Season 1
Episode 35: Paris: The Serious Business of Clowning Around

Clowns: freaky, funny or downright mystifying?

Paris: home of high-art and cinema. And clowns? This week, Passport explores how the City of Light became the capital of clowning, why clowns continue to terrify us, and how they’re navigating the uncertain road ahead for the circus and performance art.

This week, we tread the boards of the French capital and dive into the city’s age-old love affair with this very distinct form of theatrics.

Paris has been an epicentre for performance artistry since the 1800s, but today the face of clowning and the circus look and feel very different. These days, clowning is cutthroat – demanding, grueling, and for some in the industry, a dying art that few can master. Besides a look at some of Paris’ most competitive clown schools, we also delve into the dark side of clowns and how pop culture has given us more than we bargained for beneath all the grease paint and innocent smiles: coulrophobia – the fear of clowns. 

Join Passport producer Jennifer Carr for a fantastical journey full of conversations with clowns, artistic directors, and a front row seat for an impromptu performance by Russian clown Igor, in our Barcelona studio.

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

Red nose and grease paint at the ready, 5 pins to help you clown around in Paris.

  1. CLOWN BAR
    Inspired by the neighboring Cirque d’Hiver (winter circus)—the interior of this très chic venue features a fitting Belle époque mural from the 1920s depicting clowns at play along with green, yellow, and white tiled walls and a curving zinc bar. Great service, natural wines, smiles all round – and easy to find in the city’s hip Marais district.
  2. CIRQUE PHENIX
    The 5,500-seat Phoenix Circus is one of the largest circuses in the world. The absence of any internal structure enables all spectators to enjoy optimal visibility. This circus, without animals, offers high-flying circus acts, and of course, the spectacular annual Cirque de Demain. 
  3. MOULIN JAUNE
    It’s home to a world famous Russian clown legend, but also an open experimental laboratory and artistic commune. Just 45 minutes north of Paris in Crécy-la-Chapelle, Clown Slava Poulin invites multidisciplinary artists and artisans to create an adventure where nature, creativity and everyday life are weaved together into joyful festive and wonderful living. Occasionally, public events and tickets appear on the Moulin Jaune’s Facebook for you to enter into this normally private magical world
  4. CIRQUE D’HIVER
    Built in 1852, the Cirque d’Hiver is technically the oldest circus of its kind in the world. Every winter, the Bouglione family presents a new show with an international cast of artists. Clowns, animals, acrobats, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers and jugglers put on a magical show.
  5. SELF RETORIK CLOWN SCHOOL
    If you’ve got a few days in the French capital and want to get seriously out of your comfort zone, Self Retorik can show you the way of Clowning and improvisation, fast. Teaching the  Yat Malmgren method, a series of opposing systems based on character creation, this same method was used to train English A-listers Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hardy.

CONNECT WITH US!

On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

Get The Ticket – the Passport newsletter with amazing new stories. 

CONNECT WITH OUR GUESTS!

Igor on: Facebook

Kiva on: Facebook

Ben Radford on: Facebook

This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Jennifer Carr and edited by Neil Innes.

Huge thanks to Ben Radford, Pascal Jacob, Kiva Murphy and Igor Mamlenkov. 

Our theme music is by the always clowning Nick Turner.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Our production assistant is Eliza Engel

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are currently sitting ringside, getting their faces painted. They also executive produce the show.

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who sometimes goes by the name Honking and Horny Andrés Bartos. See you in the next place!

EPISODE 35 – TRANSCRIPT

ANDRÉS: What would come out of you, if you could heighten one part of Neil.

NEIL: Um, I’m a very smiley man, but I’m a little bit of an anxious man. So I think I would be kind of,

ANDRÉS: I can see that. Yeah, I can see it already.

[Laughter]

JENNIFER: I can, you got it down.

ANDRÉS: Come on, everybody.

NEIL: We can do this.

[Laughter]

NEIL: I can do papier-mache.

[Laughter]

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m Neil Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.

[END MAIN TITLE]

[Song playing]

PASCAL: I’m always looking in schools, in the street, everywhere. Juggling, rope dancing, acrobatics… people can do that for centuries. You know, it’s not new, but the way you will play with it, it’s amazing.

ANDRÉS: This is Pascal Jacob. He’s the Artistic Director for Le Cirque de Demain – the Circus of Tomorrow. It might just be the future of world class circus and performance art.

It also might not surprise you to learn he and the show are based in Paris. 

[Song playing]

NEIL: Because Paris is the capital of Bohemia, a city that’s always reserved a warm welcome to artists. It is also Paris that gave birth to the circus back in 1782. After the pandemic, Le Cirque de Demain is gearing up for a world class comeback this Spring.

