When you hear the word “clown”, the first thing to come to mind is maybe a circus, or a children’s birthday party, or perhaps even a villain in a horror film.
But, as Robyn Hambrook, a performer, director and clown, explains, there’s more to clowning than unicycles and balloon animals, with clowns historically playing an important social, political, and cultural role by speaking truth to power.
Robyn, who completed a masters degree on the subject, argues that the clown still holds relevance, and that the tools and techniques of clowning contain valuable lessons for activists today.
So what really is clowning and what can it teach us about activism? TBA’s James Ward spoke with Robyn from her home in Easton to talk about truth-telling, play, and rebel clown armies.
Robyn’s responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
JW: The popular image of the clown is probably different to your understanding of the clown, so perhaps you could start off by explaining: what is a clown, and what is clowning?
RH: Clowns have been with us throughout history. Alongside shamans there were clowns in early and traditional cultures like the native americans. They were there to keep the community in check, ready to mock anyone who was getting ahead of themselves and to transgress and subvert these rituals that we had.
Then there was the clown as the fool in the monarch’s court, who could speak truth to power, because their low status and harmlessness meant that they posed no threat.
Clowns had this social role up until the Renaissance, when they were pushed out of their traditional function to perform on the street instead. That’s when we see the development of Commedia dell’Arte and itinerant performers, and, in the nineteenth Century, the circus.
The shift to an audience made up of the public rather than a patron such as a monarch meant that the clown lost its political role, replaced by satire, cartoons and comedians.
Today we mostly know clowns from circuses and the “killer clown” horror trope in the US, but people might not know about Clowns Without Borders and the Flying Seagull Project going to refugee camps to entertain children.
JW: You’ve mentioned how the clown speaks truth, and your website makes reference to clowns as “truth-tellers”. Can you say a bit more on what you mean by this?
RH: At the heart of clowning is the idea that you’re playing your truthful self. When we play clown, as performers we strive not to play the ideal of what a clown is but to play our authentic self. Because in that everyone can see the humanity and the vulnerability. So I think the clown already starts from a place of truth, and from there they can shine a light on bigger issues or bigger truths.
There’s also something about the lightness of a clown and their eternal optimism. I think it would be easy to get into a dark place with a lot of the issues we’re dealing with today, but the clown has a levity and a lightness and the ability to play with very dark things. They bring a resilience to those spaces and to the themes they’re working with.
“the clown already starts from a place of truth, and from there can shine light on bigger issues or bigger truths”
JW: The clown is something you studied in depth in your masters. Tell me about what you studied.
RH: My masters title was ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’ and I studied for it between 2017 and 2018. I was interested in the meeting point of circus and protest, and over a series of experiments I wanted to create a methodology for working with issues as an activist.
I started by looking broadly at all circus forms and other examples of groups that use circus out on the street in a political way, and then exploring what is protest and what forms does that take. And over my series of experiments I zoomed in on the smallest act in the circus, which is the clown, and I zoomed into the idea of resistance, rather than just protest, and I asked: how does the clown resist?
JW: How did this relate to your activism? And have you always been an activist?
RH: My activism comes from a place of being a theatre maker and feeling the world very keenly. There’s never been one single issue that I campaign on, but the political edge has always come through my work and I try to see how my art could make a difference even though it isn’t necessarily connected to activist movements.
My work in street theatre encourages people to explore ideas of community, and control, and greed and coercion, and political revolutions. This type of interaction with audiences, the stuff that’s really participatory, really interactive, is powerful, and from there all my work and street performance was really about trying to get the audience involved in some way so that they weren’t passive. This is even more relevant now we’re in this really passive state of being spectators of street theatre, more and more people just take a photo of us and walk past.
JW: How were you introduced to the idea of clowning as a technique of activism?
RH: During my masters research I came across CIRCA [the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army]. They were using the clown form, but took it out of the normal performance modes of circus or theatre, and took it into protest spaces, and I was like “Ah! This is interesting.”
