A Very Very Very Serious Clown from Lebanon

Throughout 2020, Lebanon has been descending into an economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, which, according to an article in the New York Times written by Ben Hubbard (who happens to be our interviewee’s husband), is threatening decades of prosperity. Anti-government protests have been on the rise. We immediately thought: a revolution is the perfect time to talk about clown!

Fortunately, our friend from Beirut agreed. Sabine Choucair is a Lebanese humanitarian clown, storyteller, performer, and new mom. She has a special talent for finding the light in the darkest of times with her clown work and for poking fun at the powers that be with bouffon, a biting and satirical cousin of clown. We joined her in May via Zoom and competed over who has it worse—America or Lebanon. We’re #1. #MAGA #JokingNotJoking

Amrita Dhaliwal: How is your work responding to the current pandemic and economic crisis in Lebanon?

Sabine Choucair: In the beginning we, the clowns of Clown Me In, were a bit like, “What do we do?” All of our work is based on live interaction, the people being on the streets. And then boom—total lockdown. Suddenly we were at home, lonely, not able to create.

Zoom did not really work for us. We were in shock, trying to figure out what to do with our lives, and were a bit depressed. We lost all the clown hope we had. But bit by bit, we started thinking about ways to overcome this and we came up with the idea of making short videos of different games kids can play with their families at home or with themselves in front of a mirror. It was a way for us to be active.

We’ve filmed five short videos so far and have been disseminating them. We have put them on social media and sent them to all the refugee camps in Lebanon and the NGOs we know are working with different communities, specifically Syrian and Palestinian refugees as well as Lebanese living in rural areas.

We’ve also invited people to donate to artists in Lebanon who are stuck in this economic crisis. We asked artists to send us recordings of them performing fun stuff we could share online on our platforms and we gave them $100 per video. With the economic crisis, the dollar to the lira is nearly seven times what it used to be, so it’s a big deal.

I started giving online live sessions on Facebook for people to just have fun and be silly and just play for half an hour every Friday. We call it the happy half hour.

black and white photo of five seated people in masks

The International Institute For Very Very Serious Studies in Lebanon 2020. Photo by Zakaria Kaakour.

Amrita: You have recently finished running the first year of your school, where you also teach.

Sabine: Yeah, the International Institute for Very, Very Serious Studies.

Nathaniel Justiniano: Very serious.

Amrita: So this is a very serious question. It’s very serious.

Nathaniel: If you could just be serious, please.

Amrita: Let’s be serious. The school is a performance training program in participatory art, clowning, mask work, bouffon technique, puppetry, physical theatre, and storytelling, as well as community-integrated street performance. You might be the only physical theatre program that teaches and emphasizes activism. Is that true?

Sabine: Very true.

Amrita: How did it go?

Sabine: The first part of the school year was great. The students had so much fun. Then boom! The revolution started, so we shifted our work from the classroom to the streets.

Nathaniel: Congratulations, you started your school. We’re gonna add a revolution and a pandemic, so just be ready.

[Note: In hindsight, we should have also warned Sabine about the explosion. During the editing of this interview, Lebanon experienced the largest explosion in its history due to the accidental ignition of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in one of Beirut’s ports. In response to the explosion, Sabine and her crew traveled around the most affected areas to perform and spread joy to the families.]

Sabine: Exactly. So, we started thinking about ways to be on the streets doing activism as clowns joining the revolution. We had all these big signs congratulating the government for all the great work they were doing making Lebanon number one and the best corrupted government.

Nathaniel: Congratulations, by the way.

Sabine: As clowns, we were really proud.

Amrita: As an American, it’s just really hard for me to congratulate another country for being number one. I’m really feeling insecure right now…

Sabine: We feel that you’ve surpassed us in corruption now.

Amrita: Oh, thank god.

Sabine: But, back in October, we were number one.

Nathaniel: It is a competition.

Sabine: It’s okay. As a clown, I accept failure.

We had all these big signs congratulating the government for all the great work they were doing making Lebanon number one and the best corrupted government.