ANDRÉS: But this isn’t just any old circus.

It’s a 4,000 seat strong mega-circus dedicated to the next generation of physical performance artists and a place where the potential for anything to happen, happens.

NEIL: But you won’t find any exotic tiger parades or red nosed clowns peddling oversize flowers here. There are no dwarfs, lion tamers or cannons blasting daredevils into the audience.

Pascal is curating a circus free from cliche.

ANDRÉS: The circuses of old, the kind once adored and sustained by an aristocratic French intelligentsia and elite bourgeoisie –  are at a cultural crossroads. And with it, the clowns and other performance artists we associate with the big top.

NEIL: Although Ronald McDonald, The Joker or Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT may be the only clown names or faces most people would recognize, there is a whole rich world of clowning out there… but what does it mean to be an actual clown? And what do they think the world thinks of them?

ANDRÉS: Today on Passport Jennifer Carr heads to the French capital to tell us a story about performance art, pop culture clowns, and our need for live theatricality.

NEIL: I don’t get clowns

ANDRÉS: As what? As something for kids, for children or what?

NEIL: Just that they exist.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

JENNIFER: The whole point of, I don’t know, entertainment but ambiguity, I don’t know. There’s something, a contradiction in terms about clowns.

ANDRÉS: You just like brought a flashback. So in Barcelona, in the early 2000s, there was like a clown craze.

Not like, like a rampage of clowns, but there’s like a lot of people doing clown courses and that sort of thing. And, uh, a friend of mine, he didn’t go to a course, but he went to a showing of a friend that was doing some clowning on stage and he came back like shell shocked. And he’s like, I just saw the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

It was just a guy dressed as a clown, came out on stage, silence. And then he just like, with both hands, reached out to the audience and he was like, champion. And then he’d point to himself and go champion.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: And it went back and forth and the guy kept getting like more agitated, like he was expecting the audience to do something, but it turned into this like Andy Kaufman thing where it lasted like 20 minutes.

The audience like started dispersing. People were like shifting in their seat. Like it never got to a point where people thought it was funny. It was just like some sort of weird,

JENNIFER: Deeply uncomfortable

ANDRÉS: Psychological experiment. Champion. Champion.

JENNIFER: I think, um, from what I learned chatting to a fair few clowns, writing this episode…

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Oh, how can we be serious.

JENNIFER: I mean, they want to get a rise out of you, even if it’s really annoying you, you know. I think if they don’t like stir something in you and that can be negative as well, then they haven’t done their job. So maybe he was just one of these really annoying, provocative clowns.

NEIL: Yeah. When you’re a clown, you can walk a room.

That’s pretty, that’s pretty…

ANDRÉS: pretty intense.

JENNIFER: There’s a fair few in Barcelona.

NEIL: There’s a lot of clowns here.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: There’s like a really important like circus school here.

NEIL: I didn’t know that.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

NEIL: Cause when you started making this show, everyone was like, do you want a clown? I got a clown.

 JENNIFER: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: I know. We were all like going through our phones…

JENNIFER: Clowns coming out of the woodwork.

ANDRÉS: I know. The other thing that I loved about this whole period of time was whenever Jen would just like take the opportunity to use a clown emoji, which is such a rare thing that you got to use, just like popped at the end of any…

JENNIFER: It’s now in my saved emojis, it’s one of my favorites.

[Laughter]

NEIL: So many great WhatsApp messages. These clowns are driving me crazy.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: The clowns won’t get back to me. The clowns are not responding.

JENNIFER: The clowns have gone off the radar.

NEIL: We just lost a clown. We just lost another one. All right, should we do some clowns?

ANDRÉS: Let’s go.

[Song playing]

PASCAL: We are always looking for something different, something you, you know, it’s for us, it’s in the DNA of the, of the festival.

We are always looking for different, new, fresh, young, curious, incredible, you know, a lot, a lot of possibilities. And we try to keep our mind, our mind completely open. Because we, we, we never know.

JENNIFER: The circus scene in Paris was once a place of cliched freakery and foolery, of slapstick clowns and grandiose equestrian performances.

Many of the oldest – and the most fabulous – circuses in the world were born out of the French capital.

In the 1700s, the circus was brought into European high society thanks to a British Sergeant Major called Phillip Astley.  It was originally a bit of a horse parade with jugglers and rope dancers and clowns spicing the action up on the sidelines.

The truth is, this kind of public performance wasn’t technically original; early African civilizations did acrobatic routines, the ancient Chinese juggled, and the Greeks practiced rope dancing.

Astley’s circus performance was arguably just a slick amalgamation. He brought it to France in 1782, to the Place de la Republique in Versailles. Immediately, Parisian high society was enchanted.

