Dancing in the Chaos

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Dancing in the Chaos

Creating a Feminist Clown Practice

A text by Jacqueline Russell

In the fall of 2020, Erin Pettifor invited me to direct her solo clown show Stigma, Pistil, and Style. Drawn together by our shared passion for feminist inquiry and outrageous clowning, we set out to create a show that joyfully explored our personal and political relationship to pleasure, sexual agency, bodily autonomy, and reproductive justice. What emerged from our creation process, was a show that audiences described as both “deeply relatable and hysterically funny”.

“In a nightclub single stall washroom Vooma awaits the result of her pregnancy test. As the minutes tick away, her body begins to move, confront, excavate, and awaken. Dancing through the cosmic chaos, this piece asks, amidst the relentless buzz of the world, how can we listen deeply to ourselves?”1 We created during, and in response to, the ongoing struggle to maintain legislation that protects abortion rights, reproductive rights, sexual health, and sex education. The words in the title, stigma, pistil, and style, refer to the reproductive anatomy of flowers. Evoking the rich history of flower symbolism as female sexual metaphor from Georgia O’Keeffe to Frida Kahlo, the title of the piece also playfully acknowledges the societal stigmatization that both feminism and clowning often encounter.

The intersection of clown ways of knowing and feminist ways of thinking was the focus of my MFA graduate thesis, Feminist Clowning: Serious Pleasures and Strategic Possibilities. This project allowed me to continue that research, investigating how we might define and create feminist clown work.

CREATING A FRAMEWORK FOR FEMINIST CLOWN2

In Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, bell hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” and thus the feminist clown aims to disrupt, provoke, parody, and question all forms of oppression. The question may arise, don’t all clowns do this? In my experience, they do not. Some clowns may remind us of awe and wonder and play, which is significant, but they do not engage with the world through a critical lens. I have witnessed clowns who reinforce narratives of oppression, using the tropes and stereotypes of domination to incite laughter. I also wish to clarify that not all female clowns inherently create feminist work. As bell hooks discerns, one of the difficulties of the feminist movement is that “anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective”. In contemporary clown practice, there are many male and non-binary clowns who engage in feminist clown work.

Drawing from clown scholars and practitioners, as well as my own embodied knowledge as a clown performer, I have identified three essential qualities of clown and the ways in which they intersect with feminist theory, to create a hypothesis of how we might define the term “feminist clown.” As I define it, feminist clown is liminal, critical, and playful. These elements, I suggest, can be illuminated by feminist theory and criticism, particularly feminist theatre criticism, as a way of identifying and cultivating feminist clown strategies. In A Concise Companion to Feminist Theory, Sara Ahmed identifies that “what characterizes feminist interventions is a presumption of a necessary link between theory and practice, between ways of understanding what it is we seek to transform and forms of action that enable such transformation”. In this article, I endeavour to draw connections between ways of thinking about feminism and the embodied practice of clown, to discover what emerges as feminist clown in this interplay between theory and practice.

LIMINAL – THE MAGIC SPACE

Clowns occupy a liminal space. They exist “both inside and outside of the dramatic fiction” and, as Donald McManus suggests in No Kidding! Clown As Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theatre, they will frequently comment upon the action of the plot, both from inside and outside of the narrative. What creates this liminal quality in clown performance is the relationship of the clown to the audience. One does not perform the character of the clown in the same way one performs Juliet, with a clear delimitation between the performative space and the audience space. The clown and the person are inseparable. One does not “perform” the clown at all. European clown teacher Jacques Lecoq believed that “it is not possible to be a clown for the audience; you play with an audience”.3 As Canadian clown teacher John Turner further elaborates “the clown doesn’t ‘exist’ without an audience the whole act of clown is a conversation”.4

Most contemporary feminist theatre practitioners employ a disruptive approach to the performative space, breaking the convention of the fourth wall. However, in clown performance there is simply no fourth wall to break. In Impossibility Aside: Clowning and the Scholarly Context, Julia Lane explains that for a clown the fourth wall does not exist, because there “often isn’t even a first, second, or third wall in clown theatre. The clown’s performance takes place in a world, but it is a world that is not necessarily bound by the walls (physical or invisible and imaginatively created) of the performance space; it is a world that includes both clown and audience sharing the same space, intimately”.

At the beginning of Stigma, Pistil, and Style, Vooma enters through the audience. Dancing her way through the crowd, a bar towel in one hand and a drink tray in the other, she embodies the quintessential “party girl”, starting a fun, high-energy, conversation with her audience. Once she arrives in the bathroom (stage), which is covered in toilet paper and trash, the conversation shifts. Vooma engages with her audience through insinuating glances, silently asking who among them made such a horrific mess. After cleaning up the mess, the conversation continues as she sits on the toilet and pulls out a pregnancy test. This private act (taking a pregnancy test) performed in a public space (the bathroom in a nightclub) further blurs spatial boundaries. Vooma’s repeated plea for the audience to “Look away!” as she pees on the stick, acknowledges both the reality of her situation, and allows her to comment on the way that the gaze of legislators and the public is constantly present in private choices surrounding reproductive autonomy.

