Ph.D -Practice Based Research

Clown: A misfit by profession – Misfitness and clown’s principles of practice

Clown: A misfit by profession – Misfitness and clown’s principles of practice

This peer reviewed article was published in the Comedy Studies Journal 2013

Marcelo Beré, RCSSD

This article delineates a trajectory of research about the clown. It begins with the idea of the Essential Clown and the analysis of the Inner Clown as a fragment of the self, it then follows the research towards Martin Heidegger’s understanding of skilled coping in order to probe the phenomenology of the clown. The central hypothesis of the article is that we should understand the clown as a misfit by profession. It attempts to show that how the clown gets absorbed and involved in performing a task is fundamental to understanding the concept of misfitness, and therefore, to grasping what is involved in the practice of ‘being a clown’. It will be suggested that the clown proposes an alternative approach to, and unique understanding of, cultural and theatrical norms and thus create their own principles of practice. The analysis of the principles of practice for clowns requires a critical analysis of what the clown does or his attitude in the world, or better his behaviour while performing. Clown’s practice and the relationship with the concept of misfitness will be analysed here, identifying four main principles of practice: misfit timing, misfit image, misfit relationship and misfit object. Each one of these principles leads us towards a better understanding of why and how the clown can be seen as a misfit by profession.

principles of practice
clown training

A clown in academia, the trajectory of a researcher

I started my research by questioning if there could be a path towards the essential clown. By essential clown I mean something personal and non-transferable. It might be some kind of personal character that one has to develop or construct and/or it could be identified only by individual characteristics of the person where the clown becomes
manifested. Therefore, the Essential Clown can be seen as the ‘true clown’, unique to that performer. Based on my process of developing and revealing my own essential clown, I started looking at other clowns and finding that, most of them have what I would call an essential clown, at least the successful ones do. To illustrate my argument I would say that, despite the fact that Charles Chaplin played many characters, from his first character in the beginning of his career seen in the Keystone Films (Lehman, M. 1914, Making a Living, Los Angeles: Keystone), to the comedian at the end of his career in Limelight (1952), the Tramp would be Chaplin’s essential clown.
The essential clown or the Deep Clown, as I previously imagined it, would be some kind of inner self or fragment of the personality. Initially, I intended suggesting that we all have a hidden persona (the Greek word for mask) that can be identified as a clown. This hidden clown is ‘in there’, somewhere inside everyone’s mind, hidden from public view and afraid of being considered ridiculous by observers. Thus, this hypothesis would have led us to the idea that every one of us has a hidden clown persona. This dangerous generalization would have led me on an obscure route with deep psychological and metaphorical parallels, linking the archetypal1 figure of the trickster with the clown soul.2 In other words, an essentialist approach to the clown, where the clown phenomenon would occur in an ‘inner world’ or somewhere hidden in ‘the rooms behind one’s mind’. 3 meaning that the clown phenomenon would be a inner phenomenon occurring in someone’s mind, not in the external and shared world.
This view of the essential clown is, however, too romantic. It is a Rousseau-esque vision: ‘where [the notion of self] captures both the spontaneous child within and the “noble savage” that exists (or is imagined to have existed)’ (Guignon 2004: 59). From this perspective the essential clown could be seen as something hidden in a closet, waiting for someone to come and release it from its chains. However, if the clown is a hidden phenomenon, how can one perceive it? How can an ‘Inner Clown’ become an ‘outer clown’? This Cartesian assumption that there is an inner/private self, different from the public self, also led me to an endless labyrinth. I came to the realization that the focus of the research was not the essential clown per se but in some of the essential qualities a clown should have in order to make himself present in the scene being enacted be it on the stage, the street, the circus ring, the film or simply the world. The focus of the research changed from something happening ‘inside the performer’s head’ to the necessary interaction that clowns should have while performing.
The problem then was to define the concept of body/mind in relation to the clown. Or
rather, how to make the idea of an essential clown clear if the focus of my interest was on how the clown becomes manifest or constructed in the body of the performer? Thus, the shifting point in the research process is how to address the body−mind problem.
Body and mind: Problems or solutions?
Reading Taylor Carman on Merleau-Ponty I came across an inspiring statement:

Bodily and mental events are intertwined, they express one another, and so
are never just meaningless occurrences: ‘the life of the body, or the carnal,
and the life of the psyche are involved in a relation of reciprocal expression’,
so that ‘the bodily event always has a psychic significance (Carman 2008: 210).