Nathaniel: Can I take it back into the streets with the revolution? Can you help us understand where the revolution is coming from and some of the actions that you and the group committed to? How you built it, your plan, and how it was responded to when you did it?

Sabine: For us, it came as a buildup of many things: Of corruption, of all the politicians who’ve been in power for more than thirty years not making any progress or helping people, of the garbage crisis—we look at our country and feel we’re drowning in a sea of garbage because the government couldn’t find a way to dispose of it. And then the financial crisis, the economic crisis happened. We were like: We should be doing something.

So we decided: Okay, we’re gonna go to the streets wearing our swimsuits with garbage stuck to our bodies and then we’ll walk in the protests and brag about all the great things we found in the sea. Someone filmed us for an interview and it went viral; it was very painful and very funny at the same time. Most of the comments we got were: This is tragicomic. This is the reality. Really, clown is life. This is what’s happening to Lebanese people every day and it’s so scary. It makes us all so angry, but it’s also so funny.

Another day we thought, People are super angry and they’re going out of their way to be on the street. We decided to be the happy clowns who go and say to the protestors, “Thank you for being here.” This alone makes people really happy—to be marching and chanting and very energetic, and to see clowns. Many people know we exist as the clowns who go fight for social justice on the streets. They love having us. They’re very supportive. We get a lot of positive feedback and it gives us an amazing push to keep doing what we do.

a group of protestors

Clown Me In during the 2019 Lebanon uprising. Photo by Stop Photography.

Amrita: Can you tell us about your journey to activism? Were you in school and always knew or was it just something that happened?

Sabine: I had no idea this is what I was going to do. I studied theatre in Lebanon, we didn’t really do clowning. I went to London. I did mime school, and I was like, “Oh, this is so boring.”

Amrita: We’ll edit that part out.

Nathaniel: We’re gonna put it as the headline, but go ahead.

Sabine: After, I went to performing arts school and discovered clowning. And I thought, Wow, this is such an amazing art! How did I not know anything about it? I grew up during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted fifteen years (1975 until 1990), so the first clown I created was this military clown who’s super paranoid. And I thought this clowning business was great. So I decided I would do clowning for the rest of my life because it made me feel so much better.

And then I wanted to share the experience with other people because it’s fun and it makes a difference, so I started Clown Me In, a theatre company I co-founded with Gabriela Munoz. That’s how I started, one thing led to another. The first time we went to the streets was because I was giving a workshop to a group of people and we were like, “Let’s go try clowning on the streets.” We went to the Corniche, a popular seafront promenade, in Beirut and wondered why people were littering so much. We started following them as clowns, tripping over what they just littered and giving their trash back to them. We were doing stuff that people found fun, even though we were really clown-attacking them about littering. Then we were like, “Let’s do more of this.”

Amrita: It sounds like a classic clown journey.

Really, clown is life. This is what’s happening to Lebanese people every day and it’s so scary. It makes us all so angry, but it’s also so funny.

Nathaniel: You’ve been working at addressing environmental issues for years. How has your strategy or any aspect of your work changed in the face of the culture not changing?

Sabine: We still take the themes and make them into clown acts or clown videos, but over the years we started working more with the people who are trying to change policy. For example, we worked with the Coalition for Waste Management and in one of their protests they wanted to talk about incinerators. We came up with a whole scene about incinerators and clowns going to the protests, offering our condolences to people and saying we’ll miss them because we’re all going to die. That’s the way we’re shifting—we try to be supportive of the people making a difference in policies.

Nathaniel: It sounds like you also create visibility, joy, and more conversation around an issue in collaboration with those who might be able to actually change policy.

Sabine: Definitely.

triptych of three clowns

Screenshot from the Clown games videos. Video by Ali J. Dalloul.

Amrita: Let’s talk about the intersection of clown and bouffon. Bouffon being a much more confrontational, satirical, and often disturbing cousin of clown. What are your thoughts on it?

