When I enter the lounge of the Schiller Hotel at the Amsterdam Rembrandtplein, Buster is already there, reading the newspaper.
– Tragedy! he says.
– What? Somebody died?
– No! I can’t read!
The tone is set. This will be a difficult interview. I will have to be on my guard constantly. I will be tricked, duped, cornered, fooled, kicked about even, in accordance with the (mal)function and the great glorious tradition of the clown, starting about two hundred years ago. A tradition that the three clowns gathering at the table say they wish to uphold, like a revolving plate on a sharp pointed stick, i.e. without being in any way restorative. But let me start by introducing them to you. First the clown who isn’t there, Sugar, the stagehand cum stagemanager. There is no stage here, so what’s the point of having one around? And therefore we can do without the otherwise indispensable services of this factotum for this interview. Then there is Joey, the silent clown who doesn’t speak, descendant and, like so many others, nicknamesake of the worldwide famous English clown Joseph Grimaldi.
– Why doesn’t he speak?
– Oh, he has been telling us for four weeks now that he is not going to say a single word.
Fortunately there is also the very talkative Coco, who tells me how much he feels like it. And immediately falls silent. Last but not least, there is the slightly older and wiser and quite possibly even sadder Buster, who started clowning at the early age of 22 and keeps an eye on everything to make sure that the acts will remain well within the lines. Yes, they will perform acts, but also bits, gags, magic tricks, blanks, frames, monologues, cascades, neckbreaking routines, gravity defying daredevil feats, mime, visual wordplay, entrées and side dishes and black outs (never forget the black outs), in short the stock in trade of clownerie through the ages. But with a few marked differences: instead of being the filling, the entr’acte, they’ll be the main, or rather the only act for a full evening’s entertainment. And these clowns dispense with the customary red clown’s noses, flapping clown’s shoes and colorful costumes. They’ll bring us the bare essence of the complicated profession of being a clown, according to Buster:
– Coming on stage with your hands in your pockets. One clown wants something from the other and the third has to deliver it. That’s basically it. We climb. We fall. We build. We destroy. We’ll sit at the wrong side of the plank. We’ll shoot each other. The audience will either laugh or cry. Out of pity. It’s the fuss where in fact nothing happens. Being pointless has become a quality of ours.
– We’ll be the circus where only the clowns are left. The acrobats are gone. The lion tamer. The lions. All the other wild animals. The flees. The elephants. The dogs. The ringmaster. The singing goat. The sitting duck. The melting giraffe. The jellyfish posing as balloons. It’s just us, says Coco, wryly smiling.
– Us and the audience, adds Joey, firmly and audibly.
– At the specific request of the authorities the house will be packed every evening, asserts Buster. In the ring a situation is created in which the audience is needed in order to exist. The audience participates in the classical sense, not in the modern sense. It is the life force that directs the clowns, the actors to each other. It is an act of presence, or rather the presence of an act, and in that sense we combine the best of the theatre with the best of the circus. That’s where we came from. In the first place we were actors. Like so many clowns before us, we became clowns by coincidence, on the wave of a set of particular circumstances. Popov was a juggler. Many clowns are older.
– It is whopping hard, even dangerous. You definitely cannot learn it, says Coco. It’s up to the person and his ignorance or inability, his very own level of incompetence. The powerlessness. And that is something that you can bring to perfection, to a great extent. You have to go for the perfect failure.
- Much better! We much better all the time! repeats Joey, mysteriously.
– Every clown has his own specialty, his own area of expertise, says Buster. Some people are very good at wearing a hat, for instance. If we find someone like that, we can invite him. It’ll be like a real circus then. We are actors. We can do everything. We can lie, we can sing. Dance. Talk. It’s about doing classical acts or scenes in the dramaturgy of today. We’ll adapt them all the time.
– Now I’m alone! sings Joey, hiding under the table. Now I can do it! I am! I am doing it!
– Yes, it’s also about ways to get out of it, to slip out of it unnoticed, affirms Coco. You want to do an act, you want to act, but in fact you’ll do everything to wriggle yourself out of it. You have to bring it to a point that it can fail. That’s why the solo’s are so important.
– And we have to try to escape from the expectations, concludes Buster. Clowns are often irritated. We are irritated anyhow, so as a clown you can give free rein to this irritation and direct it at each other and the audience. It’s high time that the real problems are dealt with. Time to ask the questions to the answers that these times keep giving all the time.
– So, finally, what is your message? I ask, and before I know it, I experience a kind of black out. When I lift the white bucket from my head, all the clowns are gone, the lounge is in ruins and I only hear the sound of swearing, disappearing sirens and my own laughter.