Travels in Clownland: Part 4
Being handed the keys to the moment …
On the map of Clownland, we have to now go a bit off to the left, then quite far south, into the country, to a railway hotel decorated with old guns and pictures of football teams.
Lifon Henderson was born into a new-age clown family. He has always been a clown. When asked to define Clown Lifon talked about using your mind and what’s around you to entertain. He talked about a freedom to interact, a freedom that comes from being given permission to be in charge. When I ask if he has ever misused that he said no, instantly, and looked quite shocked.
Lifon said ‘It’s a privilege. There is nothing like that privilege; a room full of people handing you the keys to the moment.’
‘I’m willing to show I’m an idiot,’ he said. ‘I’m no better than anyone. I guess it’s the opposite of bullying – where a bully will tell you “Look this is how it is, I’m in charge, and a fool will say – this is how it is, I’m wrong, you’re in charge.’
WATCH Lifon Henderson mash ‘Seven Nation Army’ by the White Stripes and ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails, accompanying himself on the ukulele – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-2al1y-pKo
I asked ‘Is there any difference between you and who you are when you are performing?’
‘That is one of the biggest things I struggle with; that moment when I finish performing and get out of costume and see that I am no longer allowed to say anything I want. Maybe that’s just my perception but you can’t go up to someone you don’t know and say “hey what’s your favourite song- let me sing you a song and stand here for ten minutes and have a chat and then we’re going to get those people over there to join in”. That’ he paused ‘generally doesn’t happen. And that’s sad.
In any different situation you could be a fly on the wall and there’d be a clown, in every group of people at any moment anywhere – whether they’re being paid or not. But then people want to pay for it as well, and that’s what a clown is, isn’t it? When people start paying for you to do it? Is that when clown becomes Clown? People want to have fun and they’re having an event and they want their event to be fun, or they’re having a party and they want their party to be fun, and the general malaise in society thinks that fun just happens but …’
I interrupted him. ‘Do you agree with that?’
‘Yes, fun does just happen, if you are fun. You know what I mean? Concentrating on making fun happen is not fun, so you have to be it.’
My summary thus far …
Clown is: … a fresh willing idiot … that sees the obstacles in life and makes fun of them … that defuses the tensions, that has been given permission; handed the keys to the moment. They are ‘some serious personnages who through some blunder on the part of a celestial travel agency, landed from the other side of Arcturus, on the wrong planet.’
The odd way a clown looks focuses our attention because it does not fit our facial recognition process. And if some sort of understanding or training is not present then a clown costume does not a clown make.
It’s not about being the best, – it’s about just doing it. If ‘the best’ happens to also happen, that’s ok. If you are willing to take risks then you are in the game.
Build a bridge and get over it, do shows again, and smuggle a pair of clown shoes across a border.
PART TWO: The First Dare
The Clown Shoes, and Boxing Gloves, and the ‘not’ a hula hoop
I was at the airport. I had two suitcases. One held clown shoes. Two pairs of very large, very dirty clown shoes. The other suitcase was packed with toys. They belong to Wacko and Blotto. They have told me that the way to understand clown better is to courier their clown shoes across a border or two.
I said yes.
That means I am going to Brisbane.
I also had a bundle of hula hoops, and a case of things for a show because Rani Huszar has not only dared me to step back up to performing but also helped to arrange a festival in which to do so. It is in Canada. I have said yes. Something about ‘being given the keys of the moment’, the feeling of making a crowd of people laugh. I feel like being a ‘fresh willing idiot’. Whether I can do it is another matter. Maybe the specialists were right? Maybe my smashed foot would not allow me to perform?
I checked them all; cases, bags, hoops, hopes and fears, in at the airport counter.
I wonder if the lady that works for the airline; powdered, immaculate, scented, can smell the clown shoes. I am lucky this is not Schipol airport in Amsterdam, or Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. I wonder if they would be considered a biohazard.
I made it through the x-ray and security machines.
I made it on the plane.
Whether the Clown shoes do or do not make it through is yet to be discovered. God knows what substances they may have absorbed in their time around Wakko and Blotto’s feet, in the caravan.
Or is that just my over active imagination? I’ve never travelled with Clown shoes before. What do they look like in x-ray? There is of course no real danger here. The Clown shoes pose no threat to anyone. Wacko and Blotto just left their shoes behind and need them, but it is a welcome distraction from my real nervousness. Do I still know how to do it; how to get into the zone – that state; Clownland?