A new genre of entertainment quickly gave birth to iconic circus rings – Le Cirque D’Hiver, Cirque Fernando and Cirque Medrano.

Here, you’d find French Impressionist artists like Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec close to the ringside, sketching horseback riders, jugglers and trapeze acts balancing on a tightrope.

The Paris circus of old was an elitist affair.  But today, it’s an entertainment form that cuts through every class distinction.

[Applause]

JENNIFER: What helped shatter the elitism? 

PASCAL: You know, after 1968, uh, in many, many countries in the world in France, for sure, but also in Scandinavia, also in Australia, also in North America, nothing was exactly like before. So it was a way to open doors and windows. 

JENNIFER: With seismic social and political change that swept the globe off the back of the anti Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movements in the US and huge protests and revolutions taking place in Europe, the world would never be the same. Including how people connected through humor and emotion.

PASCAL: At the end of the sixties, at the beginning of the seventies, a lot of troupes were starting to create a new way, a new circus. And very, very fast, the minister of culture decided to put money on that. So it was a political decision and, um, it changed completely the thing.

Circus at the time, this kind of circus, a different circus, another circus, a new circus was exactly on the same level as theater, dance or music.

And the state, the government, decided to open a superior school in Shannon before everybody else. So it means it was exactly like a theater conservatory, you know, the top of the top. And because it was a public money, the institution was rich. So they were able to offer a lot of possibilities to the student.

JENNIFER: What about today? For many countries, art and culture takes a back seat to industry and commerce. So it’s really refreshing to hear Pascal rave about the circus being something that’s designed for and loved by the masses.

PASCAL: Before, the festival was presented in the Cirque d’Hiver, you know, it’s a building in Paris. It’s a 19th century building, so it’s a beautiful place. But it’s very small.

JENNIFER: This is the place I told you about before. The home of the oldest circus in the world.

PASCAL: When decided to do the festival, uh, in the Phenix, we changed completely the things because in Phenix, we can offer 4,000 seats. So it means we can offer some very, very cheap tickets.

So in Cirque D’Hiver it was not possible because it’s 1,200 something like this. If you want to keep the business on the good level, we need to sell tickets.

JENNIFER: Bigger audiences, younger audiences, younger performers, accessible to the many and not just the few. And an atmosphere that’s impossible to get from watching through a screen.

PASCAL: Believe me, it’s incredible because you have full school coming from Sweden, from Belgium, from different parts, different parts of France also. And the atmosphere of the show is incredible. Really incredible. It’s a, it’s a football match.

[Applause]

JENNIFER: And what about the performers? I mean, what’s his stance on finding a high quality clown these days?

PASCAL: If you can find one, I will be happy to hire. There is no clowns. It’s very, it’s very difficult. We are looking for, for a female clown for the, for the show at the end of the year. And it’s really a complicated to find somebody.

JENNIFER: Hold on, I’m confused. Circus and clowns are like peas and carrots. How can you have one without the other? For Pascal, his gut instinct about performers is far more important than fulfilling any circus cliche. It’s art over character every time.

PASCAL: 10 seconds, if it’s boring after 10 seconds, I know it will be, it will be not good. It’s stupid to say that but it’s there or it’s not.

You know, you need, you need to catch the audience immediately.

NEIL: That’s some hardcore clowning

ANDRÉS: The seriousness.

NEIL: Yeah. You got 10 seconds, go.

JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? It’s all about fun and playfulness and it struck me as like there’s a militant approach to making great as a clown. One night could be completely different to the next, just based on the vibe of the crowd.

They have to go with that and ride that wave of unpredictability.

ANDRÉS: It’s so weird because it’s not like stand up, right, which is relatively recent. You still have that kind of pressure of like, okay, you’ve got five minutes to make this room laugh, right? But with clowning, there’s like centuries of like, you know?

NEIL: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Ancestral clowns.

NEIL: Yeah. From what I’ve read about the clown schools, there were all like,

JENNIFER: Oh, the boot camp, like it’s clown boot camp. This is not studying. This is you’re on your own show, you know? And if you don’t cut it in like the minimal time you just get yeah. They people will, you’ll spend a week working on an act and within like one minute the teacher would just humiliate you in front of the class from the sounds of it. It’s brutal.

ANDRÉS: If your calling is to be a clown, that’s so rough. Like how do you tell that to your parents?

NEIL: It’s a heavy burden, man.

ANDRÉS: Like mom, I want to be a clown.

NEIL: I’m taking my stick with the bag tied on the end of it, getting in the car with 18 other people. I’m going to clown school.