This ‘reciprocal expression’ relation where body and mind are intertwined is antagonistic to the Cartesian doctrine where mind overtakes the body and controls it like a puppeteer controls a puppet or like an autocratic mind controls a submissive body. In the fragment quoted above I saw the problem of body/mind from a different perspective. I started to question if there is such a thing as an inner clown or a clown mind controlling a nonclown body. And thus found myself re-approaching my initial hypothesis, this time however from the perspective of the manifest action and not the hidden impulse.
Gilbert Ryle ([1949] 2000) suggests in his book The Concept of Mind that the mind is not a ‘ghost in the machine’, that our bodies are not hosts to invisible minds. Ryle’s criticism of the ‘Official Doctrine’ (Carthesianism) and its ‘Category-Mistake’ opened the path to a phenomenological approach to the clown in my research. One way to see what kind of category-mistake Ryle refers to is to consider the idea that body and mind are two distinct subjects. In his book he acknowledges that there is constant cognition or mental states (dispositions) and that they are manifested in the body. The domain of physical skills in sports is a recurrent example in his work. Mind and body are intertwined in the same entity performing an action in the world. Another category-mistake he refers to is to think that ‘knowing-that’ has a primacy over ‘knowing-how’. The former is related to the process of cognition and the latter to the domain of practical skills. ‘Knowing-how’ could be seen as an ever-changing state of acquiring, learning and developing skills. This led my research towards another phenomenologist in order to try to understand the concept of a ‘thinking body’. According to Noël Carroll’s analysis of Michelson, taking a cue from Merleau-Ponty’s vocabulary: ‘The body is not merely a mindless machine. It is mindful. It possesses a bodily intelligence – […] a carnal knowledge […] – which is behaviorally incarnated and manifested in action’ (Carroll 2007: 5). The idea that the body ‘carries’ knowledge, or better, that we carry knowledge in our bodies, is an important perspective for the study of clowns. Reviewing my early training as a clown with LUME in Brazil I revisited L. O. Burnier’s ideas of the psychophysical−corporeal clown: ‘The logic of the clown is physical-corporeal: he thinks with his body’ (2001:217). Using myself as a case study and observing other clowns I realized that this ‘carnal knowledge’ is the base of the clown’s performance. The question at this point is: can the performer train his body to ‘think’ like a clown? I wondered if physically clowns have a differentiated way of behaving from other performers. The posture of the body, the way the body is positioned in the space, and the movements of the body in clown’s acts is a very interesting point of analysis and definitely is part of my research. How do the movements of a clown differ from those of a non-clown’s? What kind of physical skills do clowns have to master in order to be considered clowns? Is it just a matter ofphysicality and a mastery of certain physical skills or it is something related to attitude? By attitude I mean an evaluative response to a given situation. Almost every culture has rules and norms that help regulate the flux of human behaviour. Fitting into these norms and following the rules is what make us ‘fitted-in’ people. We have a tendency to follow cultural patterns and obey the rules. In most western cultures we have breakfast in the morning, stop at a red light and wear shoes on our feet.
However, the clown is the one who can wear shoes on his hands or use them as a vase for plants or eat them as if they were a Thanksgiving turkey like Chaplin does in Gold Rush (1925).
These questions led to a new problem that, once again, changed the direction of my
enquiries: can we analyse the clown as an ontological misfit?
Misfit and ‘misfitness’
Misfit is a term usually used for something or someone that does not fit in (miss + fit) to the norms of a given society or culture. Many clown figures represent the archetypal social misfit. Chaplin’s little tramp is the iconic example of the clown as a social misfit. The idea of a social misfit is relatively easy to understand if we take for granted that western culture is ruled by contingent norms. We conform to the expectations placed upon us by social norms and practices; if one does not fit in to this model one is considered a misfit. Further on in this article, I will try to show that to be a misfit is not
enough to make a person a clown. However, it will be indicated that to accept and work one’s own misfitness is one of the steps to be taken in order to work, construct and reveal one’s clown.
According to Martin Heidegger (1996) we are never at home in the world. I do not intend to over simplify the German philosopher. My interpretation is that he suggests that we were ‘thrown’ into existence without the chance of choice in terms of time and space. In short, we are not able to choose when or where we are due to be born. Nevertheless, our being-in-the-world demands that we develop interpretative skills in order to make sense of our own existence. To live requires choices and it requires us to interpret situations. How one copes, gets absorbed and gets involved while performing a task is fundamental to understanding the concept of misfitness, and therefore, to grasping what is involved in the practice of ‘being a clown’.
The concept of misfitness is derived from the idea of the ontological misfit or the misfitbeing-in-the-world, or better, being-there (in the world) as a misfit. My argument is that misfitness, thus grasped, specifically in relation to the Heideggerian concept of
‘throwness’ also implies modes of interpreting, coping, dealing, adaptation and/or nonadaptation to the norms. Dasein, Heidegger’s jargon for the human being in the world, is related to ‘throwness’ and also projection. It is related essentially to the idea of nullity, or in other words, in order to be we must press into some way of being.
The idea that we were thrown in the world, without having the chance of choosing our parents, place of birth or even chronological time of our birth leaves us in a position of a ‘natural born not-fitted’ that means, before trying to fit in we find ourselves in a nullity condition, not necessarily fitting into any pre-established norms. My approach here is that the ontological misfitness is directly related to the state in our life where we do not yet choose, cope or interpret ways of being. I am suggesting that ontological misfitness is a primordial state of being. I am also indicating that other kinds of misfitness are derived from this ontological one and are manifested in our daily lives. Nevertheless, the Heideggerian concept of projection presents some kind of hope, meaning that, depending on the way we interpret and cope with situations, we might be able to fit in to the established norms of our culture in a better or worse way. I am suggesting that the clown presses into the misfit way of being in the world. One metaphorical way of looking at this problem is: we either join the choir of conformists or we are out of tune. I am suggesting that the clown is out of tune with the culture of conformism. Clown could be seen as a non-conformist, or in other words, a representative of misfitness. My interpretation suggests that clowns reveal through their actions norms of a culture but concomitantly transgress them. What is to be analysed in this article is not the clown as a social misfit or the essential misfit condition of the human being but clowns as agents that reveal (and use) misfitness in their practice. My approach here is to study the clown as someone that has misfitness behaviourally incarnated and manifested in action.
Principles of practice and misfitness
The premise here is that the misfitness of the being is revealed in the way of being of the clown. Part of this research is to examine if the clown, while in action, shows through his practice, ways of being a misfit. The point of interest now is if we could identify some principles of practice of clowns that are linked to the concept of misfitness. Despite researching the individual quality of each performers’ clown, a next step seems to be to question whether there is such a thing as principles of practice of the clown, or indeed even techniques of the clown. Thus, the artisan, transmissible, quality of the clown’s work comes into question. The clown’s principles of practice are more than just technique, or better, they cannot be reduced to techniques. The principles of practice are revealed in the acts of the clown, in his action, his practice. It is how the clown practises his craft, or what is at the basis of these practices. Here I will go back to the concept stated above that the body has a ‘carnal knowledge’. My viewpoint is that clowns are performers that develop specific skills, most of them physical skills that are embodied.
According to Bourdieu: ‘What is “learned by body” is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is’ (2005: 87). I am suggesting that a clown is what a clown does. That means, what the performer does defines the clown’s persona. Therefore, the analysis of principles of practice for clowns requires a study of what the clown does or his attitude in the world, or better his behaviour while performing.
I will now go onto to analyse four forms of misfitness that are related to the practice of the clown: misfit timing, misfit image, misfit relationships and misfit objects. It is important to say that this attempt to codify clown’s principles of practice is a way of
interpreting clown’s acts that might help a better understanding of clown’s performances and could have some pedagogical application.
Misfit timing
One of the basic principles in clowns’ practice is the way they deal with timing in their
performances. Despite the fact that each clown’s act has its own characteristics, dealing
with time in a peculiar way can be one of the things that identify clowns as clowns. The
misfit timing of the clown can be seen as a combination of unexpected pauses, impossible
speed and the unnecessary slow motion. The arhythmic (in relation to daily life, not in
relation to music) quality of the clown’s actions plays on the spectator’s corporeal,
sensorial and kinaesthetic4 expectations. Clowns’ tendency to trip, tumble, stumble and
fall with acrobatic skill gives them the feeling of being indestructible unpredictability
eccentric. The kinaesthetic surprise that the clown’s timing offers keeps the spectator
engaged and amused.
What has this got to do with timing: Clown’s acts allow the performer to be the narrator
and the character of the story at the same time. The misfit timing happens when the
clown interacts with the audience and lets them take part in the story. From this
perspective, the here and now for the clown is a sort of fluid ‘there’, where the actual
time is commented and performed concomitantly.
Misfit image
It would be impossible to talk about just one image of the clown. Each of us has a
different interpretation of the figure of the clown. I want to try to highlight a quality that
is essential to the image of the clown that helps us define another principle of practice. I wish to suggest that what helps us define a clown as a clown is exactly the figure whose image does not fit into all that surrounds it. The clown, and his numerous variations, presents himself to the audience as someone that is different from the average. The costume of the clown is a fundamental part for the conception of the misfit image of the clown. As Alex Clayton says in his book The Body in Hollywood Slapstick: ‘The clothes define the clown: mark him out from others, shape his body and delineate his identity’ (2007: 68). The most common image of the clown in western cultures is the Auguste, with red nose and colourful clothes. Probably we could trace a genealogy for the figure of the Auguste, from the early nineteenth century up to the present day, but this would be another article in itself. I will limit the scope of this analysis to saying that Albert Fratellini, one of the Fratellini Brothers, and the way he dressed and used make-up in the 1920s is the one who most influenced other western clowns and our visual ideal of what a clown should look like. In other traditions, as in the Brazilian religious celebrations, The Kings Folly, the clown, Mateus, wears not only a transgressive costume (a uniform that suggests a deserter) but also paints his face black (using either diesel with coal or burnt cork) and uses profane props that ironize the religious ritual (e.g. a necklace that mimics the rosary where each bead is a figure that is an iconoclastic version of religious figures). In other cultures the clown is an important figure, such as in the tribe of Krahos no Alto-Xingu Indians in Brazil. In this tribe the Hotxua (the sacred clown) is the one who has the licence to behave differently in specific situations. The Hotxuas have a different way of painting themselves and wearing detailed costumes (usually using elements from the forest but sometimes pieces of ornaments that mock the ‘white man’). Apart from being hunters and gatherers, like the rest of the tribe, they perform on special occasions (festivals or rituals). They are a being who does not look like the rest of the tribe. That which differentiates the Hotxuas daily figure from his clown figure is the way he looks and the way he behaves. His make-up (face paint made of forest fruits and chalk) and his belongings are used as an unwritten contract that allows him to be the profanator sacred clown.5 However, the image or the costume or make-up of the clown provides an almost two dimensional image. The misfit image of the clown is more than just a painted face, wigs, clothes and shoes that do not fit, or even the red nose. Many clowns do not use these things and yet still look like someone who does not fit into the norms of the culture they are performing in. Jacques Tati is a classic example of the clown-like figure that does not look like a clown. In spite of the fact that his clothes are a bit smaller than they should be, M. Hulot (Tati’s clown character) looks like an ordinary man of his culture. What make him a clown are his behavioural responses to a given situation that does not fit with the established norms. Most figures that we can call clowns have, in one way or another, an image that does not fit with the conventional image of the human being for a specific culture. However, it is not only the external appearance of the clown that makes up his image. The image of a misfit is directly related to the attitude and behaviour of the clown.
Misfit relationship
The clown exists in relation to others, the audience, fellow clowns, material things, music, etc. The clown uses his eyes and carefully timed looks to establish all kinds of relationships, often looking at something an inordinate number of times in order to
highlight its comic qualities. His ability to be in-the-moment is deeply related to his ability to react to what is happening in the here and now and these events are often created by the other, meaning non-clowns. The relationship he creates with the other is of a different quality than that in conventional theatre and invites the audience to also perceive the normal through transformed eyes. The audience is not an anonymous and passive presence in the dark. They are heard, sometimes seen, and always reacted to. They are so integrally part of the performance that a clown performance cannot be
finished until rehearsed with them as the ultimate stage partner. John Wright, following the Lecoquian tradition calls this relationship with the audience ‘complicity’: ‘Complicity is a creative force in its own right […] it is the art behind everything […] in any team of people who have to work together in a way that demands structure and spontaneity’ (2011: 48). However, the complicity that clowns propose is based on sensitive responses to the audience reaction through impulses of stupidity. These impulses do not necessarily fit in conventional patterns of acting techniques. It could be said that clowns relationship with others is based on misfitness, meaning that they bring to light the absurdity of human kind.

