A laugh riot

A Laugh Riot

Clowns have long tossed cream pies, acted like buffoons and generally given fools a bad name

National Post June 27, 2009

Are you one of those bozos who thought clowns were only meant to scare children? Meet Sue Morrison, clown teacher extraordinaire. She’s trained many a successful buffoon: Cirque du Soleil has recruited more clowns from her than from any other teacher. Her students have gone on to be Blue Men, street performers and stars of one-clown shows. This year, the Fringe Festival features Red Bastard, a show she directed and co-wrote with New York’s Eric Davis. The rest of the world loves her work, too; Morrison has taught in New York, Brazil, Germany, France and Sweden, discovering that her shows could stay the same no matter where they were performed. “It transcends language,” she says.

Her classes are taught in an unassuming theatre on Gerrard Street East called The Centre of Gravity. Clown school isn’t what you’d expect: Forget tiny cars, forget Krusty. “On the first day of class,” Morrison explains, “everyone gets a chance to wear the nose.” You stand onstage and, without uttering a sound, make eye contact with each classmate. Morrison calls it a conversation with the audience– you have to communicate with nothing more than your presence. It’s the essence of clowning. And it’s not easy.

Morrison teaches her students to let go of their inhibitions. “The clown lives between panic and possibilities,” Morrison says. Think about every tough decision you’ve made, your stomach churning with vulnerability and excitement. That is the constant state of Clown. “It’s not about being stupid, it’s about being open,” Morrison explains

In class, I watch a large man in a dangerously small loincloth slink onstage. I don’t even notice the nose at first. But it’s defiantly there: a red rubber bulb pressed to his face with a piece of fishing line. His movements are painfully delicate, as if he were carrying some big weight the rest of us can’t see. After looking at us one by one, he lets out the kind of moan you can feel in the pit of your stomach. He has the unmistakable demeanour of someone who has just been dumped. I can’t decide if I want to laugh or cry.

As a genre of physical theatre, clowning is about pushing the extremes of human emotion to reveal our inner selves. It’s therapy with an audience.

But if stereotypes are so bad, why do clowns hold on to the most recognizable one of all? What’s with the nose? “The nose,” Morrison explains, “is the smallest mask we wear.” Protected from the emotions they’re stirring up, they can cross boundaries, break taboos, bare their souls.

Morrison’s classes attract more than artists. At age 18, Shokoufeh Shakhi was arrested for handing out political pamphlets “for the wrong party” at her high school in Iran, and spent eight dangerous years as a political prisoner. Twenty years later, she was still afraid of the dark, afraid of speaking in public, afraid of being alone. “In class, Sue made me tear down these walls I’ve built around myself,” Shakhi says. “I was completely vulnerable, but I finally faced my demons.

“It’s amazing how much your sense of yourself changes when there’s a nose on your face.”

For details on Sue Morrison’s classes, visit canadianclowning.com

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