In a book called Street Spirits I saw a beautiful picture of a group of riot cops and a group of clowns imitating the riot cops by standing in the same formation. Some clowns have gone to the back of the group of cops and are standing there looking very serious and just lightly mocking it. It’s such a strong image, it just speaks so much power, because the clowning completely diminishes the power of the police. It mocks, but in a very playful way.
JW: That sounds like a brilliant way to do activism. So what happened to CIRCA?
CIRCA was active from about 2003 to 2005 or 2006. I couldn’t find much after that time other than little gaggles of clowns that sprung up around the world. Until last year, when I managed to contact and meet co-founders Jay Jordan and Hilary Ramsden and then I slowly began unpicking more of what happened.
We’re going to do a project later this year where we explore the clown army as a form and update it for today. We’re going to look back, meet the old clowns that were part of the original army, and then bring some clowns and activists back into the room and almost do the same process they did to come up with CIRCA and update it for the protest scene today. We might talk about decolonisation and addressing ideas of sexism and all the sort of things that we’re having to deal with in many theatre forms right now.
JW: What about your own clowning activism. What projects have you been involved in?
RH: I’ve been involved with Extinction Rebellion Bristol for a while now and it has definitely given me some more platforms from which to take my work to the street.
For instance, I ran workshops in the July Uprising 2019, and started to run workshops locally for people wanting to explore what I was calling Rebel Clowning. The group that formed around it wanted to keep being political and making commentary through the work, so as well making a piece about rising sea levels for XR, we made a piece about consumerism for Black Friday.
JW: What lessons have you taken from your masters and your experiences of clowning and activism? Do you think other activists could benefit from learning these lessons?
RH: Jay Jordan has this idea of activist time and artist time. Activists are always in a reactive state, on a treadmill of running towards the next thing and never reflecting and looking back. But it’s important after an action of protest to reflect on the question of “did that work?” and then take that learning forwards.
I can see where activist burnout comes from. From running on that treadmill.
Another key lesson to take away is the idea of audience. Who is the audience we’re targeting? What do we want them to do?
Coming as a performer and an event-maker, audience is key. I got frustrated with XR and the actions they did because they’re not always designed with audiences and change in mind. They’ve got the activist cookbook and they throw another die-in at something. I think I became a little disillusioned with the amount of beautiful work that was happening in ways that I didn’t feel were effective.
We need to consider what we’re doing in a protest space, and why we’re there and who we want to join us. And then ask: how can we make this space exciting for people? Reclaim the Streets was great because it recognized that politics is about passion and desire. Sitting around talking and listening to speeches is not sexy. I think XR did a good job of making protest very sexy with all its boats and banners and arts. We mustn’t forget to bring in the carnival and the fun, and to tap into ideas of spectacle and play, of joy and pleasure.
“Clowning sometimes can be a bit of an altered state. I’ve seen all sorts of behaviour”
JW: Are there drawbacks to bringing clowning into activist spaces?
RH: Clowning sometimes can be a bit of an altered state. I’ve seen all sorts of behaviour: people go crazy, they think the laws of physics don’t apply, they regress to a two year old. It can be dangerous in a public space.
I’m very keen to build a group in Bristol that can work together, can trust each other and have safe words, and have the performer and the clown operating together.
The clown always says yes, which is a great way to play together. But activists say no a lot. There’s an interesting clash there and it needs to be a degree of theatre training to bring it together.
JW: Is that need for training a barrier to participation?
RH: Yes, it can be, so I think in my next activist clown workshops I’m going to start with a group workshop where we’ll ease into some clown exercises, improv and ensemble building, to help people wherever they are with their clowning level and play level. It’s all about play and relaxing in the spaces together and a willingness to be stupid and to fail. I just want to foster that.
JW: Do you think clowning will make a comeback on the activist scene?
RH: Yes! People are connecting via social media and, thanks to the pandemic, we can meet across the globe. This has enabled my recent series of Activist Clown Toolkit workshops, with activists and clowns from around the world.
I have more of these workshops coming in the summer, and from those there might be opportunities to look at real life workshops in Bristol or around the UK. And if my CIRCA project happens with Jay Jordan and Hilary Ramsden, we could end up taking something to COP26.
If you’d like to learn more about clowning and activism, Robyn is running a series of workshops through the summer.