Nigel Mander’s wrinkled hands tell the story of his life.
He unravels an old makeup box from a plastic bread bag, which holds it together when not in use. He is sitting inside Stuff’s old photography studio in Wellington, and has come to speak about his life as a clown.
The Upper Hutt man dabs a sponge into the white facepaint, brings it to his face and, before applying it, starts explaining how, for most people, clowning is only viable as a side-hustle due to low pay.
Creatives earn an average $35,800 a year in New Zealand – less than the living wage. “A few have hung up their big shoes,” he says.
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Mander has been a clown since he was at university more than 30 years ago and has performed in Oceania, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. His clown name is Puzzle.
The pandemic has been hard on Mander, who has not received many inquiries for gatherings, events or birthday parties since live performances were put on ice: “I describe myself as under-employed,” he says.
But times had been tough before then, partly due to a mass social panic over clowns in 2016, when fear spread after numerous reported accounts of people dressing up in clown costumes and terrorising people in the United Kingdom, the United States and beyond.
Despite very few of these incidents involving actual crimes, even in New Zealand hysteria ensued as a Hamilton woman was assaulted by two men dressed as clowns, and a group of Porirua children were frightened by another.
Experts pointed to childhood phobias and social media powering the clown contagion.
Off the back of the epidemic, in 2017 the remake of the film It, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, was released in cinemas. The film and novel feature a murderous clown named Pennywise who hides in sewers.
These days, clowning is less of a film trope and more of an umbrella term for art forms spanning traditional red-nosed comedic performers to ones that are linked to clowning by proxy: miming, drag, geisha.
Once an integral part of the big top, clowns’ traditional role fell into jeopardy amid the worldwide decline of circuses as other forms of entertainment took off, and after rising scrutiny on historical circus practice, including maltreatment of animals and the use of disabled people in freak shows, where they were exhibited as oddities or monsters.
But clowns date back to about 2400BC and the fifth dynasty of Egypt. Clowns featured in ancient Rome and Greece, and harlequins and pirouettes appeared in 16th-Century Italy during the commedia dell’arte era.
Some clowns even doubled as priests, and in the Pacific clowns have served as ritualistic tension-relievers at events.
Clowns now are women, men, and people spanning the spectrum of gender and sexual diversity; they’re represented worldwide by associations and are used as doctors and for redundancy support.
There are international competitions for balloon animals, and clown conventions where performers exchange ideas. Clowns are figureheads for international brands like McDonald’s and have entered the cultural zeitgeist.
And though there is a clown shortage in some parts of the world, clowning is still taught in arts schools in Aotearoa. But the red nose as people know it is changing.
A red-nosed life
Mander as Puzzle outwardly presents as your typical clown: white facepaint, red nose.
But the transformation is so much more than just a face. While being interviewed, Mander stresses that we must ask him all questions before he becomes Puzzle, as Puzzle is mute.
Mander was first exposed to clowns in the circus and on television.
“I thought, ‘I’ll do this for real. I’m going to be a clown when I grow up’.”
He knew he would never be a millionaire pursuing clowning. He lives in insecure housing, and earlier this year was couch-surfing at a friend’s flat in Silverstream.
Puzzle almost always performs alone, and is as gentle with adults as he is with timid children. He hands out balloon animals, blows bubbles and juggles. For this interview he has also brought his stilts, which add about a metre to his height.
The red nose is a mask.
Mander says many clowns use their costume to transition in and out of their identity, as a businessperson may do by wearing a suit to their workplace.
Since graduating, he always lists “clown” as his occupation on documents.
When his mother died, he took his clowning to Egypt and Turkey, and when in Nairobi in 1992 he was hospitalised for a brain injury after being violently beaten and robbed by male prostitutes.
After three weeks, he was flown home to New Zealand. He spent another five weeks in Wellington and Hutt hospitals before being discharged to recuperate.
A story confirming him as the victim of the beating ran in the NZ Herald and Evening Post about four years later.
Despite being attacked, Mander hasn’t felt stereotyped, and has enjoyed clowning for a range of cultures.
In a town in Zambia, villagers watched Puzzle in stunned silence. When he blew bubbles in their direction, they backed away nervously, fearing a witchdoctor. Children soon were orbiting around him.
He remembers when at least three dozen clowns would advertise their services in the Yellow Pages – now most referrals come from online.
