LOOKING FOR YOUR CLOWN.......AND FINDING YOURSELF
Article published in 1984 in "ART ET THERAPIE" and written
by Bertil SYLVANDER.
Adapted and translated from the French by Vivian GLADWELL.
- In this article I will attempt to answer two questions:
Who is the clown?
I do not wish (and it would be too tiring for me) to write about the
historical origins of the clown, or archetypes of the collective unconscious
or of psychoanalytical interpretations. I will go straight to the
essential which is my own experience of clowning. Something which
may seem obvious but isn't, is the distinction I draw between "THE
CLOWN", who is on stage in front of an audience and "the
person" who is behind the red nose and gives life to the clown.
The clown is essentially an emotional being
Clowns feel and express powerful and intense emotions. They respond
to events which often seem to us, normal people, trivial. If all of
a sudden a beam of sunlight crosses the room, one clown may become
happy as if this was the greatest and most wonderful thing that had
ever happened in his or her life, another however might become completely
and inexplicably depressed. Whatever their reactions, clowns are expressive
and fragile in their emotions: they stay very close to what is happening
inside them without worrying too much about whether it makes sense
or is the right thing to do.
For a clown, the emotional state generated by an event is perceived
as an overwhelming experience; it is this obsessive and frantic
perception of feelings which forces the clown to identify with the
world around: the clown is in empathy with the world. The clown
is a professional empathiser.
Identification with an object, identification with the other
If someone's crying, the clown might be overcome with sadness and
not know why, simply through empathy and mimicry. This fusion with
feelings often drives clowns to repeat the actions, sounds, words,
and movements which give them pleasure. This is called the taste for
excess and exaggeration.
The intensity which clowns experience is due to the fact that they
live the present moment of each second. Feelings and emotions in the
present are the most important things in the world for them, and they
are not preoccupied by what the next second will bring. Clowns take
time to savour the extraordinary inner treasures of the moment (Except
if their present feeling is worry, then they will be worried, really
worried sick. Clowns will settle into the state of being worried with
serenity!) Staying close to the present allows clowns to live out
their emotions to the full. They are unrepentant optimists and have
got all the time in the world to wait for things to turn out the way
The clown lives "the now" of every second
The clown isn't on some fictional stage playing Hamlet. No, he or
she is here with us, the audience, in a room or elsewhere. Clowns
see us, and through eye contact share with us their every thoughts
and feelings. This is what makes clowning different from traditional
theatre. Clowns have a very objective relationship with the world.
The clown lives through what is "real and objective"
The clown's present reality is shared and lived with us. The clown
is also a super concentrated source of sugary fantasies. The slightest
event, the slightest emotion evokes within the clown all sorts of
fantastic images which then bring him or her to embark upon fantastic
The clown's (controlled) slips of imagination ... into absurdity
By diving into the world of the imagination, clowns are at its mercy.
Like rally-car drivers, clowns skid through their imagination. They
leave the road, go careering through fields, jump over ditches and
join the road again further down. Clowns are ace racing drivers. Their
folly is based on non-sense : Absurdity does not frighten clowns in
the least. Non-sense is a rational form of madness, it's a logical
Essential moments in clowning : breaking the thread
Clowns may be fools at the mercy of their imagination and they skid
on the ice of delirium....But do not be misled! Clowns are well aware
of the road signs. When leading us into some make believe airy-fairy
world, clowns do not really want us to believe in the world they are
creating, because they only half believe in it themselves .....and
let's face it, they don't believe in it at all. (What we should believe
however is the way in which clowns live through their fragile constructions.)
Clowns live all their pathetic or disastrous adventures in front
of us and with us. They never try to mislead us (this would be presumptuous,
for the various stage-props are ridiculous) because they never mislead
Clowning requires keeping a close watch on the subtle line that
exists between reality and an imaginary world. This is done by stepping
back and taking one's distance from time to time. It is a crucial
moment in clowning. We call it breaking the thread or distanciation.
Just look at a child playing and it becomes obvious. The child
is both within reality and within an imaginary world. Clowns find
their own solutions to stop madness from driving them completely
over the edge of the road. (It would create real unease for an audience
if it thought the clown was really mad)
It is important to realise that when feelings and emotions in clowning
become too strong, clowns have the freedom to play with them. It
is this "breaking free" which releases relief and laughter
from the audience, because it de dramatises a tense situation, it
exorcises tragedy. (The person behind the red nose will also experience
this relief for him or herself.)
Clowns thus are able to break free from the dramatic tension they
create. Their own feelings, those of their partner and of the audience
do not restrict them. This is because clowns are capricious, fickle,
manic depressive, versatile and free beings. In other words, clowns
live in the present.
