curiosity is the key

Nov 07 2018

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit wearing a pink sparkly bikini, gentlemen's neck tie and a chicken on her head, artist Maisie Doherty

What I learned from Clowning in the Museum – Day 2

Hello! This is the second of three blogs, charting my learning through three days of improvised clowning at Bristol Museum, as their Clown In Residence. You might want to start back at day one to get some context, or you can just jump into day two, it's up to you. If you've already read this one, then you can skip to day three

This blog starts with some theory around dealing with failure and embracing vulnerability, before offering a guided meditation to help you embody the wide open space of possibility. Next, there's a description of what I got up to in my improvised performance, including illustrations from the wonderful Maisie Doherty and my own analysis of the performance and finally, I lay out my learning for the day.

“Ever Tried. Ever Failed. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Samuel Beckett

I began the day with a little inspirational reading, dipping into Pema Chodron's Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. Pema is one of my favourite Buddhist writers, she unpacks complex psychological concepts with both clarity and humour. This slim volume is a transcript of a speech she did for her granddaughter's graduation, where she celebrates “The fine art of failing.” 

Learning to be comfortable with failure is a huge element of clown training. When we are living in fear of the flop, we either speed up (like I did on day one), get defensive with the audience, under-commit to our ideas, space out or stay safe and risk free. As a clown's home is on the edge of the flop, precariously balanced between success and failure, learning to feel at home in this unstable space is the work.

Pema Chodron speaks of this process as “ to get good at holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart.” She draws on her own experiences of feeling like a failure many times through her life. She says:

“I carried a lot of habitual reactivity of trying to get out of that space of feeling like I had failed. And then as the years went by (and meditation had a big part to play in this), I began to get to the place where I really do become curious when I find myself once again in that space that you call failing – the kind of raw visceral feeling of having blown it or failed or having gotten something wrong or having hurt someone's feelings, whatever it is.”

I have experienced for myself that curiosity is the key to “welcoming the unwelcome,” both in life and in clowning. Curiosity allows us to get closer to the rawness and work with it, play with it, connect through it, and as Pema says:

“... out of this space... real genuine communication with other people starts to happen, because it's a very unguarded, wide-open space where you look out your eyes – unless you are getting into blaming yourself or blaming others - you can go beyond the blame and just feel the bleedingness of it, the raw meat quality of it.”

As I've learned through training in non-violent communication, self-blaming and blaming-others are conditioned, habitual routes we take to try and discharge or cover up feelings of vulnerability. It's easier to get into “I'm shit” or “They're shit” than it is to own and share our awkward, raw feelings. How this translates to clowning, is this:

“I'm shit” - chucking away ideas before they've had a chance to develop, questioning your own impulses, allowing self-consciousness to get in the way of connection. Sound familiar?

“They're shit” - blaming audiences for your flops, getting aggressive or demanding, closing down, pushing away connection. Sound familiar?

What if no-one's shit? What if you just feel a bit vulnerable? What happens if you own that and share it? Back to Pema:

“It's in that space – when we aren't masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away – that our best qualities begin to shine.”

So, as preparation for my second day's clowning, I did the following meditation, which helps me inhabit that “wide-open space” that Pema points towards as the foundation for connection. You might want to try it out yourself and see what impact it has?

Flower, Mountain, Lake, Space Meditation by Thich Nhat Hahn

(This is my version)

To begin with, find your seat; make sure you've got good connection with the ground, your spine is straight, your shoulders, hands and face relaxed.

Deepen and lengthen your breath for a while, focussing on the breath coming in and out of your belly.

The following mantras are deigned to work in rhythm with the in-breath and the-out breath, try each couplet a few times over, allowing your imagination to fire up and your body to experience these 4 different states:

1.) Imagine yourself a newly unfurled flower, perfect, fragrant and fragile.

Breathing in, I am a flower

Breathing out, I feel fresh

2.) Imagine yourself a deeply rooted mountain, solid, steady and still.

