When Holly Met Robyn

Sep 18 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Matthew Smith

Hello and welcome to the 4th the series of blogs entitled, “When Holly Met....” This year, I've been making it my mission to grab hold of passing clown teachers and pin them down for lunch (not literally). I've been voice recording our chats, then transcribing and shaping them into a series of candid conversations about all things clown.

My fist clown lunch was with art-clown Jamie Wood, then I met Lecoq graduate Igne Barkauskaite, next up was US funny woman Deanna Fleysher and now I'm off to have a chat with much travelled, now Bristol-based clown-activist, Robyn Hambrook.

This is a bit of lie, I've actually met Robyn a few times, first when she came to help out on the Bath Fringe Artists Development Scheme I was co-running with Gwen Hales, 2 years ago. Robyn next popped up as a participant on my Intro to Clown Weekend. Most recently, we spent a week together this July when Robyn was leading the rebel clown gaggle at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Summer Uprising in Bristol. But this is the first time we've had lunch together. 

Robyn moved to Bristol in 2017, to do the MA in circus directing at Circomedia. Before Bristol, she was in Newcastle, teaching physical theatre at a circus school which offered a BTEC course in circus. She also worked with Let's Circus, developing street arts projects. Whilst in Newcastle, Robyn co-founded Fun In The Oven, all female theatre collective, who's last show was about female munition workers from world war one. Before Newcastle, Robyn lived in Edinburgh where she studied physical theatre (at The Arches in Glasgow) and before Edinburgh she was in New Zealand where she grew up from the age of 11. Before that, she lived in South Africa where she was born. 

For the record, we were sitting in Cafe Number 12 in Easton, Bristol, eating their delicious potatoes, greens and eggs. The following dialogue is mostly verbatim. I've chopped the conversation up and moved bits around and made a few tweaks for the sake of making sense.

Holly: Is your passion with clown or is your passion with community? Or both?

Robyn: Uuuuuuhhhhhhhh..... [that's one of Robyn's thinking noises, she has many] both and at different times, I think. When I think of community, I think of collaboration, working together. But yeah clowning, I enjoy being a clown, I enjoy sharing as a teacher, I feel I have an instinct with comedy and rhythm that no-one taught me.

Holly: Were you a funny kid?

Robyn: Yeah! I think I was. I think it's a dry sense of humour I've always cultivated. People might not always understand it. But play, play is really it! I always loved playing and I remember saying to my mum “I don't want to grow up, I love being a kid”

Holly: What was your quality of play when you were a kid?

Robyn: Imaginary games. I was always bossy.

Holly: Did you have little siblings that you used to make play your games?

Robyn: I didn't, but I had two cousins and I was in charge of all the games. They were very good games! Very clever games! There was one where we put my cousin in a suitcase and dragged her around the room...

Holly: Great game!

Robyn: Yeah, that was a good one. I'm always the Games Master at a party, I've always got a hundred games up my sleeve – I feel like they help people break down these weird social barriers. 

Holly: You've got some great games, I've used some of your games at parties and in my workshops. Actually, that's one of the things I was really impressed with in the XR rebel clown workshops in the summer– your ability to continuously come up with new variations of games. They were simple and easy for people of all levels to be able to jump in and shake off their inhibitions.

Robyn: [Referring back to a chat we'd had in the summer] We were talking about fast-clowning and slow-clowning. I think for XR and those spaces and working outside, I feel like an hour's workshop and an hour's performance is enough – in terms of energy and commitment.

Holly: It really inspired me, because as you know [Robyn has done my Intro To Clown Weekend], I'm such a slow process person, so careful and “how is everybody?” and “lets all have a check in.” To see the absolute opposite to that, just BANG – here are the people who showed up, let's play! I didn't know it could be like that!

Robyn: Maybe I underestimated the amount of people who were in there who'd done a lot of clowning already and were holding the people that weren't so experienced. Because in that time, I don't get to know where people's experience levels are at. It's great to be able to be that inclusive. I hope the new clown group who are setting up for October and beyond will be that solid base.

Holly: Mmm, the core group! [we'd been talking about ways to proceed with the next XR action in London in October and had agreed that it might be an idea to train up a solid core group, who could then share the same language of clown and invite others in on the day]

Robyn: I was wondering about this group - do the clowns remain as clowns or do we have actors who are more street theatre, more buffoon? [ie very dark clowning that parodies people in power] Presenting little agit prop...

Holly: I think the [red] noses were really the right thing for the Summer Uprising. The noses are such a clear signifier that we are here, we are stupid and we're up for playing. The red nose opens doors, doesn't it? It lets you in pretty much anywhere.

Robyn: People are still scared of it.

Holly: They're not scared of it. They just like to say that. It's just a thing to say [don't get me started on this!].

Robyn: There were some cyclists who cycled up [seeing all the clowns making a welcoming tunnel along both sides of the cycle path – cheering on everyone who cycled through] and went “Hurghhhh, no thanks, I'll stop and walk!”

Holly: They missed out! They could have had a whole round of applause to themselves!

Robyn: Yeah, [the red nose clowning] had it's role. It allowed people to take part in XR. There was a guy on the first day who'd brother was in court, he was just killing time.

Holly: Ha ha ha I didn't know that, that's funny.

Robyn: I think it's a great way in for people, to grieve or be irreverent and to play with the themes. Because if we can't talk about death and grief and the sea levels rising and the extinction of all the species, and laugh and cry … what can we do?

[for my report of what this was like from the inside of the red nose, see here]

Holly: Let's talk on the record about your Masters.

