Be Playful

Archive for the ‘clowning’ Category


Posted on: 19 July 2010

Welcome to Be Playful!

If it’s your first time visiting, here are some posts you might like to read:

The A-Z of Playfulness

“Your one-stop reference guide to all things playful.”  Read More…

How to be an Everyday Clown

“Clowns are brilliant. They bring joy and laughter to the world. They’re larger than life, clumsy, confused, very silly, and full of nonsense.” Read more...

Catalysts of Creativity

“A catalyst of creativity is anything that inspires you to be creative.”  Read More…


‘There is an unnecessary gap in today’s world between the world-changers and the life-celebrators.’
~ Harvey Cox

Photo by Bahman.

If you asked people what they would like to achieve in life, what they see as their ultimate purpose, I think most people would say making the world a better place.

The best advice I can give to making the world a better place is to become a clown. Clowns make the best world-changers, and here are the reasons.

Clowns embody the change they wish to see.

Photo by esacarola.

One of Gandhi‘s most famous lines is:

‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’

Clowns are fun-loving, they give life a full embrace, they are artistic and musical, unafraid to stretch their limitations, even at the risk of looking silly. This is the kind of person I like to meet, the kind of person I would like the world to be full of.

I don’t know if you’ve ever met an activist. I’ve met a few, and I have a lot of respect for everything they do. Some activists are brilliant, they recognise the need for clowning and fun. However a lot of activists are deadly-serious, seeing the work they do to make the world a better place as the be all and end all. This is dangerous.

It is dangerous because if these activists achieve their goals, then the world they create is likely to be a deadly serious place, a place of efficiency and productivity where wonder and playfulness are frowned upon.

It is also dangerous because these activists tend to be serious because they believe they have the final answer that everyone should agree with. If anyone disagrees with them, then many would see it as acceptable to use violence. A classic and tragic example is ‘communist’ Russia; another equally tragic example is ‘democratic’ Iraq. Is it really possible to bring about a better world using violence and bloodshed?

Clowns are a direct challenge to power

Photo by Brave New Films.

Powerful people would like to have us believe that the world is a dangerous place, that we should be afraid, that we need looking after. It is important for powerful people to create this feeling, because it means that we become dependent on their power to protect us, further justifying their power. For an example, think war-on-terror, and the extra power that governments have given themselves because of the fear of terrorism.

In having fun, and refusing to live a life of fear, clowns are a direct challenge to power. This is why the FBI identified the nonviolent Carnival Against Capital as a terrorist group. It is also why the protesters against Nuclear Missiles in Greenham Common dressed as teddy bears and held a picnic on a nuclear silo. The message of clowns is clear: we are not afraid, and we will have fun.

Photo by Chance Gardener.

The humour of clowns is also a direct challenge to power. Many jokes make a mockery of authority figures, subverting the position of power that they assume. Adolf Hitler was so afraid of humour that he banned any jokes about the Nazi Party.

Another great place where political power is challenged in this way is in street carnivals. In the past, carnivals would be the one time when all people would be seen as equal, when the village fool would be made a king. The loss of this event, the unwillingness of people in power to engage in frivolity is no doubt a loss to society.

Clowns aren’t afraid to look silly

Photo by blmurch.

World-changers often have to say things that are uncomfortable to hear, that go against the status quo. Because of this, they are likely to be mocked and ridiculed in an effort to get them to shut up.

Clowns seek to be mocked and ridiculed, so mockery and ridicule is unlikely to silence them! Clowns have the courage to see the world as it is, and as it should be, and to proclaim aloud the difference between these two.

Clowns bring smiles, joy and laughter to the world

Photo by clspeace.

If I think back on the people who have most positively influenced my life it is not the grumpy teachers whose class I had to sit on every week for years on end, nor the bossy supervisors that I have been blessed with in certain workplaces. Rather, it is the joyful strangers who offered me a smile when they could see the despair on my face, the friends who have come alongside me and helped me to envision all that I can be.