I’m taking risks but at least I’m in the game.
Brisbane’s winter is soft. You cannot even really call it a winter; it is a gesture at winter, a few cooler months. Southbank Parklands, just over the bridge crossing the Brisbane river from the city center, is a place where clowns have gone to make a new show, or to work when they are not representing their country at high profile international festivals, royal command performances, or in between winning international prizes for exceptional street theatre.
In the past the administration of the tourist precinct had realized that this was something to be encouraged. They had put in infrastructure to make it easier for the artists to do this- for example a lock-up box in which to store their props and equipment between shows.
This was where I was headed.
As it turned out it was not easy. The administration had changed. There was no longer a place to store gear between shows. Where before there had been a cafe, there was now sprawled a bar blaring out ‘popular’ music.
Street performing is possibly the most rigorous of performance spaces. If the audience’s attention wanders, so do they. If you cannot hold their attention they are gone.
I was trying hard to make it work, so I wasn’t in the moment. I just couldn’t seem to step into the ‘zone’. I just couldn’t seem to overcome the set of circumstances. I was supposed to be earning a plane ticket to perform at an international festival, but I couldn’t even draw a crowd.
I did my best and most difficult tricks and sequences of tricks. The audience seems to want something more so I tried harder, and then tried and tried and tried harder. I did my best to impress with my most difficult hoop manipulations and separations.
It really wasn’t working.
Three Clowns are in a van heading home from performing at a festival. You are driving. You have all had a couple of drinks. You hear a police siren signaling you to pull over. You do. You say ‘What seems to be the problem Officer?’
You hear this. ‘Driver, get out of the car with your hands up.’
You do. You are handcuffed and put in a police wagon. The wagon has windows so you can actually see what’s going on.
Another police car pulls in behind, a police car blocks you in from the front. One blocks the road from the side. There are now four police cars and a police van.
They draw their guns.
The other two clowns are in shock. Where they come from police don’t carry guns. You can see they are sitting there looking at each other with their hands up. You can’t hear them but they are saying to each other ‘Did they tell us to put our hands up?’ ‘No I don’t think so’…’ and ‘what did we do, we haven’t done anything wrong’.
The police shout ‘Passengers, leave the car with your hands raised.’
Inside the car they are wondering ‘how do we open the car door with our hands in the air?
The police get Clown 2 out first and put him in a car by himself. They ask him who he is, and what he does. He is a Clown. He tells them that. The policeman goes back to his car and radio.
Clown 3 has watched too many TV shows and does what he has seen on them – with his hands in the air he steps carefully and slowly sideways in a sort of crab walk, moves over to a police car, puts his hands on the roof and spreads his legs apart, waiting to be searched. He is yelled at and put in a patrol car.
Meanwhile Clown 3 is asked ‘how do you know the other guys?’ He is very nervous. His voice gets higher and faster and he speaks. He says ‘I met them because I’m a clown, and the other guy is a clown, and I met the other because he taught me clown. We’re all clowns.’
The policemen reconvene close enough for you to hear what they say. One policeman says to the other ‘This guy is saying he’s a clown.’ The other nods. ‘This guy says he is a clown too.’ They say ‘looks like we’ve picked up a pile of clowns.’
You can see clown 2 taken out of the police car and led to the van. They open the back. You see them motion to the case which holds his show props. There is some discussion about this.
You watch as he takes out a massive boxing glove, it is nearly as big as he is.
Clown 2 is demonstrating what he uses the massive boxing glove for. It is very, very soft and as he explains this to the policeman he punches him very lightly in the head, to demonstrate that they are not dangerous, and that this is what he does in the show.
You watch him punch the policeman with the massive boxing glove.
And that’s when the doors to the paddy-wagon fly open …
But in the end they say ‘get out of the car, clown,’ and the policeman un-handcuffs you. He says ‘You can go. You’re not the clowns we’re looking for.’
(As told by Fraser Hooper, Shay Horay and Eric Amber, to the Buskers Hall of Fame)
You have just met Fraser Hooper. He was Clown 2 in the episode of the Boxing Gloves. The Boxing Gloves are his. Boxing is his current touring show and it’s played worldwide over the last four years.
Fraser Hooper is a well known international clown and clown teacher who lives in Wellington New Zealand. Two years ago he had a gig at a clown festival in Slovenia, the first gig of a long four month European tour. He needed some new giant gloves which are hard to find where he lives, so he found some online, but not from his usual supplier who were out of stock.
