Wise enough to play the fool

Far removed from the clowns of our childhood, Danielle Olavario uncovers the ancient history of The Fool

True to form, Raymond Keane arrives at the interview wearing glasses with frames thick and black, at first glance making it seem like he was a performer wearing Groucho glasses. He does not seem to recognise how apt this coincidence is, but as our conversation goes on, one thing kept cropping up. “It’s the mask, the mask, the mask,” Keane would often repeat, highlighting the importance of it not only to clowns, but to theatre itself.

Keane would know, having been in the industry for more than 40 years. Today, he describes himself as “a clown actor, director, writer, teacher, and everything else I can get away with in between”. Specifically, he is the co-founder of Barabbas Theatre Company, the aim of which, according to their website, is to “create a truly modern sophisticated form [of Clown] that is relevant to its audience of today and in the future”. Talking to him, it is clear that this is a man who has invested most of his life in learning about clowns and their philosophy, although he admits that he is “only scratching at the surface in one way”.

But Keane hasn’t always had the friendliest relationship with clowns. “I ran out of the circus as a kid,” he tells me. “The clown came towards me, tripped on the circus ring, and had a bucket of water, I thought. But it was a bucket of confetti, of course.” He bolted out of the circus screaming, before being pursued by his sister. He received no formal training and was raised by a business-minded family in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. They had the notion that Keane would follow the family’s footsteps, but contrary to their expectations, Keane became a hairdresser, before being bitten by the clown bug while spending a few weeks in Paris. According to Keane, he fell in love with the carefree nature of the Clown. “I came across this world of invention,” he says. “It was immediate; it was a direct conversation with the audience; it was heightened play but is very real at the same time because it’s in the here and now.”

An ancient practise

Today, most of us would associate clowns with the sinister ones as seen in Stephen King’s It or the recent “Clown Attacks” that swept Ireland and abroad in recent years. Some had clowns in their birthday parties when they were younger, the kinds with white faces and overdrawn red lipstick, pulling magic tricks and fashioning balloons into various animals. But for much of history, clowns have held an important, and in some cases even sacred, role in various cultures and societies around the world. Clowns can be traced as far back as the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt, where it is believed that clowns often had the same role as priests. They were described by the Pharoah Pepi II Neferkare as “a divine spirit, to rejoice and delight the heart”. From there, clowns can be traced to the Aztec culture, the Zhou Dynasty in Ancient China, and to Ancient Rome and Greece. Even in Ireland in the 7th century, they were believed to be prophetic.

For the Lakota people of the Great Plains of North America, clowns were an especially sacred figure. The heyoka, the sacred clowns, would do everything contrary to what is seen as norm. They would ride horses backwards, wear their clothes backwards, even laugh when they are sad and cry when they are happy. Black Elk, a famous medicine man and heyoka of the Oglala Lakota, said that the heyoka “have sacred power, and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions”. For the Lakota people, the heyoka were instrumental in shaping tribal codes. They would ask difficult questions about topics that a layperson would not even think of asking. They would voice opinions that others may think but are too afraid to say.

The jesters during the medieval and renaissance eras held the same responsibility. One only need to look at the fools found in several of Shakespeare’s works, from The Fool in King Lear to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jesters are by the king or queen’s side at all times and are allowed to speak out of bounds without fear of reprehension or punishment. They would also often serve as the messenger of bad news to the king, an occupation that anyone who has any sense of self-preservation would refuse. In 1340, King Phillippe VI’s jester was the one who broke the news of the French fleet’s defeat at the hands of the English, telling him that the English sailors “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French”.

A modern interpretation

For Keane, this is a metaphor for the clowns of 21st century Ireland. He believes that clowns have an obligation to society to “say the unsayable that society wants to hide,” a duty that is by no means easy. “We get to investigate what it means to be human in order for us to be equipped to mirror back to society,” he says. “That’s a frightening task.” Frightening not least because the clown has no other choice but to look inwards and confront themselves first before they can mirror anything back to society.

Keane explains that an ancient image of The Fool, depicted naked from the waist down, is something that he tries to embrace (figuratively) on a daily basis. “The nakedness is to represent that the fool is prepared to show what others prefer to hide,” Keane says. “For me, [Clown] is about the full self. It’s about all our love, joy, truth, vulnerability, gullibility, stupidity, divine failure, right down to the distasteful aspects of being human.” Keane supposes that perhaps that is why some people have an inexplicable fear of clowns: “It’s because they tell the truth.”

