Share / Discuss

Joanna Wright '08 on a trapeze, dressed in a U.S. flag costume and a clown nose

Infinite Jest

Send in the clowns to show us who we are

Circus artist Joanna Wright ’08 has a sideways way of speaking that makes you instinctively lean closer: a wow, the really cool camp counselor is taking an interest in me! warmth.

“When people say they’re afraid of clowns, I understand. I mean, birthday clowns?” She shrugs her shoulders, eyes a-twinkle. “Birthday party clowns can be scary as shit.”

Laughing, she tilts her head, working the thought around as nimbly as she does a crystal sphere through her flowing fingers, David Bowie-in-Labyrinth-style. Her eyes and voice still dance, but there’s a thoughtfulness now that lends shadow to her sparkle.

“I get it, but it really annoys me to see this art form removed from anything true,” she adds. “If that’s your only frame of reference and you say you hate clowns or fear them, well, you may not have ever experienced real clowning.”

Real clowning, the kind she’s devoted her life to exploring, is something more than perfectly timed pratfalls or pies to the face. Those are fabulous—don’t get her wrong—but the work begins from within. 

For example, there’s an exercise she calls “the void.” Stripped of everything but your creativity—and, if you wish, a red nose—you must face an audience and be funny.  

“It’s terrifying,” she admits. “You get to this place of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to make them laugh; I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know who I am.’”

Who among us can’t relate? Spotlit in front of the world as we perform the best we can, vulnerable and alone. It’s an exercise that forces participants to peel away masks we all wear to get to something, someplace, someone real.

“Clowning is so honest, I view it more as a way you can live your life than as just a performance tool,” she says. “Ultimately, you’re putting yourself out there: ‘Here I am, screwing up, failing, but laughing at myself without shame.’”

The grin in her eyes reaches her lips, which twitch with mischievous delight.

“What I’m interested in onstage,” Wright says, at last, “is really getting at the truth of what it means to be human.”


THROUGHOUT TIME, clowns have fulfilled a crucial role in all societies, whether it’s a sacred trickster in a ceremony around a Native American campfire, a bell-tipped-hat-wearing jester of a medieval court tweaking the royal family, or a big-screen comedian lightening moviegoers’ weary hearts for a couple of hours. 

Shakespeare gave some of his wisest insights to his fools and clowns, and returned repeatedly to the idea that we all perform a human comedy: “Lord, what fools these mortals be”; “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”; “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

To be alive is to be foolish; to be foolish is to be wise. Clowns force us to look at the world—at ourselves—in different and often challenging ways. Both of and outside society, clowns speak truth to power, make us laugh or cry, and blur our very boundaries of imagination and intellect. For all their fantastic might, however, they’re very easy to take for granted.

“At Swarthmore and after, I explored dance and literature, art history and women’s studies, movement and Shakespeare, so I never considered clowning,” says Kendall Cornell ’86, a deep thinker/deadpan speaker with the emotive eyes of a silent-movie heroine. “I thought I was going to be a serious actor.”

After dipping her toe into comedic waters—including appearing in a live soap opera (“We got a new script every week, so you barely had time to memorize your lines before you were thrust onstage to just go for it”)—Cornell attended a master class in physical comedy taught by the award-winning Cirque du Soleil clown David Shiner, whose ability to distill complex themes and sophisticated comedy into physicality dazzled her.

“I remember thinking: I don’t know what this is, but I have to do it,” she says.

One life-changing phone call to her sister later—“I had an audition the next day for Saint Joan, and so I called her, crying, ‘No, I want to be a clown!’”—and Cornell began studying the art form, eventually becoming Shiner’s assistant and apprentice. While attending classes and performances, however, she was struck by how male-centric the clowning world could be.

Thus, her all-women troupe was born, known today as Clowns Ex Machina: a feminist funhouse and celebration of sisterhood crafting vibrant, inclusive art that inspires audiences—and its participants—to laugh, think, and dream.

“For a long time, I asked, ‘Who is the everywoman?’ Culturally, that’s not so easy to find,” says producer/director/writer/performer/den mother Cornell, who encourages her clowns to explore as many characters and personas per piece as they’d like. “I’ve found that fluidity for women lets us cover all kinds of range without being stuck in stereotypes.”

She looks back fondly on a piece where her clowns entered as ballerinas, dancing—or trying to—on their tiptoes. Whereas male clowns doing the same would hit familiar comic notes, Cornell’s group left a much different impact.

