As a theatre creator specializing in clown performance and former research physicist and participant at Edmonton's first clown festival, Christine Lesiak shares with Jana G. Pruden her insight of the entertainment character.
I think a lot of people may not know what a clown actually is. What is a clown to you, or how would you define what a clown is?
If you ask 100 different people who practice clown, you'll probably get 200 different answers. To me, in theatre, the clown is the character who stumbles into mistakes just through their own idiocy. Great examples of modern clowns would be Mr. Bean and a lot of Rowan Atkinson's work. We see clowns in Cirque du Soleil, of course, but they are a little more classic. I think we can identify those and look at them as clowns. We don't tend to look at, say, the Stephen Colbert character on the Colbert Report as a clown, but it's absolutely clown work that he's doing. A lot of comedians are using clown work. You are stumbling into mistakes out of a place of innocence, out of good intention, but you are just really bad at getting it done. Every Disney cartoon has some clown in it. It is everywhere, but a person wouldn't necessarily go to Blue Man Group and understand they're at a clown show.
Most people think, "Okay, if there's a red nose, it's a clown. If there's no red nose, it's not a clown."
That is the common belief, which I struggle with. Just because there's a red nose doesn't mean the person is really practising clowning, much in the same way that just because a person puts a tutu on, they are not necessarily a ballerina. It's October, it's Halloween, we're going to start to see all the scary clowns out now. That's very big in the zeitgeist, is the scary clown trope. That's one of the things I hear a lot is, "Oh, clowns scare me," because of this very narrow view of what a clown is.
What is the philosophy or intent that makes someone a clown versus a comedian, or just an actor who is in a funny movie?
Clown is of the body, and the clown is not thinking about what they are going to do next. The clown doesn't act, the clown reacts, and reacts authentically and truthfully and expresses what they're feeling in that moment. A clown is completely transparent.
Are there similarities to clown theatre and physics? Do you ever bring these two sides of your personality and brain together?
All the time. My most recent show, that I did at the inaugural Edmonton clown festival, was actually called For Science!, where I play this odd little science character that sets out experiments for the audience to perform. It's completely non-verbal. I would set up a little desk bell on top of a lab bench, then I would run away and hide behind a whiteboard and click a timer and someone would come up and ring the bell. And I would keep setting up experiments that got more and more transgressive until eventually I have an audience member pieing another audience member in the face. People loved it. And for me, I think it was really just implementing a clown version of the scientific method with the audience cast as lab rats, but knowing they were being cast as lab rats.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about clowns?
It's a tricky thing. I have struggled as an artist whether to continue using the word "clown" to describe my work and my practice. I do know a number of practitioners who just don't use the word any more because of its negative connotation. But there's that piece of me that's very rebellious and wants to fight the good fight and try to broaden awareness of what the form really is and the power of it. The beauty of clown training is it makes you examine yourself as a whole human being and it makes you understand that you are perfect exactly the way you are. As my mentor Jan Henderson would say, "You are perfect the way you are, warts and all." Absolute self-acceptance and celebrating what is the idiot in all of us, because we are all idiots at the end of the day.
This interview has been edited and condensed