Breathing in, I am a mountain

Breathing out, I feel solid

3.) Imagine yourself a still lake, surrounded by mountains, with a few whispy clouds in the sky. The surface of the lake is completely still, so you reflect back the mountains and clouds, just as they are.

Breathing in, I am a still lake

Breathing out, I see things exactly as they are

4.) Feel a sense of the space inside your body. Feel a sense of the space opening up all around you.

Breathing in, there is space inside me

Breathing out, there is space all around me

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Day two's costume, artist Maisie Doherty

Show Time!

Having done this meditation, plus it being the second day, I felt much more prepared for the “show” I was about to perform. (I never intended to do a show, I'd planned to do installation performance and walkabout, but day one's audience had other ideas! They'd sat themselves on the floor, waiting for a clown show.) So today, I knew what to expect. I decided to dress as a cleaner, in a bright blue shift dress, clashing pink apron, mint green house coat, purple beret, 50's glasses and a red nose, with a feather duster in my hand.

As I walked through the grand halls towards my performance space, I quietly went about the job of cleaning the museum with my feather duster. Having a role and a task gave me a chance to make simple, easy, non-verbal connections with the public. I cleaned people's possessions, I cleaned seats for people to sit on, I tried to reach high things, I huffed and puffed as if I was the only cleaner in the building and my “work” was a never-ending drag.

On entering the performance space, I was immediately greeted by a little boy who spotted my red nose and proposed a game for me to play with him. He was “walking the tightrope,” on a clever floor painting, made to look like he was suspended in the air, above a circus crowd. I watched what he was up to and copied him. Together we developed many games around tightrope walking; standing on one leg and wobbling, walking backwards, jumping, turning around in the middle, trying to pass each other, until he “fell off”.

“Oh no,” I said, as he “splatted” on the ground. These were perhaps my first words this session. We took it in turns to fall off and splat, until he fell off and flew. He grew wings and flew! Of course I joined in!

I noticed an audience had started to gather around us, I could feel the expectation in the room, the tension (mine and the audience's) felt palpable. What's going to happen? Instead of hitting the Hyper Overdrive Performance switch, like I did on the first day, I acknowledged the tension in the room by asking the audience “What do you think is going to happen here?” Not much response form the rapidly growing crowd.

I tried a different tac; “Do you think there might be a clown here soon?”

“You're the clown!” someone shouted.

“Oh no I'm not, I'm the cleaner” to prove it, I did some very serious cleaning, with extra special one-legged “professional cleaner” poses.

“You're not a cleaner, you're a clown!” more of them shouted.

“I'm am not a clown! But I'd like to be, do you think I could be a clown?”


“Is this the clown's stuff? Shall I touch it?”

I played the game of touching the props. It flopped. Back to the questions.

“What do clowns do?”

“Clowns make funny faces.”

“How do I do that? Does anyone know how to do a funny face?”

I watched the children do their funny faces, then I tried doing all their funny faces at the same time.

“What else to clowns do?”

“They fall over”

“Right, I'll try that, I'll just eat this [imaginary] banana and throw the peel on the ground and Oooops! [I fell over]”

The audience seemed to like that and led by a boisterous ring leader, threw 'banana skins' all over the stage for me to fall over on. When I'd had enough of that, back to the questions.

“Ok, so clowns do funny faces, they fall over, what else?”


I picked up a hobby horse – threw it and caught it once – orchestrating applause – they seemed satisfied with this, so I stopped that there, which got a laugh from the adults.

“What else to clowns do?”

“Silly things”

I invited three children up on the 'stage' to show me how to do silly things. Each one danced about in a ridiculous fashion, getting a huge round of applause from the audience.

“OK thanks, I think I've got it. But should I wear a costume for this bit?”


“Should I wear one of the clown's costumes from over there?”


I went to the costume rail and selected three costumes, a dragon suit, a hotdog outfit and a flying suit. Using my “clap-o-meter” (my arm as a measuring stick for their applause), I asked the audience which costume they wanted me to wear. The hot dog outfit won.