I am firm believer in the idea that change begins at home, in the immediate world and community around us. If you can bring joy, laughter, smiles and hope to this community, then I have no doubt that you will have made the world a better place.

Let us go out into the world, and be the change we wish to see.

Photo by SlapBcn.

Clowns are brilliant. They bring joy and laughter to the world. They’re larger than life, clumsy, confused, very silly, and full of nonsense.

I’ve been reading a lot about clowns and jesters recently, working out how to be a clown in my everyday life. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Unpredictable Free Spirits

Clowns have a freedom and unpredictability of spirit. They are willing to say, do, and be something different, taking the risk of being ridiculed.

One of the keys to being playful is having a freedom and unpredictability of spirit. In the midst of daily drudge and routine everyday clowns bring sparkles and smiles through a moment of unconscious sillyness or spontaneous dancing.

It’s also true that the world cannot become a better place without people who are willing to do and say things differently, to risk being ridiculed. To stand up against the norms of society is brave and can be dangerous, so getting a few laughs on the way is no bad thing.

Larger than Life

Photo by dct.

Clowns are larger than life; they are disproportionate to the world. This is both in terms of their physical appearance (huge shoes, red noses, crazy hair), and in terms of their emotions and charisma. The happiness and sadness of clowns is both more wonderful and more terrible than happiness and sadness in everyday life.

Maybe wearing a red nose every day isn’t the way you want to go, but think of other things you can do to stand out, make people smile, and get others talking to you. Wear three watches or a kooky scarf, a sparkly brooch or a flower in your hair.

One of my favourite things to do is to wear a cowboy hat when I travel on trains. It’s amazing how many more people talk to me just because I look a bit different, and it definitely makes people smile too.

Clumsy and Confused

Clowns often get confused between what is valuable and worthless, and struggle to tell the difference between truth and folly. In doing this, they embody the confusion and darkness of the unconscious world. This is good for making others think about what is valuable and true. As one academic writer on clowns, William Willeford, puts it:

‘It may be true that our action and knowledge rest on beliefs which we assume to be more adequate than they are.’

A lesson to be learnt from this is the need to embrace complexity. As much as we might love to find a final answer to our problems, a final truth to solve our worries, it can be helpful to realise that the world is rarely as simple as we would like it to be. In knowing this complexity, we are set free from the need to control everything and everyone.

This isn’t an excuse to wallow in our problems and not seek a way out, but it does make us aware that the way out is more likely to be a long and winding road than a hop, skip and a jump.

The confusion of a clown can help to clarify things for ourselves. In the confusion of clowns, we see a dissonance between what is valuable and worthless, and we begin to realise the times that we have listened to the pedlars of broken dreams. We also realise the times that we are truly listening to our real dreams, the inner dreams from the depths of our being.

Full of Common Nonsense

Photo by Yodel Anecdotal.

Jesters – the clowns in the courts of Kings and Queens – would wear bells on their hats. This was so they could shake their heads if anyone tried to instil some ‘common sense’ into them. The bells would drown out what was being said to them.

There is often a lot of sense in common sense, but equally often there is a lot of nonsense. The next time you hear someone peddling nonsense in the name of common sense, remember the bells on your hat, and give them a shake.

The magic tricks that clowns would perform in the courts of Kings, and on the streets, were designed to contrast with the ‘magic’ of the kings and priests that was accepted as common sense.

Some kind of ‘magic’ today means that the majority of the world is caught in the trap of poverty whilst a small minority feast on riches. Some kind of ‘spell’ makes us think that this is normal.

Magic tricks make us aware that we may be believing illusions, but also offer the possibility of magical moments of change, when hope breaks through in the most desperate of circumstances.

