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I’m at the pub for birthday drinks, and I know nobody. Based on the number of blouses, chinos and postures (I can’t quite put it into words), everybody is straight and has jobs. This is always a thrilling scenario. Before you read on, you can be queer and have excellent posture; but as a gay detective out in the wild, codes are everything.

Riss Obolensky (Credit Chelsey Cliff, image supplied).

“And what do you do?” My go-to is usually ‘I’m a performer’. It’s a civilised, competent, albeit slightly mysterious answer. How sexy and interesting! Tonight, I’m two lime sodas down and ready to party. “I’m a clown”- before they can react, I get a bit frantic and say “, but not that kind of clown. I’m not a kids’ party clown, calm down, guys!” (everybody is calm) “I guess I’m a CLOWN clown. Like a theatre clown? I don’t know. Clowning is quite broad. There are many different schools of thought. And actually, what I do isn’t fully clowning. It’s technically a symphysis of drag, clowning and sketch comedy. And very gay.” I’ve lost them. It’s over. RIP the straights. A man pipes up: “I know about clowning” (of course he does). “There’s that clown school in Paris. Also, a couple of mates have done courses in the UK.” I am half listening, half distracted by how straight his back is.

Queer Clown Riss Obolensky
Riss Obolensky

It’s always a delight to talk to people about clowning. Much like economics or quantum mechanics, clowning relates to everything. It’s a bold statement, but we’re here now. Is daily life feeling monotonous? Clown. Need to improve your relationships? Clown. Fear of clowns? Clown (exposure). Society needs more clowns, and I, along with many others, am on a hell-bent mission to bring more people in. Yes, it sounds a tad culty. And yes, it is a cult…but with added clowns. Delicious. My darling friends, there is not enough space to explain what a clown is (how culty of me), but the training has various outcomes. From refining your skills as a comedy performer to awakening your playful life-force energy (lol) to being fully witnessed as you fail terribly, clowning can be horrifying and hugely cathartic. My friend described it as the ‘extreme sports of performance art’.

Not only that, clowns are subversive. They represent a reversal of the normal order, providing an opening to the chaos that underpins life. From Medieval court jesters to Payakyamu clowns, these beings have a foot between both worlds: grounded in this one but connected to a ‘beyond’. This provides a perfect opportunity for social commentary. Chuck a clown in a line of bouncers, or Britain’s Got Talent and the structure glitches a bit. My work with the Online Clown Academy consisted of 3 Activist Clown Co-lab series. Bringing international facilitators, we explored decolonising clowning, pleasure activism, prefigurative politics and radical transformation through play. Much of this work explored clowning as a tool in the wider community. That’s another article, but a small insight into its potential.

For me, there is a huge intersection between clowning and queerness. The courage, love and clarity of the clown has served me in coming to my fullest expression as a non-binary person. Queerness requires this ongoing effort to disentangle ourselves from structures we did not consent to. Much like drag, clowns’ make strange’ what is in front of us. They highlight the ridiculousness of order and power, rubbing up against the status quo. They do so with playfulness, lightness and stupidity- what handy tools for an everyday urban queer!

Once I experienced the genderless potential of my inner clown, I could peel back layers, finding more brightness and celebrating myself as I muddle through this harrowing life experience. Joy, stupidity and play have become paramount and deeply political. What’s more, in performance, clowning and drag are an explosive combination. I’ve run out of words to explain why (how culty of me). If you’re curious, come to my solo show, Healing King Herod, at Soho Theatre on 17th June as part of the London Clown Festival. This show had a critically acclaimed sellout run at VAULT Festival, was the recipient of the ‘Keep it Fringe’ Award and was co-created with Eloise Poulton.

– Riss Obolensky – 

Riss Obolensky in Healing King Herod is at  Soho Theatre on 17th June

and Underbelly Edinburgh 16th-27th August

Riss Obolensky as King Herod in drag.
Riss Obolensky as a bearded King Herod (@darrenshepherdphotography, image supplied)
Riss Obolensky as a bearded King Herod (Chelsey Cliff, image supplied).
Riss Obolensky as a bearded King Herod
Riss Obolensky as a bearded King Herod (Kate Hockenhull, image supplied).
Riss Obolensky (Kate Hockenhull, image supplied).

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