Lane relates the concept of the magic space in clown performance to spaces of engagement explored in feminist scholarship, such as bell hooks’ conceptualization in Teaching to Transgress of a space “in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity”. I concur with Lane’s association of these spaces: the liminal nature of the clown to transgress the traditional boundaries of the mimetic space in the theatre mirrors processes in feminist ways of thinking that blur the binaries of social and cultural ideologies and discourses. In this way the feminist clown can strategically exploit the ways in which the “disruption of the mimetic conventions”, as McManus suggests, “usually implies disruption of cultural norms, and the clown’s difficulty with the cultural norms often leads to disrupting the mimetic convention”. By playing with the audience, the feminist clown engages her audience in a conversation with transformative possibility.

CRITICAL – USE CLOWN LOGIC

In The Feminist Spectator as Critic, Jill Dolan investigates how “ y exposing the ways in which dominant ideology is naturalized by performance’s address to the ideal spectator, feminist performance criticism works as a political intervention in an effort towards cultural change”. Twenty-five years later in The Feminist Spectator in Action, Dolan admits that “very little has changed since 1988” when she first argued “that the gaze remains unapologetically male”. Thus, the task of the feminist critic was, and continues to be, as Dolan suggests, breaking “through the male stranglehold on what’s considered universal or even worthwhile” by articulating different ways of viewing the world.

One of the rules of clown performance is to use “clown logic.” Clown logic is a way of viewing the world that disrupts apparent realities. A clown may look down and realize that her shoes are on the wrong feet. Rather than taking off her shoes, she might solve the problem quickly by switching the position of her feet, which is both funny and complicates the notion of “wrong” feet. It may still look “wrong” to the audience but to the clown it looks right. In this way the clown solves problems by viewing the world in a different way. The critical nature of clown performance lies in this logic.

The set for Stigma, Pistil, and Style is comprised of one large white ceramic pot (toilet) surrounded by nine small white plant pots, arranged in a semi-circle, each containing one flower. Throughout the play the sound of buzzing insects draws Vooma towards the flowers, and as she smells them, a visceral memory enters her body, transporting her into dream state reality where she recounts the ‘rules” of being a woman.

“Rules to live by, by Vooma Shearth, age 14: Master the art of saying no without saying no.”

After performing demonstrations of ways to say no without saying no, “One: Lie. Two: Say, my dad says I’m not allowed. Three: Laugh hysterically,” accompanied by physical gestures, Vooma turns to the audience asking, “Who’s ready to practice?” Consensually engaging with audience members who were keen to play the game, Vooma enacts scenarios where male characters say things like “Hey, you should come sit next to me on the bus.” If the audience member accidentally said no, Vooma would coach them on how to improve their game. If the audience members successfully said no without saying no, Vooma would invite the entire audience to celebrate, allowing her to critique the way that women are socialized to protect male feelings by communicating indirectly in an arduous game that is impossible to win.

McManus explains “ good clown act is usually resolved by means of the clown finding a solution to the problem at hand that takes the audience by surprise, because it is either not the solution that they had envisioned or had not been presented as consistent with the theatrical convention being used. The solution can redefine the problem”. By using surprising solutions to redefine problems clowns engage in a critical practice that encompasses political metaphor since, according to McManus, “the relationship of the clown to the structure of the mimetic world has its correlative in the power structure of the non-theatrical world”. Thus, the feminist clown engages in a practice that articulates different ways of viewing the world as both clown and critic.

PLAYFUL – GET YOURSELF OFF

Despite its critical nature, feminist clown is not instructive or moralistic. Using clown logic is part of the clown’s play, which often leads to another clown quality, the necessity of failure. I once sat next to renowned European clown Iman Lizarazu during a clown show. Throughout the entire performance Lizarazu muttered under her breath, “Oh, good problem. Yes, great problem. Hmmm … missed that one.” She was looking for the problems, understanding that by trying to solve a problem and failing, the clown can find more opportunities to play. This notion of failure, referred to in European clown traditions as the flop, is a part of the conversation between clown and audience. Traditionally, “hen the clown provokes laughter by failing,” observes Louise Peacock in Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance, “ provides a release valve and allows audience to enjoy a feeling of superiority”. I would argue that laughter at the clown’s failure can also come from a place of empathy, of seeing oneself in the clown’s struggle. In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam suggests that “rom the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideals, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures”. The feminist clown can use laughter to reframe the notion of failure as something advantageous and worthy of celebration.

