When Holly met Barnaby King

Oct 14 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Photo Joe Rosser / artwork Barnaby King

I was invited to have a "Clownversation" with Barnaby King of Clown Spirit. This was a live conversation streamed in Barnaby's facebook group, The Way Of The Clown. Here's the video:

You can also find the video on youtube here.

Below is a summary of what we talked about – some parts are a direct transcription, other parts paraphrased. I've included some bonus extra information to help you make sense of what I was going on about.

An awkward beginning

This was mine and Barnaby's first meeting. It started with a ridiculous kerfuffle as we played together to find our connection and ease our nerves. Barnaby appears to have cut most of this from the video which is fair enough, it was pretty chaotic, but I think there was something sweet/interesting about two clowns awkwardly trying to find their connection over the internet through play.

What is Clown-o-therapy?

After 10 minutes of faffing about, Barnaby was keen to move into the serious part of the conversation. This sudden change of gear drew out my inner academic, Patricia (the one who wears the red glasses). Eventually Barnaby found a way into the conversation he had hoped to have with me, through getting me talking about my Dramatherapy Masters research. I talked about my dissertation study where I explored the potential mental health benefits of clown skills training, this led to me creating 'clown-o-therapy'; a mixture of mindfulness meditation, body based explorations, dance-movement, play, improvisation, exercises to explore connection, vulnerability, compassion, seeing and being seen, audience connection and guided reflections.

I talked about a couple of the findings that came out of my study – sharing stories of two women from my research group who told me how they'd used their clown skills to help them connect with people in their real lives. One was a nurse who had used “clocking” (a clown technique where you take a moment out of whatever you're doing to directly connect with the audience and breathe) to connect with a patient, whilst trying to break bad news. The other was an auntie who had followed a ridiculous impulse to embody the music her nephew was playing. Both women reported that the connection during these encounters was improved through using their clown skills.

Can serious people play?

Barnaby spoke about his relationship with play – how it's easy for him as a clown to play for an audience or to play with his kids, but admitted that play often eludes him in other situations. He asked me how I support serious people to play. I said “I get them to embrace [their seriousness], to push it harder until it becomes ridiculous – be MORE serious!” I explained how in my style of teaching, I help people find the clown that's already there, by helping them build the confidence to embrace the ridiculous parts of themselves and allow them to to be seen.

Can clowning defuse tension?

Barnaby noticed how the stories I told about my research participants demonstrated how clowning can help people release tension in connection. I spoke about this as a primary function of clowns in many different contexts – on stage, in hospitals, in refugee camps, “...clowns go in and we pop the atmosphere...”Yeah, I can see this is all going on here and what about this as well?”... to bring a different flavour, a different atmosphere, a different tone to the situation.”

Let's talk about disruption 

Barnaby brought the concept of 'disruption' into the conversation. I talked about The Online Clown Academy, which Robyn Hambrook and I co-founded during the pandemic. I spoke about how Robyn and I spent a year and a half exploring where my work (clowning for personal exploration) meets hers (clowning as political activism) and how disruption is something that often comes up in our conversations.

I'm interested in exploring the origin of the impulse to disrupt. In my experience, I've found it most powerful when the impulse comes from my heart and from a desire to connect with other people's hearts. In my experience heart-led disruption can create space around rigidly held beliefs and viewpoints, in this way the clown can “lubricate reality.”

Barnaby talked about the function of the sacred clown in Native American ceremony and how their role is to go into the most serious ritual and “disrupt it, make fun of it, do it backwards”. He went on to describe this as “tabu, blasphemous, against all their religious beliefs, but also done in a way that is completely in harmony, not dissonant.”

I pitched in, sharing what I understand about sacred clowns as “respected members of the tribe, just as everyone else is – you've got your war chief, your peace chief, your organisers, your mothers and your clowns and they're just part of the society... a society that recognises that disruption is essential for the healthy running of a community. There needs to be someone who gets in the middle of it all and just shows their bum or says the thing that you're not supposed to say...it's the release valve.”

Barnaby brought us back to the nurse from my research group and how her taking a moment to pause and breathe and connect with her patient was a small disruption that caused a significant positive impact on their quality of connection.

I talked about being a clown consultant – all sorts of people bring me in to their places of work to help them explore connection through play. I spoke about being invited to work with a group of paediatricians in training, to help them embrace play as a way of connecting with their patients, to see them as humans instead of a bunch of symptoms. I guided them through explorations to find playful ways to approach conflict, resistance and difficulty. Barnaby asked me to describe what happened in that training and I explained that my work happens within confidential boundaries to protect people's dignity, so I couldn't say!

Let's talk about connection

Barnaby then brought to mind a blog I'd written about some recent work I did with Hazel, a wonderful artist who brought me in to hold space for her to creatively explore the theme of mental health. She'd given me permission to share a bit about our process on my blog so that people can get a peek into what happens – you can read that and see some of the marvellous things she created as part of that project here.

