My Therapist is a Dancing Clown
Updated: Jan 13
Integrating clowning into my therapy practice really shook things up for me and my work. Here's how.
I have recently completed a course in clowning. It was a 3-month-long workshop titled "Creative Character Development and Personal Transformation Through Clown" with master teacher David MacMurray Smith, and it involved 15 hours of intense classroom work a week over 3 days for 12 weeks. It was an outrageously transformative, exhausting, and mind-blowing experience, and I haven't been the same since.
But why?! This is the question I get from many people I say this to. Most of us either have very little sense of what clown is, or have an either positive stereotype of a weird funny-ish character with white face and red nose, or a negative one of the creepy boundary-crosser who'll get under your skin in the worst way. So why would I, in the blossoming stages of my therapy craft, undergo training in this?
It had been clear to me for a while that I want to enrol, well before the course actually started. I learned through word-of-mouth about the course and the content, and witnessed how my friends make use of the material and the process. I noted it, enjoyed it, felt somewhat moved by it, but not until I started to immerse myself in my work did I really start to feel the draw.
The way I see it, the role of the therapist is rooted in a stance of transformability and adaptability. The word 'therapy' itself means 'to attend,' which to me suggests it's about meeting the other where they're at, rather than sticking to where I'm at. My job is not to impose myself or my version of normalcy on my clients, but to join them precisely in their present state, and foster the effects of this joining.
Clowning involves a lot of work with masks, both physical and psychological. The clown is the player that animates the masks. You never see the clown, you can only infer it from the masks coming alive. Like wind among the leaves, as David says. Thus the clown is also not bound by the masks, not contained within them. It moves freely from one to another, from agony to ecstasy (c.f. the classic double-faced symbol of theatre), from solitude to togetherness, from child to sage, and so on. It is indeed the boundary crosser, albeit not necessarily malicious.
If I carry a rigid mask, if I hold an attitude (which word literally means 'posture'), I am inflexible and thus I oppress myself on my clients. Instead of finding liberation in my office, they find a new kind of bondage. This also applies, with special emphasis in my profession, to the attitude of the expert, healer, knower, guru. Clients don't come to my office to witness me; they come so that I can be there for them. The therapist's attitude, if inflexible, is violent.
I enrolled in clown in order to find freedom from my entrenched masks, particularly the 'expert' and the 'wise one.' Over weeks of playing, freeing up, creating and exploring I was able to magnify and caricature these masks, and become adept at using them instead of them using me. I can put them on or take them off as I please.
The therapist as clown is the target you'll never hit with your projection. Now they're your mother, now your father, now neither. Unbound, unfathomable, yet totally and ridiculously present. You can't grasp it, but you can't get rid of it. Wake up!
One of my clients said in amused disbelief that "my therapist is a dancing clown." As a former dancer I like this so much I might put it on my next business card. This week I started another 12 weeks of an extension course; let us see how outrageous this can become.