Clowning magnifies Mander’s playfulness in the same way Puzzle’s magnifying glass enlarges something in its focus.
Mander has clowned for his younger sister’s wedding in 1989, and in 1989 performed at the funeral of a friend who died by suicide.
Mander says that was one of the greatest moments of his career.
‘Clowning is in everything’
Anya Tate-Manning is a Wellington-based performer, director and writer who mostly works in theatre and comedy.
She teaches a clown class at Toi Whakaari, the national drama school, and over the last 11 years she’s worked on Public Service Announcements, a recurring political satire, with James Nokise.
Political clowning is worth a story in itself, she says.
Tate-Manning helps run an inclusive, accessible group called Feminist Clown Posse that’s focused on clowning and physical comedy, and aims to deconstruct the imported male, non-indigenous perspectives within traditional clown training.
A quick Google reveals a plethora of notable Eurocentric male clowns: Philippe Gaulier, Joseph Grimaldi, Charlie Chaplin – but an absence of others.
For her teachings, Tate-Manning takes inspiration from ritual clowns in the Pacific, where a lead transvestite comedian would historically assume the persona of a ghost to express suppressed views of humanity.
This academic thought train goes back to the time of buffoons and jesters in ancient royal courts, where alternative world views and serious subjects were explored through antics and disguised in laughter.
Because of their low social position, clowns have always been able to present absurd or humorous populist views, research shows.
Clowning has also been a way for society to inspect itself, and comment on rules and regulations – particularly how the imposition of structure and hierarchy constrains individual expression and creativity.
Modern-day clowns can be found in groups like the Laughing Samoans and the Topp Twins, or performers like Fred Dagg. Internationally, there’s Mr Bean.
“There are traditions everywhere once you start to see it,” Tate-Manning says.
She says failure is important and celebrated in clowning. Clowning has its distinct space from acting and comedic work, despite overlapping in some areas.
“For me, a clown is a disruptor. They have the power to bring people together and unite people through laughter, but also the power to challenge and disrupt our society, people in power, our systems, and challenge whether [things] should stay there or change.”
Clowns have the great ability to take away veils of power through mockery, Tate-Manning says. They can also take on a holiness or sacrosanct aspect.
Given the number of clowns working across miming, stand-up, acting, and performance, the stereotype of circus or birthday clowns being the only clowns to exist is unhelpful, Tate-Manning says.
Some of her favourite clowns are people like Billy T. James, Tom Sainsbury, and Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary on Wellington Paranormal.
Tate-Manning says Feminist Clown Posse members are allowed to have whatever size, shape, material or colour nose they want to.
“There’s so much more than just the red circular nose.”
Katie Boyle, one half of Sparrow & Boyle Entertainment, performs as Patricia “Pat” Goldsack, a grey-haired, short-sighted nymphomaniac with a love of knitting and Cameo Cremes.
Boyle has a history of performing in Elizabethan-era productions and says, for her, clowning is about the use of body and voice in extreme ways.
She takes inspiration from bouffan – a darker type of clowning that’s rooted in mockery and can see performers disfigured and grotesque, and tricking or laughing at the audience, rather than the other way round.
Boyle says clowning is an extremely selfless art form which thrives off schadenfreude, or the psychological joy and satisfaction from witnessing someone else’s misfortune.
The best clowns and modern insult comics push beyond words into extreme caricature, Boyle says.
Ergo the success of groups like Clowns Without Borders, which organises clowns to perform for people living in refugee camps and conflict zones: “You still laugh even if you don’t speak the language.”
More broadly, the reason clowning is so effective lies in its origins in the comedy-tragedy dichotomy: humour allows people to detach from trauma, giving respite from emotional chaos and providing catharsis.
Feelings of anger, fear, pain and tension can be neutralised with laughter, hence the role of the fool in Shakespearean tragedies.
Research shows humour lowers blood pressure, increases blood flow, has a positive mood impact, and counters stress hormones.
There are also proven links with smiling and laughter and recovery, and benefits to cardiac, respiratory, and immune systems, not to mention the mental and social benefits.
Clowns alleviate pressure, make painful elements of life manageable, and draw focus to the ridiculousness of humanity, Boyle says. “Clowning is in everything,” she says.
Professor Thomas Petschner is the co-founder of Clown Doctors New Zealand, a social enterprise that puts academically trained medical clowns into healthcare facilities for paediatric and geriatric patients.
