Updated: Apr 1, 2021
by Deborah Rose
One of my funniest childhood memories was on holiday at a caravan site in Wales, where one summer evening I attended a karaoke competition, and my cousin inexplicably dressed up as a clown.
Embracing her new-found persona, she rolled around the club dance floor with a cushion under her jumper, a curly pink wig, and a bright red nose. She hurled herself around here, there and everywhere, aimlessly crashing into any poor unsuspecting bystander. While the rest of us were all dressed up, waiting politely for the competition’s final competitors to perform, she continued bouncing around like Benny Hill.
Each of us gradually lost ourselves to laughter–it became entirely contagious, our glittery eyeshadow streaming down our faces. We ended up on the floor with her, keeled over in hysterics. I realise now that we were watching her in awe. It was her bravery that amazed me. Her love of being laughed at, and her commitment to doing it for us, giving us joy, at her own expense. For whatever reason, she decided she had nothing to lose. In that moment, she showed us freedom, and gave us the precious gift of laughter – far more liberating and joyous than a pretentious singing contest.
Last year, I was travelling to work in a high security prison with my friend and colleague, Matthew Trustman. Matthew, a trained drama therapist, asked me if I’d ever done Clowning.
“No,” I said, innocently. “What’s that?” He passed me a red nose from the glove compartment.
“Go on, try it,” he said.
I looked at him and smiled. “Matthew, you know I don’t like organised fun.”
But inside, I was mortified. I couldn’t do it. It felt ridiculous – and pointless. I mean, I’ve done laughter yoga before and much to my surprise, it does actually work. I love Patch Adams too, and Alan Partridge, but putting on a red nose made me want to jump out of the car on the M6. I told him I would just teach songwriting as planned and leave the drama side of things to him.
However, Matthew went on: “Clowning takes you back to who you are. The clown teaches us vulnerability. The clown exposes pomposity. Discovering the clown within helps personal growth. Clowning is a way of doing and of being.”
I realise now what Matthew was trying to tell me. There is much more to Clowning than meets the eye. Clowning is a sacred art form.
Clowning allows us to be fully in the present, and with that, comes a connection to our emotions – it can allow us to tap into our sadness, our joy, our depression, our overwhelming desire to hide ourselves away in shame. What Matthew was trying to tell me was that embracing our inner clown has the ability to restore the full picture, to touch on what is not expressed, and what is repressed. In this context, we can think of the clown’s frequent presence in horror films – the clown hides truths, and so often, we are terrified of what’s behind the mask.
It is all too easy to ridicule, to mock the clown. Repeatedly across varied forms of literature, Jesus is referred to as the Holy Fool. But Jesus was standing up to power. In his speaking out against authority, defying his cultural norms, Jesus shows us his bravery, and his willingness to be seen as merely a fool by some, to ultimately offer us salvation.
People are often encouraged to keep sleep diaries and/or prayer journals, and this week, I started to make a laughter diary. I found it to be such a wonderful way of reminiscing who I love in my life and why I love them in the way that I do. I found myself joyously lost in memories of laughter.
The funniest of childhood memories were mostly associated with being naughty. When my sister’s sunstroke made her laugh so much, she became uncontrollable, my parents grounded her for laughing too much, which caused us no end of hysterics. We were always giggling at the dinner table, and getting sent to our rooms for it.
I remembered my Nan’s laugh, and how when the laughter really took hold of her, her laugh disappeared altogether, and temporarily seemed to stop her breathing. It was as though half an hour passed before she made a noise again. Sometimes she’d snort or wheeze as she tried so hard to suppress it, for fear of losing control again. We’d always conclude a laughter episode with her favourite phrase “give a donkey a strawberry” – recognising how something as fine as laughter was wasted on those who perhaps didn’t find what we did quite so funny! Laughter for me and Nan was mischief. It was noticing people’s behaviour, it was observant, it was something between just us. Private and shared. Our laughter gave us an eternal bond. My other grandmother, still going strong at 96, would embody humour in a more overt but wonderful way, and every year go to the local carnival dressed up as Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin famously said "Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” Playing the fool is a risk, and there are no guarantees, anything can happen out there in the messiness of life.
My laughter diary kept overflowing. Pranks never really did it for me, but when my best friend at college stole a cardboard cut-out of Jake Gyllenhall from the local Odeon, it was an act of great heroism. My bedroom still, to this day, looks like the lobby of a cinema, and this is just one scenario of how humour is the glue to our friendship.
I was Lenny Henry’s bodyguard once, at a press briefing, when I worked in Communications. He didn’t wear a red nose, and he didn’t crack a joke. He was 6 foot 3, and I’m 5 foot, so the concept of me being his minder with a clipboard was comedy gold.
My friend and I set her kitchen on fire in her New York flat in Manhattan, trying to cook a pizza. After we called the fire service and thirteen city firemen arrived at her one bedroomed flat ready to douse the beast, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant, covered in soot, and howled.
Not to mention, when my friend’s impersonation of Tom Jones actually nearly killed my cat.
Of course, when you fall in love, laughter becomes plentiful and rich, a whole new and intimate part of your life with another. And when love leaves, for a time, you are utterly robbed from joy. It’s a big part of the grief. French writer Alexander Dumas once wrote: “He who has felt deep sadness, is best able to experience supreme happiness.” In Scriptures, we can read: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”. As you heal from lost love, laughter returns again, like a flower in Spring, as a gift, out of the blue, a sign that the light is returning. Laughter is a sign of healing, of the heart opening once more.
As Matthew explained to me that day, Clowning is about play, and how we resurrect the concept of play back into our lives. According to professional clown Didier Danthois, “Play is the birthplace of spiritual understanding.” As adults, we have the idea that we have to grow up, that we must let go of what we deem childish, but how far do we lose ourselves and the essence of who we are, when we don’t allow ourselves to truly play?
Deborah Rose is a singer-songwriter from Wales who has performed internationally across the USA, UK, and Europe, and in Australia, New Zealand and Africa. She has opened for Judy Collins, American songwriter Jimmy Webb and Kenny White, as well as many UK artists and presidential nominee Marianne Williamson. She has three albums and one in progress. Her latest singles ‘Anam Cara’ and ‘Rings of Saturn’ were produced by British songwriter Boo Hewerdine and released this year. Her pure voice has been likened to Eva Cassidy, and her cinematic sound to Enya, along with the troubadour spirit of Joni Mitchell. Her style transcends genres, from folk to pop, jazz to bluegrass, and she draws inspiration from the bohemian poets and painters of the Pre-raphaelite era. Following in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, a unique part of her work is songwriting in prisons. Deborah Rose is not just a musician, but a creative force, bringing the joy of music and songwriting to all who meet her.