The female clowns doing it for more than just the laughs

Nowadays, we tend to see clowning as a distinctively male act. But with its ability to poke fun at taboo, female clowning is once again coming into its own

January 30, 2023
Image: David McAllister / Prospect
Image: David McAllister / Prospect

At a pub and theatre venue in Islington, north London, Zuma Puma stands centre stage wearing a red dress and what’s often referred to as the world’s smallest mask: a red clown’s nose. She is duetting with her “vagina”: a comical hand puppet with googly eyes, red lips and pubic curls. Together, they sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin.

Zuma Puma is the invention of Nelly Scott, a 34-year-old Canadian-born clown who received her training from two masters of the art, Philippe Gaulier and Sue Morrison, apprentice of the late, legendary Richard Pochinko. The performance I’ve come to watch blends clowning with puppetry and music into an hour-long solo show titled Don’t Do it, Don’t Do It, Do It!, where she explores sexuality, shame and womanhood. We’ve so far laughed at Zuma’s slapstick antics and awarded her points for absurdist “party tricks”. Her vocal abilities are a bonus (Scott started out as an RnB singer), but it is her glee at performing with her own vagina that shines. Until, that is, Zuma’s inner voice surfaces: “Zuma! Is your vagina singing in public? How rude!”

The voice advises her vagina to be silent, “as bad things happen to people who speak out”. Soon enough the “man militia” arrive, dressed in scrubs. After a search for the vagina puppet, which has been boxed and hidden with a male audience member, they perform a mad kind of castration, leaving Zuma hiding beneath a tablecloth. Blood on her lip, shrouded in shame (literally), she pleads with the audience “not to look”. The change in emotional register shocks, yet the previous 25 minutes have banked up enough bonhomie for the audience to feel safe. They stay put. Now the show’s real journey can begin: one encompassing introspection, reflection and, finally, salvation. That the laughter remains throughout feels radical for a show concerning sexual assault.

And, as far as female clowning goes, Zuma isn’t alone. From Australia to Finland, from Brazil’s palhaçaria feminina to Mexico’s Red de Payasas Mexicanas (Female Mexican Clown Network), from LA to the UK, Zuma is one of a growing number of women who are using the art form of clowning to explore the fallout from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

For millennia, clowning has played a much-needed role, dissolving tensions and boundaries. Freed from religious taboos and social mores, the disruptive, anarchic force of clowns offered a salve for societal pressures—with no suggestion that women couldn’t get in on the act. Dating its origins back to 581 BC, clowning began with the Dorian mimes of ancient Greece, professional and amateur troupes made up of both men and women who, through improvised mimicry, “dragged down” gods and demons to upend established power hierarchies. They had staying power, forming the foundation of most Greek and Roman classical theatre.

Women also once played as fools and jesters. Mathurine de Vallois, a famously extravagant female fool, reigned at the French court from Henry III to Louis XIII. Adorned in an Amazonian costume of flowing robes, armour, shield and wooden sword, Mathurine’s razor-sharp wit inspired a style of burlesque writing, named the Mathurinade. In Medieval England, glee-maidens, along with glee-men, blended music, dance and acrobat. The Commedia dell’Arte, the figurehead of European theatre from the 16th to the 18th centuries, featured both female characters and female versions of male characters, including the Harlequina. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, three Commedia dell’Arte characters were incorporated into English pantomime, one of whom was the female Columbine.

And yet, by the 20th century, female clowning all but disappeared. Women were deemed to lack the funny bone, a view likely popularised by men, who took centre stage. Oversized shoes, leering whiteface, fake flowers squirting water—these were the motifs of exclusively male clowns. Annie Fratellini, of the famous Fratellini clown dynasty, notably performed as a male clown. And with clowns increasingly viewed as sinister figures, spearheaded by “killer clowns” in popular culture, a fear of clowns—coulrophobia—has risen.

Now female clowns are making a comeback, this time tackling some of the biggest subjects around and on some of the biggest platforms. Streaming on Netflix, Nate: A One Man Show is a one-hour comedy special performed by comedian Natalie Palamides. In it, Palamides plays the eponymous Nate—a caricature of a blue-collar New York tough guy. With a big moustache and visibly hairy chest under his plaid jacket, Nate alternately chugs La Croix (an American brand of sparkling water) and chops wood. During the show, the audience is constantly co-opted into consent. Ten minutes in, Nate has asked for, and received permission to touch, an audience member’s breasts and another’s penis (“Damn, dude! What was that, 9 inches?” he exclaims). Next, he has the audience chanting, “Ask! Ask! Ask!” as if at a rally, before requiring a male volunteer to give consent (literally, signing a consent form) for an onstage topless wrestling match.

