Clowning is not a job, it’s a way of life

Interview with Clément Triboulet

Photo Yves F. 

What do you think of the reaction of the Belgian artistic community — cultural centers and artists — to the epidemic?

Whether it is from the point of view of the regular spectator of live shows that I am or from the point of view of the artist, it is absolutely impossible for me to accept, or even to conceive that we scan humans and that we discriminate against them on the basis of a health choice. Theaters and cultural centers depend entirely on the subsidies that sustain them: the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the municipalities, the province and the region. Revenue alone is not enough to keep our cultural venues alive. So the choice they were given was a difficult one: either accept the CST or comply with the « covid infrastructure risk model » which is an administrative gas factory worthy of Kafka! Enormous administrative and technical constraints, and the subsequent steps taken with the municipalities to request their approval, which often comes after the event. That’s why most of them, as far as I know, have agreed to scan humans. But it would be a good idea to ask our theater and cultural center directors, who are in a much better position to answer this question than I am. As for the artists, I must say that we are very few to open it…

Have you discussed this with your colleagues?

Yes, but it is often a monologue. It seems that there is an omerta around this subject. Everyone seems to be hiding in their own corners trying to survive and hoping to get back to the « old world » soon, which I think is an illusion. Most of them have accepted this experimental injection for vaccination purposes, not for their health, but in the hope of being able to continue to practice their art… I am very disappointed to note that my appeals to my fellow players often go unheeded… The deafening silence of the vast majority of my colleagues calls out to me. But I’m no one to judge and I won’t. I think everyone is doing what they can in these troubled times. If I am connected to the earth, convinced that we will all become farmers again, I am probably not connected enough virtually to know the possible positions of the others. WhatsApp, Telegram, Tik Tok, LinkedIn are just some of the terra incognita, but let’s be honest, apart from the wonderful Quentin Dujardin and Stefan Cuvelier, I don’t see many of them taking a stand against the fact that we scan humans like cans to give or refuse them access to culture.… In a society worthy of the name, shouldn’t culture be accessible to everyone without social, health or economic discrimination?

What would you say about the current theatre scene?

I don’t know, because I’m a clown, and therefore excluded from that milieu. We no longer see clowns on the stages of our theaters, and haven’t for a long time. Even in street art festivals, they are rare…which is why Fellini, who loved clowns, gave them a first-class burial in his eponymous film in…1970!

Why?!

Clowns are not serious people! As proof, this term is used on a daily basis to denigrate people who are not very credible, or even dishonest, not to say worse… Not a day goes by without me writing to those who do it to tell them that clowning is a noble profession, that clowns bring laughter to families where people don’t laugh (this was Franquin’s motto, Gaston Lagaffe’s father). To this day, all my requests for creation grants have been politely refused, probably because my projects do not correspond to what is expected by the subsidizing authorities. The fact remains that the clown speaks to the human soul, and the more it is disturbed, the more we need the clown. Heir to Carlo Colombaioni, my friend and teacher, I created a traditional clown show under his direction: « Gronigo & Juliette ». It is composed of numbers that he gave me (one of them comes from the commedia dell’arte of the Middle Ages) and others that I wrote. Together with my wife Ana Belén Montero, we have already made thousands of children, parents and grandparents laugh. The laughter, the drawings, the testimonies of the children and their parents are worth all the gold in the world to us. When a child tells us that he laughed so hard that he peed his pants, when a parent thanks us for showing their children the traditional clown that they grew up with, we are enriched and happy. Thanks to the schools, the street art festivals, the parents’ committees, the festival committees, the festivities departments of the communes and… to Saint Nicolas, for whom we are often the first part. They allow us to offer laughter to young and old children.

Fortunately, I am not only a clown, I am also an actor and director. As such, I have just finished a wonderful human and theatrical experience of one year thanks to a project selected by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation in the framework of the call for projects « A Future for Culture »: Reliance Havelange. It is a theatrical creation project open to the population of Havelange, whose objective was to (re)weave links, to revitalize our villages, to develop our creativity and to learn while having fun! Together, we created a theatrical show based on the testimonies of our elders who are the living memories of the legends and traditions of the popular culture of our territory1. This show was presented in the village halls of the havelangeoise entity and for the schools of the commune. The writers, set designers, costume designers and actors are all from the Havelange population without discrimination of age or gender2.