Medical clowns use humour for therapeutic purpose and are highly sensitive to feelings.
They wear red noses as a mark of shared vulnerability, Petschner says, offering friendship, love and support to patients in clinical, medical environments.
In spite of the “laughter is the best medicine” catchphrase, clown doctors are not widely employed in hospitals, and their work is not widely recognised.
“Meaningful human connections are vital in providing the warmth and humanity that we all need in life and clowns exist to make those connections. They exist to resonate with humanity,” Petschner says.
But the biggest threat to modern clowns may be endless entertainment choice driven by devices, and the generation using them having grown up without the circus.
Clowning’s changing face
Fraser Hooper specialises in mime, physical comedy, slapstick and eccentric dance and says there are many more street clowns and clown teachers now, as well as more books, publications and interest in clowning.
While omnipresent technology has seen ubiquitous entertainment at people’s fingertips, devices have also made it easier to immediately engage with clowns’ work.
Hooper says clowns share their successes and failures with an audience. They have a direct relationship with them, and bring them together.
While New Zealand has exported some of the best clowns in the world, there needs to be more training in theatre and circus schools, and more financial support for touring clown companies, Hooper says.
James Fuller is an Auckland-based performer who works under the moniker Jimmy Marvel, and says a clown can be identified from their spirit, not their appearance.
Fuller uses magic – including live white rabbits and doves – in his work.
He has modelled as a clown, and worked as a clown in kindergartens; wearing combat boots, a patchwork shirt and a trench coat. He’s also worked at parties, clowned in a shopping mall in Dubai and used to wear a bright orange wig made of yak hair.
But after persistent use of talcum powder aggravated his asthma, Fuller said goodbye to his oversized shoes.
He says he can get away with more things as a magician now that he couldn’t do as a clown: linking rings, ropes, colour changing wands … Fuller even hosts a “floating child” levitation act, and used to use swords.
Fuller says clowning is not always about humour.
Dr Declan Patrick is a senior lecturer in theatre studies at the University of Waikato whose research specialises in performance of identity.
Patrick has a drag persona, Professor Helen Heels, and says there is a lot to the idea that drag is “new clown”.
The nature of entertainment is changing, but the vitality of face-to-face live encounters can’t be replicated through screens, which remove immediacy and the sense the audience can affect what is happening, he says.
“We’re increasingly distanced from that, and we’re finding distance from ourselves as well.”
Patrick studied Jacques Lecoq’s bouffan – evil, nasty clowns like Red Bastard – and feels drag is more close to that than traditional red-nose clowning.
While drag is liberating in the same way clowning is, it is also deeply critical of gender norms and the way society is structured, Patrick says.
Auckland-based performer Miss Manage discusses the similarities and differences between clowning and drag.
Both typically involve exaggeration of features, and the embodiment of a character.
“It’s a role you inhabit through costume. … That’s the basis of clowning – it turns you into something else,” he says. “Drag gives you licence to stand outside and look in. That’s been part of the role of the clown – to poke fun … speak truth to power.”
Drag has evolved from fringe events in gay bars to being featured in hugely successful franchised television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and in other mainstream pockets of society.
Patrick says the idea of transformation is critical to both drag and clowning. This was ironic, he says, as the art forms themselves were changing.
Auckland-based drag performer Miss Manage, aka Jeremy Hinman, says painting a big face used to be viewed as doing a “clown version” of drag.
Hinman says some drag performers embrace the clown title, and consider themselves more as clowns: think Jimbo or Bianca Del Rio, and campy, theatrical, larger-than-life drag characters Nina West or Drag Race Down Under winner Kita Mean.
But in the age of Instagram and aesthetic drag, not all drag artists would sit comfortably with the clown identifier.
Hinman also cautions against merging drag’s history with clowning’s.
Drag has its roots in political activism and underground ballroom culture, and has always been driven by queer people.
“What I think has happened now is that it’s absolutely merged in the middle,” Hinman says. “Now on the Venn diagram [there’s] clowning, drag, [but] the middle section is quite large.
“How broad they are as art forms is pretty huge. You can do anything with drag. You can do anything with clowning,” he says.
“If you think of a clown: red nose, rainbow curly wig – that is such a small representation of what clowning is and what clowning can be. But similarly to drag, if you think of one performance you’ve seen, that’s the tip of the iceberg.”