Barnaby highlighted the theme of connection as something really important in my work with Hazel. I said “It's central to my work... all my work is about connection.” I explained how in my workshops, people can explore connection with:

  1. 1.) Themselves, through meditation and body work – to notice body sensations, emotions, thoughts, breath.
  2. 2.) Other participants, embracing vulnerability and allowing yourself to be really seen.

  3. 3.) Performers, how to be a compassionate witness to each other, offering kind eyes to vulnerable newbie clown creatures improvising on stage.

  4. 4.) Audiences, how do we connect in a way that is equal, reciprocal, collaborative and consensual?

I talked about the consensual audience interaction training I've been offering to different theatre companies. This training explores how to play with volunteers and whole audiences in a way that empowers them to make choices as to how to interact. I said “When you really give the audience power, then your game as the clown is to respond and to embrace and to celebrate and to enjoy what your fellow co-conspirators are doing.” This is my thrill – it's what keeps me interested as a performer and teacher.

Freedom and structure

I talked about The Honk Project - a red nose musical clown show I toured with 12 years ago. Directed by John Wright, the show was comprised of chunks of set material and a lot of grey areas where anything could happen and built-in ways to get back to the material. This way of playing really worked for me, giving me space to respond to what was happening in the space and follow my internal impulses – allowing me to stay alive within the material, whilst having the security of rehearsed material to come back to.


Barnaby brought us back to my research, dropping my new favourite word “anecdata” into the mix; it means taking anecdotes and turning them into data. Patricia is known for getting the horn when the word “data” is mentioned – Once upon a time, during one of my improvised Work In Progress solo shows, Patricia descended into a writhing heap on the ground, dry humping data in front of a live crowd. You can see a little hint of this in her eyes, but luckily I managed to keep her under control this time. 

What impact do my workshops have on people?

Barnaby wanted to hear the conclusions of my research project – I explained that it was a collective case study – which means I can't really make generalisations from such a small amount of data (“mmmm data”, Stop it Patrica) – but I have been using elements of that study in all my subsequent work and regularly receive feedback from workshop participants. 

I spoke about some of the impacts that my workshops have had on people – they seem to effect people in little ways and big ways – for instance – people might start wearing a bit more colour, they might take a risk to go to a party, they might say yes instead of no. 

The ethos behind all my work is “come as you are” which is about finding play and connection from the place you actually are, rather than having to be in some sort of special state, it's about giving yourself permission to be a bit shit if you're feeling a bit shit, tired if you're feeling tired, loud and boisterous if you're feeling that way. I explained how my role as facilitator is to say “yes you can!” and be a Massive Permission Giver! This impact of this might help people go to a party when they feel a bit rubbish, instead of having to be in a particular headspace... “they might even wear their slippers.”

Then there's the big ways my workshops impact people – people have fallen in love with each other on my workshops, others have been braver to hold the gaze of a strangers eyes after the workshop and been able to withstand their own vulnerability enough to make a connection. I explained how people become very beautiful when they've done a lot of clowning because they are able to be more vulnerable. People have left their jobs / homes / relationships, I obviously can't take full credit / blame for this – people tend to come to me when they are in times of transition anyway – but the work I offer unites people with their authenticity – which makes them review their lives and either bring more authenticity into their lives or search for opportunities where they can be more authentic. 

Let's talk about change

I mused about the notion of change, explaining how my work is all about acceptance and compassion. I model these qualities as the Big Permission Giver and this helps people to internalise these qualities - helping them to embrace themselves as they are with compassion and acceptance. They get lots of opportunities – through mindfulness, clowning and reflection to grow their own compassionate witness. I don't push for change – I meet people where they are and celebrate them – this can lead to natural transformation, not fuelled by force, but by gentleness and kindness. When we meet ourselves with gentleness and kindness we might find ourselves making different choices with our lives.

Barnaby asked whether not pushing for change, stepping back and being more compassionate with yourself can unlock a more organic change? I talked about sustainable change – in my experience, if change comes from me, it's more powerful and sustainable than if it comes from the outside. But then what happens after the big shift / catharsis? The work I do seeks to help people to cultivate a self-care practice to help them maintain any changes they want to make.

Let's talk about anger and boundaries

Barnaby asked how disruption connects with acceptance and compassion. I explained how to me, acceptance isn't just about being passive and letting things happen – acceptance can be active and acceptance involves boundaries. I can be accepting within my own boundaries. 

I went onto explain that when I find myself up against an external boundary (I'm not sure what I was talking about specifically, let's imagine there's a group of people doing something harmful to another group of people), in this scenario then there can be a need for direct action, maybe even a bit of anger. I spoke about how anger can be useful to disrupt unhealthy patterns or un-useful dynamics. Barnaby asked whether there needs to be a spirit of playfulness with that anger. I responded “sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes anger just needs to be heard, straight” (I realise I've just contradicted what I said earlier about clowning needing to come from a place of love and not anger – I think at this point, I wasn't thinking about clowning, I was thinking about boundaries and how anger can be a useful emotion for establishing boundaries – something I'm exploring at the moment). 

