Risking Delight: Experience, Emotion, and Contemporary Clowns

Jenny Walton-Wetzel, UCLA

Jenny Walton-Wetzel conducted preliminary fieldwork on contemporary clowning in Paris, France. Clowns are sophisticated theorists of delight, humor, and wellbeing, but they also cultivate a complex ideological stance toward attention, emotion, and communication: namely, the centrality of the moving body in emotional experience and expression, the necessity of ‘feeling in performance’ rather than ‘performing feeling,’ and the importance of active empathic intersubjective attunement during expressive engagements with audiences and other performers. Their practices are, at base, oriented toward the pleasure of their audiences, but clowns consistently mobilize “negative” emotions such as shame, rage, and humiliation to achieve the delight of observers. They draw upon a rich variety of semiotic resources (the mask, the gesture, the face, the voice) to do so. As a community of practice where emotion is highly theorized, carefully critiqued, and painstakingly socialized, clown is a productive site through which to advance psychological anthropological research on emotion as it is organized, conventionalized, and experienced in domains of human experience other than illness and distress.

Paris is home to a thriving population of theatre clowns, street performers, master teachers and clown students, due in part to multiple renowned physical theatre and clown schools located there (i.e. Le Samovar, L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, École Phillipe Gaulier), a thriving arts scene which supports clown-based performance projects, and the presence of highly successful activist/nonprofit clown organizations (i.e. Clowns Sans Frontières, Le Rire Médecin). The Lemelson/SPA award allowed Ms. Walton-Wetzel to establish contacts and build relationships with community members, collect video, photographic, and textual archival materials, and observe ongoing workshops and performances in the community in preparation for future dissertation research on contemporary clowning.