ANDRÉS: It’s like to be a clown to be, to not be the butt of the joke. To like overcome the clown kind of stigma.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

[Laughter]

NEIL: The clown stank.

ANDRÉS: It’s rough.

JENNIFER: I mean, the clowns that I spoke to, they’re so proud, so proud of their kind of their alter egos, if you like, you know? Um, but I think there’s a detachment just to kind of get into a character.

I don’t think they directly associate.

ANDRÉS: Somebody took me through the whole, like how you find your buffoon, that you have to find in yourself a certain thing. And then put the volume up on those things.

NEIL: Yeah. It’s accentuating one little bit of yourself.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, but it still has to be based on like tethered to the human.

You can’t just be, you know, honking and horning.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Honking and horny would definitely be your clown. That would be your double act.

ANDRÉS: That’s a clown.

NEIL: You playing both parts.

[Laughter]

NEIL: One sad and one quite happy.

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Pierrot, Marcel Marceau. Clown Dimitri. Ronald McDonald. Does the last one even count? Then there’s the recent pop coach and manifestations:Stephen King’s IT.  Batman’s Joker.

Clowns have entertained and intrigued us for centuries, tiptoeing between the extremes of joy and horror, laughter and despair.

Emotionally, do we ever actually know where we stand with them? What’s really going on behind the grease paint and the red nose?

To figure out exactly why so many of us get our freak on when it comes to clowns, I spoke to the author of Bad Clownsand folklorist, Benjamin Radford, to get his take on things.

BEN: Coulrophobia per se is a relatively new thing and some would argue it’s not really a thing, anyways. Not, not really, uh, a medical diagnosis per se. It’s more of a pop culture diagnosis.

JENNIFER: Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 adults in the US have it.

One of the first waves of clown paranoia that Radford uncovered was in the 1980s, when a number of schoolkids from Massachusetts claimed a clown was trying to lure them into a van.

 Police never confirmed their reports.

What about the 2016 clown epidemic that stretched from Greenville, South Carolina across the Atlantic to the UK, and then all the way down to Australia?

[Archival news about clown sightings]

JENNIFER: Clown pranksters and criminals came out of the woodwork all over the world.

Mass sightings were reported across America. Clowns pranked people in shops, drive throughs, and more sinisterly, they were also reported trying to coax kids out of playgrounds, or into woods.

[Archival news about clown sightings]

JENNIFER: The clown epidemic actually made it into a White House press briefing. No, Obama didn’t comment.

BEN: In the pantheon of legitimate phobias, it doesn’t even crack the top 10. I mean, fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of the dark. Genuine fear of clowns is pretty rare.

Having written the book, Bad Clowns, you know, it’s uh, when people ask me about it, they’re like, oh, I hate clowns. Are you afraid of them? Well, I don’t run from them, but I just don’t like being around them. Like, okay, well that’s not a clinical coulrophobia.

JENNIFER: So what level of anxiety classifies as coulrophobia?

BEN: To the extent that people are uncomfortable with clowns, whether it’s a clinical fear or not, what, what does that come from? And there’s a couple of answers to that. One answer is that clowns, they have this sort of dual role.

There’s this sort of like this Janice face, right? Happy, sad, good, bad. This sort of binary character, which many people find fascinating. And it is fascinating.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: From the minute I watched It as a kid, I was mesmerized and shit scared all at once. That binary identity of good and bad, happy and sad, never really knowing where you’re at.

BEN: You know, clowns are generally liked, if not beloved, in certain contexts. In a circus, for example, clowns are acceptable because it’s a circus, right? That’s, that’s what you’re paying your money for. You go there, there’s going to be this, there’s going to be that, trapeze. Uh, and sooner or later, you’re going to have a clown, any respectable surface as a clown. And of course many non respectable circuses have clowns as well.

Um, the problem comes in outside that context, the problem comes in when you see a clown at the bank or at the supermarket, or walking down the street at night, right? Because then the question is, what the hell is the clown doing?

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Maybe it’s this same uncertainty that got the late Heath Ledger and Oscar winning Joaquin Phoenix so much attention for their very different portrayals of original DC Comic character, The Joker.

The ultimate anti-hero.

BEN: One of the keys to why their performances were so evocative and so successful was that no matter what, what perspective you brought to it, whether you think it’s the, the, the, the performance is ultimately about mental illness, or you think the performance is ultimately about X, Y, or Z? The answer is you’re right. And why is that? Because it’s a blank slate.

[Song playing]

BEN: With Joaquin Phoenix’s performance specifically, uh, the most recent one. Uh, it was fascinating to me to sort of see the reactions. Much of it was really vicious. I mean, people were, people were pissed off. And it was interesting to me uh, that, you know, I had people, I had friends of mine who were disgusted with the film and saw it as this misogynist fantasy.

Other people said, no, you totally misunderstood. It’s about X, Y, and Z. And I’m just like, then he did his job because you all are, are discussing it and, and, and, uh, and you know, protesting about it, or going to see it, but in any event it’s being talked about. If you’re indifferent to a clown’s performance, then that clown has failed.

[Clown laughter]

ANDRÉS: What the hell is this clown doing here?

NEIL: It’s the best. A clown at the bank.

ANDRÉS: The clown at night. A night clown is the worst kind of clown.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Can you imagine it knocking on your door and like asking for directions.

ANDRÉS: I’m just thinking like a street in Berlin, 2:00 AM, round the corner comes a fucking clown.

JENNIFER: Queuing in the Berghain.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: In his big red shoes.

JENNIFER: Not the right dress code.

ANDRÉS: Unless you’re wearing assless chaps, you’re not getting in here.

[Laughter]

JENNIFER: I’m not going to sleep tonight.

ANDRÉS: The Obama presidency had to address the clown epidemic.

JENNIFER: Yes, yeah.

NEIL: Yeah they did.

ANDRÉS: It got to that point.

JENNIFER: It got to the White House.

ANDRÉS: That’s insane.

JENNIFER: It’s kind of bonkers, isn’t it like that tidal wave of people almost indulging that dark side and getting away with it because they could wear a mask. They could kind of technically have carte blanche to play it out.

NEIL: The cop, that sheriff, where he goes there ain’t nothing illegal about putting a mask on. it’s what comes after it… if it’s a clown or not.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: It makes sense that there would be a clown epidemic. I can’t quite explain why

NEIL: The dates are all like, kind of related to big pop culture moments right? They are like Dark Knight, I think was one and then, oh, the remake of It.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: It’s the word epidemic. It’s just really bad. It’s like, you don’t want to go outside if there’s a clown epidemic. Worse than COVID, there’s no mask. You can’t sanitize your hands from that.

NEIL: But they’re terrifying wherever you put them. The clown at the bank.

ANDRÉS: This thing that, where he’s like

JENNIFER: Room service clown.

NEIL: Room service clown

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: That’s honking and horning again. If you’ve come across a clown acting suspiciously.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: What is a clown not acting suspiciously.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Yeah walking around a supermarket, anything. It just feels, it’s the out of context thing, isn’t it? It just freaks you out.

ANDRÉS: But it does connect, it is what you were talking about. Like the fact that you get to not be yourself.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: And then if you take that to, you know, the extreme, you know, killer clown.

NEIL & JENNIFER: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: All right. Well now they were probably terrified.

NEIL: Okay.

ANDRÉS: Let’s see what else Jen is taking us.

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

NEIL: We’ll be back to find out after the break. Performance, the world’s greatest clown and Jen gets a very special guest in our studio. We’ll see you in a bit.

IGOR: There’s a lot of, it’s very strange because it’s very simple and yet sometimes it’s very philosophical this, uh, this profession. And I think one of the main messages for me in general theater at clown is that, when you’re in theater, you are not to near your phone, you’re not shopping and thinking about your problems.

You’re just observing another human being move in the space. It’s very meditative in itself.

JENNIFER: This is Igor.

He’s a Russian clown. A Pro. One who’s trodden the boards in some of the world’s most prestigious theatres, including Theatre Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, Venice Open Stage festival and the location for our first chat – the prestigious Teatro Dimitri.

This is founded by the world famous Russian clown Dimitri. And it’s located on the scenic shores of Lake Locarno in Switzerland. Every August, this upmarket Italian-Swiss lake town becomes the global capital of auteur cinema during the Locarno International Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Teatro Dimitri is like the Ivy League for clowns.

Here, students practice daily lakeside qi-gong, yoga and pilates to keep their physical performance up and their stress levels down. It doesn’t sound so scary to me.

For Igor, being a clown is all about spontaneity, play and connection. 

IGOR: The theater can have so many different ways to exist, but especially clown is, is always with connection with you guys, with audience directly.

There is no like, hey, I pretend you’re not here, no, like a theater. Clowns is like, hey, we’re here and we’re playing, you know, and I’m just fooling around. Or sometimes it could be poetic and magical and profound, but I’m still letting you know that you are here and I’m here and I’m doing this.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: So when clowns know we’re there and we know they’re there, at least we know where we stand. Even if they’re not communicating with words.

IGOR: Clowns normally don’t relate to text as the meaning, because as we like to say, actors play with the conscious and, uh, clowns with unconscious. So it’s always a pretext to play.

