the yoga of clown

stupbw2-lowOne of my friendships that grew out of the MAKE SURE IT’S ME project is with Whitney Willman, whose professional work has focused lately on yoga instruction for veterans with various forms of trauma, including physical injury, TBI, and PTSD. Our discussions about using various complementary approaches to heal trauma let me to share with her my passion for European-style clowning. Unlike the Barnum & Bailey style which often focuses on the payoff of a funny gag, the clowning I pursue is about seeing the world freshly through the eyes of a pre-socialized creature. The clowns I unleash in classes and workshops have more in common with young dogs, toddlers, and people on the autism spectrum than with birthday party entertainers (or serial killers driving ice cream trucks in our paranoid fantasies).

Studying clown requires the performer to slow down their mind and look at or listen to or feel or smell one thing at a time. I mentioned autism because autistic people often feel sensory overload due to inability to prioritize which stimuli to attend to and which to ignore. A clown is similar: everything is fascinating and new to them and they may value a small piece of debris and a new person onstage in the same degree. They may also need to back off of a stimulus if things become too numerous or intense in their environment. These qualities help us to see the value of people and things in new ways and they also give clown its unique rhythm of notice/examine/share discovery with audience/then react. This is the same rhythm you often see with dogs or small children who might like the box a toy came in better than the toy, and who will also check in with their audience frequently for input on how to react. In clown performances, the audience has the rare delight of being included every few seconds, something that does not happen in fourth wall realism, which has dominated American and European stages (and screens) for the last hundred years or so. And the novelty with which a clown approaches things usually leads to marvelous discoveries: a metal flashlight can be deliciously cold against your cheek; the sounds of the street through the wall are like music and can be listened to for minutes at a time in rapt stillness; a potato masher and a laundry basket can play hide and seek together and the rules of this found game can become surprisingly complex yet completely legible to onlookers. (When teaching I usually leave off the list of sensory interactions “to taste,” not because clowns don’t want to taste things but because it’s wise to discourage students from putting random objects or people in their mouths in the studio, as elsewhere.)

After I described some of this to her, Whitney decided she wanted the chance to learn clown from me. So I’m creating a workshop called Mindfulness through Clown which will emphasize the clown qualities of presence in the moment, curiosity, lack of judgment, and access to joy. I’ll be rolling this out for the first time at Giving Tree Wellness and Yoga in Haverhill, MA, where Suzanne Borgioli will host us.  I’m handling registration, so you may email me at if you’d like to participate. Huge thanks to Suzanne and Whitney for this opportunity! I will report back after the workshop to share what happens.