Travels in Clownland: Part 1
“I have learnt that any business that pays more than ten percent, or is conducted after nine o’clock at night, is a dangerous business.” – James Bond, as written by Ian Fleming
1. Taking the piss: the simplest thing, and a warning …
It was late afternoon when I drove down through the hills to the city.
I had been stranded, as it were, away from Clownland for a while, with an injury. I was not really sure how I fitted into the world and I don’t think the world was very sure about me, either. We could best be described as being quite unsure about each other.
I had been injured. I was still limping. In the country town I had ended up in there wasn’t anyone who had known me before “the fall”. I tried explaining what I used to do before I smashed my foot but I found that most people had absolutely no idea what a clown really was, or how many different types of clown there are. This is number three of the three reasons I am embarking on this trip, this quest, as your tour guide.
Patrick Bath, aka Dirty Pat, aka Squeak the Clown, aka Neville, has been more places on the map of Clownland than anyone else I know. This is a good place to start. I asked Pat to explain what a Clown is.
‘It is easier to define clown by what it is not,’ he said. ‘It’s not the way they look or sound or even behave. It’s the way they relate to the situations they find themselves in. The rational, the obvious, the predictable, are not options for the clown. The clown transforms everyday problems, not overcoming them, but transforming them into something strange and wonderful. It is the ability to extract humour, sorrow, or beauty from nothing or less than nothing.
When I asked him about his early experiences of clown he said this: ‘When I was a kid there was this horrible tradition that I grew up with; fat horrible men dressed in a full clown costume with clown make-up, who weren’t Clowns, because it was a country thing and they didn’t have any real Clowns there. And they would just sit there being obnoxiously themselves and throw lollies to the kids, and so a big thing for us when we started doing Clown was to completely change that, because we thought that was horrible. This person that wasn’t attempting to do anything, they were just in a costume like Santa every year.’
‘Do you think that’s got something to do with fear of clown as well?’ I asked. ‘People in Clown costume who have no idea of the intent?’
Pat nodded. ‘Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of it, but in Western society there’s been this rise in Coulrophobia – fear of Clowns – spurred on by films like It and Poltergeist where there was an evil clown under the bed. They’ve been popularised in film. Sometimes when I’m in Squeak the Clown I’ll meet a full Coulrophobe, and you have to be really sensitive to it and just disappear, because they really can’t cope. Usually someone will tell you because someone with Coulrophobia can’t even speak to you, but someone else will say “oh, don’t go near that girl”. I had one recently and for some reason I didn’t disappear, I just went over and took the nose off and she immediately relaxed, but I couldn’t put it back on until I was out of sight. I have a theory about it.’ He lowered his voice. ‘I think it is racism, because Clowns are their own race and because racism is all about not liking difference.’
We walked through his house. One wall was covered by a bookshelf loaded with books and figurines, Clown toys, headdresses and hats. A formal ‘tails’ coat made of plaid fabric and a naval shirt with the epaulettes of an officer hung off each other from the shelves. On the other side of the fireplace stood a four-foot high pink flamingo and behind it leant a surfboard with a picture of Captain America on it. Above a lamp decorated with a print of The Last Supper was an old film poster with a blonde woman and a gun, which stood over a glass box, inside of which was a two-headed chicken. On the wall beside that was a frame containing the corpse of a human-like fish exhibited in sideshows as mermaids. The windows were draped with dark red velvet curtains tied back with eight large gold tassels. Below the window were two tiny toy pianos, one of top of the other, and next to them a glass frame in which was a selection of miniature musical stringed instruments, none of which I could name. Sitting on the table in the corner was an Indian Harmonium with brass knobs and on the wall were ten paintings. By the door was a vase full of plumed kewpie dolls, each one brought home to his wife by Pat Bath from each Agricultural show that ‘Squeak’ had performed at.
I was distracted by Pat Bath’s watch. It was enormous. The watch face itself was wider than his wrist. The winding knob connected by a small chain to the outside of the watch was larger in diameter than my little finger. The watch was held to his wrist by a stitched leather band as wide as my hand. Pat explained that when his mother gave it to him for Christmas his first thought was that his clown ‘Squeak’ could wear it, as he always needed to know what the time was. His mother, he said, was a little offended.
