A special message from Bonzo Crunch

This article was written by one of our star performers, Bonzo Crunch (a.k.a. Rick Gern)

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By now anyone reading this has surely heard of the latest flood of “creepy clown” scares. As someone who has spent my entire adult life dedicated to the art of clowning and laughter I am saddened and disheartened by this latest development, but I think it’s important to keep it in perspective and not be panicked. In reality, it is rare to see a child who is truly scared of clowns; what is more frequent is to hear people expressing a “fear of the fear”–adults expressing concern on behalf of the children. Even that is usually infrequent, but I am addressing it now because social media and the news have turned it into the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored.

As a strong believer in free speech and the principals embodied in the First Amendment I fully support the rights of Steven King and Bobcat Goldthwaith to create characters like Pennywise and Shakes the Clown. My feeling is that if you are going to become a clown you should expect to be made fun of; after all the first person you make fun of as a clown is yourself! What distinguishes these characters, as well as The Joker from Batman, Crusty, Homey and a host of others from the current crop of “creepy clowns” is that they are clearly works of fiction, and anyone who gives it a moments’ thought can tell that they are not the kind of clown to expect at a circus or birthday party.

The recent rash of news reports is different though, because these stories involve real people who are deliberately trying to scare children by creating the sense of a genuine threat, and I find this cruel and contemptible. It’s one thing to choose to be frightened by seeing Steven King’s “It” and another entirely to find your school on lockdown because some idiot typed in a terroristic threat or donned a scary mask and wielded a knife!

With that in mind, I would like to tell you how I have dealt with clown fear over the years and try to offer suggestion to parents and care givers.

I have observed two distinct varieties of “coulrophobia” (a made up word intended to medicalize the concept of “fear of clowns”). The first variety isn’t really a fear; it’s more of a trendy, passive-aggressive way of seeking attention, and the people who exhibit it are more hostile than scared. They’re easy to spot and don’t concern me unless they try to spread suspicion amongst more vulnerable younger children. What does concern me is those who are genuinely afraid, and the single most important thing is to respect their feelings! If I find a child who appears frightened, the first thing I will do is back off. If circumstances don’t allow for that–say I’m performing on stage and that child is in the audience–I will modify my body language to make my gestures smaller and adjust my focus so that my energy is temporarily directed to a different part of the crowd.

A sensitive performer can easily pick up on a child’s discomfort. One of the signs is that they will hold their breath in and scrunch up the spot on their forehead right above and between the eyebrows. It is important for the performer to pay attention to these signs, and one way to help a tense child relax is to slightly mirror their breathing, and then let out a relaxed sigh. The child will often mirror back and find themselves more comfortable and relaxed without realizing it. I will also keep my “social antennae” attuned to the cautious child, but not address them directly, because that will make them feel self-conscious and just add to their discomfort. Instead, I will concentrate on the children who are already laughing and having a good time. Children are influenced by their peers, and if they see their friends are relaxed and happy it makes it easier to overcome their own hesitation.

Before performing at a library or day care I will discuss a game plan with the adults in charge. I don’t recommend whisking a nervous child out of the room because that sends the message that fear cannot be overcome and doesn’t help the child in the long run. Rather, I suggest that an adult take that child to the back of the room and stand by them, so that they can feel comforted and see that their peers are having a good time. Sometimes, standing in a doorway helps, because the doorway is a threshold, and with one step back they can be out of the space but still see the action, and with one step forward they can rejoin the festivities and be a part of the group. When handled with sensitivity and cooperation between the clown and the caregiver, a timid child can come to see fear as something like a cold; we all catch a cold now and then, but it’s easy to overcome. Often times children in these situations are the ones who rush up and give the biggest hug after the show.

I have designed my makeup to be non-threatening and to reveal my features, not conceal them. I accentuate the eyebrows, eyes and lower lip because those are the most mobile parts of the face and the ones that show the most expression. The rest of my face has a light base and soft highlights, allowing the person underneath to show thru. This allows my face to read well from a distance and yet be comfortable for close-up audiences, such as those in a hospital or nursing home. What it comes down to in the end is the sensitivity, empathy and maturity of the performer.

My advice to parents and caregivers is to let children know that the bad people in the news are not really clowns; they are just mean spirited people pretending to be clowns. I’ve seen teachers ask children if they’re going to be scared. I don’t recommend that because it just introduces the idea and subtly indicates that the child is supposed to say “yes”. Other times, a well meaning parent or teacher will bring a child closer to a clown in order to show them that the clown is really nice. Although well-intentioned, that can make the child feel trapped. It’s better to respect their feelings and perhaps alert the performer to the fact that they have a skittish child. A mature performer will be appreciative of the heads-up and will adjust accordingly.

An important thing for all of us to remember is that every society experiences fads and panics, and the recent news items are just a temporary panic, aided and blown out of proportion by social media. Like all things, this too shall pass. Real clowns will be around long after these jokers are gone!

This article was written by one of our star performers, Bonzo Crunch (a.k.a. Rick Gern)