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Horror vs. Joy

Is there any (comic) relief in store for professional clowns?

From last year’s spate of random clown sightings, to the remake of the horror film It, opening soon, professional clowns are having a rough go of it. In fact, last week, the World Clown Association released a statement condemning “scary clowns,” saying they undermine the work professional clowns do to “bring a happy, joyful, creative, caring, positive, and fun experiences to our audiences.”
Jesse Hinson, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Theatre at Northeastern, and a trained clown himself, said he can see both sides of the issue.
“This is something they have to contend with on a regular basis,” Hinson said of professional clowns. “Clown characters can be really easily milked for scares.”

Why are clowns so often twisted into scary characters?

There’s a vast array of things at work there. There’s something about hiding the face behind a mask or face paint that’s inherently a little off-putting. Plus, with makeup, you can really distort your facial features, which is creepy.

There are so many examples of these horror clowns. Of course, there’s Pennywise in It, and there’s also of Heath Ledger, who played The Joker in The Dark Knight, and John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who dressed up as a clown. At the heart of it, you’re taking something that should be innocent and delightful, and then perverting that to tell a horror story.

As World Clown Association president Pam Moody pointed out, though, you have Jason Voorhees (the horror character in Friday the 13th) who wears a hockey mask, but no one thinks hockey players are going to kill them. There’s something about clowns where that doesn’t translate.

In the World Clown Association statement, Moody also differentiates between Pennywise in It, and “true clowns.” What makes a true clown?

A true clown isn’t there to menace their audience, or to incite fear; they’re there to delight and reveal something about human nature. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the clown is there to poke fun at the rulers, to hold up a mirror to them so we, as an audience, can see that no one is infallible.

Pennywise, and the people who are dressing up as scary clowns, are just people putting on face paint. Anyone can do that.

I worked as an apprentice at Georgia Shakespeare in Atlanta, and during graduate school, did a semester’s worth of clown training. There’s a whole progression of training you have to complete before earning your red nose.

What sort of training goes into the craft of clowning?

A clown is always in conversation with the audience.

A clown is pure id; I had a professor who told us to put the intellectual sides of ourselves away, and let our inner children drive for a bit. Everything a clown does should be full of wonder. For example, for one exercise, my teacher put a folding chair in the middle of the room, and told us to pretend we’d never seen a folding chair before. We had to explore everything we could possibly do with a folding chair that isn’t sitting in it, before figuring out that that’s what it’s for. That exercise created a lot of really stunning clown routines; it fostered a lot of improv exploration.

There’s kind of a paradox in clowning; we call it ‘serious play.’ We’re deeply invested in what’s going on in the present moment, but all clowning is really based in failure. The practice makes you very comfortable and empathetic to failure.

And while there is a vast gradient of clowns—from the ones who show up to a children’s birthday party, to the ones in Shakespeare’s plays—the performative clowning I’m more familiar with is about creating a character that is in tune with yourself, that plays up some sort of aspect of yourself to make it larger than life.

So, where do professional clowns go from here?

I like to be optimistic. This is an obstacle, but I think that this is also an opportunity to educate people on what clowns really are. It’s a chance for people to hold two oppositional things in their brains at the same time: There are scary, menacing clown characters, but there is also this other craft that exists and that is something we’ve actually been exploring for centuries.

I hope people go see It if they want to see it, but I also hope that they don’t avoid booking a clown for an event because of it. I hope we’re developed enough as a culture to appreciate both.