“It was quite revealing in another way,” she says, “this deep dream of being a graceful ballet dancer playing out in so many ways through so many women: It was really vulnerable, beautiful, and funny.”

Seeing her troupe members come into their own, in rehearsals and performance, alone and together, makes Cornell proud, although she struggles not to break character onstage when her clowns seize a moment and surprise her.

“One show we did, all the clowns were confessing their fabricated misdeeds, such as ‘When I was a candy striper in the hospital, on my lunch break I’d go to the nursery and switch the pink and blue blankets,’” she remembers. “This one woman, a deep-voiced Russian, began improvising these outrageous, completely unexpected things—‘I took my father out in a wheelchair in the street to beg for money’— that had us all cracking up.”

Clowns, to Cornell, are intrinsically human yet otherworldly: the living embodiment of the absurdity and wonder of our existence, made even more powerful by performances that occur in present time with the audience and without a fourth wall. This exquisite chaos has sparked many Clowns Ex Machina productions, not to mention Cornell’s own creativity.

“Clowning is poetry as opposed to prose; it works on deeper, more symbolic levels of meaning happening simultaneously,” she says. “I love this work because people have to be brave and bare their unique joy and pain.

“A lot of my clowns have been traumatized by this idea that they have to act the idiot in order to be funny,” she adds. “I tell them they don’t have to diminish themselves in any way: just be their best, open selves, dreaming their biggest dreams. This radiance will come off them and we’re going to laugh from a deeper place.”


HIS OWN LOVE OF EARNING LAUGHTER sent erudite teen juggler John Rieffel ’99 down an unexpected detour after high school. He’d already been accepted to Swarthmore when, at the urging of a friend, he auditioned for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College. 

With nothing prepared but a can-do spirit and killer comedic chops—Rieffel sold a wobbly handstand as if it were history’s greatest feat—he got in, becoming one of only 30 people accepted into that year’s class.

“Deferring going to Swarthmore was a little hard to explain,” the wryer-than-wry, drier-than-dry Rieffel laughs, “but my parents and the College were supportive, so I took a gap year.” 

Eight big-top bootcamp weeks later, Rieffel earned his BFA (bachelor of funny arts)—but not one of the circus’s six professional clowning slots. Undaunted, he returned home to work odd jobs until, a few months later, he landed a gig as a clown with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus and found himself traveling the East Coast, performing for thousands.

“It was all so new and foreign, being inside a circus tent, surrounded by tigers and tightrope walkers, that I didn’t even reflect on being nervous,” he says. “Hitting all your cues and making the crowd laugh is addictive; I loved it.”

Although his best bits were cheap-but-fun sight gags—a bucket of “Fruit Punch” contained a boxing glove; an oversized book entitled Math Made Easy hid a calculator—Rieffel quickly learned the crucial role circus clowns played in not just getting laughs, but in keeping the peace.

“Emergencies happened several times: We had elephant stampedes and bad trapeze accidents,” he says. “So we’d have to run out as quickly as possible with the nearest prop and do whatever we could to distract the audience.”

Although he enjoyed his experience, Rieffel, who spent his offstage time reading Ulysses and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, never intended to parlay his clown year into a career. After leaving the circus and enrolling at Swarthmore—to “about a week of fame as ‘that clown guy’”—he found doing improv comedy with Vertigo-go even more formative and fun.

Today, Rieffel is an associate professor of computer science at Union College who teaches courses in robotics, artificial intelligence, and parallel computing while incorporating pantomime and jokes into his classroom. 

“All that comedy experience really helps in teaching. I won’t claim to be either charming or funny, but the impression that I get from my students is that I can be,” he says. “It did take me awhile, though, to realize I couldn’t measure my teaching success by the number of punchlines I could fit into an hourlong lecture.”

While he harbors no desire to return to clowning, he looks back on his time in floppy shoes fondly—and frequently.

“My friend from high school, who persuaded me to audition in the first place, and his wife are the clowning act for the Big Apple Circus,” he says, “so I take my kids to visit them every year.

“I look at clowns as this physical manifestation of our imaginations, like cartoon characters made flesh,” he adds. “They allow us to laugh. That’s invaluable, especially since comedy allows us to process things that, otherwise, would be utterly depressing. Look no further than The Daily Show and Donald Trump.”


