No Nose is Good Nose

A conversation with the two clowns behind the London Clown Festival.

by Chris Cresswell

No red noses (nearly), no funding, no rip off ticket prices, no nonsense, it’s the first London Clown Festival and it is a very good thing.

I spoke to organisers Dan Lees and Henry Maynard today to find out a bit more about the thinking behind setting up the event and discover that they’re very serious about shining a spotlight on the art of the clown and in the process perhaps rescuing and rehabilitating the very word itself.

They have recognized that the clown is beginning to have an impact on the comedy industry. In a world wearily awash with production line stand ups and formulaic comedy shows, the occasional clown is standing out and getting noticed. Think award winning Dr Brown, and favourite of the moment Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face and then of course there’s Sasha Baron Cohen, oh yes, he went to clown school, being possibly the most successful alumnus of the fashionable Lecoq clown training school in Paris.

But just as there are more and more new clowns creeping into the arena so it becomes apparent that they need a somewhere to meet and exchange ideas, a common ground, and I’m not talking about the annual Bognor Clown Convention, bless it, these are the new clowns, clowns without faces.

So Henry and Dan decided to give all these clowns a space to come together by holding a festival. Brilliant. In London. Excellent! In a tent by a car park in Manor House! Weird! And then onto Edinburgh for the fringe…. wonderful!

Their other expressed desire seems to be to attempt to reclaim the word clown from the world of circus and ancient vaudeville, to redraw the frame. To educate an audience so that when they hear the word ‘clown’ they don’t immediately start to gag, so that the word does not automatically summon up the vision of a frightful bewigged monstrosity capering around a circus ring in huge shoes throwing buckets of water at other mad people as they attempt to elicit a laugh from traumatised children, no wonder there’s a medical term appended to the fear of clowns, it’s called coulrophobia. It seems the appropriate response nowadays to the mention of the ‘C’ word is to say “Oh I hate them” Which is not good or useful or even fair. Clowns are brilliant as long as they are not trying to be clowns and these two have gathered together a selection of some of the most interesting and diverse clown shows around, some new, some which have been seen before but all have something hopeful to say about this new state of clown being.

Clowns have been with us in various guises since we started gathering around fires in social groups, they have been shamen, healers, tricksters and political subversives. It is only relatively recently that the circus claimed them and infantilized them and then that Stephen King started a whole genre of horror clown characters with his evil creation and before you know it, Boom! The clown is a figure of fear not fun. But not all clowns are like that and it is only through engagement and appearance that the clown can win its place back where he/she belongs, as an entertainer yes, but also to bring much needed relief in dark situations. It is well worth checking out the work of companies such as the international Clowns Without Borders and the Flying Seagull project to see how much worthwhile work is being done in refugee camps and children’s hospitals around the world by clowns. It is also worth checking out the clown protest movement, where clowns are challenging authority again, with organisations such as CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) forcing their way into police lines and the Loldiers of Odin challenging the racism of fascist organisations in Finland. Clowns are everywhere you look and they’re getting into everything. Even into politics, with Dario Fo and Beppo Grillo in Italy, and Tiririca in Brazil. Would that that could happen here! We can but dream and that’s what clowns are particularly good at, dreaming up mad ideas like having a Festival of Clowns, mad but it seems to be working.

The festival is also running workshops alongside the shows which look interesting and the whole enterprise seems imbued with a spirit of defiance and a shout of laughter which says you think you know what a clown is? Think a-bloody-gain, we’ll show you the new clown, the theatre clown, the cabaret clown, the clown without make up, the seriously funny clown. It’s a bold ambition but it’s started well and they deserve support and some funding but then this is the age of artistic austerity so that’s probably too much to hope for.

comedy dan clown lees

Still you’ve got to laugh in the face of the current farce and someone in this festival is guaranteed to slap any sign of pretentious nonsense and squeeze a laugh out of even the grimmest little Englander.

Finally I asked the boys who were their favourite clowns? They came back with Avner the Eccentric and Aitor Basouri from Spymonkey, which spans the genre nicely and is a really good reflection of how diverse this art form can be, my favourite clown? Jacques Tati, sorry folks, I had to give him a mention somewhere.

Running now til the 19th June the London Clown Festival is at The Omnitorium N4 1DN London. website for booking and program details.