As I was putting it on, I was searching for problems, as problems are gifts to a clown. But as it was the first time I'd put this outfit on, I didn't find very many. (The moral of this story is get to know your props!)

They laughed at me, standing there in my hotdog outfit. But I told them to stop, for what I was about to do was very serious. This got even bigger laughs. I asked them to sing the Blue Danube and I danced a serious hotdog clown ballet.

This felt like a good moment to end on, but I didn't want to leave without singing my signature song, “I Love To Laugh”. To prepare the audience for the all-join-in bits (Ha-ha, ha-ha), I asked:

“Hey, does anyone know what laughter sounds like? Is it like this?”

I tried a sneeze


“Is it like this?”

I tried a hiccup


“Is it like this?”

I tried a growl


“Well what is it like? You show me.”

The children showed me how to laugh and we were ready to sing our song:

I love to laugh (ha ha ha ha) Loud and long and clear 

I love to laugh (ha ha ha ha) It's getting worse every year

The more I laugh (ha ha ha ha)

The more I fill with glee 

And the more the glee (ha ha ha ha) 

The more I'm a merrier me!

I took a bow and dispersed the audience into the Clowns Eggs-hibition.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly as a hot dog, artist Maisie Doherty


It felt good to come in as an unexpected cleaner character and to let the audience teach me what to do to become a clown. This allowed me to play low status and elevate the audience to expert status, which seemed fun for them. This status play also allowed me to make use of my authentic vulnerability. I didn't need to know anything, in fact the less I knew, the better the quality of connection.

I ummed and ahhed about whether to wear the red nose or not, wondering whether it would be more effective to the premise to appear as a “real” cleaner. But the nose gives clear signals: this person is fun and funny and normal rules of interaction do not apply. It certainly helped with the initial interaction with the tightrope boy. He instantly knew I was a potential playmate, rather than a teacher or authority figure. And it helped establish the premise of 'the accidental clown' with the audience: “You're not a cleaner, you're a clown!”

Having the feather duster prop was an easy way in to connection on the walk up to the performance space, which effectively served as my warm up. Having a specific role and reason to be in the space, allowed easy connections with audience members. I didn't need to explain what I was doing, the premise was clear from the costume and actions, which meant I was able to be completely non-verbal, which feels beneficial for creating connections with people of all ages and across language barriers.

Having a clear character that belonged to the building and a mission (to learn to be a clown) allowed me to be more prepared to do a “show” than I had been the previous day. The morning's reading and meditation prepared me to stay in the wide open space, to allow my curiosity to guide me. Genuinely not knowing what was going to happen felt like a bonus as opposed to the nightmare of day one.

Games unfolded easily, I asked questions and the audience told me what to do, I trusted myself to take their suggestions and find a game with their material. One of my Play Enthusiasts wrote: “Holly's games did not have a wrong answer.” I took every suggestion and worked with it, as the cleaner character knew less than the children. I think the children enjoyed this sense of power, the more they realised I would take every suggestion they came up, the bolder they became. How fun to have a human puppet!

This is my favourite way of performing, where the audience become my collaborators. I wrote about this at length in my last blog. But today's experience really showed me the power of surrender. When I let go of my ideas and throw myself open to what the audience want to see, I automatically and easily discover material that belongs to all of us.

There were of course exceptions to this easy play! In the part where I asked: “Is this the clown's stuff? Shall I touch it?” and went on to play the game of touching the props. The game flopped - partly because I wasn't willing to stay with it for long enough and mostly because I felt a rush of panic as more and more people came into the room and I could see there was a bottleneck forming at the door.

I asked one of my Play Enthusiasts to help people organise themselves so that everyone could get in. But as he wrote in his notes: “I was trying to discretely mobilise the audience to create more space, but they didn't move an inch as they were focussed on Holly.” Hmm, I was creating problems for myself, but I wasn't using them as the basis for play. It could have been a fun game to move the audience around, but I was hell-bent on playing a game which would establish my premise and therefore ease connection with the audience. Ha! Making my audience comfortable would've been a great way of easing connection! Ah hindsight!

