Works by Julia Brandenberger




A proposal for teaching clown

Failing is a central part of clown.  I would wager that 60% of my red-nose learning experience has been failure, stumbling, not knowing what I’m doing and risking without getting a return.  Clown works so brilliantly as a creative and imaginative wellspring because once we’ve fallen and learned enough, and with the right encouragement, we begin to trust our impulses and trust that no matter how bad we fall, we survive.  At a certain point, deep impulses, voices and ideas that are way beyond what we could have just “thought up” on our own start to come through us and we feel at the service to some hysterical creative force.


The question for me becomes how to give the right encouragement in a laboratory of clowns so that risk, imagination and growth are maximized while self-doubt and shame are minimized.


Here are three kinds of clown which I frequently operate in, defined in my own terms:

The Conduit Fool- The clown that enacts ridiculous behaviors that are so imaginative, illogical and absurd that it seems like the ideas must have come from another realm.  For a performer, this can be marked by the “dream-like” quality and haze that overtakes us, we get off stage in completely happy and thinking “what just happened?”  For the audience, we might experience it as “wow, that was genius”.

The Perceptive Fool- The clown that speaks to universal human pleasures and behaviors that are demonized or cast in the shadows of the culture.  This type clown holds up things that we’d rather not like to admit we enjoy and says “You like this, don’t you? I know you like this” and we laugh because it’s true.  This can also be the satirical clown that does the cathartic “roasting”. 

The Damn Fool- The clown that is trying and just not funny. For performers, it’s when we’re on stage and going …..”damn”…..or maybe “Jesus F****** Christ can’t you people even crack a smile?!!”  This clown doesn’t make anyone laugh, looks awkward, and feels painful.  This is the clown that we have to struggle with when we’re first finding comedic voice or when in a situation in which we are having a hard time expressing or making an audience see what we see. 


I’ve had a lot of time with the Damn Fool and I think it’s the most important place to go through.  It breaks down barriers between the performer and the audience.  It’s the hellfire that burns up the wall of protection.


Here’s another good thing about the Damn Fool; it allows us to practice the most important part of any learning process which is getting up and trying again.  It falls into what Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly calls “shame resilience”.  If we can learn to get up in front of people, give it everything, get nothing back, get steam-rolled by silence, and still come out of it saying, “That sucked but I’m still good, whole and valuable (as Brené would put it). I’m going back on that stage and trying again” then we are so much better aligned to grow tremendously.  I think the key to developing this kind of resilience is being able to trust both ourselves and the process.


In learning to clown, the high stakes of “not being funny” are sometimes crippling.  I remember many instances where I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to continue.  It had been incredibly painful the last time that I had fallen and I felt no real support or encouragement, all I felt was shame and disappointment in myself.  I was so afraid of getting on that stage sometimes I thought I’d rather die. 

The upside of that kind of harsh conditioning is it teaches steel-like bravery.  The downside is that it can limit imagination, diminish willingness to try new things, make us resent the process, and most importantly wreak havoc on our self-confidence and trust in our abilities.  The crippling thought was: “I’ll be okay, I’ll be good again, once I can make people laugh.”  It set up an achievement barrier where I would only know my value based on outside cues and approval.


I’m not suggesting that we pat a clown on the back for not being funny.  Clowns are meant to make people laugh, it is literally the role and job of a clown.  Not being funny and getting no laughter is really good feedback.  A clown has to be not funny in order to find out what is funny, and more importantly, cathartic and fun.  What I am suggesting is that we might come up with better stories and encouragement models of how we shift the clown from “I’m not funny, I suck” to “What I just tried on stage wasn’t funny, but I know I’ve got some good impulses and I can listen and I’m worthy of getting up and trying again.”


So how do we get to a culture in which we don’t soften the blow of a fall (which is central to the learning process), but encourage the Damn Fool and reaffirm their worth and bravery?


A few weeks ago I took an improv comedy class at UpFront Theatre in Bellingham where they taught us how to fail and move on in the moment so that we don’t get stuck in embarrassment or shame. 

One of the very first things they did in the class was teach us what to do when we mess up.  The person on stage says “I messed up!” and everyone applauds. 

It’s simple.  It points out that something wasn’t working, the performer doesn’t have to latch on and try to save it or make it work anymore, and everyone applauds to say, “yep and we still believe in you”.


In a clown class, physical cues may be more helpful for those who prefer not to speak in the nose and don’t want to break the spell of the world they are creating. 

I’m imagining that there are a plethora of heartfelt ways to encourage someone who has just failed miserably on stage.  Perhaps one thing to do would be to allow clowns who are just starting out the ability to acknowledge failure on stage in some physical way.  This may help them to be honest on stage and cast off the jitters and negative feelings associated with the “I’m not funny, oh God I suck” spiral.

Another method which wouldn’t interrupt the skit in process would be to allow the clown to come out after the skit saying “I messed up!” and have their peers applaud wildly for them.  This wouldn’t make the fall in the moment any easier, but it would reassure the Damn Fool that mistakes and failure are welcome and shame-free. 

Clowning is an incredibly brave thing to do. The courage in those who approach the subject needs to be en-couraged, cultivated and grown even greater with a "shame-free" way of thinking and teaching.


Julia Brandenberger