Despite the recent craze of so called “killer clowns” and the terror of Stephen King’s It (1986), clowning as a theatrical practice is becoming more popular than ever. During his recent run of debut show Planet Earth III, culturised caught up with Luke Rollason. Luke studied at the University of Oxford and has most recently worked as an associate director of Justice in Motion, a physical theatre company that strive to combine art and campaigns for social justice.[1] Having recently debuted his first individual clowning show we wanted to find out how he found himself caught up in clowning and what he thinks of the genre’s recent renaissance.

So you are currently performing Planet Earth III, talk us through the current project.

So this is my first solo show, and full length clown show. I have previously done condensed shows at the Lewisham Fringe, which a was completely different experience. It was more of a grotesque satire show, a different style of clowning; whereas Planet Earth III is a lot sweeter. It is a show where I play an intern at the BBC following an ecological crisis which has left almost all animals extinct and I am having to create the third series of Planet Earth all by myself using whatever office equipment that there is to hand. An element of the show is me failing in an attempt to save things from the brink. It’s about trying to take a hopeless world and transform it with a little bit of imagination.

The aim of the show is to challenge how we as an audience, and we as a people, think about the environment. It has gone beyond just being a comedy show and it has taken on more of the underlying environmental message. In my opinion, a significant factor in our own ability to make environmental change is a failure to use our own imaginations, or even to imagine the consequences. For example my entire set is biodegradable but it took an insanely long time to find biodegradable coffee cups. We always feel like these are environmentally friendly objects but in fact they aren’t. If we look at the world with a little more wonder we might be able to find different ways of behaving. The show is a silly approach to these issues, but overall it’s not too moral and really quite bonkers. In order to create a series of animals that go beyond impressions it required using a series of very dull man-made objects made from office supplies that we associate with boredom rather than invention. I want people to try and imagine a different world with them.

I am still working out how some of the aspects of the show work. There’s a part where there is a chase between an antelope and a cheetah and that changes pretty much every time, especially as we select a member of the audience to be one of the animals. A guy in London who I picked as the cheetah was really going for it, he tackled me to the ground on stage. The way the show works is that there is myself and a guy called Luke Howarth who live-voices David Attenborough which means that we can adapt the show on the go dependant on what’s happening in the room. It has a structure, and it has ideas, but what we are really experimenting with is that relationship in the room. A lot of our audience members don’t realise that the voiceover is live and we are really looking to crack that.

How do you think clowning fits into the comedy scene more generally?

The difference between clowning and other more mainstream comedy or stand up comedy is that clowning is more engaging directly with an audience’s expectations. With stand-up an audience is just left to take or receive it, but with clowning it’s more about responding to the story the audience is making up in their head. At one point I am a male seahorse that has a one-night stand and becomes pregnant, and the moment that we select the female seahorse is a point that I would like to adapt further to incorporate the audience more. It probably sounds insane, but it is hopefully on the wonderful side of insane.

Clowning is the most perfect observational comedy. Instead of having someone tell you something that they’ve noticed, going “ah wow how clever of them for noticing” and laughing to show how clever and funny I think they are, with physical comedy you have to work out what is funny, as what they are doing is absolute pure observational comedy. The audience recognises themselves in parts of clowning and they feel more engaged in the humour as a result. Ideally the audience leave feeling that their own intelligence, not just the comedian’s. The most sublime observational comedy is mime.

Modern clowning and physical theatre has really taken off over the past decade. What exactly does it mean to be a modern clown?

I’m going to try not to be too anecdotal about this, as I could be here all day, but the response to a lot of people when they hear I do clowning is, “wow, what is this unusual thing…” or “oh so you’re a clown now…” and I think boundaries are way more flexible than people want them to be. Those divisions make it easier to digest when you can say this is clowning and this is stand-up. Clowning has also become a bit of a fashionable term to describe alternative comedy and it is strange how it has become this really niche area in which you can only participate if you have been to clown school or intensive workshops in order to understand what clowning is. In fact in its simplest form it is something that we do with our friends all the time, because it is about a relationship with an audience. I love clowning because it is comedy in which the most important thing is the relationship with the audience, rather than necessarily the material. A comedian like Stewart Lee is a good example of a comic who has been fascinated by clowns and that feeds into his work as he tries to test how much the audience is willing to swallow of one thing. And the audience understands that that is happening and he understands that they know he is pushing it too far, and so we enjoy it because we feel that there’s human being on stage actively engaging with how we feel about them.

Clowning is quite hard to talk about because we laugh at lots of different things and for many different reasons and sometimes we are inspired to laugh rather than being made to laugh. That forms part of the boundary because some types of comedy focus on making us laugh by showing us how clever or funny they are whereas clowning is about laughing at our own imaginations and the clown lets us dream into them: a blank canvas for the audiences collective imagination. Laughter is ultimately a social thing, and it doesn’t make it inauthentic because we laugh in response but clowning engages slightly more with that sense of communal laughter. Laughing with rather than because of the clown.

So what inspired you to end up in clowning? Was there that one moment?

There was a real lightbulb moment to me which was where I saw a guy called Trygve Wakenshaw in 2014 who is a mime artist. He did this beautiful show called Squidboy, which was a heartbreakingly sad in the end telling the story of a boy and his imaginary friends. There is so much potential in how you can make someone feel and we tend to want to put clowns into a box and define them by “funnyness”. Wakenshaw’s show really connected with an audience is such a pure and captivating way what using his incredible artistry to show some of the stupidest things like sniffing a cow’s bum. That was when I realised this was something I wanted to do.

Skip forward in time, I started workshopping with different people. I never actually trained at clown school, for me it was all about the philosophy and how you approach creating work, then creating work where you discover things rather than just make decisions. Clowning has also influenced how I work more widely in the theatre and as a director and an actor. We want to set a lot on meaning and a lot of our time comes down to decisions whereas clowning requires an openness and an availability to others that we can all learn from and that attitude can help avoid those creative tensions that often arise. So it has influenced a lot of my work. I went on a course called “Clowning in Nature” which was based in a forest for a week in Wales and the tutor was incredibly critical, I cried a lot. Having someone being so intensely critical of you when you are being made to stand up on stage and be told to make everyone laugh and be funny you realise how much we do to try and make people like us, and the barriers we construct. These actually make us more dislikable as they make us less real. You can see it when people are being authentic, and with a lot of stand-up there is that putting up a barrier and you can’t really see the person and someone can be at their most funny when we see their humanity and those barriers come down. It is often in failure that we succeed at this. Clowning requires you to take a step back from your vanity.

Where next?

The next date for Planet Earth III is on the 28th of June at Oxford Offbeat Festival, and I have been invited to perform the show on a boat in London. The plan is to continue and take it up to the Edinburgh Fringe next year. As for this year I will also be performing in two other shows at the Fringe. One which is a piece of feminist devised puppet theatre with a company called Hatch It Theatre called Whalebone at The Pleasance using different various theatre techniques to create a performance about a live act. This show will be using puppetry with male puppeteers alongside other female cast members to challenge how we imagine and control the female body. The second is called Sensitive Bricks and the Cement of Time, a free show with myself and other clowns at five past midnight. It’s going to be a busy month, but then again that’s the Fringe for you.