There is a rustling, a shimmer in the air, a disturbance in the force, something is about to happen, something is about to appear in front of us, seated as we are in the dark, in the audience… waiting.
There might be music, there may very well be some sort of noise, or there could be a noticeable absence of noise, a hush leading to an absolute silence. However, when it manifests the atmosphere will change in some way. Slowly a light might appear and gently brighten revealing a figure standing there, onstage, in the spotlight.
He (or she) will most probably be shabbily or outlandishly dressed, she (or maybe he) may well be holding something like a suitcase or an umbrella, or a balloon or a hat. Or a skull… He will most likely be looking at us, the audience, or he may be in the act of turning to look at us, or in the process of noticing us. He will see us, looking at him and we will see him looking at us, we will be intensely aware of each other and then something indefinable and magical will happen, the figure will make a slight sound or movement that will elicit a small reaction or a laugh from somewhere in the audience and he will look in the direction of the sound, and get another laugh and in that moment, we will realise that we are in the presence of a clown. He will begin to play, his natural spirit will expand to fill the whole room, and with the exhalation of that one laugh the clown that has been revealed in front of us will take that laugh that he has been given and he will stretch it and play with it until it has infected the whole audience and he will continue in this fashion, making this connection work for as long as possible, for as long as his act lasts, because this is his job.
But where did he come from? What makes a clown? Why are some clowns funny and some …… not so much.
There is a boy who is full of questions like these, watching.
Onstage our clown is in full flow, he plays the audience like a conductor, leading them to follow his bizarre logic as he stumbles from mishap to mishap. He cajoles a willing victim onstage and then another, he sets them at each other, giving them props and costumes and drawing them into his story. The crowd roars, laughing at their foolish antics and at the same time thoroughly relieved it is not them onstage. The story has appeared from nowhere, seemingly, and the crowd is amazed at the ingenuity of the clown. They watch him manipulate his partners and pantomime his disgust as he mocks their inability to follow his simplest instructions. What idiots! Do this! Not like that! Like this! Oh, – so stupid! – and then he kisses them out of the blue, – no harm done!-, he invites applause for his temporary collaborators and they are shepherded gently back into the safe darkness.
And the boy watches from the back, day after day he watches this clown. He knows that no two shows are ever the same, he has witnessed the way the energy flows, the different twists that occur with each audience. The show always starts the same way, in silence, whilst the clown measures the mood of the audience and the boy recognises certain waypoints that occur again and again but he is amazed by how different this show is from the last. He wants to ask the clown how he manages it but it is difficult to pluck up the courage…perhaps today he will go to the stage door….as he has so many times before…but perhaps today will be different…perhaps today he will actually summon up the courage to speak to the clown.
The boy has seen other clowns, he has been to the circus and seen them there but he did not laugh at them, they left him cold despite their stupid costumes and outlandish wigs. He thinks, if you have big shoes and you keep tripping over them, take them off. If your pants fall down, get a belt. If your car falls apart, get another one, he thinks. But this clown here in the theatre is different, he doesn’t wear silly clothes, he appears normal, a little strange-looking perhaps, not handsome but essentially normal. Now he thinks about it though there is something about the eyes…
The show carries on, the laughter builds, the clown has woven a glorious story apparently out of thin air, he has led the audience on a journey, he has shown them parts of themselves, he has exposed himself and his own vulnerability to great effect, they are with him, they love him for his humanity, they nudge each other, and nod as they turn to each other wiping tears from their eyes. Once more the clown has triumphed, as always, a full theatre applauding as one. The spotlight focuses down picking him out of the dark, growing fainter and smaller until it is just illuminating his face then he gently lifts his hand to his mouth and blows a puff. And the light goes out, he has blown the light out. The show is over, the lights come back on, the applause continues but the stage remains empty, the clown never comes back, never. He has gone and the audience must return to their lives without him, with just the memory. They are still chuckling as they gather their coats and make their way back up the aisles, greeting acquaintances along the way. The theatre staff thread their way between the rows of seats picking up the discarded trash and checking for lost trinkets, phones, keys wallets, it’s amazing what an audience will leave behind. Once someone even left a sleeping baby. Can you believe it? Me neither. It’s not true. My story took a turn then as if it wanted to go somewhere else, and dear reader, that baby was the boy watching the clown. I thought for a moment, how neat that would be but it’s too improbable, impossible, no one would leave a baby in a theatre.
But the boy is still there, he hasn’t left. He is determined that this time he will speak to the clown. He knows his way around the theatre, he knows how to get backstage, he knows which is the pass door, the unobtrusive door that leads to the magic world of backstage, the one the audience never suspect. On the other side it says in large red letters, Caution. Exit to Auditorium, but from the public side it is just a cream coloured extra door. He pushes it open, the theatre is in darkness now, no one notices him as he leaves the public world and transfers to the hidden world beyond in search of his hero.
He moves hurriedly through the white-painted corridors festooned with ancient pipes and wires, with large locational words, Stage Left, Dressing Rooms, and arrows and staircases to distant offices and rooms. He glides past empty dressing rooms, past wicker hampers stuffed with clothes, past coils of rope and lanterns stacked in rows. Until finally he arrives at the number one dressing room, the one the clown is always given, the boy knows the tradition, this is the room given to the star performer, the closest to the stage, the one with a sofa and a sink and it’s own toilet. The door is slightly ajar, not closed as it normally is or wide open and buzzing with life, no, it is slightly open and though there is no sound coming from within, the boy hesitates on the threshold. He was about to knock but something held him back, some feeling. The room is not without light, he can see a faint glow. He senses a presence. He is confused, suddenly he doesn’t know what he is doing here, what is he looking for, why does he want to meet the clown? He feels that he is in the wrong place, that he has stepped over a line, he turns to go and then he hears a sound, a soft sighing exhalation, almost a groan. He turns back to the door and listens, again he hears the sound, and again, this time, there is no denying it, there is someone in the room and they are making these sounds.
The boy pushes on the door and it swings open. He softly steps inside. The room is dimly lit, there are lights around the mirror in front of the makeup table but they are dimmed. A window reflects the neon orange of the street lights outside and the occasional flash of a passing car’s headlights but otherwise, there is no other light in the room.t At first glance it appears unoccupied, the boy looks around and hears the sound. It is the sound of a man sighing heavily and it is coming from beneath the dressing table. Hardly daring to breathe the boy carefully lifts the cloth that covers the table to reveal the figure of the clown curled up and hidden from view. The clown is sobbing quietly, his back turned to the room, heaves and shudders spasmodically.
The boy makes no noise, carefully he retreats, resetting the covering, backing, oh so quietly, backing out of the room, out into the corridor, back out down the stairs to the stage door, past the sleeping stage doorman. His thoughts take him out into the night, all questions forgotten.