Why the red noses?

Mar 15 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Joe Rosser - from my Clown Residency at Bristol Museum

My performance history – from naked nose to red nose

In the circus I grew up in, we hardly ever used red noses. Our shows were character-driven theatrical performances which integrated circus skills into the narrative. On leaving the circus in my 20's, I carried on performing non-nosed stealth clowning on streets and stages for another decade. I resisted the title of clown, referring to myself instead as a 'character comedienne'. I'd only ever worn a red nose when I was safe behind the closed doors of a clown workshop.

Then in 2009 / 2010, I got a job touring with The Honk Project, a non-verbal, ensemble, red nosed, musical-theatre show. Spending extended periods of time wearing a red nose and not speaking English seemed to give me permission to drop deeper into the state of clown, to trust my clown's logic and let her make the choices.

Before this tour, I had always used a lot of words in my performance and my characters tended to be huge, loud and somewhat aggressive. Without words, I discovered a softer side to my clown, I found out that my clown's priorities are playing and connection.

My clown doesn't have any of the usual social hangups that I have, so she tends to make bolder choices. She is not afraid to be seen in any of her feeling states, because she doesn't know that some emotions (ie vulnerability, sadness, anger or fear) are not socially appropriate. For her, feelings are just something to be played with – like everything else - objects, people, animals, emotions are all fair game to my clown. My clown helps me embrace and express my feelings, which allows me to stay in connection with audiences even when I'm feeling vulnerable.

Using noses in my workshops

After touring with The Honk Project, I started using red noses in my adult workshops and discovered a similar phenomena. It has been said (I can't remember by who – let me know if you know) that the clown nose both protects and reveals:

Protection: Behind the red nose, performers can feel a sense of being safely shielded, which allows them to hold up their hands and say, “it's not me, it's my clown.” This can help people to let go and hand over more of their decision making to their clowns.

Revealing: The red nose brings the audiences' attention to the performers facial features, somehow allowing us to see more of their expressions and more of the performer behind the mask.

I continued to use red noses with participants during my dissertation research group, when I was exploring the potential mental health benefits of clown skills training. It became clear from teaching clown skills to a group of people with anxiety, bipolar and depression that the red nose offered a useful differentiation between “me” and “my clown.” This clear distinction seemed to make it safer for people to embody and explore a wide range of feeling states as their clowns, knowing that they could take off their noses and be themselves again.

Using noses in my devising process

Most of the shows I've directed in the last 10 years are solo autobiographical theatre shows, exploring mental health and grief. Although the shows rarely feature red noses, I'll bring them into the devising process, if it feels like it might be useful to invite a note of bold irreverence. Red nose clowning can be a great way to start a process exploring mental health or grief, as clowns do not tend to pussy-foot around; they'll embrace big themes much as they'll embrace everything else in life - with wild curiosity and reckless abandon. Red nose clowning tends to lift the lid off a stuffy, polite rehearsal process and let the air circulate freely.

I have directed shows where the red noses stay – these tend to be either street shows or shows that tour to areas of recovery from man-made and natural disaster (Circus to Iraq, Circus to Palestine, Circus to Calais). In these cases, the red nose offers a really clear signal to audiences who have not come to see a show – “Here is a person who is likely to behave in novel or unexpected ways, you might find them funny.” This clear indicator, coupled with costume and props can help the audience to begin to open to and negotiate the encounter.

Unpredictable and infinite

The great clown Angela De Castro said in their “How To Be A Stupid” workshop, “Why is the nose red? Because clowns are dangerous! And why is it round? Because there is no beginning and there is no ending.” This for me sums up the unpredictable and infinite clown state perfectly. The red nose can be a gateway to this state, immediately transporting the wearer to a place where they are safe and free to make non-conditioned unexpected, left-field choices.

Nose Etiquette

There are a few rules with noses which I've picked up from various teachers:

1.) Don't put on or take off your nose in front of an audience

Let the audience believe that the clown lives on beyond the end of your performance.

2.) Don't fiddle with your nose on stage

This destroys the illusion for the audience, if you need to adjust your nose, turn your back to the audience.

3.) Only wear your nose when you intend to be fully in the state of clown

This protects the clown state and helps you to differentiate between “me” and “my clown.”

Nose Advice

I know red noses are not for everyone; many people have negative associations with the classic clown archetype, others like to be less obvious in their clowning. A red nose without any professional clown training is unlikely to get you to the infinite play space, but you never know! Why not give the red nose a go? Find out if it gives you more permission to play and connect with other people. Keep it in your pocket, wear it on the bus, slip it on in the middle of a boring meeting, see what happens!

You can pick them up fairy cheaply on the internet. Here's a few red nose tips to help you decide which one to buy:

Really cheap and rubbish: Sponge noses with a slit in them to go over your nose. These noses do not stay on during performance. You will spend more time faffing over your nose than connecting with your material or your audience. Do not buy one of these.

Middle cheap and fine: Plastic noses with elastic to keep them on your face. These are great beginners noses. Make sure the elastic goes under your hair and over the top of your ears for the best chance of it staying on. They can be a bit uncomfortable, but having the elastic means you won't have to spend all your time fiddling about with it on stage. 

Still cheap but better: I use a rubber nose with elastic, from The Eccentric Nose Company. These noses are more comfortable than the plastic ones and come in a range of sizes to fit your nose and colours to suit your taste. I bought mine from The Oddballs website.

Expensive pro noses: Latex noses which you glue onto your face. There are a few specialist nose designers who offer deluxe noses of all shapes and sizes to suit your face and your taste. I've never had one of these, but I hear they are comfortable and don't fall off.

Absolutely Priceless: Make your own nose out of an egg box or an aerosol cap or a bottle top, just make sure it will stay on when you move around!

How do you get on with red noses? Let us know on the Holly Stoppit Facebook page or in the Les Idiots Du Southwest facebook group or email us at info@hollystoppit.com

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