Playing the fool
Barcelona has a long history of being a good place to clown around. With its perpetual soft spot for clowns, the city now has a high concentration of performers dedicated to prodding at the funny bones of their audiences.
The organisation Pallassos sense Fronteres (Clowns without Borders), which has worked in refugee camps and conflict zones in many parts of the world, began in 1993 in Barcelona. And there are annual clown gatherings here like the Festival Internacional de Pallassos in Cornellà, the 13th edition of which was held last November. It was dedicated to the first great Catalan clown, Charlie Rivel (1896-1983), who was a huge name in 20th-century circus clowning and hailed from nearby Cubelles. Clowns from all over Europe showed up to strut their stuff.
Then there is the International Festival of Female Clowns, which takes place every two years in Andorra, and promotes the women who perform in a traditionally male-dominated industry. It was inaugurated in May 2001, organised by a big name in female clowning, Pepa Plana, who has been performing here since the Nineties.
More recently, Barcelona clowning has become synonymous with Jango Edwards, a Michigan-born clown who settled in the city after a number of years spent living in London. Edwards said there is a real need in the world for people to make others laugh. “I’ve been around a long time. I’ve never seen it so bad. Clowns have the ability to stand up to society’s rules, and thus say something about humanity. Clowns are outlaws. You know why? What laws are there really in life? There are only the laws of nature. Other than that, all the laws are made to control you.”
The word ‘clown’ makes a regular appearance on theatre bills in Barcelona, but for a good handful of these shows there is not a balloon or a child in sight. The Almazen in Raval and the Teatreneu in Gràcia are just two of the venues that have been happy to support the recent growth in adult clown shows. For over a year, the Almazen—a funky theatre with a burlesque vibe—has made clown shows a regular feature of its programming and even showcased clowning at its summer ALMaritím festival at the Museu Maritím, at the distinctly adult-orientated time of 11.30pm. Meanwhile Teatreneu recently played host to Las Gallegas, a darkly humorous double act of female clowns, produced by Barcelona-based Clownfish.
Clownfish co-founder Chris Mitchem, from Cardiff, said that in Barcelona the English word ‘clown’ has been replacing the Catalan or Spanish word (pallasso/payaso) when performers want to be taken seriously. “You say pallasso and people think balloons, children’s shows, and running around,” he said. “You say clown, and it’s as if you’re saying, ‘No, no this is a much more serious thing.’”
Lola González, one half of Las Gallegas, agreed that clowning for an adult audience is gaining popularity and that when people hear the word ‘pallasso’ they associate it with children. González started out as an actress, but later switched her focus to dance. She discovered she had ‘rhythm’ that could be used for comic effect. Her description of how to master clowning is to “...release the child within, the craziness, the fantasy. I remember the first classes I took and I was like, ‘I don’t believe it, I’m playing.’ I was unlearning the things that I had been taught since I was little.”
Jango Edwards, with over 30 years’ experience as a performer, agreed. “My clown workshops make people remember what they forgot. You were born a clown. A clown is based on innocence.”
A visit to one of his classes reveals students cavorting round the room with various household objects stuck to their noses, outlandish miming of musical instruments and pretending to be spoons in his cutlery drawer. The workshops he teaches attract all sorts, he said, including journalists, taxi drivers and police. Once, he persuaded an Italian policewoman to take the course while she was giving him a speeding fine. A year later she quit the force and now works as a professional clown.
Another of Edwards’s students, Rino, has elaborate tattoos covering his arms, and a shaved head. He seems an unlikely clown, but has been working as one for two years, after quitting the fashion industry. “Clowning is a drug,” he told Metropolitan. “Everywhere in the world the emphasis is on being perfect, but clowning is the opposite of perfect.”
Clownfish also uses clowning to draw audiences toward serious issues. One of its first productions, a collaboration with Pallassos sense Fronteres, was No es pot passar (You Cannot Pass), and charted the creation of country borders between three clowns. They used the figure of the ‘white face’ clown—traditionally the outwardly controlling and inwardly stupid clown—as the frontier guard, monitoring the white line. The clowns were all told they needed papers to cross.
As Chris Mitchem described it: “Clown immediately thinks, right I need papers, but what kind of papers? They didn’t tell me that. So they go and try and find newspaper, toilet paper, any kind of paper. Then they try to fool the guard, bribe the guard. And the point is nothing happens, until they get their official paper. And as soon as they get it, it’s like, ‘OK, now what do I do with that? Now I know who I am, thank you for telling me.’”
He explained that the clown logic assimilates a child’s eye view of the world. “How would a child contemplate an armed conflict? How would you try to explain to a child why these people hurt each other? A clown would possibly not understand it either.”
Clownfish’s goal at the moment is to promote the female clowns with whom it is collaborating. Both Chris Mitchem and Jango Edwards agreed that women make the best clowns, for their ‘tenderness’, according to Mitchem, and to Edwards because “clowning is an emotional art. And men are animals.” Good male clowns, he said, are men who have gotten in touch with their feminine sides.
Coral Ros, who performs in Las Gallegas, said there is still much to discover for female clowns, but part of the problem, according to her co-star Lola González, is the subject matter they choose for themselves. “Something that really bothered us was that all the female clowns, all the material in their shows was always about men. I thought, why are all the female clowns talking about men?”
They chose something different for their act, which is set at a funeral. “We are able to do something that matters to us. The world of clowning is perfect for expressing what you want. Last year, we performed at the International Festival for Female Clowns, and I saw there had been a change in the past 10 years, with many more women training as clowns.”
...for a good handful of these shows there is not a child in sight.
Clowns in the City:
Pallasos sense fronteres: www.clowns.org
And their friends...