‘There’s a thing clowns do,’ Pat said. ‘They recognise the simplicity, the simplest form of funny, and one of the simplest forms of funny is just things being mis-sized. That’s what a clown does, things that a normal person wouldn’t do, and this is what upsets people sometimes, or disturbs or confuses them on a very simple, basic elemental level.
‘There’s a great Australian thing about “taking the piss”,’ Pat continued, ‘and from the reading I’ve done it harks right back to the indigenous people, who, as a generalism, identify themselves as the comedy people. It is an aspect of them that we, as white Australians, often don’t get. When the first Europeans arrived they had a lot of trouble understanding that the aboriginals, as part of their culture, were taking the piss out of them. When they meet different subgroups, the way they diffuse potentially dangerous situations is by taking the piss. They are really the “make fun” people, so I think to a certain degree part of the Australian character comes from them. Taking the piss is a very Australian thing, and even when I’m talking to the older generations, within a few seconds of meeting someone that I have never met before someone will take the piss in some way.’
I asked Pat to explain taking the piss. It is a very Australian expression, almost a way of life, that you may not be familiar with if you are not from here.
‘It is a shortening of the Australian expression “to take the piss out of” and can often refer to subversion through thinly disguised parody. In a general sense it means to mock, tease, ridicule or scoff at something; to find the soft underbelly of a situation and poke at its hypocrisies and ridiculousness. It is an attempt to deflate false pride. Taking the piss is an aspect of what clown is, even this watch,’ he said, ‘is taking the piss; especially in an age when small is often considered better.’
I followed Pat through to the kitchen where two fringed, red Indonesian umbrellas stood guard over the kitchen table. In front of me was a picture of three men in whiteface makeup, their heads sticking up out of white buckets which had been placed upside down around their necks, like you’d put on a dog to stop it biting itself. This is The Dirty Brothers. One of them is ‘Dirty Pat’. In the video that Pat showed me later The Dirty Brothers danced slowly across a stage spread with set mousetraps, in bare feet, and wearing the aforementioned white buckets, to the music of Zorba the Greek. Then one of them staple-gunned flowers from a lei to his bare chest and danced a reluctant hula to the sound of a musical saw, and the other put an elbow in a dingo trap, and then showered in the sparks from an angle-grinder. The Dirty Brothers are dark clowns.
Patrick Bath is what you might call a multi-functioning clown. I could probably fill this book just with his thoughts on the subject, but then you would never get to see any more of Clownland. One of Pat’s suggestions for the next step of this journey you and I are on is Rani Huszar.
‘She’s a genius because she is a pin-up gorgeous girl and she goes and takes the piss out of herself at any opportunity, like she has no awareness of how people see her. Either that or she is taking the piss out of being the gorgeous pinup. It’s brilliant.’
The room in which I was to sleep was full of things too. In one corner was a pile of drum-kit hardware, a ‘singing’ saw, a djembe, congas and a piano which had about fifty different things piled in a jumble of pictures, hats, feathers and froth on top.
Against the wall leant the wings and tail of a gargoyle. In an open box sat a Japanese Geisha wig, and the stack of boxes it sat on contained more wigs. An old fashioned Berlini keyboard, a synthesizer, ukuleles, a valve amp, concertina, amplifier, drum kit, a case full of percussion instruments, a glockenspiel, another harmonium, a Mariachi bass, more ukuleles, more keyboards, a couple of swans, an electric guitar, acoustic guitars, a sitar, a film screen, a couple of eight-track digital recorders, paintings and posters from The Dirty Brothers recent season at the Opera House, and a few more suitcases, still somehow left ample space for a bed.
Pat was about to close the door when he paused and said, ‘You know there is the risk that if you dissect something like Comedy, or Clown, too much, you might learn about it, but you’ll never put it back together in exactly the same way …’ and then he said good night.
I don’t want to end up with pieces of clown scattered all over the floor that I don’t know how to put back together. But that’s not what worries me the most.