In Summary

  • Clowns are free spirits – a good example to follow.
  • Clowns are wacky and larger than life – another great way to be.
  • Clowns are confused and clumsy. This can help us navigate the confusion and clumsiness in our lives that we’d prefer to ignore.
  • Clowns don’t think much of common sense. They know that being sensible can be a lot of nonsense.

dont-shoot-the-clownsIn March 2003 trainee lawyer Jo Wilding visited Iraq as an independent observer to the Anglo-American invasion. She found many shattered lives; people’s homes and businesses were frequently destroyed by stray bombs. Others were shot or imprisoned and tortured arbitrarily if there was even a remote suspicion that they were part of the insurgency against the invading forces. Experiencing firsthand the everyday brutality of war led Jo to question the way the world is. She started wondering why we allow anyone to produce weapons, let alone use them:

‘Why is it considered a legitimate way to live, for a person to get up in the morning, kiss his or her kids goodbye, and go and spend the working day experimenting and discussing and planning and building novel and ever-more efficient ways of severing soft, beautiful, living human bodies?’

She also asked people in Iraq about their experiences under the rule of previous dictator Saddam Hussein, and was told many stories of oppression and torture. Yet the US – and Britain – supported Saddam’s regime whilst it suited them. This led Jo to ask:

‘How many people tonight will be tortured in the darkness in countries which our governments still support, fund, arm, supply with torture instruments? And what will it take for us to stand up and stop them?’

Whilst in Iraq observing Jo met a 4 year old child called Mohammed. His house – a farmhouse in the countryside, many miles from any US or British targets – had just been bombed from the air. His sister was dead, his newlywed aunt missing, his home destroyed. Yet in the hospital, Jo’s friend Shane started blowing bubbles – allowing Mohammed to forget the devastation for a moment and break out into a smile.

‘Of course his trauma would take more than a bubble to heal, but the memory stayed with me. A friend set up a website called Circus2Iraq. I sent out an open email inviting circus performers to come to Iraq, warning that it was a dangerous place and travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. Despite poor pay and conditions, I got a bunch of clowns.’

In January 2004, Jo started a tour of Iraq with the circus. Parents and teachers saw children who had not smiled since the invasion break out in laughter. Children who had been obsessed with the war, drawing only pictures of planes, guns and soldiers, began to draw clowns – to see the possibility of a world outside of war and violence.

Reading ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’ I saw the power of play at work in a country completely marred by horrific violence. I began to realise just how powerful playfulness can be. Four things stood out most for me:

1. Playfulness heals

Seeing a circus was not going to cover over the wounds and bring instant healing for the children of Iraq. But it did give them an opportunity to laugh, and to begin to be children again.

Play is healing both for those who engage in it, and for those who witness it.

2. Playfulness engenders trust

Jo’s visit to Iraq was primarily as an independent observer, documenting atrocities under Saddam, and those committed by the occupying forces. Many people were afraid to tell their stories for fear of reprisals – thinking that Jo may be on the side of the British and American soldiers.

Seeing Jo as a clown, however, bringing delight to the eyes of children and adults alike, allowed people to trust her.

Another occurrence of trust through play happened when the circus visited a town in Kurdistan. They were asked for $60 each to stay – money they did not have. However, after giving a circus performance for the soldiers on duty, they were let off paying the fees. Play is an act of mutual giving – and can get you a free ride.

3. Play crosses cultural boundaries

In spite of language difficulties, and being in an increasingly conservative Muslim country, the circus was well received everywhere they went.

The children watching clowns from other countries – from countries that were invading their country – could see beyond the ‘adult’ boundaries of difference and exclusion. Play and fear cannot live together.

4. Play allows for the imagination of new possibilities. It instills hope.

For the children whose lives it touched, the circus was a moment of sparkling colour in a gray, dark and fading world. Children who had lost all hope would often tell the clowns the dreams that they had for their life.

Playfulness disturbs the status quo and provokes a response. Just as the response to violence is often further violence – the response to playfulness is often a life transformed by hope.

Have you ever met a playful person who made your day brighter, or gave your life a new perspective?

Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq is available from and

You can read Jo’s blog, Circus2Iraq, here.

Follow My Tweets