We may be moved by their emotions, carried along by their imagination,
concerned by the complex and dramatic events they struggle with,
intrigued by the logic they develop and profoundly relieved through
the laughter, the somersaults, the breaking free from events or
the winking of an eye which defuses the tragic.
Deep down the clown is a vulnerable being
All the threads I have introduced and attached next to each other
form an indissoluble whole: the weft of the clown's character. It
is on this frame that each of us will then weave, in our own fashion,
our unique clown character. (Naturally this character will evolve
as and when we discover meaning and get nearer to ourselves through
the creation of that character).
But let's take a closer look at the character's underlying colour.
Clowns are primarily and fundamentally fragile and vulnerable (it
is through this that clowns will draw their strength). While society
expects us to be beautiful, intelligent, in control of our emotions
and successful in our projects, clowns are not ashamed to show their
physical disabilities, their simple-minded nature (not to mention
a charming foolishness), their uncontrolled and overwhelming emotions.
Naturally such a constitution drives clowns from one failure to
another (up to the final success, of course). Clowns are not like
the unruffled heroes of some Hollywood cowboy movies but more like
eternally awkward and hopeless cases of failure.
It is precisely for this that we love the clown! For us, within
us and with us the clown plays at Losers Win. The more it goes wrong,
the greater the success, because it is by drawing on their weaknesses
that clowns become strong. (Where there's muck, there's gold...)
Why is this so?
First and foremost it is because clowns are not ashamed to be themselves,
and to present themselves to us as profoundly human and close to
our nature that they strike a chord in us. They also carry the responsibility
of their nature without letting anyone else bear its weight.
It is this self-acceptance that makes clowns committed optimists.
They are losers with a winner's soul, they stubbornly go through
countless ordeals until they find their own solution within the
confusion of their problems.
By taking a step to the side, clowning shows us how vain, derisory
and hopeless are the efforts towards success. It is through failure
that clowns show their wisdom. Though they embark on their projects
with great emotional intensity, there is deep inside a serenity,
a detachment which fills us with peace. One realises that one doesn't
laugh at clowns but through them.
Clowns wins in the end because they ridicule social pressures and
show us that happiness is possible without necessarily conforming
to the norms of beauty, of self- control and of logical intelligence
extolled by the white clown. In destroying the myth of superficial
appearances and giving us the right to be ourselves, the clown makes
us (and the person playing him or her) feel better about ourselves.
It is clear why the clown is so much loved by children - and by
the child within us - he or she is on their side in the fight for
acquiring an identity and in the face of pressures to conform as
Why and how does the search for one's clown allow personal growth
Having introduced the character of the clown I will now present my
thoughts on the relationship between searching for one's clown and
personal growth. (It sounds better than therapy).
Seeking one's clown does have therapeutic effects. Though it cannot,
I think, be considered a true form of therapy, it can accompany,
help, and prepare one for such an experience.
Why and how?
Seeking one's clown is primarily working towards self-expression
Finding one's clown isn't a matter of "learning to do funny
things", rather it consists of discovering within oneself a
clown as unique as each of us are.
Self-expression, which constitutes the basis of this search, requires
first the creation of conditions that will allow a breaking free
from inhibitions, a loosening of control, a letting go of creativity.
All of which are basically the conditions needed for play. As Winnicott
(1971) says "It is in playing and only in playing that an individual
is able to be creative".
Under those conditions, where everything is allowed, creating a
secure environment is essential. It will exist when it becomes established
that there is no judgement (of others, and of oneself by others),
no comparing, no systematic attempt to intellectualise what has
happened. This means that what is expressed cannot become the object
of an analysis or interpretation unless the person concerned clearly
expresses the desire for it. Thus we believe that what is expressed
has a value in itself, simply for having been expressed.
Guy Lafargue (1984) writes: "Artistic, poetic, physical or
intellectual creation is clearly ambiguous in that while revealing
the latent content of lived experiences, it also protects the individual
from an excess of feelings. This it does through a partial discharge
of dangerous emotions. This is possible only when the individual
feels a sense of security in the creative situation."
A second condition for creating a secure environment for expression,
which is linked to the first, concerns how we invest our identity
and our selves in the work. Discovering the clown's fundamental
characteristic of vulnerability means that before beginning work
we should abandon on the one hand the stereotypes of the clown which
are perpetuated through mass culture and on the other hand we need
to progressively leave aside too-dearly held perceptions of our
selves as successful, effective and strong individuals. There is
in all this a risk-taking which is rewarded by the pleasure of expressive
Guy Lafargue writes: "Therapeutic work attempts to recognise
a symptom in its linguistic and creative form, but in such a way
as to allow the individual to experience it as a creative achievement...."
