Clean and Clowning

Marian as a clown

Eleven years ago Penny Tompkins and I went on a Nose to Nose clowning course called The Courage to Be. I had no idea what to expect but I thought it sounded interesting and exciting, plus it would be really lovely to spend a week with Penny. It was August, the weather was lovely and we had some great walks around Emerson College, where the course took place. 

With a name like “The Courage to Be” I knew the course would be more about our inner clowns than the funny-shoes, squirty-flower, circus type of clowning, but I was not prepared for quite how much I would learn about myself, nor for how many similarities there would be between clowning and Clean Language. 

For example, one of the principles of clowning, as with all improvisation methods, is that of receiving an offer. If your clowning partner says, “Let's walk in the park,” then it is NOT OK to say, “What park? I can't see a park!” You have to accept the offer, with a “Yes, and…” spirit. Not that you have to say, “Yes, and…” but you have to think it… “That would be good; we may see some ducks.” Then of course, your partner needs to include the ducks in the story. Each person is building on what has gone before.

This is very similar to when a client says, “I’d like to be more confident”. We don’t say, “What do you mean - you are the most confident person I know.” We say, “And you’d like to be more confident. And what kind of confident is that confident?” We use the word “and” and the repetition of the client’s words plus a clean question to encourage them to build on what they said before. Both processes are additive.

Another clowning principle that will resonate with people in the clean world is that of ‘being comfortable with not knowing’. In clowning this means leaving all your ideas for a possible scene outside the door so that when you enter it is pure improvisation. In Clean Language it is about accepting that you will never fully know another person’s landscape, and that you don’t need to know or understand it. The best you can do is ask a question that fits the logic of what’s happened so far. And you need to be prepared for everything to change in an instant – and to keep up when it does. This is good training for clowning, where the same can happen. Even clowning ‘solo’, something unexpected happen – a door can open unexpectedly, a tractor can go by, birds can sing or a mobile phone can go off – and you have to pay attention to this new thing that’s come into the scene and start to engage with it in some way. In both practices you have to keep up!

Last week, Penny and I, along with the lovely Noémie Dehouck, were back at Emerson College attending the very same course - during which I made another link between clowning and clean – but this time, perhaps because I have, with James Lawley, been writing a book on the subject, the link I made was between clowning and Clean Space.

The structure of the improv that gave me the idea is called "Solo". It is very simple: a single clown enters and explores the room. The room is divided into two with a blue rope. The audience sits one side of the rope and the other side is the clown’s stage. In the middle of the stage there is a chair and a vase of flowers. There’s a window, a couple of benches, a glass cabinet with a clock, and some ‘Eurythmy' figures in it. A large board in the corner has been covered with a cloth. And that’s it. As rooms go, there’s not that much to explore, but one after another, clowns come in and find themselves basking in the lights above, making the same shapes as the Eurythmy characters, ‘watering’ the flowers, trying to pull the curtains, ‘fighting’ with an imaginary character behind the board, or simply sitting on the chair and creating what Vivian, one of our clown teachers, calls “a celebration of boredom.”

Then it is my turn. The first part of the proceedings is to leave the room and go into a little side room, full of dressing-up clothes. This is a sheer delight for me and as soon as I enter the room I spy a garment in two of my favourite colours – green and turquoise. It turns out to be a long knitted dressing gown with a zip at the front. Others had dressed in gorgeous long dresses, colourful jackets and neat berets. Yes they were also wearing red noses and were obviously clowns, but they were stylish clowns. This garment is anything but stylish. Nevertheless, I put it on, and I chose a blue hairnet for my head – the kind people wear in hospitals. I think I may as well go for a completely messy look. I add the clowning nose and in so doing, become a clown. 

Standing outside waiting for the tinkle of the bell to signify it was time to enter, I feel really nervous. My heart is pounding and I am wondering what will happen during my turn on stage. Then I hear people moving furniture. I wonder if they are changing things around for some reason. Maybe the bench will have switched places with the chair? It turns out that nothing has moved, but in that moment of wondering I forget to be nervous. The bell rings and it is time to enter. 

I open the door a little, poke my head around it, and take my first look at the audience. They look back and laugh a little. I open the door fully and walk into the room. I am now on stage. Vivian instructs me to stay where I am. I look at the audience; they look at me. They laugh and I guess I must look funny. Then it is time to explore the room. I look around, but somehow, as this clown, I can't make sense of it. 

“Where am I?” I say. 

I notice the pink walls, the slats on the ceiling, the lights, but … "I don’t know where I am!” 

Another clowning principle is that of repetition, so I say, “Where am I?” again. I feel a bit scared and this comes out in my voice. I look at the audience. 

