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Liberating Terror

Clown and Activism

As a first-generation American—a daughter of Guatemalan immigrants—with access to education, I’ve been programmed to juggle two things: feeling grateful and working really hard. These two things are not in opposition, but, just like in juggling, are part of a rhythm. I was raised to do both all the time—to constantly adapt to white supremacy culture, bow my head to those in power, and to keep plugging away, even without any acknowledgement. It is the opposite of what it means to have privilege.

As I’ve carved a path in the clown world over the past fifteen years, specifically as a woman of color, both of these truths have continued to exist.

three people standing outside

Sayda performing with Clowns Without Borders in 2013 at At-Tuwani Elementary School in At-Tuwani, South Hebron, Palestine. Photo by Baruch Rafiach.

Clowning and White Supremacy

White supremacy manifests in clown pedagogy in ways that have flown under the radar for far too long. In the clown world, bodies of color are often the minority, while the leaders in the field are often cis-het white males. I trained at a predominantly white Eurocentric physical theatre program, and my first clown teacher—a cis-het white male, considered a genius, virtuosic—told me I was a talented actress but that I would never be a clown. Even though I truly believe everyone is a clown, his prophecy paralyzed me. His paradigm of clown training limits the possibility that clown could manifest in a myriad of ways, especially in bodies of color.

Two conflicting things happened at that moment: the mentality I am not a clown became part of me, and my activism in the field began to stir. Since then, the invincible spirit of the clown has continued to shape me, seeping through every tiny crack possible to make itself present to speak, to laugh, to sing, to bounce, to witness, and to encounter. Clown has become my language, one of rhythm and delight, of wide-open eyes, smiles, tickles and chuckles, of stillness and ease.

The invincible spirit of the clown has continued to shape me, seeping through every tiny crack possible to make itself present to speak, to laugh, to sing, to bounce, to witness, and to encounter.

Clowns Without Borders

In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Stan wiped out entire villages and displaced hundreds of families in the highlands of Guatemala. In early 2006, Clowns Without Borders (CWB), a nonprofit that offers joy and laughter to relieve the suffering of all persons who live in areas of crisis, especially children, invited me to join a relief trip to bring levity and laughter to the survivors who were enduring dire circumstances.

Given the mentality that lurked inside me, I sheepishly responded with: “Thank you for the invitation, but I am not a clown.” CWB, confused at my reply because I had, after all, trained at one of the “top” clown schools in the world, asked me again, “But would you like to go?” My clown spirit answered, “Yes, I’d love to.” This response, which sprang up from the knowledge hidden somewhere deep inside me that indeed I was a clown, surprised me. And I took a risk.

Terror came with having accepted CWB’s invitation—terror and so much joy. For the first time, I was going back to Guatemala and would be able to share my work as a performer with my family. With all my terror, I met two CWB volunteers in Guatemala City and together we traveled to my grandmother’s house, to the village where I had spent part of my childhood, a beautiful home surrounded by mountains, valleys, rocks, and mango and pomegranate trees. We created a clown show together in two days, on my grandmother’s patio! It was fun. It was strange. It became apparent that CWB volunteers had to be able to embody “yes.” All of us there, strangers to each other, were saying “yes”—not talking about the method of clown, not demanding of each other to be funny, not indulging in via negativa. We were building trust through play, we were listening to each other’s rhythms, we were working with what we brought collectively—like how David Lichtenstein, a clown and street performer who tours all over the world and who led my first CWB trip, is approximately one and half feet taller than me; when we stand next to each other it’s already funny! He treated me like a clown, and so I was one.

My clown education truly began there in Guatemala under the gaze of hundreds of children and adults who circled around us, alert, seeing us, lighting us, and tickling us. I learned the stage is any open space, often just ground, dirt, not always flat under our feet. In those first performances I allowed myself to really be seen and to really see who was around me. Doing so was the first interruption to the training that asserted I would never be a clown. I began to experience clowning as connection, a game, an encounter, an exchange. Over the fifteen years since, I have clowned in Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Palestine, India, Lebanon, Egypt, and detention centers in Texas and New York.

Clown is one of the few forms in theatre that does not distance itself from the audience. As a clown, I exchange looks, smiles, hugs, and chases with an audience; in fact, the clown can only live fully in acknowledgement of everything present. It’s immensely powerful performing clown in a corner of the Earth where loss has been experienced because the performance acknowledges that loss while also getting the audience to roar in laughter. That laughter is not an escape, it is activism in the body, it is collective resistance, it both redirects purpose and at the same time includes everything that is true in that moment. It is in that laughter that we—the clowns and the community—become partners.

Clown activism is about this play of listening and responding, of seeing and being seen. It embraces terror, and in this embrace there exists space for everyone involved to access resilience and buoyancy.

[Clown activism] embraces terror, and in this embrace there exists space for everyone involved to access resilience and buoyancy.

Clown and Voice Work

Part of my clown activism is undoing the notion that expertise looks a certain way. Because of this, clown has found its way into other parts of my career, including voice work—specifically, the study of breath to support the spoken and sung voice, usually done with actors and theatremakers but also sometimes with non-actors in public speaking classes or with community-based art projects.