Robyn: Ah yes. My major project looked at small circus acts of resistance, which started with circus being really broad, and with each experiment it got more narrow. I ended up just looking at the clown. I worked with a group around issues and it became quite complicated, we explored hot and cold issues for people and we ended up with Clowns Versus Capitalism.

Holly: Would you say that clowns are a good mouthpiece for politics / activism?

Robyn: Uhhhhhhh [that's Robyn thinking again], I think they can reflect what's going on, so they can be a mirror and that can show people something – both as a participant and as an audience. Clowns say yes and as we discussed already, clowns can't really be against something – or not for very long! They can play the game of being against something, but they'll say yes to everything – even if that's being authoritative or being in power – they'll say yes until the next thing comes along – which might be quite opposite. So yes, they can't be really issue based, I think. They're good at being absurd – so they can show the absurdity of power – I think they do that very well. That was what I discovered in my research.

Holly: I remember in the XR summer uprising, my clown wasn't very able to do political slogan shouting for very long, she wanted to disrupt it or turn it on it's head or start mutating it into something else and making a game out of it. My clown wasn't very able to stay on message. But for me, clown is the message. Clown is the embodiment of freedom and play and connection and the spirit of YES and for me, that's enough. It's enough just to put clowns into public space. It's political enough.

In my 5-day Deepening Clown Workshop, I take my clowns out into town on the last day. They've spent 5 days in the clown bubble, getting more and more sensitive and more and more brave, so when they reach the town centre, they're totally mind-blown by all the comings and goings. On the August Summer school, there they were in that state of awe, when a woman approached two of them asking if they wanted to meet her friends. Of course they said yes! She led them into her tiny recruitment office and all the other 10 clowns followed behind (she hadn't realised there were so many of them). The office workers were a bit surprised by a whole bunch of colourful idiots showing up, playing the game of “being in recruitment.” I had to go in and extract them, or they never would have left. 

When we're out and about, people often say to me “What is this for?” They want the context. Sometimes I say “This is a clown school, I'm the trainer” and sometimes I say “I don't know, what do youthink it's for?” Some people look quite distressed, like they need to know the context RIGHT NOW and then they can relax. I want a jacket that says Holly Stoppit Clown Trainer on the back and then it's all self-explanatory.

Robyn: [Talking about her dissertation research] I had my clowns in security jackets – they needed to keep the area secure, that was their mission. They went up that road before Cabot Circus – the one with all the posh shops and the security guy was there trying to control all these clowns to move on. Obviously they weren't paying any attention!

Holly: You can't do that with clowns!

Robyn: You can't do that! And then he radioes someone in and she came and I thought “I'm not going to tell them to move on, they'll move on in their own time” – I was just observing it.

Holly: It's interesting isn't it? Some people do get really cross about it – they get really cross that these people are behaving in a really inappropriate way and I think – they must have seen kids playing around here – it's no different, really.

Robyn: Because are they actually doing anything wrong, other than looking different right now?

Holly: The archetype of clown is a threat, isn't it? It's a threat to reality, because here they come and they just lift the lid of reality and they just do whatever the hell they want – but that's not the game! We are all supposed to stick our roles!

Robyn: We [Robyn and her research clowns] were outside a coffee shop on Broadmead and one of the clowns hid behind one of those little signs that sit outside shops – he was playing the hiding game – he started moving it all the way across Broadmead to the other side and then he got another sign and basically swapped the two signs over. Only people who'd watched for a while could tell what had happened and the guy from the coffee shop – quite a young guy - was like; “STOP THIS FUCKING AROUND” and he went and swapped them back over!

Holly: Wow! It's a threat!

Robyn: It's this idea that we hold up the status quo.

Holly: The clowning at the XR summer uprising felt so good for me and my mental health. I was doing a heavy admin week, I had a lot of stuff to sort out. Taking two hours out each day to do an hour-long clowning workshop and an hour of clowning in public completely changed my headspace and brought me back into connection with other human beings. It made me remember that there's lots of people with lots of stuff going on and gave me that feeling of being in a tribe, being in a community. I came back to my admin with loads more energy, I was like “This is it! We should all do clowning classes every day!”

Robyn: I've been thinking about taking clowning to offices.

Holly: Why not? They need it! What else is on the horizon for you?

Robyn: I'm running some weekly rebel clown training sessions in Bristol. We'll do some clowning at the Earth-strike in Bristol (This Friday September 20th), then a free workshop and procession St Werburghs Arts Trail (28th and 29th September) and then there's the next big XR action in London (From the 7th October). There's a lot happening right now and I'm wondering if clowns can be ordered in.

Holly: You need a big red telephone. “I need clowns. Now!”

Robyn: Or a clown nose up in the sky when the call goes out.

Holly: What about the big picture – do you have a sense of where this is all headed?

Robyn: I'd like to do more research looking at how we transform games into theatre exercises. I wonder if there's a path where I get arts council funding and keep looking at activism, maybe something with theatre of the oppressed, maybe there's something with clowns, participation, being political, having a voice, changing the story.


I'm very happy that Robyn is here in Bristol, galvanising the clown troops and spreading stupidity as a political act. I'd totally recommend jumping on the idiot train if you have the time and energy.

If you're interested in joining the UK Rebel Clowns you can join this facebook group.

If you'd like to participate in Robyn's free weekly rebel clown training in Bristol, check out the facebook group here. You can just show up. There are two more sessions: 

  • Thursday 26 September – Audience interaction and street theatre skills
  • Tuesday 1 October - I'll be jumping in as guest teacher, running a session on Compassionate Clowning 

For more info about Robyn, have a look at her website.

To find out about her company, Fun in The Oven, click here.

If you'd like to read about my experience in the XR Summer Uprising and see pics, click here.

To read the other blogs in the "When Holly Met...." series, click here.

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