By Kali Quinn
Because of Dell’Arte, I move through life as a clown...
“You’re a what?!”
When I say clown, what do you think of? Big red shoes? Birthdays? Scary make-up? Laughter? A character that has lived in every culture since the beginning of time? A necessary ingredient to keep the world spinning?
About to land in Central America for the first time, I quickly filled out my passport information. Getting to the part that asked for my occupation (similar to my latest experience filling out tax documents) I stopped, thought between what I believed versus what would be accepted, and decided to go with “theater artist.” This only made it more difficult and took a lot of explaining in order pass into the country: “Help me to understand. Do you paint the scenery?”
A week later when I passed into El Salvador with my three new clown compatriots – ukuleles and dance combinations in tow – the driver simply told the border guards that we were payasos, and on we went. Same word on the way back: Clowns.
Clowns. We were clowns. I was a clown.
When I said so on my way to Montreal for an audition for Cirque du Soleil a couple months later, on I went with no questions asked. North of the United States and South of the United States, a clown was something that was understood. A clown was even considered a position of honor. Of respect. The one who brings the laughter.
After crossing three international borders as a “clown,” I felt I had earned the title and could back it up with these experiences and other resume bullet points as needed. Yes! I was a clown, and I could educate all of America one cocktail party or networking event at a time.
That summer, after my classmate from Dell’Arte died, I was scheduled to do my newest clown act as part of a nearby circus. When someone dies, I wholeheartedly believe it’s a reason to cancel most things, but when I picked up the phone to call it off, I realized that I needed to do it. That it was the best thing I could possibly do. I got out of bed and took out my violin and reluctantly began to play.
I remembered the last time I played; it was at a town square in the jungle of Guatemala. I found the clown nose that my friend had made for me out of a gourd he found in his family’s backyard, and I looked at the last text he sent me: “Make sure you are in joying all the love that you are being given.” (I’m not sure whether the “in” part was a typo or not, but I do know that to enjoy something, I need to be “in” the joy.)
A clown lives with a vulnerability that comes from his or her commitment to being absolutely in the present, playing with each moment as it arises. No past and no future. Only a continual presence. Ready to be with whatever is happening and play with it. With a buoyancy, a resilience, that we all dream of having the capacity for. Letting everything exist at once. Not an either/or but both and all. Joy and sorrow. Hope and fear. Love and hate. Funny and serious. Black and white. Stripes and polka dots. Here and there. A kindred spirit who simultaneously embodies qualities that everyone recognizes: the innocence of a child, the gut of a dog, and the wisdom of an elder.
Being a clown wasn’t a job or a label or something I would ever be able to explain. It was a way of life. Although buried deep down at times, it was always a part of who I was and what I believed in: playing through life one moment at a time compassionately and creatively. Acknowledging the loss AND somehow finding the joy.
Kali Quinn graduated from the first MFA Class of Dell’Arte in 2005. Originally from Buffalo and now living in Providence, Kāli is a facilitator of creative discovery, innovative storytelling, physical play, and community dialogue and founder of the Center for Compassionate Creativity. Her two solo shows have been performed at universities and festivals throughout the country. She has taught clown, mask, movement, devising, at Brown University and worked for Accademia dell’Arte in Italy, performed with Clowns Without Borders in Guatemala and worked with Grupo Galpão in Brazil.
This story is an excerpt from Kali’s new book called I am Compassionate Creativity which is available for purchase online at: compassionatecreativity.com.