CLOWNING AND THE IMAGINATION
Article published in December 1996 in "Pratiques Corporelles"
and written by Jean-Bernard BONANGE. Adapted and translated from the
French by Vivian GLADWELL.
The approach to clowning we have developed over the last 15 years
has important echoes both within the fields of personal growth (Discovering
The Clown Within) and those of social mediation (Clownanalyse -
the modern day Court Jester at conferences and within social and
professional institutions such as businesses, schools and hospitals).
In our workshops we have people from a wide range of professional
and social backgrounds, of all ages, with or without previous experience
of the theatre.
Many continue working with us over the years because they find
the freedom and playfulness of the work becomes vital for them.
Without doubt, clowns are in vogue in our modern society, perhaps
because their eternal optimism in the face of failure, or their
na´ve way of living life to the full counterbalances neatly the
dominant value system of a society that praises efficiency, success,
achievement and productivity.
Clowning as we practise it consists of improvisations on a stage
and as such is a form of theatrical expression. Drama games, mask
work, psychodrama or drama-therapy are all various forms of theatrical
expression. For us however, the clown is more than a character or
a convention within the theatre. The clown represents a vehicle
or catalyst that facilitates the theatrical expression of the imagination.
This I shall now explain with reference to the role of the "imagination"
Though we recognise our work has therapeutic effects, we do not
define it as a therapeutic activity but rather as a theatrical activity
within which the clown - as mediator - is at the service of those
who wish to "find themselves" on stage (in both senses
of the word). The role of the clown as mediator comes from using
the clown's nose which as a mask unmasks our inner self. To bring
our clown to life requires that we bring ourselves and our "imagination"
into play. This defines our approach to the clown - it is the imagination
in action. Or as Henry Miller says: The poet in action.
I shall now look at the imagination in action in the context of
child development and of clowning.
The child's symbolic play
From the age of three on, we have all "played at" being
someone or doing something imaginary - this is symbolic play. Although,
as children, we knew clearly the difference between a "real"
and an "imagined" situation - we would act "as if"
that fictitious imagination was present and real. Philip Malrieu
calls this theatrical act a "self-directed hallucination".
In clowning, we rediscover that same child-like sense of playfulness
which allows us, with fear and pleasure, to open the door to our
In the imagination everything is possible ...... and gives the
child that much needed space to grow and heal. To Winnicott, the
imagination is a space charged with the possible.
From 1908 onwards, Freud gave definitions of children's play which
we have found useful to our approach to clowning. "In play
the child not only creates action but also images" - "Playing
only partly satisfies the love-wish and the death-wish and as such
is accompanied by repetition." - "The poet and the child
use painful emotions as a source of pleasure".
Winnicott's work took further this understanding of the child's
play and what he says is particularly relevant to clowning. "To
play is to act" - "Playing or creating implies a communication
with the self and with the other, a mutual contribution between
what the world gives the child and what is borrowed from the imagination.
It is a spontaneous act and not constrained."
With all these quotes if you replace "child" with "clown"
you get a fair description of our work. Our approach gives people
a tool for putting their imagination on stage and into action. The
discovery and appropriation of one's imagination is a stimulating
process towards personal development. I mentioned earlier that with
the imagination everything is possible. It is true that on stage
one can play everything .... but only if there are rules which say:
"It's the way you do it, not what you do". Clowning is
a way of doing and of being.
The Clown - an archetypal reference
It is the strange and unique character of the clown which makes
clowning improvisation different from theatrical improvisation.
For us at the Bataclown, the clown is not approached as a technique
in which one submits to taking on an external form (this would be
acting as a clown) but is rather an archetype that one needs to
discover within oneself (this involves finding one's own specific
way of being a clown).
The clown is first of all an archetype - an ever-present mythical
character. And everywhere we appear with our red nose, our audience
recognises the clown. The clown's nose is the smallest of masks
and yet, because of its ability to transform the actor's physical
appearance, it makes that actor "other" in his or her
own eyes and in the eyes of the audience. This little mask is not
only noticeable - red and pregnant as it is - it is also the trade
mark of the clown (more precisely that of the "Auguste"
or "funny man" within the circus tradition) and symbolises
excess, craziness, drunkenness and emotional expansiveness ......
a character visibly lacking self-control and entirely unreliable
- the opposite in fact of society's model of a mature and responsible
When someone is behaving stupidly or inappropriately we might say:
"Stop clowning around !". Even if we sometimes admire
and envy these types of behaviour, they have been so repressed and
devalued that they bring about in adults who do clowning an interesting
state of unease and instability. It is this state of imbalance that
drives the process of creative expression and brings the "imagination"
The red nose lets us challenge our own self-image, destabilises
it and so destabilises us. The red nose invites us to take a step
to one side: it urges us to disentangle ourselves from our self-image,
to leave the well-trodden path of conformity, to assert the positive
aspects of our "sinister side" (from the Latin meaning
left-handed or gauche, the opposite of dextrous). This sense of
the word brings me to what might seem a paradoxical definition:
As a social archetype, the clown is a sinister but likeable character,
a sinister comic.