I began to connect clown and voice work on a CWB trip to Palestine, a place where I have lived and where I learned from theatre activists and storytellers who resist the injustices of occupation with the deepest clown spirit I have ever witnessed. There, I saw the way bodies inhabit both laughter and tears, how resistance has to include both, and how resistance manifests in the voice—not the technical voice, as in the spoken or sung one for art’s sake, but the voice that has agency, the voice that will not be silenced. It was in these CWB settings that I began to intuit the power and freedom that comes from laughing and crying—a power that is not controlled. As a result I started to invite my students to speak from this uncontrolled place and explore things like deep listening, ease, buoyancy, musicality, rhythm, delight, and play—all elements of clown—to find their most powerful voice.

In Palestine I became curious about my own diaspora and its effect on my voice, as well as why and how terror is a bridge to laughter and tears. During our performances, a clown gag revealed the terror that is always present for residents. In the gag, three of us clowns attempted numerous times to cross a military checkpoint, getting caught in a ridiculous loop. The repetition of our attempts—a daily struggle for Palestinians, which holds anger, pain, and violence for them—broke something open! We had tapped into the ridiculousness and comedy of the repetition, and laughter erupted from that. Hundreds of children and adults roared in full recognition. There we were again, holding terror and explosive joy in collective bodies.

My solo shows are cries and calls and maps of stories of displacement, and the spine of my shows—the bones, the skeleton—permeates with the spirit of a clown.

Clown and Resilience

Clown can also manifest as resilience. I am an expert in my story, my experience, and my life. To counter the lack of inclusion of voices like mine in the field, innate in theatre programs across the nation, came the need for me to write stories that center my voice. In my solo work, I address audiences directly. I tickle them. My solo shows are cries and calls and maps of stories of displacement, and the spine of my shows—the bones, the skeleton—permeates with the spirit of a clown.

For example, in my solo autobiographical piece I Was Raised Mexican, a character compares the experience of Guatemalans in Mexico to Mexicans in the United States, saying, “Guatemalans are the Mexicans of Mexico. And who doesn’t hate Mexicans?” The first time I performed this piece outside of a theatre, and in Spanish, was at a juvenile detention center in New York. The performance took place in a clinical-like room with tiled floors, without windows, and with florescent light. The young men at the center were all Latin American from countries ranging from Colombia to Mexico.

In response to that question, one of the men raised his hand and said, “I don’t hate Mexicans.” One by one, others raised their hands and echoed, “I don’t hate Mexicans.” I stood there listening and after most of the audience had raised their hands, I raised mine and also said, “I don’t hate Mexicans.” There were tears and laughter. That exchange changed everything: I learned that, to them, I wasn’t performing—I was talking with the spirit of the clown. Together, we found our collective voice, our sameness. What would be considered an inappropriate interruption in a theatre became the core of the encounter. These are the ways I feel the spirit of the clown seeping through.

a clown embracing a crowd of young children

Sayda Trujillo teaching a storytelling workshop in Jordan Valley, Palestine, 2013. Photo by Ben Rivers.

Clown and Healing

As a facilitator of healing processes and dialogue, I listen from the belly of my clown. I play, and it is liberating to enter a space where people and communities meet me in the center. I’m terrified but I stay in that terror where we can explode, shatter, burst, chase each other, clap, and listen for the rhythm that will unify us.

When I arrive in a community so far away from what I know, my clown leads the way. Three years ago, I co-led a four-week program called Arts Bridge: Owning Our Stories, Sharing Our Stories with Laura Betancur, an expressive arts facilitator and clown at heart. Together we designed a curriculum to work with Egyptian and Syrian women in Cairo, partnering with Dawar Arts, combining visual art with physical theatre practices, playing and finding ways to express our stories with our bodies. My clown rejects power hoarding, so as a facilitator I am a clown falling and bouncing. During those four weeks in Cairo, I invited the women to fall and bounce with me, to run, to chase, to sing, to cry. The art of surrendering power I take from the spirit of my clown.

My clown activism seeps through. Juggling gratitude and hard work is no longer my deficit, or an apology, or permission to operate in the white supremacist platforms that have contaminated this earth. The spirit of the clown resists.

Something has broken and I will sing, bounce, and denounce.
I will roar, holler, and jump.
I will tickle, fall, and bounce again.
I will smile with the stillness and the spirit of the clown.

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Thoughts from the curators

Clown and activism may seem like an odd couple, but embedded in the nature of clown is the spirit of joy and resistance to oppressive forces. This series features a selection of folx from around the world who are all part of a long and diverse heritage of clown activists. From rural villages to urban centers, from popular protests to refugee camps, each of our contributors use grit and humor to activate their communities toward equity and justice. This series shows how effective clown-based activism can be at subverting bigots and in cultivating hope in hard-hit communities. We also see how the laughter they provoke has a disarming effect on spectators, creating an opening for vital messages to be heard. So when clowns are invited to help, they have the makings to be a powerful gift to social justice movements. And as we here in the United States have just undergone a presidential election, feeling the deep exhaustion of this time, we heed the call to send in the clowns, with their relentless, life-giving hope.

When Clowns Fight the Power


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