On a Tuesday Morning at 7.30am, thirty-three expectant faces look up at the three of us in the small concrete yard in front of Santa Ana School. Caliche, Wilmar and myself have been allocated to facilitate a workshop here everymorning for two weeks, while Tim and Lucho work with a group of older performers and teachers from the nearby city of Pereira. Our intention is to develop a new model of clowning in the community, focusing on long term workshops with small groups and nurturing relationships with communities over months and years as opposed to just giving one-off performances to thousands of children at a time. At the end of the two weeks the group will perform an informal show we have made together for their families, which will explore issues of importance to the community.
We begin with a series of games and exercises designed to warm up the kids and break the ice. They are initially self-conscious as we stretch and sing and make funny faces at each other. But slowly they warm to us and to each other. They jump easily into a game of code words in which different fruits and vegetables signal different actions: “pear” means make a circle; “lettuce” means run to the nearest wall; “tomato” is sit down; “avacado” is freeze. These codes prove to be very useful in later workshops, not only in the context of the game, but as a means of quickly directing the group in the middle of any activity. Another game that becomes very helpful as a way of generating material with the group is “Magic Trunk.” In a circle, we pass around an invisible trunk, out of which each person pulls an object. They mime an action with the object until the group can identify what it is. On the first day it is a big achievement just to get the children to follow the basic pattern of passing the trunk and pulling out an object. The actions are perfunctory, accompanied by embarrassed laughter, and the same objects are chosen many times: a football, a hairbrush, a book. But as the week goes by, through practice andrepetition, the game takes on its own life and sense of gravity.
In the first session we also introduce the central concept of the workshop: stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren. The homework for the second day is for each child to talk to their grandparents, to bring a story to the workshop, and then in groups to represent the stories with the child who has brought the story narrating. We were pleasantly surprised that six of the children did indeed bring a story, and we spent the second day crafting these into short scenes in groups. Interestingly five of these were very down-to-earth stories of real life as it was for the former generation: traveling, working the coffee farms, cooking for the family, mishaps with animals, nurturing families. But one of the stories surprised us all: a myth that none of us have heard before about how the clown got his nose. This story, incongruously different from all the rest, was a gift, because it allowed us to transcend the everyday and take a leap into a land of imagination, fantasy, and fun.
By the end of the third day we have our scenes ready to go, and the three of us work to create a structure for the final play, in which these six stories blend into a single story, honoring the fact that each person has his or her individual experience, but that the community also shares certain common memories. In this mix of real life dramas, the mythical clown story becomes a kind of dream moment, as well as a structural way to link the stories of former generations to the reality of the present. The protagonist of our play is a worker, but he has always dreamed of becoming a clown, and so at certain points the dream surfaces and we glimpse his other possible life in the circus with a red nose, making children laugh. Despite the fact that he has to come back to the reality of his life, he also entertains children in his own way by telling the story of his life, and he uses the dream of being a clown to provoke the children to talk about their dreams.
In the second week we return to the “Magic Trunk” exercise to delve into the children’s dreams for the future, as a kind of counterpoint to the grandparents stories of the past. As we pass the trunk around, instead of pulling out an object the children pull out their dream and act out a small part of it. We are interested in how these dreams contrast with the stories of the grandparents, how do they blend and overlap, what are the continuities and ruptures, what has changed and what remains the same. Compared to what was available to the grandparents, the dreams of the children demonstrate a great degree of freedom and choice, but their dreams still consist mainly of professions: they imagine themselves as doctors, teachers, policemen, just as any child might in any part of the work. Nobody dreams of being a coffee farmer. But a significant number dream of being artists of different kinds: painters, poets, actors, singers. We take advantage of this for our play. While we honor all the children’s dreams, we select one boy’s ambition to be a painter to use as a frame for the whole play. At the start he will be positioned at one side of the stage, drawing what he sees. At the end, after we have heard all the children’s individual dreams, the artist will present his drawing to the grandfather and explain that it shows his farm in the countryside, but in the middle it also show the grandfather with a red nose, having achieved his dream.
Thus the artist becomes a kind of bridge between the past and the future, a moment of dreaming and awakening, a moment of fantasy that was never realized but could be. It is also a bridge between the grandparents and the children, a bridge across generations. It breaks with the routine of the everyday, the stuff of real life struggle, and allows grandchild and grandparent to dream together. Appropriately for us, this moment of connection also revolves around a clown, thematically linked to the grandfather’s dream but also his actual ability to entertain and tell stories.
By the last day of the workshop we are ready to go with our play. There has been a remarkable transformation in the behavior and enthusiasm of the children. Our two-hour sessions had initially been a struggle, and the final 40-60 minutes often an unproductive time, the group dispersed and fractious. By the last few sessions, however, the children were working easily and fluidly for two hours, and we found that leaders were emerging from within the group, people who were willing to support what we were doing by talking with and encouraging their classmates. The teacher informed us that there are several children who are virtually silent normally, who are participating and talking openly in our workshops, and others who are normally aggressive and bullying who have found a way to work with the rest of the group. On the eve of our “performance” the group feels ready to go, and we are excited with the prospect of sharing the work with all the parents. We think that they will be surprised by what their children have to say.