JENNIFER: Of course the most rewarding kind of play is always unrehearsed, unfiltered, unpredictable.

IGOR: It’s also fascination. I think it’s always this proactive, uh, attitude that, uh, we, as people are difficult to have, you know, everything is fascinating as everything even every error for something you didn’t expect is an invitation to something.

JENNIFER: Igor’s ideology of what a clown is doesn’t really tally with the freaky pop culture cliches. I wonder, do some clowns just wake up one day and decide to do this, or were they born with the entertainer archetype programmed in? Is the desire to clown nature or nurture? If you believe in the nurture argument, Paris might prove your point.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: It’s the European epicenter of performance theater, acrobatics, flying trapeze, cabaret, burlesque, the Moulin Rouge and many revered performance academies, including the super prestigious L’Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.

It’s located in the 10th Arrondissement on Rue de Faubourg Saint-Denis. This world leading school is one of the most competitive places on earth to earn some official credentials in melodrama, buffoon, tragedy and other types of clowning.

Ninety students are accepted in the first year. In the second, only 30 will be chosen to stay on. It’s brutal. A performance bootcamp, if you will.

Australian Geoffrey Rush, Brit James McAvoy and Aussie Isla Fisher are just some of the acting elite that made it through. Kiva is one Irish born, Barcelona living clown who also cut her teeth there.

KIVA: I was studying in a clown school in Paris called  Jacques Lecoq, which is a very prestigious and hard and heart wrenching and beautiful school in the heart of Paris. Um, and basically they, they choose half of the clowns to stay on. So the first year is all physical theater, so it’s all basically telling stories with your body in a space.

Um, and then at the end of the first year, they say, okay, we’ll keep you 35 and you 35, good luck with you. It’s super hardcore.

JENNIFER: I never realized that clowning, a form of entertainment that’s all about play and fun, creativity, making audiences laugh could be so grueling.

[Song playing]

KIVA: It’s super hardcore. This thing that you would work your ass off all week, and then it’s like, no, we don’t even want to see it. It’s not up to standard. So when they asked myself and another 35 friends of mine to leave at the end of the year, I was completely heartbroken. I had created my whole life. I lived next to the school in Paris, it was my dream to go to this school.

JENNIFER: Despite them turning her and half the students away, Kiva’s clown self still needed an avenue for expression. I guess in her case, the nature nurture argument is 50 50.

KIVA: For me, clown is where my heart is because you can’t, you can’t fake it. You can’t, you can’t predict it. I mean, you can’t predict, uh, improvisation either, but you’re still on stage with your team doing the thing that you are enjoying doing, that you have, you know, prepared in a way.

Uh, whereas clown, you could walk into a room and someone’s phone goes off and then your clown just wants to play with that phone and then steals the phone, then creates a whole world around that. And so it’s, it’s extremely playful, which sometimes can be to your detriment.

JENNIFER: It’s funny, she’s talking about her clown like a pop star would refer to their stage persona. Her clown is kind of a, she not a me, a red-nosed alter ego.

KIVA: It’s also extremely freeing to be in that moment. And I’ve had, you know, mad things happen. I’ve had people propose mid show, uh, and just going, like, you know, talking about love and a show and then someone proposed, it was amazing. The whole place just went ballistic and I was doing a joke all about, about love being, um, being, not allowed, basically love being, becoming illegal in this kind of, uh, kind of absurdist world and someone just stood up and said, no, no, I believe in love. And he proposed to his girlfriend.

JENNIFER: Wow, beautiful.

KIVA: Yeah. So, so yeah, clown for me just lends itself to that real real in the moment kind of off the cuff spur of just, okay. We’re here, we’re together, uh, which obviously is not anonymous with doing things online.

JENNIFER: Online versus offline. Filtered versus unrehearsed. How does the unpredictability of clowning and real life circus performances stack up against the pixelated digital entertainment of today? Is tech the greatest threat to an art form born from unfiltered truth?

NEIL: Looking at an actor act on stage with their whole body and the way they walk and the way they move and the way they interact with everybody, you can get lost in that. More than almost anything like when theater is really good.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: One thing is when you’re seeing a play and you’ve, you’ve signed the contract about, okay, this is a story that’s happening there, but the difference being the clown is you’re part of the story.

There isn’t a wall. There’s no fourth wall and all of us are in, so that that’s also like part of the danger too.

JENNIFER: So much more vulnerable in a way, isn’t it. You as the audience are more vulnerable because you might get plucked out of the crowd. But they’re also vulnerable because they’re laid bare in a way.

ANDRÉS: Completely.