Angelica Santander, a clown and actress who volunteers for Clowns Without Borders, shares this view. “The worst enemy is resistance,” Santander says. “Clown is about acceptance and letting go and [being] free… That is very hard because it’s ingrained in us to be in control, to be proper.” Although she has been in the profession for a few years now, Santander admits that, at times, she still faces difficulties in this regard. “It relates to where you are at,” she says. “But if it wasn’t a struggle, I wouldn’t be sure if I’m doing the right thing or not.”

Those in need

Clowns Without Borders, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing “smiles and laughter to places and people who need it most,” established their Dublin branch three years ago. “We are volunteers,” Santander says. “We’re not sticking for any kind of advance in our careers, but to bring some sort of relief through smiles ‒ in children and adults alike.” Since the organisation’s genesis three years ago, they have staged several shows around Dublin;  performed as far away as Jordan; and, as of writing, are present in Iraq, where they will stay for three weeks.

Santander says that although Clowns Without Borders volunteers are sent in order to provide a service to people in the places they visit, oftentimes the performers get back what they give, and then some. “People are giving you the happiness back,” she says. Santander herself has not travelled to Jordan or Iraq with Clowns Without Borders, but she was a director for three of the shows that were staged. She highlights that oftentimes new volunteers come back somewhat enlightened. “The new people that are going are thinking, ‘Oh, I’m doing such a good job,’ or ‘I’m doing such a great thing,’” Santander explains. “But they don’t really have the weight of it until they are in situ. And then they really see how important [the job is], how important it is to bring back this sense of humanity and this sense of worth through humour and smiles.”

For both Santander and Keane, the existence of the clown is dependent on that of the audience. Keane says that the clown, at its core, is about communication and the way in which we communicate. “It’s a shared experience,” Keane says. “Not only with the folks onstage, but it is shared across the other side to your other fellow community audience members.” Keane argues that the clown only exists with an audience, to which Santander agrees. “The clown is nobody without an audience,” she says. “We need and feed from others. We are there not only to be seen, but to see others. And to give others the experience that they are, that they count, that their emotions are real. And that I can see that.”

Santander has her roots in theatre, a medium that, according to her, relies on the creation of a world separate to that of the audience. “[The audience] is not in it. [The audience] is an observant of this world. The lights are down, so nobody can see whether you’re crying or laughing or bored.” But during clown performances, Santander insists that the light be turned on. “If you can’t see [the audience], then you don’t know whether what you are doing is there or not.”

The intricacies involved in doing theatrical clown has allowed both Keane and Santander to hone their techniques in other types of acting. “I believe that [Clown] will give you a really good grounding on what it is to be an actor of any type,” Keane says. “They say, ‘Not all actors make great clowns, but all clowns make great actors.’ That’s one to drop into a workshop with a bunch of actors in the room,” he laughs. Keane teaches modules in the theatre of Clown in colleges around the country, entitled “I, A Clown” (the title a wordplay on the phrase “eye of clown”), which he describes as a “serious exploration of the self”.

He acknowledges that the craft has allowed him to refine his skills in acting as a whole: “It has taught me more about theatre than any other discipline I’ve worked in, and I’ve worked in many.” The credit perhaps goes to the silence of the craft. The use of voice, intonation, volume, and tone ‒ tools that we use in everyday life to communicate with and understand each other ‒ is absent. Theatrical clown is a physical experience, one where the gestures and reactions of the actors onstage will also be present in the audience. “Sitting in your seat, you’re going through exactly what I’m going through,” he says.

Santander recognises this too. Santander, who is originally from Chile, got involved in Clown through meeting a French actress, who later ended up being her acting partner. “Clown is this free expression,” she says. “We didn’t need a language, we didn’t need cultural references, we didn’t need to say anything.”

In Ireland, we often fail to take the clown industry and their craft seriously. It is something that is often overlooked, at times reduced to a mere slapstick act meant for toddlers and their birthday parties. But for Raymond Keane and Angelica Santander, it is so much more than just an act. During our interview, Keane says: “Clown has taught me more about theatre and about life.”

For them, it is a journey of exploration of their own identity, an attempt to reach over the liminal space that exists between humans, and an exercise in empathy. “Between the audience and the clown is love. It’s not ‘like’, it’s not a lukewarm feeling; it’s love,” Santander says. “And that is the only way to be able to go to places that are so far away and ridiculous and be okay. And in a way, logical. Because in that moment, we all understand where we’re at.”

Raymond Keane is a clown consultant and actor for this summer’s production of Ulysses in the Abbey Theatre.

Angelica Santander is a member of the voluntary organisation Clowns Without Borders, a group that aims to “bring smiles and laughter to children and their communities who are in crisis in Ireland and around the world.”

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.