CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer interviewed Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill on May 1 2020. In American circus, “First of May” is a nickname for somebody who is in the circus for the first time. These three artists went on their first CWB tours in 2019. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of clown are you?
Ania: I’m Ania Upstill. I’m currently in New Zealand and I’m a very joyful clown.
Dustin: My name is Dustin Allen. I’m in northern British Colombia, in western Canada. When I was with CWB, I was a musical clown who fell down a lot.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Aston, from Vancouver British Colombia. What kind of clown am I? I’m Cosmo, very clueless, somewhat conceited, and not very smart.
Where did you go on your first CWB tour and why was CWB touring to that location?
A: My first tour was in Palestine, April 2019. The tour aimed to build skills with clowns who were already there. We partnered with Diyar Theatre company to address the very difficult and traumatic experience of living under occupation.
D: I was on the Balkan Tour in February 2019. We toured through Bosnia, Serbia and up to Romania. We were performing in official and unofficial camps for displaced people who were arriving from all over the Middle East and Africa. They were mostly traveling on foot, trying to get through Slovenia and Italy to Western Europe. People in the camps had stayed there from anywhere between a couple of weeks to over a year.
M: In September 2019 I went to the state of Mato Grosso du Sol, in Brazil. We were there to provide some kind of comic relief to the Indigenous populations, to the Guarnaí people who have been displaced due to industrial agriculture.
How did you learn about CWB?
A: I heard about CWB a few years ago, before I was a clown. I thought it was amazing but didn’t think it was something that I could do. I went to Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. One of my faculty members at the time, Sayda Trujillo, is a CWB board member. Sayda did a whole seminar on CWB and that made me really want to do it—she was very encouraging of us to apply.
D: I became aware of CWB in 2012 or 2013. I went to Dell’Arte and I always considered a CWB-type project to be a goal or bucket list thing. I sent in an application as soon as I graduated in 2014 and I didn’t hear back until 2019!
M: I’ve been clowning for a number of years and I’ve known about CWB for about 20 years. I went to school in San Francisco at Clown Conservatory—part of Circus Center—and was familiar with [CWB – USA founder] Moshe Cohen. Around 2016, I decided that it was time to try and go on tour. I was scheduled to go to Turkey and Lebanon but that tour fell through for political and safety reasons. I’ve been in the database for a long time and I finally got the chance to go on tour. It worked out really well.
There are a lot of different timelines for going on a CWB tour. The process of casting a tour involves a magical juggling act: availability; cancellations; personalities; complimentary skill sets, etc.
How did you prepare for your first tour?
A: The most important thing for me was talking to the other clowns that would be on tour, and talking to our coordinator in Palestine to determine how we wanted to work together. I decided which instruments to bring, which skills and costume pieces, and let that frame my preparation.
D: I was in school at the time, so a huge part of my preparation was rescheduling all of my exams and arranging a month off of classes. I was going with two really experienced people [Sabine Choucair and David Lichtenstein], and I reached out to them. They said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll go with the flow.” I tried to not psyche myself out too much. I trusted that they would take care of me, and they did.
M: I like to be prepared. I spent weeks getting new costume pieces, a pile of snacks, and stuff for emergencies. I brought a huge suitcase of props, snacks, and equipment…and I didn’t use hardly any of them! Because you don’t know, right? You just think you might need something, so I brought a lot of toys.
I guess I really emphasize packing snacks. That’s what I was thinking about on tour last year.
What was a golden moment from your tour?
A: We visited the circus school in Nablus, in the West Bank. It was amazing to see the community built around circus. It gives young people a place to come and play and what they’ve done with limited resources is really incredible. There was a beautiful, beautiful audience with lots of families and a wide age range. Afterward, we got to talk to circus artists and young people involved in the school.
D: Romania was the last country we toured. We were able to go really deep into the interior and perform a couple shows for Roma communities. The audiences were the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever encountered in my life. They were so generous. We stayed over one night and I got to play music with two brothers who are touring musicians. They handed me a guitar to play, and I didn’t recognize the tuning. I tried to tune it by ear, and I worried they would think less of me because I was kind of struggling. But then they took it away from me and returned it to the original tuning. They handed it back like, “No, this is the tuning.” That was such an experience and I felt really immersed in a special atmosphere.
M: Actually, I wrote about this. We had just received some really bad news and it was emotionally affecting the whole group. I had a really bad and hard day. We went out to this little school and did a show there. The kids came out to greet us, and they were so sweet and wonderful. Being around them completely changed my emotional state. I was able to feel the joy that they were embodying. It helped me see the transformative power in some of the stuff we do, and I felt like I was given that gift from them.
What was hard?
A: I learned a lot about the situation in Palestine and the West Bank from [tour partners] Rami, Osamaa, and Ahmad, and from the communities we visited. Poki [the other American clown on tour] and I processed by taking really long walks to talk through how we were working fully as a team, how we were working with just the two of us, and how to best communicate. We wanted to be careful to collaborate but also lead the process as the more experienced clowns. There was a lot of walking and talking around Bethlehem.
D: I was lucky to be with two really experienced humanitarian clowns. That’s not to say they were unshakable, because some of the places we went, things we saw, and conditions that migrants are living in—it would shake anyone. I had my eyes torn open the most, though, because I was the youngest and I’d never seen anything like that. We had really long drives, which were tough. But it ended up as time to sit together and talk through things, and also have silence to contemplate what we’d gone through. A lot of the difficulty was ameliorated by being with two awesomely experienced people to guide me through.
M: We had a meeting every night in which we talked through stuff that would come up during the day. That was helpful, but there was so much coming at us from the tough atmosphere in Brazil. It can become fairly intense when you’re working in a close creative environment. Everyone felt it if something wasn’t quite right within our group. I’m pretty introverted and I like to go off on my own to write and keep a journal. Writing helped me emotionally process all the stuff that was coming at us. I also have my own physical process of moving energy out of my space, which I do pretty much every day.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation!