Clown performances as a way to escape from and respond to worry and conflict stretches back thousands of years; since the earliest form of the clown, the danga, appeared in ancient Egypt, clowns have been entertaining all levels of society, often by questioning social norms or poking fun at those in charge.
Chicago, America’s comedy center, has a long and complex history with clowns. The birthplace of modern improv comedy and such iconic groups as The Second City and the iO, Chicago embraces all forms of comedy, including clowning. The city was also the home of Bozo the Clown, star of The Bozo Show, one of the most popular and longest-running children’s TV programs.
But Chicago’s relationship with clowns wasn’t always so rosy. In the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy, known as the Killer Clown, performed as a white-faced, red-nosed performer at children’s hospitals and parades around the city while simultaneously committing a string of murders.
Chicagoans, however, are forgiving, and many clowns have felt welcomed in the city.
Danny Wightkin, a Chicago clown who performs under the name Your Silent Partner, says that there is more pressure to perform well and make a profit because of competition for venues in New York, which is less of an issue in Chicago.
“[In New York], it’s like, if you’re good, you’re good. If you’re bad, you’re bad. That’s full stop,” he said. “Where[as] Chicago always feels like you have room for experimentation.”
Vanessa Valliere, a Chicago performer who works in physical theater, clowning and puppeteering, also said that Chicago audiences are more open to unique, new performances than other big cities.
But in early 2020, the pandemic ground all live performances — original or not — to a halt, and the Chicago clown community suffered. Wightkin says that much of his clown network moved to Los Angeles and that some stopped performing permanently. Mark Frost, a clown and performer who is the co-artistic director for Chicago’s annual Physical Theater Festival, also had friends and colleagues leave the industry.
“I do think there is permanent damage done,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be artists or clowns again, but they may just find that in a different way in their life.”
Valliere, who has been in the Chicago clown community for over a decade, says that the community has been shrinking steadily.
“I can’t think of that many clowns these days, because [the community is] so small,” she said. “I do think there are some really eager people. … So maybe there’ll be an uptick in or a resurgence of people who are just open. … Somebody’s gonna pick up the baton.”
But just as more and more Chicago clowns have left the city, their work has become increasingly relevant in the face of sadness and uncertainty. Karen Hoyer, a clown who performs in Chicago area hospitals and nursing homes to cheer up ailing patients, says that clowning can be an answer to pandemic struggles.
“We really need to have people bringing joy and laughter,” she said.
This is exactly what Wightkin aims for in his performances. His work is all about getting adults to forget about the world and have some fun.
“[Clowning] offers that alternative world where things are not quite as bad, where you don’t have to think about the things, [where] you can just laugh at the idiot up on stage doing something funny,” he said. “It can get people out of their funk for the minutes they’re watching you.”
Mari DeOleo, a Chicago clown from the Dominican Republic, performs as a clown not just to help her audience cope through laughter, but to experience the healing power of humor herself. DeOleo found herself frustrated with traditional theater because she was often racially typecast. She played the part of Tituba, a slave, in The Crucible over and over, and became so exhausted by the emotionally taxing role that she stopped performing for a few years.
“I just want to do something funny. I just want to be enjoyed! I’m so frustrated. Let me be happy for goodness’ sake. I think you’ll enjoy that on my face, too,” DeOleo said.
After moving to Chicago, DeOleo started taking classes with The Second City, and, this time, felt more comfortable with performing.
“I needed to go into comedy for control. I needed to be in control of how people perceive me onstage,” she said. “I couldn’t just take a script, and I couldn’t just get cast.”
For Valliere, performing as a clown has made her recognize and work through some of her own personal weaknesses. Her clown is often a perfectionist who is unsure of her skills and worried about messing up, which reflects Valliere’s own personality.
“I didn’t know how I was incorporating my identity into it for a really long time,” she said. “I thought I was just making stuff and then later, I would watch it and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I see.’”
And although Valliere has yet to completely overcome these struggles, she helps her audiences understand that the process is valuable.
“When she [Valliere’s character] screws everything up, there’s a lot of joy and beauty in the screwing up,” she said. “She accidentally enjoys herself, or the audience accidentally enjoys themselves.”
Valliere has been unable to share this message with audiences since the pandemic. But now that the pandemic has somewhat subsided and theater groups have found ways to put on performances safely, the Chicago clown community has begun its own healing process.
According to Hoyer, the World Clown Association held its annual convention in Northbrook, Illinois, for the first time since the pandemic after postponing it three times. Wightkin says that Chicago clowns are working to reinstate the clown meet-ups that occurred every month before the pandemic, where Chicago’s red-nosed performers would get together to chat, improvise, and show each other new work.
For the first time since 2019, the Physical Theater Festival offered more than a week of in-person, indoor performances, which showcased a variety of physical theater work, including clowning. During 2020, the festival was entirely online, while the 2021 festival featured a few outdoor performances. Frost says that, although navigating the pandemic and online theater was difficult, the online format allowed the festival to welcome performers and audiences from across the world and to think deeply about accessibility when many would-be viewers were unable or unwilling to leave their homes.
“It’s forced the theater world, which can be very insular, to take a look outside and think much more broadly about ‘What is theater? Who is it for?’” he said. “How do we welcome people in so that the barriers that may have existed previously can be attended to, so that they’re not such an obstacle?”
Nonetheless, the goal of Chicago’s reinvigorated clown community remains the same: to bring joy to their city.
“I really admire people that are continuing in this role … because life is so hard right now: the past three years, all of the political and social and health-related trauma we’ve gone through, not just locally, or nationally, but worldwide,” Hoyer said. “We have to laugh together. It’s a mission that I take very seriously to bring laughter and joy back into life.”