See article in its original context here by John Bailey for The Age.
The dark side of clowning is brought into focus with a new play.
While it’s become a bit faddish to declare yourself clown-phobic these days, pop culture has thrown us enough terrifying clowns in living memory to provide some underlying support for the claim – from Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the menacing US act Insane Clown Posse and their cultish Juggalo fans to Heath Ledger’s nightmarish turn as The Joker.
Last year, an English student posted creepy images of himself standing around the city in scary clown get-up; within days dozens of copycats had begun menacing people around Britain.
There is something unnerving about clowns, says performer Clare Bartholomew. ”The traditional make-up of a clown is made for a three-ring circus, where you might be half a kilometre away from the audience. That make-up is designed to show your expression to someone a very long distance away. If you put on all that make-up and you’re up close making a balloon animal for a child, it’s really scary.”
She is a clown herself. Her latest work, The Long Pigs, doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the art. The title is drawn from a Melanesian word for the eating of human flesh and centres on the one item of clowning Bartholomew has never been willing to wear on stage: the nose.
She was running a clown workshop during a circus festival in Tasmania, when she found herself staring at a bag of red noses. She got to wondering: what if there was a group of monstrous, black-nosed clowns who had been shunned by the rest of their community and who set about ”scalping” their cousins of their red noses?
The Long Pigs was born and along with fellow performers Derek Ives and Nicci Wilks, Bartholomew began crafting a bleak world of intra-clown violence and chaos. ”There’s a lot of laughter but there’s also some gasps. It’s creepy,” she says.
Not that the form hasn’t always been replete with both light and shade. The cliched red-nose clown with the unflagging grin, has long been complemented by the misery-guts with the permanent frown. Then there’s ”that kind of Russian clowning”, says Bartholomew, ”much slower, like the world is about to end at any moment”.
Black-nose clowning goes even further into the umbra and can almost be seen as anti-clowning. It sometimes crosses into the art form known as bouffon, which draws on a history of the grotesque. ”The bouffon were the deformed, they were unwelcome in society and they lived on the fringes. For one day of the year they got to come in and blaspheme and piss on the altar and take over, and people would lock themselves up in their houses because they were scared. I think our black-nose style is part clowning and part bouffon.”
While The Long Pigs might seem a kind of ritual and symbolic slaughtering of the traditional happy clown, Bartholomew doesn’t have any beef with red noses per se. She works as a clown doctor in hospitals and though she swears off the item itself, most of her peers wear one.
She doesn’t like the way they can shape a person’s response to a clown before they’ve even encountered their act, however. ”When people see an image of a clown they have a lot of preconceived notions and it can put a lot of people off. When you go and see something like Lano & Woodley or The Mighty Boosh, they’re clowning. They’re clowns. But they don’t need red noses.”
She has had to face those prejudices numerous times in hospitals, too, ”where a parent has said ‘my child doesn’t like clowns’. And then it turns out that the child really loves the clown doctors. It’s a huge thing, because it’s kind of cool now to say you hate clowns.”