The Wisdom of the Clown

Lessons in the language of the heart

by Jane Greis

At Sunshine we have a special affinity for the performing arts as truly holistic modality. Every year at this time we begin co-creating a theatre play to be performed in the spring by the children and teachers. This collaborative process is challenging and satisfying for everyone. This year we have the good fortune of launching the process with a weekend workshop and performance dovetailing beautifully with the upcoming local Carnival festivities.

Issue36_Page_20_Image_0002The workshop begins with a Friday afternoon performance for the greater Sunshine community. Children, teachers and parents gather in the bright sunny classroom. Excitement is in the air as we greet our special guest performer… a clown.

A clown named named Dr Klutz.

The audience settles in with eager anticipation as Dr. Klutz sets up his performance space in front of the big-top circus poster made earlier this school year by the Sunshine students and teachers. The perfect backdrop for the show. Something magic is afoot!

Dr Klutz sets a classic and intriguing scene and our curiosity is piqued. He’s got the jaunty circus music playing in the background, the requisite loud colorful clothes and funny hat, a magic wand among his enigmatic props all on display and a collection of old battered suitcases full of mystery and delight, no doubt. The excitement in palpable. Already, we are on the edges of our seats! And in a few moments, the show… or should we say, the english lesson begins.

Within two minutes we are totally immersed in this delightful world. We are transported beyond the classroom and beyond ourselves to a place where anything can happen. Before we know it, between giggles and squeals of glee, even the shyest of kids are thrusting hands in the air and repeating after Dr Klutz “white glove,” “walking stick” and other english words and phrases as they arise within his amusing antics.

Dr Klutz is the alter ego of Schelie Nielsen, a gifted Australian clown/educator who has made his home in the Czech Republic for many years. Schelie uses clowning, mime and theatre to teach english to children of all ages. He has been offering performances and workshops for both children and teachers at schools throughout Europe and Australia for nearly 20 years.

After meeting Schelie at an education conference last year in Croatia, Sunshine director Tatjana Popov, invited him to Switzerland to co-present a weekend workshop on the performing arts in learning. The workshop is part of an on-going neo-humanist teacher’s training program Tatjana offers for both aspiring and experienced teachers. Watching Dr. Klutz in action was not just good entertainment on the opening afternoon of the workshop, it was a beautiful and inspiring embodiment of play-based holistic learning in action.

Issue36_Page_20_Image_0001The particular performance that afternoon, designed to motivate young learners of english is entitled, “The Magical Language Show,” and revolves around a rather inept but charming magician who can only get this magic tricks to work with the help of the children speaking “good english.”

A proponent of the “Total Physical Response“ approach to language learning or “TPR” pioneered by James Asher in California in the late 70’s, Schelie uses the well-proven technique of coupling language with physical gestures and activities to aid children in learning and remembering vocabulary and context. On this strong foundation Schellie builds an exciting learning experience that goes well beyond language acquisition.

By adding interactive performance, clowning, music and magic to the mix Schelie places the work in a much larger and richer context. He creates a magical realm, in which he takes the TPR methodology to the next level. And in Schelie’s skilled hands, the children are indeed learning english and so much more. Yes, they are learning with the aid of their physical bodies but also with their minds and imaginations, and most wonderfully, with their hearts and with each other. What Schelie does I am tempted to call the “Total Child Response.”

As a teacher, and a performance maker, I am watching with rapt attention and asking myself, “What are the elements that make this Dr Klutz’s show so effective?” I will try to unpack this notion like one of Dr Klutz’s mysterious vintage suitcases looking perhaps for the secret recipe for the magic spell he casts.

The structure of the program itself mirrors that of the learning process, expressed simply and elegantly by nature educator Joseph Conrad as “flow learning.” Flow learning describes the four phases of the learning process:

1. Awaken enthusiasm,
2. Focus Attention
3. Experience Directly
4. Share Inspiration

The third element, “experience directly” is key. The show is highly interactivity. Dr Klutz creates a warm and inviting world in which there is ample opportunity for the children to come forward and participate with comfort and confidence. And as they do, the performer/audience split, slowly begins to recede as the kids sidle up closer and closer to the action. By the end, the theatrical “fourth wall” has completely disintegrated and the show has morphed into a giant dance party with the entire community boogying together with great abandon and joy. As a teacher, it was wonderful to see some of the more reserved or less verbal children participating so fully and happily.