Misfit objects
Another principle of practice for clowns could be called the misfit objects, or better, the
misfit relationship with objects. It seems as if in a clown’s world nothing is what it seems and everything can become something else. Clowns have a tendency to transform objects beyond their utilitarian and daily selves into something that they are not. Or they perceive and highlight through their actions features and qualities of a regular object that transform it into something beyond that which the audience initially perceived. I am suggesting that the ways clowns perceive things and manipulate them also induces a change in the audience’s perception of things and the world itself. In relation to objects it is not the ‘what-for’ that matters, it is the ‘what-else-for’. Heidegger’s idea of ‘a piece of equipment is defined in terms of what one uses it for’ (Dreyfus 1991: 63) is challenged and extended by the way clowns use an object. I want to suggest that clowns see and show new uses for objects as part of their practice in order to disclose some extra functionality, redefining in this way the what-for, or the original function of the object, to the what-else-for, or the expansion of the original functionality.
The Swiss born clown Grock, known as the ‘king of clowns’, tells us in his

Ever since I can remember all kinds of inanimate objects have had a way of
looking at me reproachfully and whispering to me in unguarded moments: ‘We
have been waiting for you… at last you’ve come… take us now, and turn us into
something different. (Grock 1931: 29)

To give life, sometimes a voice and a personality, to an inanimate object is not seen as
appropriate for an adult though it is acceptable in the child’s make-believe world.
However, the clown’s relationship with objects transcends the barriers of adult behaviour going back to an infantile state where the imagination commands the action. It is as if the clown brings the absurdity and non-sense of the child’s world to light.

Misfitness and clowns
The attempt to find some principles of practice for clowns related to misfitness might not be sufficient for the understanding of contemporary clowns and their acts. My argument is that, analysing clowns through the idea of misfitness might help us to get closer to what a clown is. Being a misfit does not make a person a clown. Not all misfits are clowns and it would be naïve to say that all clowns are misfits. However, working the principles of practice based on misfitness might be a way towards finding and developing ones clown.
Performers who are clowns might be able to use techniques and principles of practice
related to misfitness in order to improve their performance. Working on their misfitness is not intended to make them better misfits, but better clowns.

Barba, E. and Savarese, N. (2006), A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, London and
New York: Routledge.
Bourdieu, P. (2005) ‘Belief and the Body’ in Fraser, M. and Greco, M (Eds.) The Body: A
Reader. Oxford: Routledge.
Burnier, L. O. (2001), A Arte de Ator: da Técnica `a Representação (The Arte of the
Actor: from Technique to Performance) , Brazil: Campinas, Editora Unicamp.
Carman, T. (2008) Merleau-Ponty, Oxford: Routledge.
Carroll, N. (2007), Comedy Incarnate, Buster Keaton, Physical Humor, and Bodily
Coping, London: Blackwell.
Chaplin, C. (1925), Gold Rush (DVD, 1993), Hollywood: Warner Bros.
____ (1952), Limelight (DVD, 1993), Hollywood: Warner Bros.
Clayton, A. (2007), The Body in Hollywood Slapstick, London: McFarland.
Dreyfus, H. (1991), Being-in-the-World, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gaulier, P. (2007), The Tormentor, Paris and London: Editions Filmico.
Grock (1931), Life’s a Lark, London: William Heinemann Ltd.
Guignon, C. (2004), On Being Authentic, London: Routledge.
Heidegger, M. (1996), Being and Time (Trans. Macquarrie, J & Robinson, E.), New
York: Perennial Classics..
Hillman, J. (2009), Healing Fiction, Connecticut: Spring Publication.
Jung, C. (2003), Four Archetypes, London: Routledge Classics.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002), Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge.
Ryle, G. ([1949] 2000), The Concept of Mind, London: Penguin Classics.
Tati, J. (1958), Mon Oncle, The Jaques Tati Collection, 2012 (DVD), BFI, London.
Wright, J. (2011), Why Is That So Funny?, London: Nick Hern Books.

Contributor details
Marcelo Beré has been clowning since 1982. He is the co-founder of Circo Teatro
Udigrudi ( in Brazil. Beré is currently doing his Ph.D. at
Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. The title of his thesis
is ‘Poetics of the Clown – Principles of practice and misfitness’. His four years research is granted by CAPES – Ministry of Education of Brasil and SE-DF -Secretaria de Educação Distrito Federal.


1 Reference to C. Jung (2003).
2 Reference to J. Hillman (1994).
3 Reference to Jimmy Hendrix Experience (1967) song ‘Up from the Skies’.
4 Barba spoke about the importance of the performer’s affect on the kinaesthetic senses of
the spectator, that is affecting them sensorially and physically and not just logically, at
the I Director’s Meeting organized by Circo Teatro Udi Grudi in Brasília 2007. This
event is documented in a DVD.
5 For further references about Hotxua please check Demian Reis articles at:
hp%2Frevteatro%2Farticle%2FviewFile%2F5745%2F4151&h=fAQFgx0Yz and Also
Pucetti,R.Revista do Lume, Campinas: UNICAMP, n. 6, pp. 109-­‐115, 2005.


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