“Clown college? You can’t eat that.” The immortal words of Homer Simpson. As Homer pulled up to the billboards on ‘new billboard day,’ he was greeted with various advertisements in all their unquestionable glory; namely muffins, barbeque sauce and clown college. Homer’s ordeal over the next few days saw him taking a course at clown college with hilarious results. It was funny because nothing seemed more bizarre than there being a college for clowns.
Fast forward to three dimensions and over to Venice, Florida, and there is (or was) a genuine clown college. This is no joke. The college was set up in 1968 and helped revive a profession that was all but dead. Whilst their exploits may not be as comically satisfying as Homer’s attempt to loop-the-loop on a tricycle, there are people who study various arts and crafts at clown college. These are the people who are out to prove that clowns are not just strange men in make-up, hamburger fiends and killers of children in Maine.
Clowning is an intricate art that involves pantomime, improvisation, character development, gag writing, makeup and choreography. Clowning has become a genuine profession, with clubs, museums and even a hall of fame. Long gone is the tradition of clown wannabes running away with the circus. This is the 21st century after all.
One graduate of clown college is here in Bangkok amongst us. She isn’t alone. Nancy Schwartz is here in Bangkok with a group of people. They aren’t all clowns, but they are pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and performance in directions that perhaps Bangkok is not familiar with.
Sadly, clown college is no longer in operation, but Nancy is by no means distraught. An immeasurably sprightly character, she brings an air of excitement to the Bangkok art scene. “Clown college was a long time ago now,” she reminisces. “It was incredibly competitive. They only accepted 50 people each year from applications of over 5,000.” Having moved to Bangkok with her girlfriend, Nancy has been steadily spreading the word of street performance across the city. “I actually don’t like the term ‘street performance.’ Some people call what we do guerilla theatre, but I don’t think that description really works either.”
Nancy has even used her work for teaching purposes in New York, amongst other places. Categorising of their work aside, Nancy and her colleagues have been preparing for an event the likes of which may frighten and bemuse the people of Bangkok.
Oh they float, they all float
Picture, if you will, a scene: a family of clowns sits before an enormous television in an outdoor living room. They are watching a band performing on the television. Not long passes before the clown family get up and walk through the screen and into the programme, pulling in confused passers by as they go. This is not an acid flashback, but what is known as ‘circus street theatre.’ It’s alive and well and it’s in Bangkok.
The concept takes interactive television to new levels. In a city that perhaps fears innovation and physical action as a form of expression, there seems to be little room for grounded, grassroots performance. “Lunge,” as the collective have come to be known, came together to prove that there are groups of people in Bangkok who have interests that shy away from hi-tech multimedia pop culture.
This group’s interests are rarely catered to, and as such there are few opportunities for them to do what they enjoy. This is all about to change. ‘Sorry I’m Late’ is a show that has brought together a collection of international performance artists, specialising in mime, puppetry, music, clowning and much more besides.
Over eight weeks at eight different locations, ‘Sorry I’m Late’ will take place with a focus on the audience. The majority of the show’s appeal comes in the form of crowd interaction, whereby anyone and everyone will be free to show their talents and character for the world to see. Perhaps such a concept is too extrovert for Bangkok to appreciate, but there are those in the city who frown at this very notion, and these are the people that have come together to form ‘Lunge.’
We can’t stop here, this is bat country
San Francisco performance artist G. Randall Wright is at the forefront of the organisation. “I got involved with all of this by accident,” he says. “Really we all came together because someone knew someone, who knew someone, who knew another guy that could play guitar.” The haphazard manner in which the group came together is demonstrative of the haphazard nature of street performance. “We aren’t sure how the shows are going to go. We aren’t even totally sure what we are going to do at each show. The shows are not set within strict perimeters, but they kind of evolve by themselves.” And therein lies the freedom within street performance. The unruly nature of the art-form does not serve to undermine its validity, but rather strengthens its meaning through genuine human expression.
Randall is full of life, constantly smiling for no apparent reason and saying the most normal of sentences with an enthusiasm that can perhaps only come from the mind of an artist. He is a likeable character and seems to thrive off the unpredictable nature of his art.
Street arts are nothing new to Bangkok. At the end of last year, Thailand’s first international community arts festival, Hoontown, took place in Samsen Soi 5. It received more than 3,000 visitors over the course of three days. These people were interested to see puppet shows, street performances, musical shows and various street arts. The event received major media attention and was noticed by MTV who have a similar event planned for later this year. Street arts are simple, fun concepts that have an immediate enjoyment factor that is difficult to attain from other art forms.
The venues for ‘Sorry I’m Late’ will be eight of Bangkok’s universities. This will give students at each of the universities a chance to show there own talents, whatever they may be, to mass audiences without fear of rejection for doing something different.
Molded around an innovative business model, the event allows for unconventional artistic inspiration to be presented to new audiences. Each mini-art fair is being co-organised by the universities themselves and Blackwood Ventures, a local startup company looking to nurture the creative underground of Bangkok. “Most of the entertainment, arts or culture in Thailand comes from pop-culture or the fine arts,” says Nat, one of the organisers. “Real originality and creativity happens in non-mainstream, street performance.”
To put on events such as these requires sponsorship, not least of all to pay the performers who are devoting a considerable amount of time to their projects. “It’s great that we can do this and actually get paid,” says Nancy. Increasing numbers of companies are opening up to the idea of street performance as presenting some sort of valid business opportunity. Through the realisation of this concept, more events are sponsored and the artistic scenes are able to expand and reach wider audiences. For means of an example, Sprite has been a part of street culture in the US for many years now, and they are also helping to sponsor ‘Sorry I’m Late.’ Other electronics and telecommunications companies have also expressed interest in getting involved.
The hoons are alive
By holding the events in universities, the performers are able to show their talents to both those who are interested and those who are not. The performers themselves first met at Hoontown, which was a genuine community event; something perhaps rare in the city of angels. Students will be able to show off what they are interested in (be it music, sculpture or painting) alongside artists from all over the world. Crowd interaction will blur the line between audience and performer.
Each show will last approximately two hours, and will be broken down into sets of two-minute vignettes which will give the performances a fresh, edgy feel. The puppetry element is something that Hoontown explored in some depth. It opened up an entirely new form of art to people who may otherwise have thought puppets were mere wood and string. The puppeteers have each made puppets of themselves, and so the performances will take on a surreal element, as performers perform with their own likenesses.
For those interested in keeping up with the antics of ‘Lunge’ as they traipse around Bangkok’s university campuses, the best advice is to keep an ear to the ground. The events will take place in June and July and the madness will be committed to writing in Guru every week with images to boot. There is a phone number to call, but calling it may or may not be of any use, if only because street performance likes to keep its audience on its toes. The number is 02-684-1600-2.