Clowns Come to Goucher

Kaitlin Higgins
Global Editor

Members of the Traveling Elmers clown troupe during their Goucher performance on Friday September 8th. (Photo: Romy Ackerberg).

It should be noted that J.P. Worthington, a hefty-chested, extravagantly mustached man in a crisp, black top hat, only likes exotic wives. His most recent wife, Urklegru, made her first public appearance on Friday evening, dressed in a green slip and with her bridal veil adorning her blonde locks. Alongside the happy new couple was Mr. Worthington’s brother, Chester, sporting a bowler hat and bowtie.

Worthington wheeled himself onstage in the Hyman Forum at Goucher College, his miniature primary-colored tricycle giving him some trouble when he attempted to dismount. Urklegru, coming to her husband’s rescue, pulled the bike from his bottom before Chester arrived on scene, bustling about with a birdcage in hand. To the sound of laughter and applause, the three looked up to acknowledge their audience, grinning beneath bright red noses.

Mr. and Mrs. Worthington,  also known as Kolleen and Bobby Kintz, respectively, performed as the Traveling Elmers clown troupe on Friday, September 28 during their 24-hour residency at Goucher College. Alongside them was Goucher adjunct professor and “visiting Elmer” Brian Francoise, in character as Chester.

Francoise, who teaches a Community Performance for Peace, Conflict, and Dialogue course in the Peace Studies department and who became involved with clowning about a year ago, helped to bring the Traveling Elmers to Goucher as a resource for both his class as well as an International Scholars Program course. 
“I just said, ‘You know what? Let’s bring clowns to Goucher,’” said Francoise, then emphasizing in particular the discussion that took place that evening. He said that this dialogue was “like an interrogation of why this work is valuable and how it actually fits in to community-based work, which is really about empowering people, [participation], capturing people’s stories and conflicts, [and] handing them skills and craft to make culture in their communities and neighborhoods.”

With a similar ethos, the Traveling Elmers are a growing and evolving clown troupe bred from the humanitarian group Clowns Without Borders (CWB), which was founded by Spanish clown Tortell Poltrona in 1993 after realizing the potential for laughter and lightheartedness in areas of crisis around the world. A true knowledge of clowns–not the pop cultural representations most Americans are familiar with–is necessary for understanding such work. During her post-performance discussion, lead clown Kolleen Kintz outlined the key qualities of all clowns: honesty, an open heart, a funny bone, groundedness and speed, Arnica cream (for all of the bumps and bruises that accompany physical theatre), and serenity. And, said Kintz, “The audience is everything.”

Indeed, during their Goucher performance, the Elmers involved the audience nearly the entire time. Crowd interaction began with asking the audience questions and conducting a song to be sung by the onlookers, then escalated into asking one audience member, Goucher student Emily Collins ‘15, to join them on stage. Once Collins agreed, J.P. Worthington informed her that she would have to travel through a portal in order to make her appearance. To do this, audience members in the first few rows rushed to form a tunnel of arms down a center aisle from Collins’ seat to the stage.

       Once she arrived, the fun began. The Elmers shared their signature dance formation with Collins, asked the audience if she was clown-worthy, and finally, upon approval from the crowd, adorned her with her very own bright red nose. After the show, Collins admitted to having been unsure whether it was her the clowns were inviting on stage.

“I was nervous,” she said of her performance. “For about the first 70% of the time I didn’t know they were talking to me.”

According to Kolleen Kintz, approaching audience members with the opportunity to get involved is of the utmost importance. “It’s my belief that it should be their choice and that the aggressive nature [of some other clowns] is why people have this fear of clowns.”

Kintz says she often comes across audience members or workshop participants–mostly children, and always in the United States–who are terrified of clowns. “Part of it is to not put energy towards it,” she says of dealing with such situations. “The worst thing you can do is come at them and tell them why they shouldn’t be scared of you.” Usually once someone has a chance to watch from the sidelines of a workshop, they tend to inch closer and closer until they are fully participatory in the workshop, overcoming their fear.

“But it’s a big deal, coulrophobia,” says Kintz. “People are scared of clowns but it doesn’t exist internationally. Nowhere [else] in the world are kids scared of clowns.” Kintz believes that the frightening, Halloween-type images of clowns in American pop culture is partly responsible for this fear, and that exposing people to the difference between creatures of horror and clowns like herself is key. For Kintz, being a clown is all about being open, accessible, and present, a phrase heard often throughout her Friday evening presentation and the following afternoon’s three-hour clown workshop.

In Goucher’s Mildred Dunnock black box theater on Saturday, Sept. 29, a small group of Goucher community members, as well as a few additional participants, received a brief education in clowning. Some were new to the trade, while others were seasoned practitioners.

Aubrey Clinedinst ‘13 studied clown while abroad and now takes every clown opportunity that comes her way, noting that she particularly enjoys the collaboration between clown and audience.

“Not all of the material comes from you; it comes from a give and take,” said Clinedinst. “That’s really exciting because you know your audience is there. You don’t just have to enrapture them with what you’re saying, … you know that they’re participating otherwise your show’s not going to work.”

Zoe Wilkerson ‘15, who was much less familiar with clowns and at first much more hesitant to participate in the workshop, admitted that after attending the Friday evening performance and discussion, she was convinced that she should participate in the workshop.

“I got a deeper understanding of what clowning is. … It’s really good to have something to teach me to be present,” said Wilkerson of the workshop, which ended up being a very positive experience.  “It was really good for helping bring people out of their shell because [we] were getting positive reinforcement,” she added of one particular exercise in which the participants–as clowns–had to figure out what to do with a certain selection of objects by gauging the audience’s reaction and encouragement.

Kintz said that while she noticed some apprehension and nerves in some of the workshop participants, she “really started to see peoples’ barriers break down and step out of their comfort zone,” adding that the final exercise  “really involved the audience and they really started to realize that the audience is as much a part of it as the clown is.”

“People have these opportunities to grow in these little amounts of time and it’s special,” said Kintz of the workshop. Even her husband, Bobby, had taken a leap the night before when making his first on-stage clown appearance as Urklegru. “It was his first time on stage and I think he did really well, but I’m not surprised,” said Kintz of his performance, adding that he’s been a clown all along. “Some clowns have to really work for it and some are just there and they just have it. A lot of people just have a natural ability to put on a nose and walk out on stage and everyone laughs.”

Being a clown, Kintz said, is just “all love and openness.”

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