Finding your clown - a state of being
Clowning is a state of playfulness, of being in play which we could
call "being clown". Our work brings people to experience
a child-like, na´ve and fragile state ...... but also to experience
its opposites through intensity and amplification. Listening and
being receptive is central to this approach - which means one needs
to stay close to one's physical body, to one's feelings and senses.
Those who have experienced our work know this : What is essential
in clowning improvisation is to remain receptive to what our senses,
posture, gestures, actions voice and emotions tell us ..... not
to come on stage with an idea, a plan or a pre-conceived scenario.
We believe listening and receptivity are essential elements in any
creative and imaginative expression. Finding the clown within is
not a mental decision but an inner attitude.
In this context it is important to consider what happens backstage
- in the actor's changing room before coming on stage.
It is a moment of metamorphosis for actors.
With the red nose, actors take on, shell-like, the clothes and
the objects which represent the emerging outer signs of another
life and which begin to structure the actor's body to play its story
.... and while all this is going on the actors seek to empty their
mind before coming on stage ... and, like the tide, they withdraw
to leave space to that unknown which they will meet and bring to
This emptiness is necessary for that state of "serendipity"
(the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident) that will
bring the actor to the clown. Then and only then will our entrance
on stage be like a coming in of the tide, carrying us over and beyond
This approach, I believe, can shed light on what bringing out the
imagination may mean. Michel TOURNIER puts it so well when he says
of creative expression: It is by opening ourselves to feelings,
by listening to the body, to others, to the physical world that
we begin to hear what "screams out its will to exist".
This playful receptivity (or receptive playfulness) allows the imagination
Everyone can learn to improvise. It involves acquiring both an
outer and an inner experience: the outer experience consists of
the techniques and skills that make up the theatre (visibility,
voice projection, etc.) and the inner experience consists of the
sensibility each of us needs to develop to our emotions and our
imagination. This is true for all creative activities.
Reality and the imagination and how they relate to each other
Being a clown is more than a state, it is a movement, a dynamic
process - it is even a two way movement: feet on the ground and
head in the clouds. It is this duality which facilitates the emergence
of the imagination.
Feet on the ground means remaining alert, all senses alive, to
the concrete and objective reality that surrounds us. When we smell,
see, hear, and touch we open ourselves to being touched by the presence
of the world. This presence in concrete reality is the basis for
the clown's imagination. As with the child's symbolic play, the
clown finds at the heart of objects, of bodies, of actions and of
space, a gold-mine upon which to work his or her unlimited imagination.
The anchor of reality represents security and an invitation for
the actor to drift further into the absurd. The clown's way of putting
his or her foot in it (reality) is ridiculous; yet at the same time
it gives the clown a touching sense of poetry, at once comic and
The clown's way of looking at the world reveals a world beyond
what we know of it and beyond what the "known" has hidden
As actors we become channels through which emotions, feelings and
images move and resonate to reveal our selves. By acknowledging
and welcoming what is shared, taken for granted and down-to-earth,
the clown-actor explores the world of the imagination. Objective
reality is the sounding board of the invisible. It is the "Here
and Now", especially the "Here and Now" of the actor's
contact with the audience that sets the imagination free. Clowns
prefer actions to words. They do not think the world but vibrate
to it. The process of clowning involves moving at the edge of two
worlds - that of the imagination and of reality. As we begin to
open to the world and to ourselves it is important that we do not
control, judge or censor what we do or we risk cutting ourselves
off from the world of the imagination (This is true for all forms
of creative expression). In clowning we need to be in a permanent
state of instability. It is when we let go our control over things
that we become surprised by the depth of what emerges.
The imagination - building castles in the air with your feet on
Some of the clowning situations we use in our workshops are set
up specially to facilitate actors to connect to the imagination.
An example of this is what we call "The Interview". Here
the group leader interviews a clown around a given professional
activity as if for a TV or radio documentary (The actor only learns
what his or her profession is during the interview). By giving free
reign to his or her imagination, the actor gradually begins to build
a fictitious persona. The interview is a powerful experience in
the life of a clown-actor and for the group. We are often moved
between tears and laughter as the actor begins to live the part
and gives life to that "fictitious other", different from
and yet so close to the actor. During the feedback that follows
the improvisation, actors often tell us about images, memories and
stories from their own lives which came to them spontaneously whilst
they were on stage.
In the feedback we give actors after their improvisations, we do
not give psychological interpretations of what we see but talk only
of what is there to be seen by all. We stay clearly in the realm
of the theatre. What makes the creative act of expression universal
is that it reflects our humanity and truth.
