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What does it mean?

'If you mention 'clown', most people think of big, silly characters, make-up, coloured wigs and big shoes.  This is not the type of work we are doing at all.’ (Tim Licata, Plutot la Vie)

Clowndoctors from Hearts&Minds; Photo: Rod Stewart

A clown today is one of various types of comedic performers.  Not every clown is readily identifiable by appearance alone, though visual stimuli including costume and make-up still have an important role in clown shows.  The comedy itself also has a great emphasis on the visual and physical, though this can range from slapstick to sinister.

In anthropology, the ‘clown’ functions as an entertaining social critic.  ‘The clown is the most complicit character. It is the slightly fumbling aristocrat, the person dancing like a fool at the edge of all risk. The clown is the character who engages our sympathies, who speaks for us, who says and does the unspeakable, the undoable -- and, in doing so, becomes a lightning rod for our emotions’. (Harriet Rubin, Fast Company)

Clowning as theatre performance

Clowning has always had a comfortable seat under the giant-umbrella term ‘physical and visual performance’.  Total Theatre Network is a UK body for this broadly defined artform, which it takes to include other circus performance, dance theatre, mask, mime, puppetry and street theatre.

It is difficult to be more precise as there is no absolute definitition of what constitutes each clown type. 

Walt and Dustin, A Clean Sweep 2004; Photo: Douglas Robertson International performers encompass an extremely wide range of styles.  Furthermore, classical and modern variants of clown types exist, as well as a range of different styles and presentations.  In recent years there has been a move to greater audience participation.

Current activity

To demonstrate the range that clowning can reach, you needn't look further than this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme for some examples:

  • The Acrobat by Concrete Temple Theatre: On his magical journey, an Italian postal worker encounters an army of record players, a dancing suit, a mysterious clown and the orange princess.
  • Strange Games by Soccorso Clown: A metaphysical comedy, created by internationally acclaimed artist-clown Vladimir Olshansky, who has toured with Cirque du Soleil and founded Soccorso Clown (the 'Hospital Clowns') in Italy. Its language is poetry and dreams, depicted with mastery, humour and intelligence.

  • The Factory by Fringe First winner Al Seed (Hoax Productions, and the Arches' artist in residence through partners).  Clown, dance, stand-up and an explosive electro soundtrack in a brutal, hilarious tale about war, greed, torture and you.

Al Seed in 'Mitosis', Hoax Productions; Photo: Karen Wilkinson

  • Painters by Next on Theatre: Set on a building site, extreme stunts, breaking laws of gravity, building rhythms from everything around. Laugh at three natural clowns, be amazed by stunning acrobatics and join in the fun with audience participation.

The Total Theatre Awards 2006 recognise the best examples of physical and visual theatre/performance at the Fringe 2006.   Clowning will be considered alongside physical and devised theatre, live art, visual performance, mime, street arts, circus arts, new variety, dance-theatre and puppet-theatre.  The awards will be announced on 24 August.

Fiona Colliss will be presenting her one-woman clown show in Mull this summer.  Read more about her in this month's profile.

* Clowning
* Profile of Fiona Colliss
* Hearts&Minds
* Children's International Theatre Festival
* Dance Base
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