[Note: Bouffon is a satirical performance style and the primary dynamic is ecstatic mockery. They don’t make fun of individuals in the audience so much as everyone’s collective complicity in societal dysfunction. Often costumed in exaggerated and distorted full-body masks, they dance and play with carefree abandon, unapologetically rejecting oppressive stigmas and social norms. One reference point of a type of bouffon in popular culture is Sacha Baron Cohen’s work as the characters Borat and Bruno.]

Sabine: Clown Me In uses a lot of clowning and bouffon because being an activist clown is not enough. You need to really be a bouffon in so many situations. It’s great to be a poetic, hopeful clown looking at life and showing your vulnerability. But when things are really heated you need to be able to be there, showing people who they are, what they are, and really pinching these parts. As in, touching issues that are delicate and/or hurtful sometimes and really digging into them. Once we find what's bothering us or the issue we want to tackle, we start devising and looking for fun and extreme ways to play it, whether it be clown or bouffon. So it’s a bit of both. I’m not great at theory; another person might give another explanation. I just know in practice this is what happens. We shift when we need to shift. I don’t think anyone can say something that is really important, that gets to people, if it’s not coming from passion. It’s all very personal.

It’s great to be a poetic, hopeful clown looking at life and showing your vulnerability. But when things are really heated you need to be able to be there, showing people who they are, what they are, and really pinching these parts.

Nathaniel: In the wake of the brutal murders of Tony McDade, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others activating protests and marches in every state in the United States, as well as all over the world, it’s feeling like an inflection point in society right now, which is very hopeful.

There’s a Facebook group called “Clown Theory,” and someone posted a question in the face of these protests: “...wondering if there is a place for a clown amongst more serious gatherings like street riots and protests for social and racial justice.” Some people chimed in in the affirmative. Some people said no, it’s inappropriate. You chimed in saying you’ve done protest work as a clown and people have responded well.

So much of clown practice and teaching in Europe and North America is led by and written by white folx. So there is, I think, a very reasonable association with clowning and whiteness, but these protests and this moment are about uplifting and centering Black folx. Can you expand on that conversation? We’re talking about white supremacy, activism, clowning, and how we approach it, if at all.

Sabine: Let’s start with the fact that I am Arab. I am Brown, so I feel like I can be a clown on these streets. If I want to choose clowning as a way to talk about racism and Black Lives Matter, then I have the right to do this. I mean, I am not there, and I’m not living this on a daily basis, but I come from a place where I never felt the urge to stop myself from being on the streets to say something I believe in. If I’m real, and if I’m true, and if I honestly go there because I believe what I’m doing and saying is supporting the cause, then I just do it. That’s also how I see other people doing it. But that might be a bit naive from my part.

Nathaniel: Well you do more than that, you are of the community. They know you. You talked about how they know you so well that when you come out, they’re like, “Oh, it’s those clowns.” I want to lift that up because that seems to be part of the chemistry that makes it work. Do you agree?

Sabine: It took time for it to work. But, yes. It’s something we built together.

three clowns outside

Clown Me In team protesting against incinerators in Lebanon during 2018. Photo by Nabil Mounzer.

Nathaniel: As a final question, what are you hopeful about seeing as a result of your work—clown activism work, or the school, or both? What are you hoping to see happen in terms of impact in Lebanon and Beirut, and amongst the community?

Sabine: I have high hopes about both. The number one reason I wanted to start the school was to have more engaged street theatre in the country. From the work we’ve been doing with street activism, we’ve seen a lot of change over the years. And I can’t quantify it yet, but we see it. There are specific matters that are bothering people, which we use to inspire the content of our street theatre, and since they know us now, they wait for our performances, which then inspire further discussion among our community.

More people are becoming a part of what we do and using street theatre and clowning to fight for social justice. I’m hopeful that if we have more people doing this work, even greater impact will be made. And I’m hoping that people from outside the country will try this kind of work in their own countries because talking about really big things in fun ways, and opening conversations on the streets, has such a big impact on people. Even if it doesn’t, it’s so much fun for us and for the people around us who see us doing it. It’s just amazing.

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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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