2. My coffee theory and an early digression
The next step was in the end accidental, and a digression, but essential.
From years of being on tour to international festivals I had ended up with a habit of drinking coffee out, at a café. It is a reassuring ritual when you wake up in a hotel room in a strange country, and the habit has stuck with me because you can end up in some odd conversations.
Back in the real world, waiting to meet with Rani Huszar, I went out for coffee and ended up in conversation with the two men – an acquaintance and his boyfriend – at the next table. They asked what I had been doing and I explained my quest; this clown trip you and I are on.
Tommy Brogden and Paul Dunn aren’t clowns, but what they had to say is quite interesting.
‘I really don’t know what Clown is, and that’s why I like them,’ Tommy said. ‘There was a significantly terrifying scene with …’ his words picked up pace, ‘a toy clown that comes to life and tries to eat this boy.’
‘So for you a clown image brings up TV and film horror?’ I asked.
‘It’s not fluffy-lovey, but I think there’s value in anything that breaks through the routine sense of normality that we put up because it is completely fake, and yet we stick to it tenaciously, for stability and stuff, as if that is how things should be, and anything that shakes that up is good,’ said Tommy. ‘In the city I think Drag Queens are taking the place of clowns. Years from now they’ll be having transvestites at kids parties instead of Clowns. Clowns have become so normalised, so accepted, that that’s what they’ll have to start doing. They have the same exaggeration of form.’
Tom’s friend Paul put down his coffee and said, ‘There’s been a lot of research recently into the way that people recognise faces; the eyes have to be placed just so, and the mouth has to be a certain shape and proportion. I definitely think that facial recognition is an important part of the Clown because it makes us have to focus and actually pay attention and engage with it on a level that we don’t take for granted. When you look at the brain, the eyes are just a small pair of nuggets sticking off the brain itself, and the brain is given over to neural processing and a lot of that is facial processing, because we are social creatures, and when we see people with an exaggerated face we have to stop and stare, the same as when we see people who are a little androgynous. We stop and stare because we can’t classify them immediately.’
‘What do you do that you know about this sort of thing?’ I asked.
‘My formal training is in Computational Biology and Artificial Intelligence,’ he said. ‘Modelling biological processes is where you get an understanding of how things change over time. What I study is how things change; how new ideas evolve with populations in a genetic basis, and sometimes in an ideological basis. It is like a virtual garden; you just play with things you can grow, and sit back and watch them all.
‘Facial recognition has been a huge thing. For my thesis I modelled small brains and I created an evolutionary algorithm that created these brains about ninety neurons, about the same size as a pea. I figured they would be good enough to apply themselves to certain tasks very well. The task I applied them to was facial recognition. So from an image that was a fragment of a face I managed to get those ninety neurons to pick it up about ninety percent of the time. The brain is really well-geared towards facial recognition and picking up these small pieces and extrapolating the full picture, but when it deviates from that focus is required, and I think that is what the clown does and what the shaman does. It takes that step outside our everyday interactions with people and makes us think more in the process.
‘What I’m curious about,’ Paul continued, ‘is the clowns themselves. Whether they ever stop and take the make-up off. I always thought it was like, you can wake up one day and you’re a clown, but not many people wake up and realise they are not a clown. And becoming a clown? It is almost a “coming out” story, the process of realising you’re different. It is almost a comedy show, with the clown describing the way they came out to their parents as a clown. You know, “my parents wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor but I went to Clown school instead”.’
They asked about my interest in Clown, and I explained. Part of my explanation involved the theory that a clown always says yes, or else the game is over. Paul found this interesting.
‘There’s a theory that the conscious mind is only capable of an inhibitive process; to say no. So the sub-conscious mind generates the ideas and the conscious mind says no to the bad ones. The sub-conscious mind will go back, develop a new idea and bring it forward to get permission or not. So you are never actually generating new ideas by thinking consciously, you are only examining ideas for whether or not you want to progress with them. So the idea that a clown always says yes is a form of channeling the subconscious directly out onto the stage.’