JENNIFER: There’s no distractions, there’s no screens. There’s no, you know, 14 tabs open on your computer. It’s just you. And you’re in that moment with these actors, with these performers. And I think it’s like a present moment, which is probably one of the reasons why people love it so much.

NEIL: Yeah.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Igor, the clown we heard from earlier, this summer in the midst of lockdowns and no shows, Igor ventured into one of France’s, maybe the world’s, wackiest clown communes: the Moulin Jaune.

The Moulin Jaune is the home and laboratory of world famous Russian clown Slava Polunin, best known as THE clown in Cirque Du Soleil’s Alegria. He also created his own immersive snowshow that traveled 30 different countries and earned him the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertrainment. 

Today, his yellow turreted water mill and eclectic, ever-changing outdoor fairyland setting feels more Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than high level performance art.

But for clowns like Igor, it’s a Mecca for dreams, fairytales and the metaphysical art of clowning. Igor swung by Barcelona after his stay at the Moulin Jaune, to chat with us in the studio about what really goes on in Slava the clown’s quirky commune.

IGOR: It’s it’s, it’s a really, really, really curious place. Uh that’s definitely. Um, well basically, it’s like, you have to imagine that it’s, it’s an ancient, uh, windmill, which used to be yellow and now it’s painted yellow even better. And there is right next to, there’s a river. And it’s already to start with, it’s an amazing nature and the amazing river, like it’s so close to the, uh, coast, to the bank.

Like the water is really up, but you almost don’t see it flow. There is no like sparkles or movement on the surface. So it seems like it’s like grayish turquoise mass of water just moving, but quite fast. Yeah, but you don’t see any movement. So it’s already magic, the place itself.

JENNIFER: Magic in 3D. That word hasn’t really been on my radar since I started to deep dive into the French obsession with theatrics, but it sounds like the Moulin Jaune does a very good job suspending reality and offering up a kind of fantastical blank canvas.

The very thing that clowns thrive on.

IGOR: Of course Teatro Dimitri or stuff it’s, um, it’s an educational institution, so there’s different, still atmosphere even I found it very liberatory and very open to experimentation and stuff. But it still has that frame, academic frame. And there the, the, the only frame is I guess, the space and some mild laws of the place, and common sense. But, uh, but there’s kind of, everything is permitted.

JENNIFER: And let’s not forget, it’s the home of one of the world’s most intriguing enigmatic and living clowns, Russian Slava Polunin.

IGOR: Yeah. I just came to improvise basically. And of course, for me as a Russian it’s and in general, I think as a clown reference, he’s a big one.

So of course it’s inspiring to be in his environment.

[Song playing]

IGOR: I, I think it’s one of the most primitive energy forces just to create, and we had it since forever, since we were kids also, but also since many centuries. And I think clown just has this naive stupidity, but in a good way, you know, this naive spontaneity, just to do.

To permit yourself to imagine, and to create something which is not useful at all, completely useless, but at the same time, not practically in terms of imagination, in terms of spiritual uplifting, it’s really valuable.

JENNIFER: Igor is the most wonderful box of contradictions to me. He talks about the act and art of clowning as both useless and valuable, light and philosophical in the same heartbeat. Is this the point? A clown’s meant to straddle the full spectrum of our emotions for the benefit of the audience.

IGOR: I have this moment where I’m an underwear. I wake up and I wake up as my character. It seems like I slept, slept for a hundred years and there’s a lot of audience in my house. And I’m like, what the heck? And then I discovered an underwear and a cover myself with a sack.

[Applause]

JENNIFER: This was a scene that Igor played out on stage in front of hundreds of people. The typical worst scenario bad dream. You know the one where you suddenly find yourself in a public spot with no clothes on.

IGOR: And I went to put them on my costume and then of course, I go for my costume and this sack falls and almost shows my underwear and I take it back in and in all this game, it’s not like I’m asking a love me. I’m looking like, oh shit. And I always share, uh, you know, uh, okay, how do I do it there? But, and we, we played together.

JENNIFER: What he’s living out on stage – total embarrassment and humiliation – is very deliberate.

He’s acting out a nightmare so the audience feel a kind of vulnerability through his own, so that we don’t have to.

IGOR: Unconsciously they think, what if I were to wake up and there was this… they don’t think that, but it’s unconsciously arriving.

JENNIFER: You’re sort of carrying their embarrassment for them.

IGOR: Yes. It’s like somebody said, clown has to fall on stage, so we don’t have to fall. He takes, he takes the fault. He takes all that crap. So we can liberate.

JENNIFER: Clowns as therapy and therapist. I hadn’t thought about that before. They bear the burden for us so we don’t have to.

IGOR: I think people yet do perceive that they just after good comedy, especially after good clowns that have very few, uh, you just feel relieved.

