Since last Tuesday, I’ve been involved in an online conference with a community of incredibly creative and fun performers. Including presenting a lecture on working as a comedic performer during the Christmas season as well as leading a discussion on comedic performance and clowning in social media.
I also took part in several “coffee talks” about the state of the union for clowning and family entertainment, including discussing the aging demographic that is found within the major organizations and trying to understand the reason why younger members are not seeing the need to join them.
We also had a discussion of social issues, including race, religion and identity in clowning and how the generational divide could be presenting a barrier to entry. What I witnessed over the past few days hinted at why the younger entertainers might not find the organizations necessary.
I will first indicate the caveat that I have not been a member of any of the major international clown organizations for almost two decades. In the early 2000’s my business model changed and I was focused on different areas, while I kept my “feet wet” in clowning by lecturing, performing and attending different conferences over the past two decades, my needs moved beyond what either of the two organizations were providing at the time.
I will also note that many of the people associated with the Boards of Directors in both organizations back in the early 2000s ARE STILL THERE.
I will also note that of the 20 people on the Board of Directors, I only regularly witnessed 8 members in attendance throughout the week…most members of the BoD WERE in attendance during the Annual General Meeting, final banquet and the few sessions DIRECTLY related to the organization and it’s operations itself…but many were MIA throughout the rest of the conference…
One has to ask if these are only symptoms?
Just prior to the conference, a young clown published a post on a clown discussion page, asking clowns what they are doing to reflect society’s ever changing values and what they are doing to grow and evolve. This clown has over 30,000 followers on social media and her honest and delicately framed question was met with derision, anger and her being blocked and banned for the sheer temerity of asking clowns to reflect on how they are changing with the times.
Further leaders in the field who have a keen eye on the future of clowning and comedic family entertainment opened up noting an ongoing history of gatekeeping younger clowns who have questioned the long held traditions didactically clung to by the organizations.
Even during the conference itself, there was a brief flurry of postings about appropriate dress for the final banquet. The organizers and the president, noting that only a precious few presenters appeared in clown for the conference, commented that attending in clown would be a fun way to celebrate being clowns. This was echoed by a few other members of the Board of Directors who also commented that it would be the first time they have been in clown for months, if not over a year. However some of the older generation “harrumphed” and stated that the banquet was formal because of tradition. No matter how many times people reminded them that this particular conference was FAR from a traditional conference…
The clowns won out in the long run. People had fun, the organization lives on and the world didn’t end.
However this only highlighted to me that there is a serious problem within the world of organizational clowning that is gatekeeping the younger generations. This is an issue that I have battled since I attended my first convention in 1995. Not everyone is like this, goodness knows I wouldn’t have remained in organizational clowning as long as I did and would not continue to attend conferences. But if they only knew the nastiness, the ego, the self-serving ideologies, and much more that the clowns of my generation and younger have experienced, their heads would spin.
It’s hard enough taking flack from non-clowns given recent movies and pop culture references to Pennywise, John Wayne Gacy and “killer clowns.” It’s even harder getting flack from PEOPLE WITHIN OUR OWN SHARED interest. Telling us that we’re not “real clowns” because our costumes and appearances don’t conform to competition rules and they may deal with more “adult” humor.
Would the same people say that to Avner Eisenberg? To Bill Irwin? To Patch Adams? To Iman Lizarazu?
The younger clowns may not look like what the organizational clowns from the 1980s through to the early 2000s looked like. Their humor may not reflect that either – is “Ring Ring” STILL relevant in an age where everyone carries a communications device in their pocket? But keep in mind that the younger generation HAS studied the history of clowning, including the Minstrel Show roots of modern characters AND acts, combined with commedia dell’arte AND clowning in other, non-European cultures…
Many of these younger clowns were born in an era where most homes had a computer and many homes had internet access. Their life experiences ARE different from those of us in the older generations and the organizations need to understand that.
The information which we originally relied on the organizations and deep dives into libraries is now readily available AND updated online. Not to mention resources from around the world not easily available to North American clowns until recently.
The younger generation IS well versed in the history of clowning, they are incredibly knowledgeable in the traditional skills of clowning, they ARE well versed in what the old traditions were AND trying to bring those traditions that remain relevant today forward and leaving the ones that should remain in the past, firmly in the past.
They also know that the old circus-style “full coverage” makeup designs used to emote to the balconies of hockey arenas and tents large enough to hold three rings are no longer necessary and, yes, perhaps may be off putting to modern sensibilities…even Ringling Brothers clowns were moving to a “softer,” “more human” look before the circus folded.
Part of what I taught in the conference was explaining how the younger generation is taking clowning as an artform to social media and ran a quick class on Zoom, TikTok, Instagram, Twitch and Facebook Live as potential venues for clowning. Many entertainers during the time of COVID restrictions realized that they could still practice and perform by pivoting online and looking at “virtual tip jars” like PayPal Me and Venmo as ways to support their performing activities…I won’t even dive into Patreon here…
One thing that was mentioned throughout the conference was that the online presentation and communications leveled the playing field. People were not able to hang out in their cliques and everyone who wanted to contribute to the open conversations and questions could. During one of the open chats, a member noted that at a past convention, they felt excluded from many groups and conversations because they were new and until someone who was well known and somewhat respected in the organization introduced them, was never made to feel welcome.
What was agreed in this discussion was that this cliquish behavior needs to stop, and people need to be more welcoming at the conventions, particularly to those who are new and – yes – look and act different.
Heck if a queer, middle-aged, tattooed and pierced pagan musician can be accepted at a clown conference…It just shouldn’t take “knowing the right people” and “fitting the mold” to be welcomed.