Back at home I researched this further. Apparently we have these “latent inhibitors” which help to filter out the irrelevant information around us and allow us to focus on something whilst being amongst other stimuli, like reading a book on a train.
Creative people are creative because their latent inhibitors are less effective and allow stimuli in for the brain to process into a creation. But if the individual is unable to balance the latent inhibitors and focus, they can’t get anything done.
Wiki explains Latent Inhibitors thus: “Most people are able to ignore the constant stream of incoming stimuli, but this capability is reduced in those with low latent inhibition. … Those of above average intelligence are thought to be capable of processing this stream effectively, enabling their creativity and increasing their awareness of their surroundings. Those with less than average intelligence, on the other hand, are less able to cope, and as a result are more likely to suffer from mental illness and sensory overload. It is hypothesised that a low level of latent inhibition can cause either psychosis or a high level of creative achievement, or both, usually dependent on the individual’s intelligence. When they cannot develop the creative ideas, they become frustrated and/or depressive.”
So … Clowns have low latent inhibitors, and the sub-conscious and the conscious cannot both be present when working on a problem. The sub-conscious can only do its job when the conscious is not actively engaged on the problem.
3. A Fresh Willing Idiot
In the city the traffic was thick and the cars were a torrent of headlights coming towards me. When I saw a shape that looked like the van I was waiting for, it was escorted by flashing police lights signalling it to pull over. The van stopped beside me, the police car behind it. One officer got out to talk to the driver, then gestured at me to get in the van.
It was lucky I didn’t bring much with me because the van also contained a quite a few suitcases, a square glass box about the same size as a hatbox, and a bundle of pieces of metal. A man in a dinner suit and bow tie was asleep in the back seat.
Rani, laughing that the police had signalled her to pull over exactly where I was waiting, kissed me hello, then pinned up her thick, long, shiny black hair. She smoothed her 1950s flowered silk cocktail dress and passed me a sparkly pair of high heels, which she had just taken off, saying ‘can you put them in the back for me?’ She said ‘Don’t mind Romeo,’ and I realised that the man in the back seat was not her partner Daniel Oldaker, but the life-sized figure that she dances with in one of her shows. We drove off down St Kilda Road.
This is Rani Huszar, aka Ruby Rubberlegs. We were driving to Adelaide.
Once we left the city behind us I asked her what she thinks of when she thinks of Clown.
‘I think of a fresh, willing idiot who is in the moment,’ she replied.
It was raining lightly. Ahead there was a long deep puddle on the side of the road and the car in front threw up a wave as it sped past us. She leaned forward and switched the wipers on. A truck veered past us round a curve, veering over onto our side of the white line.
Rani said, ‘a clown is an individual character, so when someone copies someone else’s clown, or is taught someone’s traditional routine, unless they are a particularly good actor, it is not going to work, because there are elements of the person that is missing. A clown is a ripped back, raw, individual idiot. They are so revealed that they are completely vulnerable.’ She laughed, ‘Having said that, I hate insecure clowns.’ And she laughed again.
‘So you don’t define it as circus clown?’ I asked.
‘I hate circus clown unless they have that that fresh willing idiot thing. There are some people that are total clowns, but they would never get on stage. And then there are a lot of clowns I’ve seen on stage that don’t have an inkling of clown in them, and they are doing clown routines and you just want to punch them because they don’t have clown in them.’
I put forward the theory suggested in the previous chapter, that drag queens are the new clown.
‘No,’ said Rani. ‘Drag queens are the oldest clown. It’s always existed. It always used to be men that played women, and guys playing women has always been funny, because they are bigger and more awkward, and clumsier. A guy can’t really be a woman without being ridiculous. They can be all the wrong stuff about women. They have permission to do that. Women have always been sexualised, and part of what is funny is to see that being broken down by a great clumsy ape trying to play a sexualised creature. If you go back in every possible culture, even in Polynesian culture, it is a traditional thing; there is a role for a man who pretends to be a woman.’
Suddenly there were big trucks, the road had been split in half by road works, there was a confusion of lights, stop signs and diversions, and Rani concentrated on her driving.
