Hopi-Clowns

I have applied for a job. Yes, a job. And beyond all expectations, I have been granted an interview. AN INTERVIEW. I haven’t had an interview for over 15 years. Mainly because instead of interviews I do auditions which are even more nerve-wracking, but at least you get to hide behind a character or an attitude or song or a piece of choreography or a voice. You play someone else, not yourself. But an interview means just you, being you, or a sweaty version of you, sitting on a chair and trying your hardest not to blurt out “I’M OFTEN LATE, I NEED AN HOURLY COFFEE BREAK AND I WILL PROBABLY HAVE SEX WITH A COLLEAGUE THUS WREAKING HAVOC IN THE COMPANY!” while answering questions politely and trying to dislodge that bit of salad from your front teeth without them noticing.

I am also very out of practice when it comes to selling myself, be it auditions or interviews. I have now spent a good 5 years at home being pregnant and peeling small children off my legs, with just a few performing/recording projects scattered sparsely thoughout that time. And before that I spent 4 years touring with a fab company which meant I didn’t need to look for work elsewhere. So the idea of being sat in the hotspot with people asking me questions and peering at me over spectacles, taking notes and tutting (I sort of imagine it will be like sitting in my old headmaster’s office, having being caught clad in denim and leather, snogging 6th form stud Mark Chadwick at the front gates, just when the school inspector was arriving) … well, it rather gives me the willies. Although in that context, the phrase is probably a little too accurate.

And what is this job for which I will be interviewed in just 2 weeks time? We live in the middle of nowhere. There are more sheep and goats than people in our little pocket of countryside. Who is going to employ an English actress around here? No-one, that’s who. Which is why I have extended my possible commuting distance to 200km and have applied for a job in Marseille. Which sounds ridiculous, I know, but a) it’s a company I have wanted to join for years now, and b) you only work one or two days a week. This is very unusual. Most performing companies have a good long rehearsal period lasting weeks or months, and then performance dates up and down the country. If you want an audience you have to move around, from theatre to theatre, from festival to festival. But this company rarely has an audience of more that 4 or 5 people – often just one person – a small one – who might even be half-asleep. And the performers stay in the same small number of buildings all year round. In hospitals.

The company is based in Paris and was founded 20 years ago by a determined, dynamic American woman, Caroline Simonds. She spent 3 and a half years working in childrens’ wards in New York with “Big Apple Circus – Clown Care Unit” and came to France in 1991 to create her own company which she named Le Rire Médecin. Twenty years down the line and the company has 86 actor-clowns working in numerous hospitals across France; Paris, Marseille, Nantes, Orléans-Tours and Nancy. They work mainly in wards treating children for cancer. Doctors and nurses who were once reticent at the idea of a load of clowns running around their hospital, have been won over. They have seen the uplifting effect the clowns have on the children in their wards – on the parents and the medical team too – and now clowns, doctors and nurses work together with mutual respect for each other. In 1997 The Lancet printed an article on the company, explaining the role of the clowns in hospitals and affirming that they are a huge benefit to all those concerned. The article won the company recognition in the medical world.

I discovered their existence a few years ago through friends who were working for them. I was fascinated. I thought it was a brilliant idea and the fact that it is actually happening is even more brilliant. I have never spent more than a week in hospital with either of my kids, but even just a week is a long time when you’re in one room for most of the day. And my kids didn’t have anything too serious; wheezy bronchiolitis when Tommy was 9 months old, a urinary tract infection when Léonie was 3 weeks old, a bad case of gastroentiritis for both of them, but nothing that really threatened their life and nothing that couldn’t be treated easily, with the surefire outcome that we would be home in a few days and get back to our everyday life. Most of the little patients Le Rire Médecin work with are children with cancer, in hospital for weeks and months on end, coping with the awful side-effects of chemotherapy. Some might relapse and some just don’t get better. I cannot imagine what it must be like, or how their parents must feel. I recently read the book Caroline Simonds wrote in 2001 on her experience in a childrens’ ward in Paris. It is an eye-opener. It is touching and funny and also very sad. I called a friend of mine who is an actor-clown in the company. “What if I’m too sensitive to cope with this kind of work?” I asked him. “You have to be sensitive to do this kind of work” he replied.

The company have also made a documentary about their work. Here’s a clip. Even the clip makes me well up. Maybe I am too sensitive for this job.

The word “clown” in England conjours up images of scary-looking men in huge, garish trousers, giant shoes and far too much make-up, being loud and annoying and generally very unfunny in a big-top or at a childrens’ party. This is not the case over here in France (erm – there are exceptions). In the 60’s Jacques Lecoq changed the idea of clowns and clowning. Teaching different styles of theatre in his school, he decided to teach clowning. He dropped the excessive make-up and over-the-top costume, leaving just a simple red nose, and taught his pupils to be as neutral, as honest, as ‘themselves’ as possible; a sort of basic comic state. Lecoq opened up a new chapter in the history of clowning and in France nowadays ‘clown’ basically means a comic character. Not even necessarily with a red nose.

Ah, that red nose. It is the one thing that frightens me where being onstage is concerned. Comic acting is something I feel at home with, thanks to a childhood of Monty Python, Fry & Laurie, French & Saunders, Victoria Wood, Blackadder … give me a silly character or a ridiculous situation to play, a chef’s hat or a fat bushy moustache to wear and I’m away. But put a red nose on my face and I freeze up completely. A red nose? What? I have to “be funny”? Like circus clowns? Bloody nightmare. The problem is exactly that : the circus clown thing. Because in general, clowns in traditional circuses are NOT very funny. Well, I don’t think they’re funny. Too much bad mime stuff  and going through the motions and sadistic grinning at the audience as if to say “Laugh! LAUGH!” Which is why I have to remind myself each time I put a red nose on my face that I am just a silly character who happens to have a red blob on the end of my nose. The nose helps serve as a code for the audience – and I think this must be especially useful in hospitals. When the patients, families and medical team see a red-nose on your face, they can immediately situate you.

So despite my aversion to red noses, I am currently embracing them, as I really do want to be part of this company. I have dug out my old egg-box full of red noses and chosen the roundest one. My clown is called “Teapot”, she speaks bad French with a Sheffield accent, is a karate pink-belt, rides a motorbike, believes she is a star in Fame and can imitate every animal in the universe. If I get through the Rire Médecin interview on the 8th of March and they choose to audition me, I will then not sleep for 2 weeks. Oh, nothing unusual there, then.

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3 thoughts on “Hopi-Clowns

  1. Good luck with the job Claire – it sounds like a very courageous thing to do, something I have no doubt you are capable of being brilliant at.

    By the way, that guy in the 6th form sounds like he was a right git.

    Lots of love,
    Ralph Wrinkles.

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