Our latest creation, « Le Voyage de Lem » is a show for young audiences, a journey of initiation that speaks of sharing and transmission, whose central theme is the search for identity. Our intention is, through this central theme, to allow children to realize that we each have our place and our role to play on this earth.

Accompanying Lem on his journey, the children live the epic of a child’s evolution towards adulthood with its share of encounters, learning, enrichment and essential questioning: What is the point of being alive? Why grow up? How to grow up? How to live happily? The chosen medium is a musical show mixing theater, music, animation, object theater and magic. With original music by Hervé Borbé, a song by his brother André Borbé and under the benevolent eye of Eric de Staercke. « Lem’s Journey » was offered to all the schools of the French Community, then the « health crisis » arrived and with it the cancellations3 .

Tell me about your home theater project…

« Home Theatre » as I call it! The home cinema already exists, so my partner Patrick Bastin and I bring the live show to the homes, hence the name home theater, it’s the same but in flesh (me) and bones (Patrick). It has been around for some time, but it has gained momentum in these troubled times.… In Paris, the theater in apartments has existed for years; here it is rarer, except that now the requests are multiplying, from humans who tell me that they no longer have access to culture because, injected or not, they refuse to be discriminated against. The goal of Lory and Ardel is to offer laughter without health, economic or social discrimination. We play unknown texts, some of which are over a century old! French texts, adaptations of English and German texts, which approach with humor, originality and absurdity subjects that speak to us all: health, friendship, weather, vacations, cars, music, couples, nature, animals… The common thread is burlesque and laughter, from the finest to the most absurd. Let us point out that as for stage surface, my partner and I only need 2 square meters, which allows us to play everywhere: living room, garage, barn, small room of district… Since November 2021 we note an obvious change, if this show always amused our spectators, today it answers a visceral need to laugh, to find itself between human beings, it makes laugh and it makes good.

Are there also original creations?

Yes, our repertoire consists of adaptations of old texts and original creations. The last creation was inspired by the absurdity of the strange times we live in. Remember that the clown is not funny, it is the world and its inhabitants that are funny and the clown is the magnifying mirror.

What is the physiology of laughter?

Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, had his character Jorge de Burgos, the venerable dean of the abbey, say that laughter kills fear. And it’s true. Scientific studies have shown that laughter relieves, soothes, heals and actively participates in the healing process. It releases endorphins, increases lung ventilation, lowers blood pressure, massages the viscera and relaxes the muscles. In short, laughing is good for your health. I remember a conversation in the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada (the city in Andalusia where I was teaching clowning) with Israeli medical professors at a conference who told me about the perfect complementarity of our respective arts. Indeed, they told me:  » If the clowns are doing their job well, then we have less of them behind us! Duly noted.

Tell me about Jango Edwards, whom you knew well…

Jango is not only one of the greatest living clowns, he is also a humanist, an altruist, a fine psychologist and a great connoisseur of the human soul. Anglo-Irish by his father and Russian-Polish by his mother, he is a true citizen of the world who exports his religion to all countries of the world: « The Church of Grin », as he calls it. Jango took me from amateur comedian to clown. At the time, I was just one of his many fans, fascinated by his energy, his multiple talents, his lack of limits, his jubilant and salutary humor and the love of the human being that came out of his shows. He is one of the most beautiful encounters of my life, I will never forget his words at the time of our meeting: « You need a kick in the ass and I’m here to give it to you ». In life, there are no coincidences, there are only appointments… I quickly became his friend, then his student, then his assistant thanks to the six languages I speak and even at times his bodyguard! He sometimes put himself in danger by walking around in a tutu or any other clownish outfit in the middle of an overly drunken crowd. He took me along in his regenerating madness, taught me the craft and above all transmitted the soul of the clown. Jango is 71 years old and lives in Barcelona, where he founded the New Clown Institute.