‘In Polynesian culture in each village it’s common for a man to be chosen from a young age to be trained as a woman,’ she continued once in the clear. ‘He will live his entire life as a woman and he is a central character and like an “agony aunt” who people can tell their problems to. His job is to keep the joy there. You should talk to Fez about that.’
Rani’s first shows were snake dancing, sideshow, tightrope walking, and belly-dancing. She said, ‘Somewhere along that road is where I started to fall in love with the idea of just making people laugh. All my ideas, my driving forces, are always really simplistic. I just want people to feel the happiness I feel. I like the colour and the flamboyance of things, and I just want people to experience that. I want people to laugh. I just like the sound of people’s laughter. Laughter is better than applause because laughter is such an honest reaction.’
We drove on through the night and eventually passed a town that took half a minute to drive through, half way between Adelaide and Melbourne. In the middle of it was a shop with flashing lights that were six different colours, and then the town was gone. A quarter moon had just emerged from behind clouds and then we were driving down an Avenue of Honour; the long row of trees that line the road out of town, each one planted for a soldier that didn’t arrive home from a war.
It was three o’clock in the morning when we drove into the centre of Adelaide. We parked alongside Rymill Park and got out of the van and stretched and looked around. We could hear music. There were coloured lights strung in trees on the other side of a big fence. A security guard stood waiting beside a doorway. Rani showed him her passes and he nodded and waved us through. We walked down a long crooked hallway made of doors, open to the sky. It opened up into a big enclosure where there was music and a hundred people danced, and a hundred more stood around the bar, drinking and laughing and talking and smoking. Beneath my feet there was a wooden floor. Above my head was a canopy of leafy branches. We had arrived at the Artists Bar of the Adelaide Fringe festival.
On the stage was a tall and very beautiful man dressed in a sequinned gown, high heels, a wig, and a carefully groomed beard and sideburns. He is obviously a trained dancer. This is Fez Faanana.
Fez is a founding member and creative director of the male burlesque company ‘Briefs’ who, he said, are inspired by pop culture, the artistry of drag, the guts of circus, the showmanship of burlesque, and the traditions of theatre.
In media interviews Fez has explained that he is of an era of short attention spans and multiple, fast-paced stimuli, and inspired by the epic music videos of the eighties and nineties, the irreverence of comedians, and Samoan culture, which has strong elements of clowning and is energetic and boisterous.
‘I began performing,’ he said, ‘as a little immigrant islander with a dance group made up of a few fellow Samoans, on the outskirts of Brisbane. And by outskirts of Brisbane I mean Ipswich. We Samoans can be very robust and proud of our culture, and this was also true of my family. My parents were very insistent on keeping our culture alive through the creativity of dance and music. I am tone deaf, so dance was naturally my forte. I was also lucky enough to go to a high school that had some great teachers who were very supportive of my creative work both in and out of school.’
On stage he is strong, graceful, masculine, feminine, and very funny. The comedy comes from a blatant confident honesty about himself and the world around him.
In Wiki I found the traditional Samoan cross gender clown defined as “Fa’afafine”. It is hard to pronounce, but probably a word we should know better. Fa’afafine are a third-gender people of Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. They are an integral part of traditional Samoan culture. Fa’afafine are male at birth, and have both masculine and feminine gender traits. The prefix fa’a means “in the manner of”, and the word fafine, means “woman”. This third gender is not “drag queen”, and it is not considered homosexual or gay. It is simply a gender unto itself that recognises the natural instincts of the person concerned, and what makes them happy.
And isn’t that, after all, what we all want – to be happy?
NEXT ISSUE: The Garden of Unearthly Delights and ‘jizzing the gag’.
Potty Mouth, produced By Upswing Arts, created and performed by Patrick Bath, is on as part of Melbourne Fringe, 15 September – 2 October 2016 – melbournefringe.com.au
Judith Lanigan is the daughter of a journalist and a detective. She studied her circus specialty – hula hoops – at the Moscow State Circus School and documented her experiences in A True History of the Hula Hoop, published by Picador in 2009. This series is extracted from her latest book, Clownland, released by Aerofish Media in August 2016 – judithlanigan.com.au