Clowning for Coaches
What clowns can teach us about truthful coaching and why truth matters
‘The clown’s body is essentially a body "de-shamed" in the strictest sense of the term because the key to the artistic work of the clown is that he plays on his own faults, which are first and foremost physical, then moral, in order to gradually overcome shame.’
- Alessandra Farnetia, Federico Pallonia
Clowning. A word that brings up for most of us the Batman Joker and horror movies. In this month’s newsletter I want to introduce you to a different side of clowning that is less often experienced: clowning as a tool for self-exploration.
The clowning I am interested in uses a combination of physical theater, mime and open-hearted presence to help us connect with fallibility, fragility, fun, play, chaos, the unexpected, chance, irreverence, silliness and joy.
How I got to clowning:
Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Norman, Mr Bean were regular household names as I was growing up. My parents loved them and I enjoyed their laughter. My first experience of a clown in real life was around thirteen. My best friend and I decided we’d go into town and visit the circus that had recently arrived. It was a big feat for us to take a bus to the other side of town as youngsters and that in itself made the experience enthralling. We were sitting in the first row. There were very few people in the audience. The clown asked me to come on stage and help out with one of his numbers. He was holding a rope with a wooden heart on it and I had to tell the heart to go up or down. I told it to go in one direction but it was meant to go the other. Even so, I was mesmerized by him. I found it utterly fascinting that behind the make-up there was a person. That tension captured me.
After this experience it wasn’t until I was twenty-eight that I went to a clowning workshop. It was the first time I put on a red nose and performed in front of an audience. The prompt we were given was to freely interact with each other’s energies through mime and movement. And at the same time make eye contact/connect with the audience. As we interacted with each other we let the dynamics unfold between us and eventually a group of people were miming taking one person captive. At this point I got close to the audience and raised my arms and eyebrows to say ‘I have no idea what is happening.’ And I literally didn’t. I was feeling uncomfortable and scared too. That was my first clowning moment - letting the audience in on my inner experience as it was unfolding and forming a connection with them. They laughed.
‘The clown isn’t an actor or character. The clown is a person representing all of us in one way or another, representing our imperfections and who we are, with the grand desire of creating a universal ‘we’.
- Aziz Gual
How does this connect to coaching? I’ve been reading ‘Clowns’, a book made up of interviews with twenty master contemporary clowns. I’m finding there are two main strands in clowning that inspire me to show up with more truth in my coaching practice. A truth that I will aim to further contextualize here. Learning about clowning inspires me:
a. To learn to get better at letting myself be changed by the coaching process
‘What does it mean to you to be better?
‘To be better technically, this is normal. But for me, it refers much more to an interior attitude. To become better is to come closer and closer to my dream about the clown. I still have a dream of a clown, a perfect clown, who is like a child. He only has to come on stage and you are touched.’
- Dimitri in Clowns, E LeBank, D Bridel
If I am to coach I need to be willing to be impacted by the people I work with and be changed by them; and that is a reciprocal process. Opening up to be changed in order to enact change in your life.
We can’t retain full control or otherwise we are not in relationship with each other. And we know we’ve let go in a coaching conversation when neither of us knows what will happen next but we both feel that something has changed in a manner that brings about potentiality, movement forward and felt excitement; sometimes, that can also involve grief, fear, uncertainty and hesitation; but always a sense of connection.
Most of the time change happens organically held by a process of consistency and returning to. It takes that walk to the shop - the random images and encounters we have on the way, those many days of taking a photo a day, or reading a paragraph from a book for a year, that accumulation of focused effort and equally surrender, in order to be influenced and eventually changed and becoming one to effect change.
And so for me, coaching wouldn't be necessary if it wasn't about connection, because if it was about a to-do list then we could do that on our own. Our thinking and feeling transforms in the presence of people with whom we feel we can create an ecosystem of safety, creativity and spontaneity to learn. This authentic relating asks for a real investment of us: our time, energy, attention, heart and even soul. It also requires an active approach to communicating: the willingness, ability and commitment to return to ourselves and to each other in order to repair, to understand, to prompt change.
b. Staying close to my truth so that encounters with others generate shared truth
'The clowns who are masters are the ones who are themselves. They make something wonderful out of who they truly, deeply and simply are. They don't hide or conceal themselves in clown character, to appear as someone else, or someone good or someone right.'
- E Lebank, D Bridel in Clowns
Coaching to stay as close to truth as possible. What do I mean by truth? I mean that sense you have in yourself that you are living a life that feels right in your body and deep self. Sometimes this is very hard to pinpoint but I recognise it as a sense of ease and comfort about one’s days which don’t exclude and invariably still contain doubt, difficulties, sometimes tragedy, others joy.
What does it mean to be true as a coach? How do I know I am staying close to my truth during a coaching session? Realness: being present to my experience of myself and the other; sharing that experience in the moment; a constant facing of the truth in relationship and communicating it with gentleness, patience, care and respect. More often awkwardly, shyly and at times whilst also acknowledging fear and shame.
I find that when I avoid the truth of my experience as a coach the conversation becomes more prone to misunderstanding. Clowning achieves this truth because there is no other option on that stage but to be yourself. The moment you try to pretend, or imitate, we, as the audience know that you are disconnected from yourself, and thus from us. In coaching, truth might not be safe to reach sometimes but acknowledging that to ourselves and each other is the beginning of presence.
I’m trying to stay away from saying that truthfulness will absolve the process of change of its difficulty. I think I’m trying to say the opposite. As with open-heartedness, truthfulness may come with terror, fear, dissapointment, grief, as well as grace, love, compassion and lightness. But I think it’s worth it because it ultimately leads us to ourselves and each other.
Where I’m taking this next:
UCL Day Workshop on Clowning in Urban Culture
I will be attending a day-long event exploring the prominent and controversial figure of the clown between tradition and innovations. Touching on themes such as: clowning for mind, body and soul; sad, scary and sadistic clowns in films; political clowns; truth tellers and clowning politicians.
How you can work with me:
One-to-one coaching conversations (Book on Calendly)
I’m always looking for new coaching work and job opportunities. Get in touch if you are looking for someone or would like to simply connect.
Find more information about my work on the website.
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