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Spirit & Destiny magazine
November 2005

Red Nose Day

Can a red nose restore a sense of fun to life?
Tanya Jackson went in search of her funny bone

As yet another full bus sails past my stop, I glance at my watch feeling agitated. ‘Late for work again – and it isn’t even my fault,’ I mutter. I manage to squeeze on to the next bus, but there are no seats and I have to stand. By the time I’ve fought my way on to the Tube, queued for an escalator and finally lost my rag with an innocent bloke I bump into as I storm up the road to my office, I have to ask myself, ‘When did I become so grouchy?’

So when a colleague patiently suggests I try a Clowning Around workshop, I’m curious. Is this the way to shed my uptight London ways? Then again, as a kid I always found clowns eerie. Scary images of Stephen King’s It flash into my mind. I shut them out. But this isn’t about horror films, it’s about rediscovering my sense of humour, I tell myself unsmilingly.

On a Sunday morning a couple of weeks later, I find myself in south London, peeking around a studio door. Inside are 20 or so people, ranging in age from their early twenties to late forties. I spot a man in a red T-shirt and loose black leggings talking quietly to someone on the opposite side of the room. ‘Richard?’ I ask. He nods and greets me with a relaxed but reserved smile. This wasn’t the wacky Ronald McDonald character I’d been expecting.

Formerly an accountant for Reuters, Richard Dunkerley first started clowning 12 years ago and enjoyed it so much he attended an evening drama class, then did three years’ training in Sacred Clowning – a form of the art that enhances self-awareness – at London’s Fool at Heart School run by Didier Danthois. Richard clowned in hospitals, churches and on the street before starting his own workshops in 1998.

I meet Frank, an office worker from London, Pat, a nurse from Leeds, and Roisin, who woke at 5am to drive down all the way from Derby with her husband, Wallace. Clowning must indeed be a serious business to warrant such a long trek.

I’m usually an outgoing person, but now I feel the shy me taking over. Help! We begin by forming a large circle. Richard steps forward to break the ice and, wobbling his whole body, he gives us an uninhibited, ‘Brrblublurrr…. Richard!’ I wince but join in as the class copies him three times, although repeating the action in a more understated way. When it’s my turn, I feel a sudden pressure to do something original and funny, but my mind goes blank. I jump forward and stammer, ‘T-Tanya’ Again I cringe as the others grin and repeat my action threefold.

Next, Richard puts on some soothing music and we each find a partner. This is a trust game, where one person closes their eyes and the other leads them around the room. My partner is a cheerful young woman called Julia. She closes her eyes and puts her hand on top of mine as I slowly guide her along. When the music stops, Julia opens her eyes and smiles. ‘Excellent!’ she says. ‘I felt completely safe.’ My face flushes with pride.

Now it’s my turn. I close my eyes and start to follow Julia’s hand at a gentle stroll. I try to feel liberated and free of my surroundings. But suddenly classmates’ feet are hitting the ground hard – they’ve grown in confidence so much that they’re running! I wonder how that can be as I gingerly take tiny pigeon steps with my arm raised in front of my face. Do I have trust issues?

My awkwardness starts to give way as the day goes on. I worry less about getting things right, and start to enjoy myself. With stage fright long gone. I’m happy picking flowers and being driven round in imaginary cars. Working in pairs, we improvise, sometimes reacting to each other, at other times copying our partners, often veering off at completely different tangents by ourselves.

Just before lunch, Richard gathers us round. ‘It’s time to introduce you all to the smallest mask in the world – the red nose.’ I feel like I’ve been preparing for this moment all day. I slip it on expecting euphoria, but feel much the same as I did without it. Until I look round the room that is. Lots of earnest faces wearing red noses make for instant comedy. I start to giggle at the room full of clowns – and the laughter is infectious. Wearing the red nose adds a theatrical element to our routines, allowing us to embellish our actions and throw ourselves into the moment without inhibition. We carry on improvising to music until our facial muscles are exhausted.

For the first time, I realise the significance of the clown. There’s more to it than wearing a silly costume and throwing custard pies. It’s a role model for the modern adult – a way to return to a more childlike state. Life isn’t that serious after all. In fact, it occurred to me just how easy it is to sell yourself short by getting stressed out by a simple journey to work.

When it’s time to go, Frank and I decide to take a little of the clown with us and chat away normally on the Tube – albeit wearing our red noses. There’s a steady stream of people arriving back in town after their weekend. But instead of rolling around in their seats or even raising an indulgent smile, our antics are completely ignored! This makes Frank and me chuckle, as we realise that we used to be like them – only now we’ve discovered the weird and wonderful world of play.