Clown College: How to Look and Dress Like a Clown

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
There's more to the clown shtick than making people laugh — it can be an effective way to share a message.

My interest in clowning dates back to the late 1960s, a
grim period of protest and social unrest. At that time, I
came to believe that humor could be valuable medicine in a
world that seemed bent on following its own destructive
course. The clown character held personal appeal
for me, too, because I was then struggling through the
trauma of turning 40… so when “Nibs” popped out of my
psyche, his lighthearted influence was more than welcome.
As many of you likely know, clowning is an ancient and
honorable art. Furthermore, the pastime requires more than
simply donning a silly costume and greasepaint. It
involves discovering the clown that resides inside you. I
think all of us have one, but most folks spend
their lives keeping that “spirit” contained.

Getting in Touch With Your Inner Clown

You can easily begin to free your own clown character,
though, if you simply list a number of adjectives or
phrases that you believe are descriptive of your
personality. Let’s suppose, for example, that you write
down “shy,” “loves animals,” “enjoys singing,” and
“jogger.” That catalog denotes the “normal” you and
refers to the activities you’re most likely to engage in,
and the feelings you’re likely to demonstrate, on a
day-to-day basis. The clown inside you includes those, of
course, but will also embrace their opposites.

So, take your list and write down opposing qualities. . .
“outgoing,” “afraid of animals,” “unmusical,” “sedentary”
and so on. After all, there are times in your life when an
atypical “you” seems to pop out, right? Good clowning,
then, allows you to experience — and make good use
of — the whole range of thoughts and feelings
that create your personality. That’s why clowns not only
laugh but also weep copious tears. It’s why they can
often nimbly juggle and at the same time stumble over their
own big feet. One minute a clown might strut around like
Mr. Universe and the next minute be trembling like a scared
rabbit.

Therefore, if you want to develop a true clown,
you’ll need to spend a lot of time thinking about your
fantasies, dreams, goof-ups and embarrassing moments.
Then, when you understand that character’s personality,
pick out a moniker that expresses your clownish side.
Flower, spice, or insect names are popular choices. Are you
a “Doodlebug” perhaps? How about “Cinnamon” or “Petunia”?

Dressing the Part of a Clown

Now that you’ve thought through your ideas and “conceived”
your clown, how do you give birth to him or her? Well, it’s
best to start by designing the makeup for your face. Check
the Yellow Pages for theatrical supply stores, and pay a
visit to one of them. A salesperson should be able to
outfit you with everything you’ll need — but here’s a
basic shopping list for you to keep in mind: greasepaint
(either little pots of it or pencils) in clown white and
black, and also in one or more vivid colors such as red,
blue, or purple, a black grease pencil (for outlining) and white powder. Load up on plenty of cold cream,
tissues and baby oil at the drugstore, too . . . and also
purchase a sponge and a soft brush (something similar to a
shaving brush will do the trick).

Putting on a Funny Face

I’ve found that a makeup routine can be reduced to seven
easy steps: First, smear a small amount of cold
cream, using upward strokes, over your face (and
neck and ears, if you’re a full white-face clown) to fill
in the pores and make removing the greasepaint, when your
day’s clowning is done, easier. Second, apply the clown
white. Start with a thin coating and add to it gradually.
(Most beginning clowns wear too much.) Then smooth the
white out with your fingers in firm downward strokes.

The third step is to apply the colors you’ve selected for
your mouth, nose, and eye area . . . and such other accents
as stylized round cheek spots. If you want a red rubber
nose, you can simply obtain one at a theatrical supply
store or you can make your own substitute by cutting a
ping-pong ball in half and painting it with latex. Hold the
homemade schnoz in place with mono-filament fishing line,
which is practically invisible, and use a thin rubber band
at the back of your head to provide enough elastic to allow
you to put the nose on and take it off easily.

Step four will make your spots of color stand out: Outline
each area with the black grease pencil.