The Scrappy Second Show

After I'd released the audience into the exhibition, remembering back to yesterday's surprisingly successful second show, I decided to put myself back inside my museum roped barriers with the sign saying “Clown In Residence” and drop down to low-key installation performance mode.

The previous day, I'd discovered that allowing myself to be and be seen, doing a simple task, led to an extraordinary quality of connection. So today I got out my toy piano and played a sweet little waltz to establish my world. Just as I looked up, I saw two little friends of mine starring back at me.

These friends are children of my big friend and know me as The Auntie You're Allowed To Climb On, so I knew, in that moment, “being and being seen” was simply not an option.

We co-created a few games. We made up a few songs, the little boy found a giant fake poo and rubbed his hands all over it, before chasing me around with his “poo hands.” The little girl requested that I put on the sparkly bikini, feeling the outfit was not quite complete, I added a neck tie and a chicken hat [Clown artist Maisie Doherty captured this outfit at the top of this blog]. The giant blow-up pink flamingo came out to play and things got a bit out of hand!

It wasn't my best work - I was hanging onto wanting to re-create what I'd found the day before, which meant I was not alive enough to what was actually happening in the room. I wasn't committing to the games or allowing them to develop. The children had never seen me in clown mode and I was afraid of being mobbed by other kids if I let my little friends get into their usual rumpus; it's OK with kids I know, but having strange children climb on my head, is perhaps not the correct mode of conduct! So my quality of play felt restricted.

This in itself is interesting; I realise now that I'd put conditions on my friendships with the children. I made an assumption that they can only view me in one way and this assumption led to my fear of what might play out, which led to restricted play. In my rational mind, I know children are incredibly flexible with their relating. They quickly adapt, working out what the rules are of each new game. My fear prevented us from discovering a new way of relating. Which of course brings me back to clowning / life!

When I relate to my audience / the world with wide open curiosity, we're in for a whole heap of surprises. Assumptions close things down, curiosity opens them up.

Here's What The Audience Said

The tightrope boy: “I like the tightrope and I like flying when I'm balancing.”

A grown up: “She looks very hot in her hot dog outfit”

What Did I Learn?

I'll use my 5 areas of research to articulate my learning. For a full run down of my research criteria, click here.

Self Connection – playing a low status character allowed me to incorporate my authentic feelings of vulnerability. Not needing to know what was going to happen felt liberating. In the second show, not playing with my feelings of confusion / fear around how to relate to children that I knew, meant that I under-committed to my material and games didn't flow as easily as they had the day before.

Connection With Audiences – Casting the audience as expert allowed us all to discover games together. I felt the audience were more invested in the material than the previous day, because they had an opportunity to contribute to it. The cleaner wanting to learn how to be a clown premise also felt clearer. Clarity invites connection.

Being Witnessed, Just Being - I didn't have much of a chance to explore this quality, as explained above, although the tightrope game was a miraculous crowd builder. I was so invested in the game, I didn't notice a crowd forming, so I guess this served a similar function. When we are fully invested in a game or a task, we become more watchable.

Collaboratively Discovered Play – I asked a lot of questions and said yes to all their offers. What supported me today was slowing down and trusting myself to come up with funny material from their suggestions.

To Speak Or Not To Speak – I was completely non-verbal in the walk up to the performance space, the cleaner's costume and the feather duster provided enough visual cues to the audience that I didn't have to explain what I was doing, connection felt easy. Playing with Tightrope Boy, I used sounds and occasional words, which also felt easy as we were developing simple games together and none of them needed explaining. All three of my Play Enthusiasts noticed that I used more and more language as the audience size increased. Was this due to nerves or was this in an effort to provide clarity? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Once the premise was established, I asked questions which led to physical games, where few words were needed.

Thanks for reading, you may want to also check out what happened on day one or day three. Click away to find out!

Feel free to have a peek at the other activities I've got coming up as Bristol Museum's Clown In Residence.

Holly Stoppit menu