Clowning is uniquely suited to poking fun at and disrupting hierarchies—including today’s patriarchy

The show’s slapstick, joyous register drops into deep discomfort following a very drunken date between Nate and his art teacher, ending in sex overlooking Niagara Falls, during which she passes out. As Nate carries her comatose body (a mannequin) away, he turns to the audience. With naked vulnerability, he asks, “Did I do something wrong?” The answers are conflicting—as they are, apparently, in every performance. Nate: A One Man Show previously earned rave reviews and won the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

So what makes female clowning so powerful at subverting gender expectations, tackling difficult-to-articulate areas of shame and sexual trauma? Why is it so effective at capturing female and male audiences alike? The answer lies in clowning’s DNA. With its lineage of upending gods in ancient Greece, clowning is uniquely suited to poking fun at and disrupting hierarchies—including today’s patriarchy. And unlike conventional theatre—which might carry similar messages—the fourth wall is down, avoiding alienation.

“I was scared to explore #MeToo on stage, especially in a comedy show,” Natalie Palamides tells me, on a telephone call in December. “But I was workshopping a show about masculinity when Harvey Weinstein began blowing up, so it would have felt like something was missing. Consent in general was, and still is, a big topic. But,” she adds, “love needs to be there. That’s a big part of clowning, loving the audience and taking care of the audience. You’re never in an imaginary space. You’re checking with the audience, seeing if their vibe is okay. Connection is key. Not ‘othering’ anybody, including men, is always in my mind. Shows come off as didactic when there’s a sense of preaching or punching down. If you want someone to change you can’t go into it telling them they suck!”

To this end, Palamides has never written the show down. She knows what the significant moments will be and, in between, leaves space for the audience. She also doesn’t wear a red nose. “People don’t realise that clown is just physical comedy. A lot of famous actors are clowns, but don’t self-identify. With perceptions around masculinity changing, and gender fluidity, it’s interesting to play a man. And drag has historically been a way to subvert gender and laugh at it. So the hybridisation of clowning and drag and character are all useful tools to give a view on masculinity.”

For Zuma, “when the clown has the trust and connection with the audience, they can literally go anywhere, to the dark and edgy places,” she tells me, when we speak on the phone a month after her performance in London. “It’s like, ‘Oh wait a minute, the patriarchy is brainwashed inside of us, dictating who we judge and how we shame each other.” And playful doesn’t equal superficial: “Everyone wants to play a game. When we circle around in a depressive trauma story, it’s difficult to trigger synapses that bring surprise and joy. Play taps into that deep place where you can connect and be joyful and still open to the ‘and… and… and… and’ of life. It’s why clowns excel in humanitarian work, with projects like Clowns Without Borders and The Flying Seagull Project in hospitals and refugee centres. It’s the medicine that people need.”

The sentiment is echoed by Georgia Deguara, director of Australia’s award-winning, all-female acrobatic troupe, Yuck Circus. Their eponymous show takes on taboo “yuck” topics, from menstruation to unwanted sexual soliciting and online harassment. Of their methodology, Deguara says, “our content is for women, but it’s tailored so that Dazzer down the road can enjoy it too. The goal is that everyone has a blast but that, on the ride home, a bloke might say to his missus, ‘Does that ever happen to you?’ or a kid might say to their parents, ‘Yeah, I get sent dick picks all the time’. We’re presenting big, serious ideas through circus and comedy. We may be radical, but everyone’s having a laugh.”

Yuck Circus have toured in far-flung communities where for many audience members this is their first introduction to gender roles. Deguara recalls one instance where an “old farmer bloke got up to help clear the table for the first time, having asked himself: ‘Why is it like this?’”

Even politicians are now getting in on the act. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s recently released Apple TV+ series, Gutsy, features one episode where the Clintons themselves participate in a Parisian clown class with Philippe Gaulier, along with Palamides. In the episode, the Clintons discuss the challenges women face in the comedy industry, including some male audience members’ habit of folding their arms until a female comedian has left the stage. (Impishly, in the spirit of Nate: A One Man Show Palamides asks, and receives consent, to touch Chelsea’s breasts.)

Combining vulnerability and bravado, storytelling and satire, absurdism and pin-sharp observation into one credible show about the patriarchy, all while rolling in the laughs, is no easy feat. Zuma Puma’s show has been two years in the making and has gone through “many, many, many iterations,” she tells me. “If I heard men ambivalently saying, ‘I get it, I get it’ after they’d seen it, like they deserved a medal, I’d return to the drawing board.”

Zuma shares one particularly memorable interaction with an audience member while on tour. “A really buff, tall, mainstream-looking guy invited me over to his group of equally buff friends after a show to say: ‘Thank you so much. We’ve been talking non-stop for the last 40 minutes. It’s the first time we’ve ever spoken like this.’ This guy said whenever the subject of #MeToo came up, he would always walk out of the room, or deflect the conversation because he couldn’t understand what it would feel like, or be like… I didn’t want to create material that was alienating for men. I consciously chose a male director, then I took it off on my own—adapting and refining with the help of my mum who is an academic dramaturge, saying ‘No it’s not this, it’s that…’”

Laughter is power. The best comedy subverts expectations around a subject, offering disruption and a change in perspective. On the evening I saw Zuma perform, she received a standing ovation: she told me that was her fifth in a row. Clearly, something is landing. Soon enough, she may be receiving her sixth ovation. She will be performing Don’t Do It, Don’t Do It, Do It! this March at the Rosemary Branch in Islington to mark a particularly pertinent occasion: International Women’s Day.