Going into this room there is no sense of being able to fix anything or cheer her up. I only know that when my heart is open, as it is when I am clowning, I am able to go towards this kind of distress without fear.
I crouch on the floor and begin to mirror her anguished crying, harmonising with her tone, matching the rhythm of her sighs. I hold her head in my hand, and gently caress her temple. She looks into my eyes for a brief moment, searching for something, totally lost. I say, ‘I don’t know’.
After a few minutes here, her legs move and her foot presses against my armpit and chest. I giggle. ‘It tickes!’ She looks at me again. A brief moment of silence before her cries start up again. Then her legs shift, and I cry ‘Oh Janet! It tickles!!’ And she looks at me and her face is transformed into a map of smile lines, revealing a whole lifetime of laughter. She looks me in the eyes, and we laugh, our laughter generating more laughter, our eyes shining together.
Before we left, she took my hand and pulled me close to her face and just looked right into my eyes. Found.
The journey to Sheshagiri is a dream come true. A train from Bangalore to Haveri - sitting at the open door watching the sunrise over the city as it slowly transforms from colourfully painted concrete flats to palm plantations and rice fields. We arrive and take a small mini-bus to the residency space that collects and drops off local villagers on the way. Red dust earth, bright green fields and clear blue skies. I take a million photographs and miss everything interesting - the man riding a bicycle carrying an impossibly massive bushel of grass, the 5 person family on a motorbike, the most beautiful cow I have ever seen, elaborately decorated tractors, flocks of egrets silhouetted against the sky, a monkey.
Finally we arrive at a huge pink building - by far the biggest in the village, towering over the dusty lanes and bright green fields that surround it. We push open the front door and step inside, eyes painfully adjusting to the darkness. It is a huge auditorium space with high ceilings and a stage. Good. We go to switch on the lights. No power. Huh. As we open the side doors, the evening sun floods in and reveals a thick layer of dust covering everything. A quick recce of the sleeping areas reveals just two indian style toilets between 17 of us, a few dusty mattresses and no bedding. When the power comes on and we turn on the lights, they reveal a dense cloud of mosquitoes. Okay…we are in Hell.
Earlier that day Igor and I had been laughing about the overuse of the term ‘holding the space’ but now it becomes clear that this is exactly what’s needed, since the space itself seems to be hanging on by a thread. We have to accept the possibility that people might not want to stay or work here, and it’s important that the group can express their concerns and discomfort freely and without fear of judgement, and that we have to be open to changing the program completely. I was also mentally preparing myself to be able to focus and deliver decent training whilst being simultaneously eaten alive. I imagine a scenario, mid-improv, where clowns are working delicately with presence and connection while I am waving my hands in the air, slapping myself erratically and shouting ‘Fuck Off!’ at passing mosquitoes.
In the end, the excitement at being together in this incredibly beautiful village had at least temporarily superseded any concerns for physical comfort, and we all agreed to see if we could survive the night and to take it from there.
Our room has a single bed frame piled with a few thin mattresses. When I lift one up, a cloud of dust and more mosquitos fill the air. I open the door to the back of the building and more mosquitos burst in. I slam it shut and shudder. Looking up at Igor, no words are required. To stay alive and sane we have one task and one task only - to eliminate every single mosquito from this room. We get to work stemming the flow by papering the cracks in the windows and doors with card and medical tape. Once satisfied, we switch to Ninja-Mode - zen-like stillness and silence followed by sudden claps, splats and ‘fuck-it I missed it’ s.
We sleep in this hot and airless room with sheets pulled over our heads and tucked under our feet, like two caterpillars awaiting transformation.
And it seems that transformation, in one form or another, is a theme over the next 5 days.
During our first morning session, as I lead a warm-up, the sun slowly rises through the front door of the building and then through the top window, casting a warm golden corridor of light across the room. As the participants' bodies gradually wake up and move through the space, they begin to fill it with their vibrance and energy. By the end of this first day, a layer of laughter and light has settled over everything. By the end of the second, another, until, by our last day it seems the very walls have absorbed the joy, tenderness and presence that we have shared here together. Survival has shifted to immersive creativity and we don’t want to leave.
And just as the space is transformed by the presence of this courageous and creative group, they are in turn transformed. With each warm-up, exercise and improvisation something essential and forgotten is revealed, celebrated and nurtured. Everyone becomes perceptibly lighter, more available and playful - layers of ‘shoulds’ being shed in favour of the delight and freedom to be just as we are.
I’m reminded of my first clowning workshop with De Castro and how that process opened me up. How it was to wear a red nose for the first time, to start to inhabit this clown state, finding the beginnings of a character, the first improv where I understood what connection with an audience really meant. How scared and nervous I had been on the first day that I wouldn’t be ‘good’ and how that workshop changed my life forever. I have a sense that, for some of these participants at least, that door has opened for them too and I am so excited to see where it leads them.
From our first day in the space, we have regular visitors from the village - the actors who built and run the theatre and groups of children who watch first from the door and then edge themselves closer and closer until at one point they are sitting on stage with us. We continue working and beyond small greetings, don’t acknowledge them, but on that first evening, Igor and I realise the absurdity of this situation. We have a group of new clowns in need of experience in the real world with the public. We have a public so curious and interested that we are like magnets to them. We discuss and agree on how to set up a game that would make it both safe for the new clowns, manageable for us, and hopefully a lovely experience for the villagers.
When the time comes the clowns step out of the front door and are met by a stream of children walking home from school. We take a class photo, and the children join, giggling and shy but tangibly excited to be a part of it. Our outing takes the form of a kindergarten sight-seeing trip. Our clowns travel ‘crocodile fashion’ side by side, holding onto a rope with Igor at the front and me at the rear. We chose three stops where they can explore for 5 minutes before they return to the rope.
The main and last game is that each clown is allowed to touch the village flagpole once, with one finger, one at a time. With the repetition of this, and the unique way in which each clown undertakes this magnificent task, the audience grows bigger and more confident until they are fully involved in helping the clowns and finally singing a song in chorus with us as we travel back down the street to the theatre.
The next day, when we are packing up, a group of boys who had been playing run past, holding their fingers to the sky shouting, ‘see you at the flagpole!’ and I realise that for them too, the space is transformed - the ragged functional pole at the centre of the village now a pinnacle of play and delight.
As for me, I am not exactly sure what transformation has occurred, but of course this experience has got inside me, shifted things and is asking questions. I don’t feel any anxiety to answer right away as I might have done a few years ago. For now I am letting everything percolate, trusting that its essence will rise to the surface like a delicious coffee decoction.
I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.