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Identifying and Exploring Key Principles of the Clown in Theatre – a practice-led approach

In this study, an artistic research methodology is employed to identify principles of clowning as they are practiced in contemporary clown training workshops, to then offer applications of these within a South African theatre context. Autoethnographic accounts and fictional narratives offer an exploration of the practice of clowning from a personal perspective in multiple roles as clown performer, student, educator and observer, supplemented by an interpretive analysis of existing literature. The past decade has seen a significant increase in allusions to the term ‘clown theatre’ on formal theatre and performance platforms, as well as in critical and practice-based literature. This selfproclaimed category of theatre is yet to be sufficiently theorised and historicised. Both ‘clown’ and ‘theatre’ remain persistently contested and evolving practices. In this study, the term ‘clown theatre’ is employed as a springboard from which to interrogate the complexities of the clown’s presence in contemporary theatre, with the aim of generating dialogue and supporting further innovation in practice. Six case studies of contemporary performance identified as or aligned with ‘clown theatre’ are presented to explore the terminology and practices employed by practitioners. The study uses participant-observation methods to understand principles of clowning as they are currently grounded in training approaches focused on laughter as a marker of success, indicating audience appreciation. Particular attention is paid to practitioners Jacques Lecoq and Phillipe Gaulier and their lineage of clown teaching as it has emerged in the methods employed by contemporary pedagogues such as Jon Davison and Mick Barnfather. Secondary sources are then used to position these clown principles in relation to the historical presence of clown figures on stage, with an emphasis on Bertolt Brecht’s conceptualisation of the clown as protagonist. By critically addressing the multi-faceted approaches to engendering laughter within clown training and performance, this practice-led study uncovers the benefits and challenges that lie in translating clowning into contemporary theatre practice.


Keywords: Clowning, Theatre, Laughter, Failure, Clown-theatre

Full Name
Dr Klara van Wyk