JENNIFER: Ah, little light relief is definitely something I’m up for more than ever these days, but can clowns still hold this relevance in 2020? Is there a way for them to make a comeback in Paris? I want to believe there’s a new day for clowns coming in the French capital, despite Pascal believing that clowns are a dying breed.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Man.

NEIL: It’s nice, right?

ANDRÉS: I do feel like maybe we do need some clowns.

NEIL: Right?

ANDRÉS: I started off with the feeling like, who the hell gets into this business, god dammit, this is rough.

But then it’s true. Like the good clowns, like, as we were talking, as we went through our like, list of like incredible clowns, including Sasha Baron Cohen, Buster Keaton, et cetera. It’s true that they like unburden you of some of that weight of being a human. It’s like pure emotion, emotion unfiltered unregulated in all of its variance.

JENNIFER: Yeah. I mean, I was, uh, I’m a huge fan of Jim Carrey and I just, I do, I feel like, feel sense of the weight’s been lifted from my shoulders after watching him.

And if your Igor, he’s the one to say entertain that, revel in it, play with that, you know, like we never lost it, we’ve always had those kids, but we sort of get stumped out of you as an adult that playfulness is, is bad or something.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. It’s like a weird mix, this is deeper than I thought we were going… But it is like, it’s, it’s physicality, right? So whatever your physical presence is also defines like what you are, what you arn’t.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: It’s not just like what you project or what, you know, emotionally you tap into, it’s literally how you hold the room.

JENNIFER: Absolutely. Your body’s instrumental in your presence in the room.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

JENNIFER: And being able to hold that presence without a single word necessarily.

NEIL: Yeah. That’s how honk and horny would do it.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Excuse me. You’re making it so you have to put it in the show now.

NEIL: I’m trying to find a way to like, just if, if I touch Honk and Horny once I’m not going to go back to it, I promise.

ANDRÉS: It was honking and horning.

NEIL: No, it was honk and horny.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Red nose and grease paint at the ready, our saved pins this week will let you clown around in Paris.

ANDRÉS: Number one is the Clown Bar.

Inspired by the neighboring Cirque d’Hiver – that’s winter circus – the interior of this très chic venue features a fitting Belle époque mural from the 1920s depicting clowns at play along with green, yellow, and white tiled walls and a curving zinc bar. Great service, natural wines, smiles all round and easy to find in the city’s hip Marais district.

NEIL: Number two, Cirque Phenix.

The 5,500 seat Phenix Circus is one of the largest circuses in the world. The absence of any internal structure enables all spectators to enjoy optimal visibility. This circus, without animals, offers high-flying circus acts, and of course, the spectacular annual Cirque de Demain. 

Tickets are on sale for the 41st event, which kicks off on the 28th of January, 2021.

ANDRÉS: Number three is Moulin Jaune.

It’s home to a world famous Russian clown legend, but also an open experimental laboratory and artistic commune. Just 45 minutes north of Paris in Crécy-la-Chapelle, Clown Slava Poulin invites multidisciplinary artists and artisans to create an adventure where nature, creativity and everyday life are weaved together into joyful, festive and wonderful living. Occasionally, public events and tickets appear on the Moulin Jaune’s Facebook for you to enter into this normally private magical world.

NEIL: Number four, Cirque D’Hiver.

Built in 1852, the Cirque d’Hiver is technically the oldest circus of its kind in the world. Every winter, the Bouglione family presents a new show with an international cast of artists. Clowns, animals, acrobats, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers and jugglers put on a magical show.

ANDRÉS: Number five is the Self Retorik Clown School. If you’ve got a few days in the French capital and want to get seriously out of your comfort zone, Self Retorik can show you the way of clowning and improvisation fast. Teaching the Yat Malmgren method, a series of opposing systems based on character creation.

This same method was used to train British A-listers Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hardy.

NEIL: That’s it for this week guys. Next week on the show we’re off to South Africa. Johannesburg to find out all about science fiction and the artists pushing Afrofuturism around the world. We’ll see you next week.

ANDRÉS: And as always, you can find us on Instagram @passportpodcasts or on the web at frequencymachine.com/passport.

NEIL: This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Jennifer Carr, and edited by Neil Innes.

Huge thanks to Ben Radford, Pascal Jacob, Kiva Murphy and Igor Mamlenkov.

We will put appropriate links to all of these people if possible in our show notes.

Our theme music is by the always clowning Nick Turner.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Eliza Engel is our production assistant.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are currently sitting ringside getting their faces painted. They also executive produce the show.

Which is hosted by myself and a man who sometimes goes by the name honking and horny, Andrés Bartos. See you in the next place!  

 

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.