SANTA FE, N.M. — When discussing this year’s Circus Luminous show, its creators talk of reclaiming the image of the red-nosed clown.
Circus often has a reputation of being child-like or “fluff entertainment,” says Amy Christian, the artistic director of Santa Fe circus organization Wise Fool New Mexico. Circus clowns, conversely, can also be labeled as scary figures.
But Christian said both the circus and clowns have deep roots in social justice and activism.
Clowning, she added, is designed to connect to that deep human feeling “where you go ‘This is really what I’m ashamed of myself. My nose is a little too big and I’m kinda awkward,’ and you let the audience see that.”
Exposing that thought lets the audience laugh and, through that, open up their minds.
“You let yourself really own your vulnerability and that allows the audience to see that, to feel safe, and to feel like they can take a step into maybe some of these issues that feel really scary to us to even address or think about,” she said.
A group of clowns provides “medicine” for what ails today’s society in the new Circus Luminous show, “Clown Alchemy.” This is Wise Fool’s 15th year producing the annual extravaganza.
The production was co-written by Los Angeles-based social justice theater artist and former Wise Fool troupe member Cynthia Ruffin, along with Wise Fool board member Kate Marco.
Christian – who plays one of the clown’s in this year’s show – said Circus Luminous 2018 feels like the “fruition” of what she always dreamed Luminous could be. Part of the reason for that, she explained, is because the show ties in so closely with Wise Fool’s mission of providing social commentary through circus arts.
“The whole concept of Wise Fool is the jester or the acrobat that comes in and speaks truth to power, and does it in a way that’s unassuming, or kind of vulnerable, or really dazzling,” she said.
“Or those giant puppets, I’m going to talk to you about them. If you had a protest sign that I didn’t agree with, I’d just walk by, but if you’re holding a giant puppet, people can say. ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ ”
Though the show features all sorts of circus techniques with its 22-person cast – acrobatics, trapeze, aerial tricks, slack line, puppets, stilts and unicycling, to name just a few – six clowns act as a throughline for all of the scenes. They are sent on different missions that bring them face to face with today’s pressing or everyday issues.
According to Ruffin and Marco, those issues range from how kids get along with each other in school to bigger-picture topics like what’s happening with the environment today; “indigenous resilience”; immigration and family separation; and gender-based inequality issues.
“They act a little bit as witnesses and then they bring medicine,” said Ruffin. “That’s why it’s different than magic, they really bring medicine. Not only do they bring the medicine, but also they help the people in each of the acts figure out how to embrace that medicine; how to turn potentially negative things into beautiful positivity, and then all coming down to, at the end, that love is what really matters the most.”
The “medicine,” Ruffin further explained, is the action of presenting solutions to which everyone can relate.
“It’s like the magic they (the clowns) bring, some of it is magic pieces that come out of a bag and stuff like that, but really it’s going back to ‘No, you actually have the power to change this stuff here. So when we’re gone, you still have this power. It’s been in you the entire time.’ ”
The show’s creators came up with the phrase “Clown Alchemy” to help describe their themes.
Ruffin said people often look to sources outside of themselves for solutions to pressing issues. These clowns represent an internal transformation, or an “alchemical change,” rather than one coming from some kind of outside magic.
“I think we already have what we need to change it,” said Marco. “Compassion, love; I think it’s a reminder of that. Because we’re a little overwhelmed in the world right now for many, many reasons. We don’t necessarily need to be overwhelmed.
“We can take a breath, and step back and use these tools that all of us are born with, all of us have in our hearts.”