I have been reflecting on the role of the clown and by extension to purpose and function of clown ministry.
Floyd Shaffer used to teach that in the circus clowns are different than performers. Performers are the skilled acts: animal trainers, aerialists, acrobats. Clowns are … clowns. Performers stay in or above the ring; clowns depart the ring to join the audience in the stands. Clowns provide a link to the majesty of the performers; without the clowns, the circus is mystifying and largely unattainable spectacle. The clowns both interpret what is happening in the ring and provide an emotional connection to those acts.
And so Floyd would say, by extension, clowns depart from the arenas of the “church greats” – theologians, pastors, social justice workers – and go out to the people. Again, the clown acts as bridge.
But I think clowning changed fundamentally since Floyd was teaching. Part of that change has been Cirq du Soliel, the popular face of the movements frequently called Vaudeville Nouveau and the Cirq Nouveau. Tehclown is still a specialized, skilled performer – but clown skills have been made more central to all circus acts. Cirq du Soliel in particular has woven clown characters throughout their shows, frequently combining the roles of clown and ringmaster.
In these movements, the mystifying is brought much closer to the audience – not just by increasing audience participation, but by making clown and performer more human-like and inviting the audience into transcendence.
That’s an interesting paradox.
And I think it may give some clues as to the ongoing emergent role of the clown: being both more human like in order to more genuinely invite others into greater transcendence.