, including the clown that I would later date and the clown I would later share a home with. I’d never heard of the European style of clown, and I never knew that there’s a lot more to the art form than poofy orange hair and crazy makeup.
Clown Bible was a musical, and the idea of the show was that all of humanity is just bumbling around, comically and tragically. The plot got pretty twisted when we went from Old Testament to New Testament, and the actor playing God became Jesus, red nose and all. Not blasphemous, exactly, but definitely strange. I had been in love with the band leader, but then I found out that he was fooling around with the woman playing God and Jesus.
Anyway, that was my introduction to clowning. I learned that circus clowns came about to help relieve the tension after a particularly perilous act, like when the soldiers did headstands on the backs of horses galloping at top speeds around the tent. The audience would have been holding their breath throughout that whole thing, and so the clowns would come out and be ridiculous and let people laugh and breathe again. Clowns help us not take ourselves so seriously. Sometimes clowns would be the focus of their own whole show, inviting the audience along with them into their strange, dreamlike worlds.
Clowns have their own logic that’s different from human logic, different from the rational world. In clown logic, it makes sense to dial a phone, hang it up, walk to another phone and wait for it to ring. Most clowns don’t speak very much, or if they do, it’s just gibberish. Most clowns have a hat. Most clowns don’t show a lot of skin - they aren’t sexy or suggestive. But they do have big feelings. Huge feelings.
That’s why I took the clown workshop this past weekend - to practice expressing authentic, huge feelings through my body instead of my words. Clowns do a lot of expressing and they do a lot of noticing. They notice these very specific things, and I think that helps them imagine all kinds of things that humans don’t. For example, I had a chance to play with a towel for ten minutes. It was a tie, a bib, a skirt, a picnic blanket, a baby, a flag, a boat, a bridge, a book, and a jumprope. It would have been ten more things if I had played with it for ten more minutes. I just kept noticing more things about it. It kept changing.
My clown had this way of walking, kind of slow, kind of uneven, a little slumped inwards, but looking up. She really liked examining inanimate objects, and also people who were far away. Most of the time they never saw her looking at them. She felt this yearning, a deep need to be close to the one who was farthest away. Meanwhile, the ones who were closest were practically invisible to her. If anyone did come up close, she had to find a way to get away from them. But if, on the other hand, the clown who was far away suddenly became closer, oh how much joy and fear and overwhelming feeling she felt. It was almost too much. She would pant and sigh and shake and sweat. One time she saw another clown and he got close to her and she had to turn her back. She couldn’t bear to be that close and look at him, but she reached out behind her to make contact. They stood like that for a while, touching finger tips. It was exhausting.
I remember that, many years ago during Clown Bible, right before opening night, the director had everyone do a turn by themselves with the nose. One at a time, each person working in the show got to come out from behind the scenes and show themselves to everyone else in the cast and crew. In ten years of working behind the scenes on all kinds of shows, that was the only time I was ever invited to come on stage and be seen by everyone else, just one bumbling human in front of a crowd of other bumbling humans.
Sarah Elovich is a writer and performer based in Oakland, CA.