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  • “Everything seemed new”: Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
  • Laurel Butler (bio)

What do we teach when we teach clown? Over the past several years, I have investigated this question by collaborating with a number of different student communities to develop a basic pedagogy of clown: a set of exercises, along with guiding philosophical principles, offering the novice performer an introduction to theatrical clown-performance technique. My pedagogy is, of course, only one approach to teaching clowning; the fundamental principles are particular to a European model of clown, based on the teachings of French clown masters Jacques Lecoq and Phillipe Gaulier. However, in contrast to Lecoq (for whom clown practice is limited to “talented” or formally trained performers), I am of the opinion that anyone, regardless of age or experience, is quite capable of participating in the practice of clown.

With regards to professional clown work, Lecoq writes:

Most important, this work comes at the end of their two years in the school, when the students are used to investing themselves fully in their playing, used to knowing and showing themselves in front of others. . . . I like this work to be done at the end of the course because you can only be a clown when you have built up an experience of life. In the circus tradition, the clowns are usually drawn from among the older artists. The young ones are working on such exploits as tightrope walking, trapeze or balancing acts which the older ones can no longer manage, so they become clowns, expressing their maturity, their wisdom!


Rather than subscribe to the notion that clowning requires a certain degree of mastery or virtuosity acquired at the end of a long period of theatrical training, I instead maintain that by locating clowning in the authentic body, or framing the clown as self, we actually render it vastly accessible. Theatre theorist and practitioner Julie Salverson shares my perspective. She writes that the work of Lecoq and Gaulier is “highly skilled, (and) takes years to teach. . . . Clown is the final stage of two years of study in both the Lecoq and Gaulier schools, and not many master it. I am convinced, however . . . that this approach to clown has tremendous potential with untrained people of all ages” (2009, 40). I also believe that a pedagogy of clown has much to offer the progressive, critical educator concerned with accessible approaches to education—not merely for students of performance, but for any student in the twenty-first century’s global context.

By reframing clown as a radically accessible mode of engagement, I have found a number of ways in which clowning effectively supports the principles of critical pedagogy outlined in Paulo Freire’s revolutionary text Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). To me, the clown can act as an essentially Freirean student/teacher: critically aware of one’s social conditioning, constructing meaning from inquiry, and bearing witness to the world with humility, empathy, and hope. My hope is that the teaching practices outlined in this essay challenge the notion of individual virtuosity in performance— a notion that, I believe, can actually disempower participants in educational theatre settings.

This essay describes the methodology I have developed to teach theatrical clown: educative tools that I have found most effective, learning objectives for each exercise, and the rationale for [End Page 63] my approach. I believe that clown is not something you learn, but is rather a process of unlearning something—namely, a “mechanistic view of reality” (124). It is about remembering what it was like, as a child, when everything seemed new, a time when we did not know, but found ourselves in a constant process of discovery. As children, this is a natural condition of existence; as we grow older, it becomes a radical act.

Clown as State

The word “clown” suggests a variety of cultural images, from the circus clown to the birthday clown, Cirque du Soleil to Barnum and Bailey, rodeo clowns to Charlie Chaplin to Emmett Kelly. Contemporary ideas of clown are often expressed using nouns, usually referring to a type of character. “Clown” as noun bears particularly significant meaning in terms of the theatre, where it may indicate a specific performance...


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