Fraser said ‘I had them sent to my parents house in London where I grew up. I phoned my father the day before I left and he said that they had arrived. I was concerned about their size as this was the main gag in the show but he assured me they were huge and he had already tested them out by punching my mum. (!) The clown festival was the next day after I landed, so there was no room for any hiccups. When I saw the new gloves my suspicions were confirmed, they were much too small, in fact only slightly bigger than any normal boxing gloves.’
He had no choice, he said ‘the festival had bought the Boxing show so I had to take them with me. When it came to the Boxing finale I gave my male audience volunteer his normal size gloves and went to get the slightly bigger ones. There was barely a smile from the audience as I entered wearing them, and then we commenced the fight. Usually the routine is a winner but this was different, it was a real fight and I don’t know how to box. The audience just watched aghast as we slugged at each other hoping that no one would get hurt. I survived and luckily tracked down in time the right size huge boxing gloves before the next gig.’
Another time Fraser had flown to an international festival but was called in to speak to Immigration before he had picked up his bags, and in that time his case had disappeared. He was left with no show equipment. A colleague, David Aitken, drove Fraser to every Vancouver charity shop until he replaced every prop, except the gigantic boxing gloves. The girlfriend of another performer, Janet Guenther, whom Fraser had never met before, hand stitched a brand new pair of gloves.
Fraser said ‘I was blown away. This would have taken her, from my experience, about twenty-four hours of sewing. They were fantastic and also twice the size of my normal huge boxing gloves. It was a wonderful feeling. A week later, after many phone calls, my bag arrived. It turned out a transiting passenger bound for Edmonton had a similar bag and picked up mine by mistake. I would have loved to have seen his face when he opened it.’
Fraser is English but lives in New Zealand and has taught clown in Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Finland, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and at the time of our conversation was teaching in Rovaniemi, the home of Santa Claus. In Rovaniemi you see the aurora borealis up to two hundred nights a year. Northern-most Finland is a long way to go to work.
He said ‘Clown is at its best when audiences witness those golden moments that open their hearts to emotion. I see my craft as trying to get close to these golden moments; they are rare. It involves taking the audience with me into dangerous areas where it might all go horribly wrong. This isn’t reckless behaviour, quite the opposite.’
Frazer dared me to try finding ways to use the hula hoop not as a hula hoop and I added that to my list.
It’s actually not easy to play with the hoop without treating it like a hula hoop, when you’ve been a circus hula hoopist for years. I stumble and fumble, and think too much.
Pat Bath aka Dirty Pat said ‘Good clown shows are really made in front of an audience. You can rehearse and rehearse a show, but find when it is performed to an audience that you don’t react to how the audience responds. With an audience you instantly know. I’ve done shows in front an audience and then completely changed it because I saw how the audience responded. For me I like every moment to count on some level. And the best Clowns are made in front of audiences. You can’t think about it esoterically and go out there and expect it to be good. You’ve got to be prepared to be bad, until you work it out. And as you get older that can get harder. It’s scarier to allow yourself to be bad. You can’t really just start off being good at something.’
He is right. It’s been three years of not doing street shows since my smashed foot. Sometimes I do good. And sometimes I do very not good.
Each day the show changes a bit in response to the audience feedback, in applause or attention, and it feels like the audience is acting as my director. The show takes on a bit more depth, and each day I have to think less and less about the sheer mechanics of what I’m doing and can spend a little more time trying to get close to being in the present, where the magic happens. Like Fraser said, it is a search for the rare golden moment.
I had just finished doing a show. It had been a long day of sweat and sunburn. I was feeling a bit discouraged, wondering what this all about, really? Was I just an exhibitionist? Did I really have anything to offer the world? I had my case on a trolley and a pack of hula hoops over my shoulder, and was headed towards the taxi rank when a woman came over to me.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I just wanted to say thank you.’
She gestured to where her husband stood in the shade with a wheelchair. ‘My daughter has cancer; we’ve just taken her out of the hospital for an outing. She laughed for the first time in ages. Thank you. It’s been really hard to get her interested in anything. And now she’s talking about trying hula hooping.’
I thanked her and impulsively took a small hula hoop from the stack and gave one to her for her daughter. I walked away feeling not quite so tired after all.
There is a difference between showing off, and stepping into a moment that you and an audience can share.
THAT WAS THE LAST INSTALMENT OF CLOWNLAND in Trouble – the book is available at all good, bad and indifferent bookstores now.
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