I explained how in my teaching, there are no emotions that are any more or less important than others – they are just material to be played with. We play with anger, fear, sadness, joy, excitement, it's possible to find pleasure in playing with all the emotions.

Barnaby was reminded of the conversation I had with Franki Anderson and Angela de Castro – about how de Castro found their high status clown through arguing with Franki that they could only play low status. Franki kept saying “No, you're high status!” The more they argued, the higher de Castro's status rose until it was obvious to both of them that de Castro could indeed play a high status clown.

To intervene or not to intervene?

I recognised this as a helpful intervention and went on to speak about my deliberate lack of interventions in my early trainings – I create an atmosphere of permission and acceptance, without criticism or intervention (unless necessary to maintain safety) – to allow people to experience a sense of space to be. Barnaby noted that this is very different from a lot of clown teachers and asked whether it's because there are people coming to my trainings who don't want to be professional performers. I explained its 50/50 performers and self-development seekers who come to my trainings.

I talked about how my own clown training influenced me as a teacher – in my 20's when I was travelling around, learning from all the different teachers, I didn't respond very well to the “via negativa” style of clown training. Via Negativa is when the clown teacher fires funny putdowns at you whilst you stand in front of an audience, trying to make sense of the oblique instructions they teacher has given you - I experienced this style as jarring and somewhat damaging.

It was a big deal for me to show my vulnerability at that age and when I received a lot of “NO” from the teacher – No matter how funny the “NO,” I couldn't step outside the moment to understand it as a theatre training technique – so I got crushed by it. I was the one who was curled up in the corner, crying. I remembered being in Gerry Flannagan's clown class at City Lit in London – I just didn't get what he wanted from me – he wanted me to be a funny washing machine or something – I tried so fucking hard that nothing was funny – as we all know, tension is the enemy of comedy! There's nothing funny about desperation. At one point, he came over to me as I was curled up foetal in the corner and said, “Holly, if you want to be a good clown, you've got to be prepared to give it all away.” It was only years later, when I found other teachers who set up a space where I felt a bit more relaxed and safe that I could really give it all away.

I teach from what worked for me as a learner

I needed a lot of safety, a lot of care, a lot of boundaries in my 20's in order to step into the spotlight and really let myself be seen. My teaching is based on my own experience as a learner and as a performer - I responded best to Franki's and de Castro's teaching – the gentle nourishing kind. Franki has a saying; “Water the flowers and the weeds will take care of themselves.” In Franki's room there's only positive feedback – you're only going to hear what the audience enjoyed about your performance....how they were touched, what moved them.

What would I say to my younger clown?

Barnaby and I then fielded some questions from the live Facebook audience. Brian wanted to know what I would tell me younger clown, knowing what I know now. “I would say: “You're lovely, you're fine, there's nothing wrong with you, you're OK, put yourself somewhere safe!”” Barnaby asked me “Wasn't it all part of the journey – would you have it be any different?” I admitted that some of my early clown experiences were pretty traumatic, I didn't have the psychological support to really be able to go there. Therapy and meditation became great supports to me later on – but in those early days, I had nothing holding me together – I was a total mess in my 20's, a ball of chaos, I wasn't really OK and I kept taking myself to clown classes to get shouted at by clown teachers.

Everything begins and ends with nothing

Barnaby asked if there was a moment of epiphany when I started gravitating towards the more nurturing clown teachers. I don't remember a particular moment – but the three stands of clowning, therapy and meditation got me to more stable ground. This all led to me creating Clown-o-therapy. Patricia turned up to explain what the “o” is in the middle of clown-o-therapy. She talked about the zero – a place full of peace and possibility. Performers in my workshops start with nothing, follow a wave and come back to nothing. Part of the teaching is to learn to rest and be, in between everything else.

Barnaby told me I have a frenetic energy. I explained that learning to stop has been a life-long adventure – I've built a reputation on my frenetic energy (I got the nick name Holly Stoppit very young) and my circus stamina. Learning to stop has been really a hard lesson – especially learning to stop on stage! I still struggle with this. 

In my workshops, I teach “the drop” - a moment when you literally drop everything and connect with the ground, your breath, your body, your emotions, the audience and feel into what's true now? This has to be drilled, away from the performance environment because it's the last thing anybody would think to do when the shit hits the fan. We practice the drop frequently with Beyond The Ridiculous my company of solo improvisers – so that when we are on stage we already have the ability to stop and breathe drilled into own bodies.

We waffled off a bit at the end – like two awkward people trying to leave a party.

This is part of a series of "Clownversations," where Barnaby King interviews different clowns and clown teachers to find out about their practices.

See the full series on the Clown Spirit Youtube Channel

Check out Barnaby King's website here.

Join Barnaby's facebook group The Way Of The Clown

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