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It's Not all Red Noses and Face Paint: Modern Clowning in Los Angeles

by Sarah Osman

posted on April 17, 2019

Photo Courtesy: Lys Bui

I sit down in a battered chair in a cramped black box theatre. The lights are focused on four figures stomping on stage, each dressed in a gigantic blue costume that makes them look like deformed blueberries. Their faces are painted blue, and their lips a stark red. One of the deformed blueberries sits on an audience member’s lap. The other three roam the stage as a pack, entangled in one another, leering at the audience. Laughter echoes in my ears and I’m not sure how to react. I remember that minutes earlier the group on stage had been dressed in jeans, explaining to me that they are clowns, and that clowns are now popular in Los Angeles.

This, surprisingly, was not news to me; I first learned of this trend from a friend of mine, who is active in LA’s improv scene. Here, actors are turning to clowning to hone their craft, and increasing numbers of Angelinos are even embracing clowning in its own right. Naturally, I was intrigued and had to find out more, which brought me to that evening in the black box theatre, and later, cramming myself into a metaphorical clown car to learn more about this bizarre world.

A Brief History of Clowning:

If you consider the role of clowns more broadly — including jesters, tricksters, jokers, and fools — these mischievous figures date as far back as ancient Egyptian times. But, the English term “clown” doesn’t come into play until much later, with the first recorded mention appearing in 1560 (the word clown originally meant boor or peasant). Clowns of this era mainly served to mock the relationship between master and servants in theater productions, and were bit players at best.

Clowning, as we know it today, didn't really begin to take shape until the early 1800s, when Joseph Grimaldi, an actor in the harlequinade, debuted a mischievous new version of the clown character. Grimaldi's "Clown" wore face paint, dressed in an outlandishly-colorful outfit, and was essentially the first modern clown. This era also brought the advent of the clown's steryotypical habitat: the traveling circus. (At first, circus clowns primarily served as a way to entertain attendees between equestrian acts, but would later go on to become an integral part of the ensemble.)

Clowns proliferated in 20th century pop culture, starting with Charlie Chaplin's “The Tramp", a silent chap who frequently got into physical trouble, and who would go on to influence an entire genre of clown. The mascot Ronald McDonald became the star of fast food ads in the '60s, and Pennywise, the infamously evil demon of Stephen King’s It, terrified audiences in the 1980s. And this trio of clowns is just the tip of the pop-cultural iceberg.

From L to R: Big Ol’ Puddin’ (Keith McGregor) and Lumpy Feltcher (Andrew Saunders) perform at a show at The Clown School. (Photo Courtesy: Rick Davitt)

More broadly, when you think of clowns, you’re likely envisioning the Red Clown, known for their garish makeup and bright red noses, but there are a few other classical clown archetypes. According to The Clown School of LA’s Chae Chaput, there is “the so-called White Clown, who is superior, bossy, and conceited, and the Auguste, who is downtrodden, sympathetic, and bumbling.” And one can't forget the tramp and its cousin, the hobo clown. Disheveled and dirty in appearance (think ruddy sunburnt cheeks and fingerless hobo gloves), these characters often bear the brunt of jokes in a production.

The new clowns of LA don’t always wear a costume or face paint, but owe much to these early archetypes. Contemporary shows feature a variety of acts, including bouffant, outrageous costumes, acrobats, physical comedy, and even sometimes musicals. According to Chaput, what makes clowning different from the other forms of comedy is the way clowns directly relate to their audience. Clowns feed off of the energy of their audience, so if they fail to get a laugh, they will adjust their routine in order to get one.

But why in LA, and why now? The modern clown community of LA really took off five years ago; Chaput explained that three factors could have affected this: “The Clown School began offering classes more consistently, and lead teachers David Bridel and Zach Steel began developing a following. There is also the theater company Four Clowns, launched by artists who had all studied under David at The Clown School, began making a splash at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. And finally, John Gilkey, a former Cirque du Soleil clown, established The Idiot Workshop, which now has a strong following.”

(Photo Courtesy: Lys Bui)

Chad Damiani, a producer and performer in The Murge (a long-running show put on by John Gilkey’s Wet the Hippo), suggests another theory: the increase in popularity “is partly due to improv creating so many potential students, and the sheer number of venues where people can put [on] shows.” Damiani further explained that there are many different clown disciplines: “Gilkey prefers a primal approach to clowning that is far more abstract. Dr. Brown tends to prefer more traditional clowning, such as wearing costumes. And there is also the traditional clown school, which is clowns as we know it.”

Clowning has also begun to find its way into LA’s comedy schools: The Second City Hollywood offers two clowning classes, both taught by professional clowns. Actors and aspiring clowns are increasingly turning to classes here, at The Clown School, and elsewhere to hone their craft.

Although students of the art of clowning don’t always choose to make the transition to more-traditional theatrical roles, techniques taught can help actors. Joe DeSoto, a former Ringling Brothers clown and current clown in LA, first became interested after watching Cirque du Soleil videos on YouTube. After graduating with a degree in theater, he took a clowning class. He found “clowning to be one of the best tools as an actor. It teaches you to be aware of the audience, which is very important. I love the honesty that it brings. Being honest with yourself and the audience brings natural humor.” Natasha Krasue, a clown and actor in LA, backs this up, “clowning is all about your emotions, and being able to express that. I’ve done all the improv stuff as well, but this is more physical. It’s a universal language, which can help you as an actor.”

While red noses aren't mandatory, this calling card of clowndom is still popular, as seen on a student performing at The Clown School. (Photo Courtesy: Rick Davitt)

Increasingly, the audience for clowning isn’t only other clowns or aspiring actors taking in their classmates acts. “We get an odd mix of older audience members who have a love of live theater, and then younger people who connect with the sense of danger and unpredictability,” explained Damiani. “I feel like clown[ing] has more of a crossover appeal because of the audience connection.”

“There is a counterculture to clown,” Damiani continued. “Improv first felt punk rock, but it’s a magician trick. There is a lot of rules to save you, such as yes and. I think this work is more rooted in taking risks. People judge you as you, not as an actor. We live in a time (as clowns) where you get to be childlike and playful. I think improv lets you play like children, but clowns takes it to a new level.”

All of which begs the question, could clowning become as popular as improv, sketch comedy, or stand-up? “We think it has the potential to become increasingly significant,” Chaput stated. “The likelihood that it would reach an equivalent scale of influence as improv is far-fetched, considering the monumental size of that industry. But clowning can most certainly become ten times larger than it is right now.”

If you’d like to experience this burgeoning trend for yourself, there are a number of venues where one can catch a show in LA: Wet the Hippo is one of the most active communities, and home to the Idiot Workshop, which performs regularly. I came face to painted-blue face at The Clubhouse at Catsby, a clown show that appears every other Sunday. The Troubies (a group of comedians who put on loose interpretations of classic plays and original productions) perform at various venues throughout Los Angeles, and The Clown School puts on a show twice a year.

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