The playful nature of clown should not imply that the content is superficial or without dramatic stakes. A rule of clown performance is to “get yourself off.” Detached from its purely sexual connotations, this rule is about the radical possibilities of pursuing pleasure, satisfaction, and joy through deeply committed play. The clown can get herself off in any emotional state, pursuing any kind of activity. This level of visceral, embodied intensity, John Turner explains, can be found “in the depth of torment, in the depth of joy and ecstasy, it can be sexual, it can be a religious frenzy, it can be any of those things, and it can be incredibly mundane.”5

Towards the end of the play, Vooma discovers deep pleasure whilst embodying a venus fly trap. The plant has an insatiable hunger for flies (represented by shoes) and licks her lips voraciously whilst eyeing the footwear of the audience. Every time an audience member throws a shoe into her mouth (the toilet lid), she shouts, “I’M STILL HUNGRY”. This unapologetic pursuit of pleasure is a sharp contrast to previous scenes in the play, when Vooma’s inability to say what she wants prevents her from accessing pleasure. When everyone in the audience agrees to throws their shoes into her mouth, Vooma finally gets herself off, in a moment of delicious, joyful, chaos.

This pursuit of pleasure is intensely useful to the feminist clown, as it allows her to dispute notions of pleasure as frivolous, irrelevant or “unfeminist”. In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Adrienne Maree Brown links “the connection between tuning into what brings aliveness into our systems and being able to access personal, relational and communal power”. Exploring the politics of pleasure offers the feminist clown a way to, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, “make the revolution irresistible”.

DANCING IN THE CHAOS

“Thank you all for coming to this eulogy for my unborn … selves.”

After discovering the pregnancy test is positive, Vooma invites the audience to a eulogy for her unborn selves. Vooma gathers all the flowers and, one by one, drops them into the toilet whilst considering her future selves: “I am 40 and have at least half of my student loans paid off.” “I am 55 and sleeping like a baby on a California king sized bed next to a woman who I am madly in love with.” Once the toilet bowl is overflowing with flowers of her future selves, she cradles the precious bouquet in her arms and smells them deeply. This poetic consideration of her choices, combined with her discovery of wild, uninhibited pleasure, transforms the space from a single stall bathroom into a cosmic space. Dancing in this chaos, her body expanded by the neon glow of blacklights, Vooma explores the possibilities of her past, present, and future selves. Brought back to reality by a knock at the door, she takes her flowers, and dances out of the bathroom, confident in her choice.

While many of the topics explored in Stigma, Pistil, and Style, make both Erin Pettifor and I seethe with rage and frustration, in our experience, laughter is often the only sane response to the absurdities of a patriarchal world. Our ability to create collective laughter allows us to look hopefully towards the future. Contemplating feminist futures, Elaine Aston and Geraldine Harris write:

"essential to any sort of feminist politics has always been the idea that the ‘future’ is a question, is in question: is not necessarily determined by the past or the present. Rather, then, our desire is for a feminism to move forward with, or to keep us moving forward”.6

The clown’s ability to go for the unknown, to use imagination as a way of planning and rehearsing for revolution, offers a strategic approach towards creating feminist futures. Considering new possibilities and enacting them onstage best describes the aims of feminist clowning. Through the liminal, critical, and playful elements of clown, the possibilities of feminism can be materialized.

1 Throughout my graduate thesis and in this article, wherever possible, I use she/her pronouns to refer to clowns. You will notice that other scholars like Delphine Cézard use the French word “clowne” or “clownes” to denote female clowns. However, Cézard observes that the word “clowne” “falls short … of any proposed oral change leaving women still subject to invisibility” in the art form. My use of she/her pronouns is not to exclude non-binary clowns, nor to discount men from the realm of feminist clowning. Rather it is a conscious experiment in looking for a feeling. What does it feel like to centralize the feminine in an investigation about clowning? See Cézard, Delphine. “Are Female Clowns Politically Incorrect? A Case Study on Female Clowns’ Political Engagement at the 7th ‘Esse Monte de Mulher Palhaça’ festival in Rio de Janeiro.” In: Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia, vol. 9, no. 1. Uberlandia 2020, pp. 29–46.
3 Quoted in Peacock, Louise: Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance. Bristol 2009. p. 33.
4 Quoted in Lane, Julia: Impossibility Aside: Clowning and the Scholarly Context. Dissertation. Simon Fraser Universität 2016. p. 5.
5 Ibid. p. 37.
6 Aston, Elaine / Harris, Geraldine: „Feminist Futures and the Possibilities of ‚We‘?“ In: Feminist Futures? Theatre, Performance, Theory. London 2006. p. 1–16.

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