When that’s done, it’s time to take step five, which
separates true clowns from amateur “greaseballs.” Find an
old, clean sock, fill it with a handful of powder, shake it to get the powder sifting through and
“throw” it toward your face. (A big powder puff would serve
the same purpose.) Keep this up until there’s a fine, even
layer of powder on your face, which will dry up the grease.

After you’re thoroughly powdered, remove any excess with
the soft brush. Use a light touch while doing so, being
careful not to smear your lines! Finally, pat a damp
sponge — lightly — over your entire face to
absorb any loose powder. This should leave your face
feeling neither greasy nor dry, and all the colors will
show bright and true. 

Practicing Makes Perfect

Even though you now know my basic technique, it’ll take
both time and patience to develop your own face makeup.
You’d probably be best advised to keep it simple and
not to make the features too large.

Most beginners, it seems, add too many symbols to their
faces (butterflies, balloons, and flowers are among the
common ones). Do experiment with them, by all means, but I
think you’ll find that your clown face will be more
expressive and less “busy” if you simply emphasize your
mouth, eyes, and nose.

In doing so, you’ll have to study the natural shapes and
lines of your features. If your face is round, for
instance, consider accentuating that fact by making your
eyes and mouth appear rounded, too. You might also want to
color your lower lip red and leave the upper lip white.
This will give greater flexibility to your expressions.
Learn which parts of your face move as you smile, frown,
and so forth. With color added at the appropriate points,
you can manipulate the muscles in your face to
convey — strongly — your different moods.

One last tip on makeup: Baby oil — when it’s liberally
applied and wiped off with tissue — is great for
removing greasepaint. Cold cream works fine, too. Whatever
you do, though, don’t try to wash the greasepaint
off with soap and water or you’ll have a real mess on
your hands (and face!).

Dressing Like a Clown

Most closets have plenty of clown costumes lurking in them,
just waiting for the magic touch of creativity. My first
clown coat was made from the inside liner of an old
raincoat: a nice black, fuzzy thing, which I promptly
adorned with brightly colored patches, bells and other
trimmings. Yellow tights and a fool’s cap completed my
jester clown’s wardrobe.

You might also try hunting around garage sales and
secondhand shops for old formal wear to create an
interesting “tramp” clown. Wigs are simple to fashion from
yarn stitched to a child’s pair of stretch panties (with
the legs sewn shut).

Oversized shoes can be created by simply finding
large-sized thrift-shop tennies and fitting the “boats”
over your own. One of my friends stitched a neat pair of
clodhoppers from a castoff leather coat. (Professional
clown shoes run from $50 to $100, so it’s best to try the
homemade approach before buying.)

Finding Work as a Clown

A clown ought to be able to find lots of opportunities for
work. Children’s birthday parties are a good source of
jobs, for instance. The clown can enter the party to
present the birthday cake, pass out party favors or
even lead the children in some games. One word of caution:
Children under four are usually frightened by
strange-looking critters like clowns, so warn mothers that
little tots might not react favorably. It’s also
wise to let the youngsters come to you, rather than to
approach them. That way you’ll know they’re ready
for your attention.

You will, of course, want to develop and maintain a
repertoire of gags or stunts. If you’re musically inclined,
you might even carry an instrument, or sing. Other talents,
such as sketching and storytelling, can be worked into a
clown routine, too. And puppets can be useful props, as can
invisible trained flea acts (just mime them).

Providing a Message 

Clowning can be used to demonstrate a gentle approach to
life that underscores the simpler way of living that most
readers of this magazine strive to achieve. Think of the
possibilities, for example, of a good clown skit that
conveys the difference between a high-consumption lifestyle
and a natural, more environmentally acceptable way of doing
things.

Often, in times past, only court jesters and clowns were
allowed to speak out the words of wisdom their
world sorely needed to hear. In fact, back in 1917 a French
author by the name of André Suarés wrote:
“The art of the clown is more profound than we think; it is
neither tragic nor comic. It is the comic mirror of tragedy
and the tragic mirror of comedy.” And the poet John Donne
penned a similar sentiment in 1633: “Who are a little wise,
the best fools be.”