Clowning, Special Needs and Clowning As A Special Need

By Laura Geilen
In an article entitled The Use Of Clown, the Italian theater teacher Giovanni Fusetti reminds us of that particular thing that makes us human: our self-consciousness —our ability to reflect on and judge our own lives. We all have visions and concepts of our best selves and lives. We know how things “could” or “should” be. Humans in modern society tend to be pre-occupied with stability, security, harmony, youthfulness, beauty, charm, and success. Many people get stuck in the material allure of bigger, faster, better, more… Many forget that these are self-imposed longings, while many know, deep down, that these challenges of our human desire distract us from what’s truly important. On top of all this we don’t have much time here on earth… life is short! Try as we may we can’t escape our humanness and our mortality.
“It seems to me”, interrupts my little inner red-nosed friend with a sigh, “it would be so much easier to be a tree…”
Ah yes… But what would human life be without the colors and passions of our longing and desire?
Clowning can become a way for us to express and embrace these difficulties—these trials of our human awareness. In Fusetti’s words:
“The wisdom of the clown is being able to fall and assume it. It is a profound answer to the main problem of death in all its forms. This is why the clown exists. It is about somebody who takes on himself the limitations, the tragedies, the contradictions, the conflicts, the stupidity, the innocence, the vulnerability, the pain, and the wounds, and consciously plays with them. So the use of clown is to process with humor the tragedy of life.
As an archetype we recognize the clown by the round red nose symbolizing the cherry-button child’s nose or the swollen nose of the chronically ill or drunk. The red nose depicts an expanded physical and emotional state. We know the clown as a naive and simple being with little self-control. The clown touches us deeply and makes us laugh because we are invited to witness the true ridiculousness of our self inflicted woes and because of an ability to live on a whimsical edge between imagination and reality--a dynamic that brings a tender and poetic instability. This instability at times brings on disaster, but the true clown is pure and protected by his own ultimate innocence. Even the most prideful, bogus, subversive or trickster clown has a sublime futility that prevents him from ever harming him self or another. If you were put-off by a clown, it is likely that the actor beneath the nose never understood this fact: that the true clown is pure. And, I imagine, not everyone likes to be reminded of our human frailties, shortcomings or ridiculousness. Looking in a mirror can be painful.
For many years I have lived and worked in Camphill Communities and I have many friends who are described with the widely accepted terms as having “developmental disabilities”, “cognitive differences” and “special needs”. Many of these friends don’t process events and the world with the same degree of ego or self-consciousness as most people. Some have very large personalities or expressions of their so-called disability, but these, in my observation, are also their ability, their unique gift to humanity. I feel fortunate to have such friends who move me deeply with their way of being who they are. Their responses come out of the truth of the moment, the truth of their desires and an honest physical and emotional response to what’s going on that isn’t blocked by a set of standards to live up to. They are fortunate to be living in an atmosphere of care, respect and social inclusion and though I know I am generalizing, they don’t edit themselves by way of too much head thinking as most of us do, and therefore they are the most authentic people I know-- available to feel what they feel, be who they are, and name what is. Some are physically challenged to move or express themselves, and when those of us who live and work with these friends see this struggle we admire them, their humanity becomes precious to us. Their struggle makes us pay attention. Their stuck-nesses, at times very difficult for us to bear, can also awaken our tolerance and our compassion. We know we are all capable of being stuck.
I am touched by my special Camphill friends who can, without effort and with a pure awareness, live in the realm near to the clown in the highest and most noble sense. With clowns, their profound humanity enables us to continually forgive their transgressions (and thereby our own) and to embrace the truth of our imperfection, as they are free to show it to us. The red nose reminds us of their troubles and of their innocence. The often generous nature and openhearted naiveté of the clown and of many of my friends with special needs has inspired, guided and supported me through difficult times and has contributed much to my understanding of the capacity of the human heart to embrace and go beyond the double-edged sword of our self awareness. I’ve wished for some of their unique abilities and the innocence that allows for such openhearted flow of being.
Bringing the practice of improvisational clowning into my life has been to get permission to be in this innocence while breaking the rules, stepping out of convention, becoming free of the “shoulds”, and staying, for a time, with what is. It is to trust the unknown and learn to find the truth of the moment, which, in our modern times, is so difficult to truly be in and stay in. It is to continually say yes to life as it happens, even if you struggle, even if you’re lost, confused or uncomfortable. It is honesty and vulnerability. It is permission to express discomfort and to break from any role we may play or way in which we seek to be perceived. It is the possibility to safely play and pretend. Clowning is also a re-awakening to the world, to the animation of non- living things and to the emotions these things trigger in us. It’s a journey to reconnect with true presence.
Bringing improvisational clowning workshops to others is to encourage empathy in the witnessing of our fellow human beings. It is providing a safe space for discovering, delighting in, sharing and celebrating all the beauty, struggle and tragedy of human being-ness. The clown exists only in being seen by others and therefore the experience of the clown lives not only in us but also between us. As such clowning is a social art and exercises an intelligence of the heart. In the words of Vivian Gladwell, founder of Nose to Nose in the UK, clowning “affirms relationship, and we learn not from how much we know but from how much we are connecting to the world and to others”. In the Nose to Nose work there are four levels of learning clown: Clown 1-The Courage to Be, Clown 2-Embracing the Unexpected, Clown 3- The Wisdom of Imperfection, and finally, Social Clowning-- inviting clowns into conventional settings as a way to bring levity and new perspectives to events where people have gathered for work, learning or activity, much like the court jesters of old. The journey through these courses is really an inner path to self -awareness and awakening consciousness that then lives into how we are in the world and what we connect with and do.
We are living in a time of great instability, standing, quite literally, on shaky ground. There are earthquakes, droughts, tornados, fires, floods and shattered personal and global economies. Deep down we know our one hope for something secure exists in the sharing and validating of our fleeting human encounters and experience-- in the stability that comes from risking to reach out and connect to others and the world in whatever state we’re in-- frail, vulnerable, incomplete or ecstatic. Some words from the Sunday service I attend come to mind: “grasping the spirit through our humanity we feel the Healing God”. Every time I hear these words I think of clowning! True human encounter is this healing and it restores to us the real meaning of life and aliveness and returns the stable ground under our feet.
Whether you see it or do it, clowning is a journey to a letting go and letting be that opens hearts and celebrates the truth of what we are and of what is. In this state of honesty, and with the help of the little protective red mask that gives us big permission, we can begin to find new courage and new freedom to allow ourselves to be and feel seen as who we really are. What we see is the human being in the (de-) light of truth, which however “imperfect”, is beautiful, tender and indeed a special need for our time.
Laura Geilen lives in Hillsdale, New York, and works with her special friends in Camphill Village Copake. She is a member of Nose To Nose of North America under the guidance of Vivian Gladwell, founder of Nose To Nose of the UK ( She collaborates with the acclaimed Walking the Dog Theater (, with Kevin and Erin Maile O'Keefe of CircusYoga (, teaches movement and circus arts, Spacial Dynamics® and clowning to adults, kids and special needs populations throughout the Berkshire-Taconic region. She also travels to bring her personal and socially healing clowning workshops to adults and collegial groups. For more information, email Laura at: