(Written while in post as AD for Hearts & Minds)
This month I read two articles that got me thinking about clown’s relationship to failure.
The first article was one on the BMA website (April 2019) stating that the NHS is facing a serious mental health crisis amongst doctors and medical students, with fear of failure sighted as one of the main reasons, “many doctors and medical students can often feel a deep aversion to ‘failing’ and perhaps can’t even perceive what failure would really mean or look like.” (Prof. Dinesh Bhugra CBE).
The second was ‘Seriously Foolish and Foolishly Serious: The Art and Practice of Clowning in Children’s Rehabilitation’ (Julia Gray & Helen Donnelly & Barbara E. Gibson: July 2019) – a reclamation of foolishness as important in and of itself in the context of children’s rehabilitation in an environment that favours ‘certain high forms of knowledge…over lower embodied, imaginative and active knowledge forms’.
I think about the clown’s relationship to failure a lot. Learning to confront and embrace one’s failure is central to any clown training programme and while doing so can be frightening and exhausting, ‘Through clown training, theatre artists aim to be less defensive, exposing naïveté and fragility’ (Gray; Donnelly; Gibson: July 2019) it ultimately gives us freedom to “fail hopelessly, imaginatively, unluckily, triumphantly, heartbreakingly and barely… shrugging off social expectation to shoulder the weight of the world playfully” (Failure as success: On clowns and laughing bodies. Eric Weitz: Feb 2012). This is evidenced beautifully in vintage clips of Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
The clown’s embrace of failure is one way they elicit laughter, but the function of failure goes well beyond humour, especially in a healthcare setting. It allows the people we visit to feel superior and ‘successful’ in a highly hierarchical environment where success might otherwise be perceived as equal to recovery and good health. It allows us to be with people as they are in the here and now, in their pain, sadness, and discomfort. As Donnelly et al argue, as therapeutic clowns, we do not focus on ‘fixing’ the child or solving the problem of their circumstance, rather, find ‘fluid ways of being playful, sensory, emotional, vulnerable and in-relation‘.
As the BMA article demonstrates, fear of failure is isolating and at its worst, catastrophic. When we accept that failure is natural, universal and inevitable, we can find ways to be in the world and with one another that are more connected and humane.
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.