I am determined to restore a centuries-deep cultural association with the word “clown.” I want to move us away from its latest turn of horror and return to one of positivity, reverence, and medicinal quality.
Actor Donald O’Connor planted the seed of my mission when he told (er, sang) me to “make ‘em laugh!” Throughout thirty years of my performance training and career centered around theatrical clown technique, I’ve struggled with O’Connor’s directive for at least two reasons. One obstacle is the laughter itself: to make someone laugh means that one must laugh at me. My work to welcome that laughter, onstage and off, provokes a mind-body dissonance that often gets in the way.
What an undesired prospect, to be the recipient of a laugh, says the thorny misnomer deep down in my cells. By the time I learned to read, I already understood and agreed to the invisible social code that laughter = bad. Being laughed at is a nightmare for many, not unlike the dream of arriving at school or work in the nude. I’ve witnessed the same frightening internalization for my niece who, as of grade school years if not earlier, started wilting in response to our familial, loving laughter whenever she’d make an unintended funny.
As I grew, no one explained the physical phenomenon of laughter to me. I lacked an interpreter of those bubbly sounds to reassure me of their delight and appreciation. I missed that type of guidance until my early twenties when it arrived cloaked in the form of a mask and clown coach, and in several clown experts thereafter. They surely would’ve told me sooner that I held a lot of power as one who initiates laughter.
Instead, I was left to my own logical devices and causal associations. The more I witnessed laughter in response to innocent mistakes (on TV with America’s Funniest Home Videos and countless scripted shows, in passing conversations, anywhere), the more critical my internal voice grew. Projecting my internal/intrapersonal thoughts (i.e. “how stupid of me”) onto the intention of those laughing (i.e. “they think I’m an idiot”) has been a recipe for trouble, lots of misunderstanding, and a natural inclination to avoid public/interpersonal laughter.
…to be continued…