As mentioned earlier, we take great care to create a secure environment
in our work. Playing is a form of letting go that needs to be structured
around rules that act as safeguards. It is for this reason that
we give special significance to the wearing of the nose, to a clear
definition of the space which represents the stage, to the need
for eye contact with the audience ... and for the actor to remain
"in touch" with the comments and information that the
group leader gives during an improvisation. I often use the example
of kite flying to express the relation between actors and their
audience (the group leader is part of that audience). Just as a
kite needs to be connected to the earth by its thread in order to
fly, actors will be freer to enjoy the thrills and sensations of
flying through their imagination when secured by their grounding
to reality. But kite flying is a subtle art and the group leader
must at times relax his or her hold and at other times tighten it
hopefully in the right proportion so as not to restrict actors in
their flight. The group leader's role during an improvisation is
to "facilitate". One of the ways we do this is when we
point out the visible and concrete facts of what is happening which
actors (who are in the thick of it all) can easily miss.
The Imagination - an act of dialogue
After an improvisation comes a time for reflection and comments
which we call feedback. This gives us (actors or audience) the opportunity
to express what we have lived through and to bring sense to how
the work echoes within us. The group leader's role here is to assist
actors in this understanding and naming of what was played on stage.
Different aspects of the performance are recalled, clarified and
brought into consciousness. How did the characters that appeared
relate to each other? What were the highlights of the drama? What
emotions were expressed? How did actors feel and how did they negotiate
their play together? Did they listen to each other? Did the actors
connect to feelings and images (which in clowning are closely related
to each other) and did they give them free expression?
Actors can also, if they wish, share what moved or affected them.
A theatrical reading of all these elements brings a growing awareness
of and meaning to the work. Thus the expression of the imagination
is truly an act of dialogue. Clowning may be an expression of the
actor's deeper self but what the clown reveals also directly concerns
us as an audience (touching on the great issues of life, love and
death) and can inspire us, move us and become like a mirror held
up to us. Clowning brings a different light to bear on the darker
side of our imagination and dreams(1).
- (1) From our friend Rosine ROCHETTE who refers to Ariane Mouchkine's
work in the field of clowning: :"I'd like to mention something
Ariane advised us to do to find our clown. It was to contact
within us where we fell short of what society expected from
us. It was like finding again the places where you slip up,
where you feel an outsider, doubt your sanity and become unique
... basically something to do with your deep self".
When the monsters within are brought out in broad daylight they
generally become for us and our audience objects of great fun and
pleasure. Through them we can begin to negotiate our self-awareness
and our humanity. Improvisation is for us an act of awareness through
Another thing to mention here is that the imagination also challenges
our relationship to authority, rules and social norms. Creative
or expressive activities define the norms they operate under and
need to negotiate the degrees of originality and unconventionality
they can tolerate. The clown however is a "non-conformist"
by definition and plays a subtle game with rules and social conventions.
In clowning the actor no longer needs to be the responsible, mature,
educated and intelligent person which we all are (of course) but
can become an unruly spirit prone to excesses and a keen explorer
of the edges of things.
Today during one of the improvisations two clowns - two travellers
laden with luggage - came on stage and remained, luggage and all,
transfixed and unable to move. The suspension was wonderful. It
heightened the intensity of their relationship together: in its
conflicts as well as in its moments of real tenderness. It was a
perfect example of how we can exist intensively in suspension.
The clown's toing and froing across boundaries allows actors to
explore and play at the edge of their own limits. In clowning we
go over that edge and come back, but we forgive the clown's transgression
because it flows with grace and style. It is a skilful balancing
act between the imagination and reality that makes this unnerving
teasing of rules, norms and conventions possible.
To conclude, I hope I have made it clear how vital the role of
the body is to the emergence of the imagination. It is never easy
to explain and conceptualise an activity in such a way as to remain
understandable to those who have not experienced it (or even to
those who have). What defines our work at the Bataclown is personal
growth through creative expression. In this, the group leader who
has experience of the process has two roles: to "facilitate"
the emergence of the imagination within the actor and to create
a context where an exploration of the clown becomes possible. This
process combines a rigorous method within a safe environment. It
means receiving and accepting all that becomes manifest (a true
Rogerian approach ....) and to "facilitate" its exploration
through the senses, the emotions and the imagination of the clown.
As group leaders, we stay true to the spirit of clowning when we
flow with the creative process of each person, when we nurture its
emotional expression and the emergence of the imagination (which
is a staging of symbolic acts) and when we facilitate and free actors
to find their own clown, unique and grounded in their relationship
to the audience. Our workshops provide a precious space where we
can skirt playfully round our defences and bring to light hidden
facets of ourselves. This by-road has its hazards but the further
one ventures along it the more pleasure it gives us and our audiences.