Carlo Colombaioni & Jango Edwards

My other master is Carlo Colombaioni. Clown is too poor a word to define it. Carlo was born in Italy. A child of the ball, he is a clown, an acrobat, a trapeze artist, a juggler, a mime and a stuntman (in Fellini’s films and many westerns). He is the heir of the commedia dell’arte practiced by his family during three centuries and drew from it the springs of the simple and frank laughter, without bad taste. Carlo did like everyone else, he went to school, first at the circus of mom and dad, then at theAvan-Spettacolo, where all the greatest Italian comedians have passed: Nino Manfredi, Alberto Sordi, Toto, Anna Magnani… He has worked with Dario Fo and many times with Fellini: Le notte di Cabiria, La strada, I clown, Amarcord, Roma, Casanova. Carlo with his mimicry, his gait and his derision made the whole world laugh: from Africa to America through Asia, Australia, Europe and even the North Pole! He performed with his brother Alberto in all the theaters of Europe. To my knowledge, this is one of the last duos of circus clowns (the Auguste and the White Clown) to have presented their art on theater stages. For the Belgian public, this duo made the beautiful days of the program « Bon week-end ». Carlo received the supreme award as he was elected « World’s Greatest Clown » by his peers at the « Festiclown » festival in Pontevedra (Spain). Beyond all his talents, he had a heart « this big » and is one of the most beautiful people I have ever known. It is an honor and a great pleasure to have been his assistant during his workshops. From the day he asked me to assist him, I never left him until he left us to join Toto (Antonio de Curtis) whom he loved so much. Carlo Colombaioni died on May 16, 2008 in his home in Saint Chef, the village of Frederic Dard. He was buried on Tuesday, May 20, 2008 in the church of Dragona, in Ostia Antica (Rome). I used to say that with Carlo and Jango, I have two daddies! I am the spiritual son of two complementary schools: the classicism of one and the madness of the other.

Do you often improvise?

With my Master of Ceremonies, public barker or Mr. Loyal, always! He is a zany character who hides his big red nose behind a tails suit, slicked back hair, a bow tie and big glasses. He seems to have come out of the lobby of a Grand Hotel or a luxury liner from the 1930s… Whatever the place where he officiates, theater, concert hall, street, restaurant, auditorium, he greets everyone as soon as they arrive with style and deference, humor and kindness. With him, the audience has no time to get bored and no need to look for friendly faces in the audience, the checkroom or the bar; they are immediately in the bath! Then the magic happens: on a detail of clothing, a vague resemblance, real or not, a question that a puzzled spectator asks him, he makes the situation funny and creates interactions with the other arrivals to transform this period of waiting, usually quite banal, into a real show before the show! This character has allowed me to welcome thousands of people all over the world, including ambassadors, politicians and crowned heads. At official events, it allows me to inject energy between speeches, to create « happenings » between the different moments of the program.

I love to improvise and I also love to write. What I like most of all are the requests for « made-to-measure » shows and animations that allow me to imagine, create and call upon actors, musicians, scenographers, costume designers, wigmakers, make-up artists. Castle visits punctuated by events and impromptu appearances, « disguised » visits of villages where I rewrite history (« Magical Mystery Detour ») or the reenactment in the Belgian Senate of the Constituent Assembly of 1831 for its 175th anniversary. This show, performed 18 times over three days in two languages for 5,400 children in the sixth grade, also had an educational purpose. The teachers told me that they no longer needed to explain to the children the Constituent Assembly, which was part of the sixth grade curriculum, since they had lived it! The show will soon be made freely available by the communication service of the Belgian Senate.

Do you separate your private and professional life?

None. And I never talk about « privacy » — indeed, privacy from what? ‑but of personal life. Clowning is not a profession, it’s a way of life. Personally, I see it as a mission. As soon as I see a moment where I can offer laughter, where it could be beneficial, it happens instantly. The world needs it more and more. In the street, in a school, in a store, in a parking lot, at a counter, I always find the moment and the axis to enter in communication through laughter with my human brothers and sisters. Be careful, as I always tell my students, a clown can make 1,000 people laugh, if he offends just one, he has lost everything! It is important to find the right tone, words, time and attitude. With the « Clownmonible » project, we bring laughter to underprivileged children in keeping with Franquin’s motto.

Is the goal of a clown only to make people laugh, or more broadly to arouse emotions?

Both, my General! The ultimate example is Charlie Chaplin who, with a laugh, gives rise to a strong and true emotion that grabs you by the throat and brings tears to your eyes. Buster Keaton and Pierre Etaix were also capable of it. The clown is an organic, impulsive character who expresses himself with his body and his emotions and can therefore be understood everywhere. He is like a child. It is intended for both children and adults. He is the one who misses everything: he offers the joyful spectacle of human stupidity… He allows the spectator to free his emotions, to express himself, to be an active partner; he allows catharsis in a modern way… He was created to make people laugh and laughing gives courage…

Interviewed live by Bernard Legros in November 2021.

NOTES

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaiVaUfvOLE&t=2s
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLrtZvAmoZc
  3. https://vimeo.com/255430774

https://clement-triboulet.com/

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