Next we have humor. The benefits of humor in the classroom is well known. The positive physical and emotional effects of humor include improved circulation and breathing, increased relaxation and receptivity, reduced stress and anxiety and increased motivation and focus – all good things for learning. Any preschool teacher will take their hat off to someone who can keep a room full or three and four-year-olds spellbound for 45 minutes! That alone is worth the price of admission.

I must also give props to the narrative premise of Schelie’s show: the hapless magician messing up his tricks and needing the kids to bail him out. This is a wonderful device. By now, the kids have completely bought into the game which now demands an extra level of concentration and cognitive engagement as they witness Dr Klutz messing up the tricks over and over again. This is not passive consumer entertainment. They have a job to do. The kids must pay attention and follow closely in order to give Dr Klutz the necessary fix. Add to that it must be in english!

So here is this delightful character, showing us how to teach language by means of anything but language. Schelie has spent years refining this performance/lesson, and it shows.

This is important for us at Sunshine, we are working with the complexities of multilingualism every day. Take a look at the population of Sunshine both children and teachers and you’ll find a veritable United Nations. With parents from literally every corner of the globe, the majority of our kids are growing up in multi-lingual, multicultural homes. Yes, we teach english and “in english”, german and “in german,” russian and “in russian.” Schelie’s rich embodied approach reminds us that underneath our multilingualism what we are really endeavoring to teach, and for that matter learn, is the “language of the heart.”

What is this language of this heart? How does it manifest? How do we cultivate it and move toward fluency? This is pretty much the ongoing inquiry for us as teachers and human beings, and what characterizes our neo-humanist approach.

For me, the language of the heart speaks to that which is universal in us and arises from our hard-wired need for and desire for connection. It is the natural domain of young children as it is fundamentally preverbal and precognitive.

Issue36_Page_22_Image_0002We make connection non-verbally, through our physicality, our movements, our deeds, the music, rhythm and color of our voices, expressions and interactions with each other. Sounds like the building blocks of theatre, doesn’t it?

In our western culture our education system has placed a premium on intellectual and cognitive aspects of the self and the rest of our faculties and propensities have been left to whither on the vine. Rather than transcend and include our non- verbal, non -cognitive early ways of knowing, our tendency, in recent generations has been to marginalize them or abandon them altogether. Thank goodness we are slowly becoming hip to the error of our ways, but still we are often at a loss as to how to go about reclaiming our non-cognitive, non-verbal ways of knowing.

Issue36_Page_22_Image_0001Enter, the clown, our protagonist, the embodiment of wholeness and the teacher of the language of the heart. He will show us the way. The clown archetype is strong and rich and is present in some form in nearly all cultures. The clown, unfortunately, lives much of the time in shadow here in Switzerland as elsewhere in the western world. During this carnival time, this potent time before spring, before renewal and awakening, the clown comes out to play. He gives us gifts for the coming year.

Simply said, clowns are funny. Clowns are entertaining. They have a cheeky trickster quality and an innocence, and a vulnerability, that are irresistible to us. They exhibit a myriad of emotions, but let them pass without judgement like clouds in the sky. A clown can show us our humanity in all its glory and pathos, in a way a child can grasp intuitively. He is so simple yet so complex and we love him dearly for it. He is the mirror of our emotional life.

And mirror he did as we moved into the teachers training portion of the weekend. Fridays performance was delightful, and inspiring. It laid the ground work for the teachers’ work shop. I was excited to glean from Schelie some basic skills around clowning, mime, and developing performance. Our spirits were high and Schelie introduced us to the concepts of TPR, taught us some juggling and mime basics. We were having a great time and imagining how fun it was going to be to incorporate this into our daily work with kids.

Issue36_Page_22_Image_0003As the day progressed and we got deeper into the material, we donned our red noses and tried our hand at the practice of evoking our own inner clown. That is when the transformation and the real learning began. Under the gentle guidance of both Tatjana and Schelie, we had built a strong container – a crucible in which we could hold this sacred energy of the fool and receive its teachings.

Through his honesty and authenticity, Schelie seemed to be the very incarnation of the clown archetype. His example gave us the courage to risk taking the deep dive with him. The clown began to embody us all – not just the playfulness, openness and humor we normally associated with the clown but something perhaps unexpected – a deep vulnerability and a willingness to risk being seen.

For that afternoon, we got a taste of what social researcher Brené Brown calls “living wholeheartedly,” owning our imperfections and foibles, all the while never doubting our fundamental value and worthiness. Something that comes naturally to the clown. We came to a new place of intimacy with a deeply personal sharing. I think every one of us bumped up against our edges that afternoon and dared to stretch beyond them. We were connecting, we were building community through the language of the heart.

Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experience.
 -Brené Brown