Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dublin’s Clown Choir, or How I Found a Voice

Fragments of “Holy Night” are still echoing in my head. Such amazing voices. The Community Clown Choir Hallelujah! performed a Clown Nativity on the main stage of Draíocht Theatre in Dublin on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th November, after a year of workshops and rehearsals with director Veronica Coburn and musical directors Louise Foxe, Tom Lane and John White. I was part of it. It was exhilarating, terrifying, hilarious, moving, stressful, surprising, educational, exhausting and unforgettable. 

“Are you sociable? Do you like to sing? Do you like to laugh? Are you the type of person who is open to trying new things? If so, then WE WANT YOU!” This is how Draíocht Theatre advertised this project that brought together an incredibly diverse bunch of people. “You don’t have to be a good singer to join Hallelujah! You don’t have to be a performer to join Hallelujah! You just have to be interested and willing…”

About 60 people turned up. Including a sports student still in her teens, a few pensioners, a special needs teacher, a midwife, an IT specialist, an actor or two, a puppeteer, a chemist, a civil servant, a seamstress, a gardener, an events organizer, an accountant, a broadcaster and a builder — from Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Argentina, to quote just a few examples. A sprinkle of professional performers among a majority who were new to the stage. It was wonderful to meet and befriend such an eclectic array of people. In life, we are usually surrounded by people who are like us — similar job, similar background, similar means, and even similar looks. It’s a rare and special thing to break the barrier and encounter diversity. This experience has brought us close together, however different we all were. We shared so much — laughter and tears, fun, strain, and plain wonder.

Clown Veronica Coburn, who is also involved in Dublin Youth Theatre, was the co-founder of physical theatre company Barabbas with Raymond Keane and now works mainly as a director and a clown facilitator. This Clown Choir was her brain-child, and she dedicated her year-long residency in Draíocht Theatre to setting it up. The unusual choir she envisioned was to be open to participants of all ages and abilities, from all walks of life. The only thing they’d have in common would be a red nose – and the desire to commit to this crazy venture, for better and for worse. There were ups and downs, moments of doubt and frustration, but the magic never ceased. From February to November 2013, even heavily pregnant, painfully ill or stuck in a wheelchair, the members of our motley crew came back to Blanchardstown’s theatre from all over County Dublin and even County Wicklow every Monday night for 3 hours of fun and hard work. And it was worth it.

In the beginning, Veronica explained a bit more about her vision of clown. In general, clowns have a bad reputation. People think they just do silly things, but there is more to it than that. They mirror our own silliness. Being ridiculous, apart from making people laugh, is so human and so beautiful. A clown can be very profound. Historically, the original clowns embodied the ordinary man and woman to give them a social and political importance. That’s the sort of clowning that Veronica promotes. In more ways than one, we were going to be the voice of the community.

So we got down to practicing. Through a range of games and exercises, Veronica taught us how to engage with the audience via eye contact (a challenge for many of us), how to reconnect with our inner innocence and follow our impulses (oh, the joys of playing keepie-uppie with 60 clowns), how to accept and enjoy ourselves as we are, sharing how we feel at every step with a look, because that is the essence of clown. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not just therapeutic or cathartic, it’s the ultimate art form. I will never forget seeing everyone in turn walk forward and declare “I’m fantastic”. “Don’t act. Don't show us a cartoon picture of how you feel. Just be”, Veronica advised. And how hard this seemingly simple task proved to be! But as soon as Veronica gave out red noses, we started to see true clowns appear. It’s amazing how this tiny mask reveals the clown underneath.

Throughout the year, each session would just fly by. Our choral directors Louise, Tom and John even managed to get something quite melodious out of our colourful choir of mixed talent — a few gifted singers among many just belting flat notes blissfully, with no sense of music whatsoever, while the rest scraped by, doing their best. Ever since my first singing lesson with a sadistic opera singer who happened to be my mother-in-law, pitching my voice has always been a challenge; but after a few months with the Clown Choir, I was singing happily all day long — in the car, in the loo, when trying to put my daughter to sleep. The Clown Choir was soon to start its performance programme. We sang “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin during a flashmob in Blanchardstown shopping centre on April Fool’s Day. Then a longer list of songs at the launch of the Ark’s season of circus workshops on 3d July; at the Dublin Harvest Festival near Jervis on 14th September; and off Grafton Street for Culture Night on 20th September — not excepting our rendering of “The M50 Symphony”, composed by Debra Salem, in the foyer of Draíocht Theatre on 6th July.

After a break over the summer, we resumed work in September with the aim of preparing a one hour-long show for Draíocht’s main stage. By then, I had to choose between much-needed pregnancy yoga and the Clown Choir, but this was just too exciting to miss. Two months of exhilarating rehearsals with our warm, positive and funny clown master ensued. We explored the idea of Christmas in various ways — song, text, home-made costumes and improvs. Veronica clearly had something in mind, even if we had no idea what, apart from the fact that it would be a nativity play. A clown nativity. It slowly took shape. Too slowly. At times, like before each performance, we’d worry that we would never be ready in time. During the last few nights before the show, the Clown Choir saw a different Veronica emerge: the Director. Serious, efficient and straight-to-the-point, she organized her anarchic 60-strong troupe with authority. A herculean task. I was majorly impressed, and inspired. Ordering chaos definitely appeals…

The whole adventure was full of blatant flops, big emotions and moments of true grace. Not to mention the laughs. I often cried from laughing so much. I saw a true clown emerge from every person who stepped up. My own clown is elusive, but I’ve seen it at times and will continue chasing it. I get so much from clowning. Not just ideas for a possible show (I’d like to be a clown when I grow up), but even just how to be a better mum, a better friend and girlfriend, a better me. I want to reconnect with the sincere, spontaneous, optimistic and playful creature buried inside me, because it gives meaning to all the shit in my life, and it makes me whole.

In the changing room before the Clown Nativity show.
(Photo by Maureen Penrose.)

Apart from a few appearances in school plays or as an extra in a couple of films decades ago, Hallelujah's Clown Nativity was my first experience on a real stage. A dream come true. I loved it even more than I thought I would. The camaraderie in the wings. The excitement of spying on people entering the auditorium through a peephole. The trepidation before stepping out into the spotlights to face the audience. The joy and relief after the last bow, head buzzing, leaving me to want more. I am hooked.

The show devised by Veronica Coburn was entirely built from material that emerged during improvisational work at rehearsals: personal stories, clownish inventions, unintended touches of ridicule and grace. I was thrilled that she would take input from each of us. And I think it was pure genius on Veronica’s part to keep the auditions for each role in the final Nativity play; as a result, the audience was able to enjoy the hilarious line-up of hopeful Marys, Josephs, Animals (including a Giraffe, a Camel and a Dragon as well as disorderly Sheep and Cows), Shepherds and Wise Men, Stars, Angels and… Sundries, not to mention the incredible Baby Jesus performed by Flavia, and Sandra's unshakable Elvis auditioning for every part. Cuts had to be made in order to stick to one hour as announced, but there was just so much brilliant stuff to choose from. I have to admit I regret the loss of Frances’s fire announcement in sign language “translated” by Anne, of Susan’s Punk Madonna, of George’s ingenuous striptease, and more. But the show Veronica managed to whip up from our sometimes pitiful attempts at clowning and singing was a success. A full house each night, laughter and emotion in the audience, a standing ovation at the end. And the key is that everyone had fun on stage. I know I did. I gained so much from this experience. Confidence. Inspiration. Friends. And at long last, I gained a voice.

I owe a big thank you to Veronica Coburn for this amazing opportunity; to all the participants of the Clown Choir for their solidarity and support; to my family for tolerating my long absences; to Fingal County Council and the Arts Council for funding the project; and to Emer McGowan for opening the doors of Draíocht Theatre to us. And it's not over! Get in touch with Emer, director of Draíocht, or find us on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the Clown Choir in 2014.


  1. Nice piece, Alice! Well put together. I love to read about clown choir. It makes me smile :)

  2. Lovely piece Alice - would loved to have been there but life as usual got in the way. AND congrats on your pregnancy:) Hope it all goes well. Hope to see you sometime in 2014:) x

  3. Alice that is a wonderful piece that really captures the whole amazing experience of being part of Hallelujah Clown Choir! Thank you for sharing it and your clown is not half as elusive as you think! Susan x

  4. Btw it was my first time to perform on a real stage too. How about this great quote from your own excellent writing. I think it really captures what clown can give us. "I get so much from clowning. Not just ideas for a possible show (I’d like to be a clown when I grow up), but even just how to be a better mum, a better friend and girlfriend, a better me. I want to reconnect with the sincere, spontaneous, optimistic and playful creature buried inside me, because it gives meaning to all the shit in my life, and it makes me whole."

    1. I have just read this article and funily enough had written down the above quote susan before I saw your comment. its a really good insight and exactly how I feel about clowning.

  5. Hi Alice, great to read your blog. For me you truly capture the essence of the (my) experience of the process of the development of the clown choir group. I hope there were not too many 'trials & tribulations' for you in allowing you to participate. Sally