“Who are you?” I say. 

I walk towards them, but nothing seems to make sense. I am in a strange room with a long row of strange people looking back at me. I back away a bit and can feel myself beginning to panic. My breathing is shallow and I am frightened. 

Ali, our other clowning teacher, instructs me to, “Look around,”. 

I see the bench and go to it, grateful for an opportunity to sit down and get my breath back. After a few deep breaths I am ready to connect with what's in the room. I look out of the window and see the sky. 

“There’s the sky,” I say. 

“Name things,” says Ali. 

I notice the flowers. “Flowers,” I say. 

I began to think I might be in a cemetery. But that feels ridiculous and somewhat macabre so I don't voice that thought. 

“Ah, I know”, I say. “It’s a hospital. Flowers, and a chair by the bed. But... there is no bed?” 

Then I look at the audience. Well that is a definitely a waiting room if ever I saw one. 12 people all in a line. They are obviously all waiting for their appointments. 

I get up from the bench and walk towards the audience. 

“Is this a hospital?” I ask. 

“No,” says someone in the audience. 

“Please tell me it’s a hospital!” I exclaim.

Then a fire extinguisher catches my eye. I hadn’t noticed it before. 

“Oh, maybe this is a fire station,” I think. "But why would there be flowers in a fire station?"

I am confused. “It’s a mystery,” I say. 

I move along by the glass cabinet and then spot a thermometer on the wall. 

"Ah ha! It MUST be a hospital. Hospitals have thermometers!" I say. It doesn't occur to me that it's the wrong kind of thermometer.

At this point an image of my father comes to mind. In the last months of his life he had Lewy Body Dementia and for about a month he was hospitalised. He was in a locked ward – and he didn’t know where he was. I realise he must have felt the same way I have been feeling… very lost and confused. One day, he would think he was on a ship, another in a prison. Sometimes he guessed ‘hospital’ correctly. 

At that point, the bell rang, to signify, it was time to leave, and I return to the door, take a last look at the audience and pronounce again, “It’s a mystery!” before returning to the dressing up room, divesting myself of this particular inner clown, donning my own clothes and becoming Marian again. 

In the feedback session afterwards, I tell everyone about the image of my father, and Ali says she thought I had something like that in mind earlier in the session. I learn that the ‘cemetery’ image had come to a few other people, while some had thought of an old people’s home. Of course, the dressing gown and the hospital hair net had primed me to go down this route, but I wasn't aware of that at the time.

It wasn’t really a funny piece of clowning, but people described it as being very real and profound and that it had held their attention. Vivian said he liked the moment when I said, “Please tell me it’s a hospital!” He said that showed a true commitment to the clown’s reality. (Commitment is another clowning principle.) My own experience was that it had been very weird and surreal, like I really was somebody else… 

It was later that the idea of a relationship with Clean Space came to mind. I was writing up the session in my journal, and drew a little map of my journey through the space, which reminded me of some of the maps of people’s Clean Space sessions I created for the book… and I realised that my journey around the space could be thought of as travelling to a number of identifiable spaces, which I have now named:

Space 1, by the door: “Where am I?”

Space 2, front of stage, looking at audience: “Who are you?”

Space 3, backed into a corner, shallow breathing: “Scared.”

Space 4, on the bench: “It’s a hospital!”

Space 5, near the fire extinguisher: “Maybe it’s not”

Space 6, near the thermometer: ‘Image of Dad”

Return to space 1, by the door: “It’s a mystery”


Of course, the spaces aren’t networked, but it would be easy to write these names on Post-its, lay them out in a similar formation and morph the clowning process into a Clean Space one, with:

“And return to one of the spaces.” 

“And now what do you know here”

“And what do you know here about Scared? etc. 


And as I write, I am realising this fits nicely with the “Getting Creative with Clean Space” chapter in our book, Insights in Space.

There are many more similarities between Clean and Clowning to be explored, and I am thinking a "Clean and Clowning" course would be a great joint event at some point. If you'd be interested in such an event, or in a week of pure clowning (i.e. attending a "The Courage to Be" course) with other clean practitioners, please let me know.

And if you'd like to buy a copy of our book, you can pre-order it here.

Tags: clean language, clowning, james lawley, penny tompkins, insights in space, emerson college, clean space, noemie dehouck

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
Marian founded Clean Learning in 2001, following a successful career as a maths teacher, then many years developing and delivering world-famous learning programmes with an international organisation. She is an expert Clean facilitator, is an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. Marian designs our programmes and workbooks. She leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She's trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor. Marian's book, Clean Approaches for Coaches was published in February, 2013.

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