"Establishing a space for creativity means giving the individual
the possibility of exploring a territory in which he or she unconsciously
turns away from the symptom in the context of a highly structured
activity such as the progressive construction of meaning"
Like the work on dreams done in Gestalt, or on deep relaxation
in Sophrology, or on automatic writing by the Surrealists, this
work when carried over into a theatrical form of expression leads
one to seek a release of the imagination through verbal or physical
delirium. In this way the raw messages from the unconscious will
be revealed. (Phew!)
It is for this reason that we greatly value improvisation, and
that we give a lot of importance to the body. As the body's spontaneous
language is generally less well controlled than speech, it more
easily expresses our authenticity (as long as we allow it to do
If the conditions I have just mentioned exist, characters fundamentally
close to each individual will then come alive through the exercises
and the improvisations.
The mere awareness of this is already a therapeutic process.
Madness and the clown's imagination
The expression of the clown's personality does not appear by "itself",
out the blue. It comes by means of a substance which is the clown's
In our work, we look for this madness and we try to make it blossom.
However it is not an uncontrolled form of madness but has a logic
of its own that I have already mentioned. One might as well call
it a paranoid delirium! Or according to Seglas (1895!), it is the
development of "structured and persistent delirious ideas,.....,
a peculiar interpretation of the relationship between the outside
world and the personality of the suffering person." Further:
"It is the coherent development of a dramatic event, with an
unshakeable, clear, perceptive and convincing argument!"
This quote describes well the clown's madness. First the clown's
eccentric and personal way of relating to and interpreting reality.
It is this that makes us able to understand clowns even in their
madness. Clowns see the reality that we see (objects, places, events,
partners, the audience) in a peculiar and strange manner but it
I also believe that this intelligibility comes from the fact that
clowns do not follow aimlessly every image or fantasy which appears
to them. The clown's madness is structured. (One could even say
it is theatrical)
Also, let us not forget that the clown is living through an adventure
and acts and experiences emotions in relation to events as they
fold and unfold each other. Absurdity and nonsense in no way excludes
the need for intrigue.
Finally, the therapeutic value of seeking one's clown is not limited
to the timely expression of such or such an emotion or of such an
image, it is also found in the fact that this search is structured
within a logic that is unique to each individual and which will
uncover features of that individual not only within an emotional
context but also within the action of drama.
To end this paragraph I feel I need to remind you that although
the clown can be paranoid, it does not mean that the person or individual
is necessarily so! I shall come to this point later.
Living with the present moment
As I mentioned earlier we work a lot with improvisation. The great
difficulty of improvisation work is that it requires us to be aware
of things that are happening in the present. Which is just as well
because the clown is someone who lives in the present. But the experience
of improvising often brings with it the very fear which can inhibit
expression. It is the fear of showing ourselves, of offering ourselves
to be seen.
When experiencing this fear, we should simply be receptive to how
it transforms our perception of the place we are in, to the partner
we play with and the audience. Images, movements and emotions will
appear and connect us with this fear. Clowns play with this confusion
of emotions and reality.
If the person fears a situation, the clown can express this fear
(and play with it); If the person experiences pleasure at being
there, the clown can show this pleasure; if the person "does
not know what to do", the clown can show how he or she lives
the fact that the person does not know what to do (through gestures,
voice and words) and in the process the clown will be doing. To
express emptiness is already to express something.
Improvisation consists in coming on stage empty (predisposed and
receptive to all that can happen) but charged with all of one's
imagination. People we worked with have all noticed the extraordinary
potential that this charge carries. Thus, to the fear of "not
finding anything to do", is gradually substituted an awareness
of the fabulous riches just lying there to be harvested.
From feeling inhibited in our body, we become gradually more confident
in what it can tell us. Even when we experience a feeling of gapping
emptiness, the body becomes our most trustworthy and reliable partner.
The slightest event can from that moment become the thread upon
which a complete improvisation can be woven. In such a way then,
a breath of wind in a room can give a refreshing feeling on the
skin. If we listen to our body instead of ignoring it, emotions
and images spontaneously come to mind. A spontaneous gesture, if
you trust yourself, does not need to mean something immediately.
Let it grow on you, be receptive to what it is telling you. Emotion
and meaning will come as an added surplus. "Be content in the
Connecting with the present emotion is therefore an essential aspect
of improvisation in clowning. This connecting becomes both easier,
and more difficult when irnprovising in twos for example. Easier
because the other clown is an immediate source of inspiration, as
an originator of proposals. More difficult because, however receptive
one is to the other, this other still needs to express him or herself
very clearly. This requires in turn that this other is clear in
his or her own head about what is going on. Working in twos can
be defined as: "Listening to oneself - listening to the other"
This is the way that clown improvisations brings us towards a truthful
relationship with the other, based upon clarity and a flexibility
Clowns live an objective and commonly shared reality. By staying
in the "here and now", clowns cannot escape from the reality
of their experiences, and what's more clowns never leave the presence
of the audience. So "Here and Now" is the clown's motto.
The skills required for improvising as a clown carry extraordinary
therapeutic value. After all that has been said one could come to
the conclusion that the clown is quite simply mad. Through the expression
of our symptoms comes a growth of awareness and the therapeutic
effect. One might also say that the skills required for improvising
in the "here and now" are enough to define the "therapeutic
But something essential is still missing, that is breaking with
the thread or distanciation.
Breaking the thread, Distanciation and self-awareness
We saw in the first part how clowns distance themselves from madness,
feelings, logic or with the rhythm of bodily movements. We saw that
the theatrical function of this distanciation was to exorcise emotional
and affective charges created by the clown and that finally, through
the relief this procures, to bring laughter to the audience.
How does this bring about a growing-awareness and a development
of the person?
Throughout an improvisation, the person produces within and around
him or her self emotional energy. This the person does through the
risk of expressing something personal and authentic. However at the
same time, clowning imposes certain technical constraints and these
confront the person with reality. The reality of being on stage, of
improvising, of being with other clown-seekers, of being successful
or failing. All this, let us not forget, the person does while playing.
This confrontation sets limits to the person's madness or delirium
and "rescues it".
In fact, neither the person nor the clown get into a true state
of madness. To do that would be loosing touch with reality without
the possibility of knowing that one has lost touch with it because
reality would become an illusion. Being aware that one is mad implies
one no longer is.
The clown-seeker uses delirium like Salvador Dali used critical
paranoia. According to G. Bertrand (1980), this is "a spontaneous
method of acquiring irrational knowledge based upon an interpretative
association of delirious phenomena .... ". In paranoia, Dali
attempted to use raw messages from the unconscious, the logic of
the absurd, coherence within incoherence, but he refused to let
himself become a prisonner of the system and kept the right to just
observe its worst aberrations. Artists play upon these two levels:
by imitating psychosis, they release great and shadowy powers from
within themselves, but by moulding them through artistic expression,
they escape from their control and are saved.
All this leads me to think that in clowning the "moulding
of artistic expression" is the boundary which theatrical expression
sets through distanciation. This moulding of artistic expression
provides a safe space which allows self-expression. Self-expression
grows with the capacity of the person to use that space for a playful
exploration of his/her symptoms. (And to find pleasure in the process,
which is quite something!)
The rules and convention of theatre are, I believe, similar to
the notion of control in therapy, where violent emotions and powerful
feelings of pain can be generally expressed without the patient
The person seeking his or her clown feels real feelings, and at
the same time plays with these. This is a point which puzzles a
lot of people at the workshops. Janine is improvising and she decides
to act out a meeting with her father. Feelings of desertion surge
within her. The emotional energy becomes intense and makes the audience
uneasy. The audience (unconsciously) would welcome a break to bring
relief. (Otherwise this isn't clowning anymore, but drama!)
Janine comes back from her improvisation. She is disturbed and
cries. She is angry with us: "You told me: feel your emotion
and play that. That's the result". We answer: " Janine,
it is possible to be both authentic and play at the same time. Step
back from yourself. It may sound contradictory but in this kind
of work, the more you are able to play with your feelings, the more
you are giving yourself the chance to be true to yourself."
A few days later, Janine did a moving and extremely funny improvisation
on the same theme. The reason clowns are not mad, paranoid or hysterical,
is that they are able to distance themselves from what is happening
So, is the clown a "polymorphous pervert"? Ah ha! Good
question! My feeling is no. The clown isn't a child but an adult,
and what's more a particularly well-balanced adult.
Because the rule that allows us to break free from our symptoms
of being an unloved child while on stage allows us to reveal our
basic vulnerability and humanity. Clowns say to their audience:
"The person behind this red nose is like this and I accept
this. The person is like this and laughs at himself or herself."
Clowns are adults because they assume responsibility for their
existence, they do not try to find excuses anywhere and are answerable
only to themselves. Clowns confront life with all the strength and
optimism of their nature.
While I say that clowns "confront life", I don't hesitate
to say that they confront death also.
I said earlier that it was by drawing upon their weakness that
clowns become strong: This is also true for the person. Through
self-acceptance and the pleasure it gives, clowning helps the person
behind the red nose to progressively create himself or herself while
producing his or her symptoms.
To finish, I would like to ask one last question: If the search
for one's clown has a therapeutic effect and if the person works
with this (and/or by other means), his or her clown character will
also evolve and perhaps in the end die.
Does therapy consist in finding the clown's own death? Will my
clown one day drown himself? So far the question remains unanswered...