The art of clowning: butt touching and swears

Last night I spent a few minutes slapping the butts of five different women. And one man.

The was all a function of the Seattle Clown Jam, a small group that meets once a month to practice the art of clowning. These aren’t your typical balloon twisting birthday clowns. These clowns have taken actual classes in clowning. I didn’t even know that there were classes in clowning. And apparently these classes involved butt slapping. So… why weren’t these classes offered at my university?

The classes were held at a place called Theatre Puget Sound, which isn’t actually a place. It isn’t the easiest place to find. If you use Facebook maps, like I did, it plops a pin right at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. I arrived feeling a little intimidated among the clean architecture and the fresh faced little bunheads arriving to practice at the balance beam and what not. Fortunately a kind security guard showed me that the address applied to the entire Seattle Center complex (which is huge, by the way). He directed me to the Armory, the place next to the Space Needle I knew primarily as the stop for the World’s Fair Monorail and the default food court where you take out-of-town visitors when they want to the Seattle’s number one tourist trap.

Even then, the building made no sense. It was full of arrows and staircases that led nowhere. Eventually, I discovered that Theatre Puget Sound was actually a bunch of rooms rented out on the fourth floor. And yet, even then, I was completely lost. The first room I encountered, which had its doors open, had a bunch of tough, tattooed, dark clad people playing around with kendo swords and an assortment of weapons. Either I’d stumbled into the local ninja club, or clowning had taken a very dark turn. (One of the ladies in the club did have purple hair, so it was possible.) I turned my attention to the closed door of room B, where people were laughing. It may have been the Seattle Clown Jam, but I felt a little silly asking a bunch of strangers, “Hey, is this where the clowns meet?”

I may be shameless, but not that shameless.

Eventually, I discovered that Room G, where the Seattle Clown Jam met, was located behind a white door I’d assumed to be the maintenance room. It lead to a narrow brick corridor. I found the sign labled “G”, I opened the door, and everyone died.

It was quite dramatic. I mean, they didn’t literally die. The clowns were playing a game. You have to look each other, and if you make contact, you have to pretend that you’re dying dramatically. There was a lot of very loud screaming just as I opened the door.

That was weird.

I introduced myself that I was an amateur clown, and that I played around mainly with balloon animals and juggling. It soon became apparent to me that there were different kinds of clowns, and the people meeting at the Seattle Clown Jam were not that kind of clown.

What kind of clowns, do you ask? Well, by the end of the evening, I was moving along with the other clowns like a crowd of women with big boobs and big butts. This means hunching over (like ya got big boobs) and sticking out your rear (like ya got big butts). You mill around like a bunch of hookers, try to look sexy and ribald. (You must constantly be thinking of sex, suggests our teacher sternly.) You pretend to spit to the site when commanded. And when the teacher (putting on a randy Italian accent) called me over, I was to walk over sultry like, and tell her to “F*** you.” She would then respond with comments while in character. (“Be light on your feet,” she suggests.)

That was a weird (yet absolutely fun) experience. Truth be told, that last portion was probably even outside the typical purview of the other clowns there. Apparently, some were uncomfortable with the exercise, and if they didn’t want to say “F*** you” they could try for any other epithet. (The teacher suggested “C***waffle”, which… didn’t seem all that much better if you were a person apprehensive about saying “F*** you.”) Bottom line: there are birthday clowns, there are Ringling Brothers circus clowns… and then there are these clowns, who seemed to be big on theatricality.

Between the butt touching and the swearing, though, there were several other worthwhile exercises. One very useful one had us practicing six different stages of emotion. Take, for example, happiness. With level one, you were to portray a face that was mostly blank. Maybe a small curl at the edges of the mouth. At level six, you were the full blown Joker. The biggest challenge, I think, was trying to come up with some ground in between. I mean, what’s a level 4 and a level 5? And is going full on Joker too hammy? Fortunately, I had sadness, a feeling that I can completely relate to. The main criticism was that I needed to keep eye contact with the audience. As simple as that was, it was very valid. Being new, I couldn’t help but stare at how the other members of the Clown Jam were doing.

Another great exercise was a sort of Clown face-off. Two clowns were to try to gain the audience attention as much a possible. This is much harder than it looks. The goal seems to be ramping up the craziness as much as you can, but some participants really nailed it with quiet moments. I can tell you from experience that it is very, very hard to maintain a sort of singular act without being distracted or without totally running out of material. I think I was done 30-seconds into my routine. (Our moderator, knowing I was new, said that I didn’t need to do it. But hey, I didn’t sign up for this thing to just sit around.) So basically I channeled in my inner Falstaff, but ran out of gas after a while and had no idea what to do next. The moderator then encourages you to continue going even after the “winner” has been decided, i.e., acting out being a loser.

Like I said, it was sort of intimidating to be in a room with people who have apparently had theatrical training in clowning. But I think I held my own, and I wouldn’t mind sitting in on another session of butt touching, laughter, swearing, and dying.

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