Awful Clowns Are Wonderful

By Ira Seidenstein

December 29, 2020

Although the impulse for this post is to support a performance piece and its co-creators, the mere thought of writing always opens my preferred creative approach that is to think tangentially. I’m not interested to write a codified review of an art product. I’m interested in the nature of creative impulses – subconscious and conscious – and the resulting realities. That is what I’m writing about.

Last week I had a spontaneous chat with an Indigenous artist whose work I cherish. He has no inhibition about discussing the commercial reality of the art world and the worlds of arts including performing arts. Great thinkers, philosophers, have discussed the actual commercial, product driven nature, of even the Fine Arts and the finest of artists. A few of the writers on that theme whose creative writing I learned from were; Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, and Pierre Bourdieu.

For this essay I will juxtapose the most recent work of Tumble Circus, with a short video interview of Patti Smith, and, with my own interests in creativity and clown. Patti Smith is an exemplary musician, but what she has to say in the short interview is insightful for any artist including clowns.

Tumble Circus has been primarily a duet performing in their own contemporary circus shows. The duet is Tina Segner and Ken Fanning. I first met them in Belfast when I taught a workshop in 2008 for 9-days, and another in 2009 for a month. Those workshops were via the Belfast Community Circus. I was teaching the introduction elements of my method Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare. My third workshop was private, not in Belfast, and exclusive three weeks workshop for the comedy dance theatre company – Ponydance led by Leonie McDonaugh. Leonie had attended the last afternoon of the 9 days workshop. She had a newborn son and it was only that afternoon that she was available. Leonie attended the one month workshop. Though she and her partner, Ken, alternated sessions as they swapped looking after their toddler. Numerous times Participants have brought their small children to my workshops, but, the swapping arrangement was Leonie and Ken’s choice.

During the previous month workshop I was able to see Tina and Ken perform what was then their main act. That act combined aerial acrobatics with comedy in such a wonderful way. I saw it as a new genre that I named “Standup Circus” in reference to standup comedy. Tumble Circus was genuinely funny and highly athletic. The humour was around their cultural differences. Tina is from Sweden and Ken is not. They also played on classic different outlooks of females and males, and as couples of any persuasion or culture. Although it is unlikely they had any reference or reverence towards their elders in comedy, they were to my view cut from the same mould as: Burns &Allen; Stiller & Meara; Nicholls & May; Coca & Caesar; Ball & Arnez.

For many years they had toured and also collaborated with other performers who were mainly fellow contemporary circus performers. When their first full length theatre Show was nearing completion I was in Belfast again and that work was to assist the circus and clown community to further develop their own creations. Each piece was at a different stage of development. I assisted Tumble Circus by reworking their end scene and bringing some new impulses to their characters one of which was Ken turning into a clown. In recent years Ken has pursued clowning, and filming, and directing.

Their 2020 project is a 45 minutes film in ten sections each filmed in a different location in or near Belfast. One scene for example is one a tiny farm, another scene is seaside. There were five main performers including Tina, and Ken. He also directed. Some acts were circus skill oriented, but a number of scenes were clowning. Throughout there was original music composed by a colleague. There was a playful exploration in the camera work.

But, my strongest interest was in the clowning which I loved. I like all sorts and genres of clowning. I have always especially loved what I could call “rough as guts clowning”. Ratbag clowns whose costumes though with mismatched pieces actually realises a fresh aesthetic. Maybe the makeup is a bit smeared. I love whenever I see a clown’s makeup melting. I love it when something is wrong or askew.

I consider most clown trainings deficient in many respects. On the other hand often with clowning the actor who is ‘ready’ to clown needs almost no direction. Encouragement yes, but often they just need any situation or costume or scenario and a kick in the pants and away they go like a windup toy. Like a windup toy they may fall off the table, continually, and need reset numerous times. But, the able person will blossom in a unique way that surprises themselves and the director. That said the two young acrobatic women who played the central clowns were wonderful and “rough as guts” at the same time fresh as daisies. They were like 8 weeks old puppies. I loved too their disarrayed costumes and makeup. Each of the other clowns were absolutely just as wonderful on all fronts. The old woman (Tina?) at home awaiting ‘Uber’ delivery by the newly hired delivery puppy clowns duet. The delivery dinner boss was a total ratbag and his costume is an artistic masterpiece of deconstruction of a clown icon. Ken’s clowns that portrayed were each an authoritarian bastard from hell, and delightful. He has his own reasons for that emerging from his subconscious yet framed consciously and well crafted. His creative aggression is from the direct lineages of John Cleese, and one of The Young Ones clown TV series. Such aggressive clown characters can be an absolute delight. One of my favourite such is “Homey D Clown” played by one of the Wayans siblings who created the clown filled TV series In Living Color. Most episodes are on youtube. Superb clowning “pushing the envelope”, and risking going over the border marked ‘Bad Taste’ – sometimes going over without a passport. The first three seasons were excellent albeit pushing past conservative tastes.

In watching the clowning in Tumble Circus’ movie Winter Circus 2020 (https://www.tumblecircus.com), I am naming that within the genre “Awful Clowns Are Wonderful” others in that genre are Martin Short; Monty Python; In Living Color; MAD TV; Milton Berle; Wacko & Blotto.

Here’s the particular interview with Patti Smith:

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Ira Seidenstein