I lived on the same dormitory floor as Selena during my freshman year of college. Although we didn’t see each other as much as we did when we lived on either side of the floor’s co-ed bathroom, we remained friendly enough during the next three years that Selena made a point of adding me to an email list she wrote to during the year she spent after graduation literally clowning around. With periodic intermissions, she has kept clowning–and emailing me–ever since. After her most recent adventures, I asked my editor if I could interview her for MIL. The product of our two-hour-long conversation is below.
Selena McMahan’s life as an international clown began when she won the liberal-arts equivalent of an internship at Goldman Sachs: the Watson Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant to travel the world for a year pursuing, well, whatever. Soon after graduating from Bowdoin College in the summer of 2005, McMahan used her award to tour nine countries on four continents—putting on clown shows at every stop. (The Watson may offer little in terms of future earning power, but every year it gives some 40 students from America’s elite small colleges a lifetime’s worth of stories.)
Her Watson year marked the beginning of what has become a one-woman circus. Upon returning to New York City, where McMahan had lived before college, she began volunteering with the American chapter of Clowns Without Borders (CWB). McMahan’s first trip with the organisation was to the FEMA trailer parks of hurricane-devastated New Orleans in 2007. Most recently, she took her clown show on tour in Ethiopia. Shortly after returning from CWB’s annual meeting of international chapters in Berlin, McMahan spoke with More Intelligent Life from her apartment in France, where she first studied the art of the clown and where she lives now. We discussed the perception and politics of clowning around the world.
More Intelligent Life: Is there a difference between the way clowns are viewed in America and Europe?
Selena McMahan: Clowning is something that is more respected in European theatre traditionally. In the States, it’s starting to change now. It didn’t used to be that way in the States. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, “I Love Lucy”—there’s been huge clowns in the US. But recently clowning has become more circus clown and birthday clown—something not very valued or artistic. In Europe that hasn’t happened, or not to the same extent.
MIL: You recently completed a two-year diploma programme in physical theatre. I get the sense that you do not have a very high opinion of the amateur clowns one might find at a children’s birthday party.
SM: Right. In America a lot of what’s happened with birthday clowning is really big make-up that’s designed to be seen in a circus tent of 7,000 people or more. People started dressing up like clowns in a circus, but in a birthday party in someone’s living room. A circus clown in a living room is scary. The make-up is not meant for that environment. I think that’s why a lot of people are afraid of clowns and we have a bad reputation now. It’s about finding a costume that goes with the clown suitable for that environment.
MIL: Like the blog that grew out of it, your Watson Fellowship project was called the Contemporary Clown Circuit. Can you explain what that phrase means?
SM: It felt to me that in this day and age the interesting place for clowns is in a real-life setting. It’s not in the theatre. It’s not on movies and TV. It’s in the world. The role of the clown is to be the person who can question the authority, who can question the status quo. That’s childlike but at the same time is extremely wise. By this balance of being extremely naïve and wise but with a different kind of logic, clowns have permission to do things that other people never could. A typical example is that a court jester can make fun of the king.
MIL: Can you give a contemporary example of clowns questioning authority or satirising political power?
Click here to leave a comment and read Selena’s answer about staging shows in the military state of Myanmar, clowns in government, and being an artist in Europe.