Recently a new fear has swept across the United States, clowns. People being scared of clowns is nothing new, but not for the reasons you might expect. These days the world clown is associated with nightmarish psychopaths wielding axes or master villains plotting against Bat Man. This new and frightening stereotype has defiled a noble and complex art form. Many people wouldn't consider it that, but professional clowning evokes many elements of drama, illusion, acrobatics, and other forms of entertainment. To assume that being a clown is easy is to assume that being an actor is easy (and believe me it's not). Yet we as a society have demonized these lovable characters.
It's easy to forgive a child for being scared of clowns at the outset, but this is more of the clown's fault than the child's. Many amateur clowns in hopes of being the most outlandish and zany character in the ring and thus tend to go overboard with their makeup and costume. If you stick a pasty white face, with glaring green lined eyes, and a red mouth stretched all the way to the jaw in a kid's personal space with a blazing orange wig what else can you expect but traumatize that poor kid? This is why more experienced clowns go light on the makeup, using slightly milder colors to bring out their goofy smiles, and brighten their eyes.
From this simple mistake has grown the modern obsession of creeps dressing up as monsterized clowns and spreading mayhem on the public. This to me is an insult to the art and only serves to feed the general ignorance of the complexities of true clowning. There is so much more to this band of bozos than freaking out innocent trick or treaters and freaks putting on obscene gore filled horror attractions.
There are many types and variations of clowns. These variations depend largely on the culture the clown comes from. In this article, I will be focusing primarily on the western variations as seen in circuses in Europe, and the Americas.
The Classic or 'white face' clown tends to put on more artistic performances. These clowns go all the way back to renaissance Europe and would travel with performing companies across the continent as a central part in Commedia dell'Arte. Because of language barriers, these clowns would often be mute or portray their character through simple sounds that indicated the character's personality, mood, or profession. The classic clown has evolved since then but the concept remains largely unchanged.
As the name implies these clowns have their face painted entirely white with accents of red and black to exaggerate facial features. These exaggerations range from neat and simple to grotesque which makes the classic responsible for many a frightened child.
Costumes for the classic clown tend to be a one piece suit with a neck ruff. These costumes also made use of various flashy materials such as puffballs, sequins, and padding to exaggerate the character's physical appearance.
Auguste clowns are a more modern descendent of the classic. The performances of Auguste are more comedic than the classic style. Auguste clowns make use of slapstick humor, and wild antics and stunts that leave the crowds rolling with laughter.
Unlike the classic clown, the Auguste doesn't paint his entire face. They instead highlight only the facial features around the eyes, nose, mouth, and cheeks, making use of various shades of red, pink, blue and black.
Costumes for the Auguste can consist of any number of clothing articles usually too small or too big for the wearer. These costumes are designed to exaggerate the clown's unique features, features that most people tend to be ashamed of. The beauty of the Auguste costume design is how it embraces these natural differences. For example putting verticle stripes on a tall skinny person will cause them to appear even taller and skinnier while large wide set polka dots make short, fat figures appear even shorter and fatter.
Hobo clowns are personifications of the stereotypical street bum. They are often given the task of cleaning up after other circus performances.
Makeup for Hobo clowns usually features dark shading around the mouth and cheeks to represent a light beard. They also feature white outlining around the eyes and lips with the nose painted red. The makeup can be applied to make the hobo appear sad, bored, or happy.
Costumes for hobo clowns are made up of shabby mismatched clothing articles often featuring patches and pockets. Unlike most clown variations the hobo does not have the privilege of bright colors or flashy patterns.
There is an ongoing debate as to where character clowns fit in the profession. Character clowns follow the same styles and mannerisms of the Auguste only put in the context of any number of professions such as doctors, firemen, policemen, hair stylists, animal trainers and anything else that can be made fun of through simple application of gags and slapstick.
An interesting member of this group is the rodeo clown who aside from providing an element of comedy to rodeo helps protect rodeo participants from hazardous situations involving angry bulls and horses. Many rodeo clowns also serve as on hand medics should anyone get hurt in the process of riding these animals.
As you can see, clowning is a much more complex art form than is realized. These men and women with the big red noses and rubber chickens are heroes in every sense of the meaning. They serve to remind all of us that we as humans are funny by nature and that our quirks, mistakes, and differences are something to be proud of. To me, the most remarkable aspect of these performers is how seriously they take their art. To be a clown means you have to have a heart big enough to serve an entire audience of people all with different problems and various degrees of humor. It also requires no small amount of magic need to make even tired parents or bewildered teenagers feel like children again. That's why I think it's important to have a bit of clown in all of us and to make it known as much as possible.