CIRCUS CLOWNS LIKE RIEFFEL are what first hooked Joanna Wright on physical performance: After attending the circus as a child, she created aerial routines on her swing set that caused her mother to panic—and then pack her off to Vermont’s Circus Smirkus summer camp.

“It’s a common story among us circus folk: From a very young age it’s in our blood,” she says. “We’re the ones climbing trees, jumping all over things, dancing, joking—we just want to do it all, even if we don’t quite know how yet.”

Her ardor intensified at Swarthmore, when she took her first-ever physical theater class, taught by Quinn Bauriedel ’94, co-founder of the Pig Iron Theatre Company. Determined to pursue this work, Wright went on to train at multiple institutions, including the London International School of Performing Arts and the New England Center for Circus Arts.

Today, she’s a studio director, teacher, and performer at Sky Candy, an Austin, Texas-based aerial circus company. Even with all her experience, she’s never lost her sense of excitement for what’s possible in the realm of performance through the lens of clowning.

“I’ve delved into burlesque recently, and discovered that it and clowning are exactly the same,” she says. “Burlesque is simply someone getting up in front of an audience and saying, ‘Look at me and how alluring I am. Don’t you agree?’ So when I do burlesque, I look at it as just a clown, who happens to be a sexy clown.”

Tapping into the countless characters and colors we carry within us isn’t a skill solely restricted to clowning, either, according to Wright. We’re all performers of a sort, who paint on the way we present ourselves to the world, to each other, and to ourselves—even if most of us do it unconsciously. It’s as RuPaul says, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”

In the light of our human frailty and mortality, clowns have the courage to stand up and strip away our self-imposed strata and hold them up to the light. What could be a braver or more generous act than to allow us to laugh at them—and, ultimately, at ourselves?

Clowning, like life, is a deceptively difficult art, whether you’re plumbing your psyche’s depths or the dizzying heights of a trapeze. 

Recently, Wright was standing 15 feet above the ground, training a new trick. It involves going from standing on a trapeze on one foot to dropping down to land on your hips—in effect, plunging headfirst toward the ground while maintaining an aura of control and grace.

“I looked down and it made me think about being at Swarthmore, and our ridiculous, scary journey of finding the truth as humans, moving past our insecurities, fears, and pettiness to find what’s greater,” she says. “It all comes down to the fundamental human question: Why do this? Why do any of this? I say, sure, it’s terrifying, but why not?”

She laughs, and it’s lovely, the laugh only a clown who’s faced her demons and bid them to dance can do. She nailed that trick, by the way.

“That’s why we always joke that clowning is like therapy, but cheaper,” she says. “Moments like that are what I live for.”

Clowns Get Serious

What political issues are most important to you?

KENDALL CORNELL: Peace, equality, respect, fairness, seven-generation stewardship, free to be you and me, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

JOHN RIEFFEL: Access to affordable, high-quality health insurance and education—we’re seriously behind. And, of course, more funding for scientific research! 

JOANNA WRIGHT: Climate change and how we are going to deal with it, and the fundamental systemic inequality in this country and how it affects everyone who isn’t a well-to-do white man. The former, because it’s the precursor for life on this planet (so just a tiny bit important); the latter, because it’s so deep-rooted, prevalent, and completely effed-up in a way that is invisible to too many. The question of how to educate folks about privilege interests me deeply. 

Political heroes?

KC: Mulan, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Joan of Arc, Galadriel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Shirley Chisolm, and many inspiringly righteous others. 

JR: Presuming that Leslie Knope doesn’t count, Al Franken, the senator and former SNL comedian. (Brazilian congressman/professional clown Tiririca is also evidently quite popular.) I was always entranced with the strategies employed by Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogotá, Colombia, who used mimes and clowns to direct traffic and improve civility in downtown Bogotá. The world could benefit from using mimes in the place of armed police. 

JW: I’m in awe of folks like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. If we as a species can take the path of peace and rationality in the face of mindless, unquestioning hatred and violence—ahem, Trump, ahem—there may be hope that we can continue to exist on this planet. 

Advice for our next president?

KC: You go, girl!

JR: The USSR had a nationalized circus training school. Why don’t we?

JW: Don’t settle! I know that politics in our country is a festering cesspool of corruption, stupidity, and prejudice, but please keep fighting for what you know is right and important. (That’s to Hillary. To Trump: For the love of all that is holy, please resign ASAP and let someone qualified take over.)

How would a clown fare in the White House?

KC: They’d have a great time: lots of rules and pomp and things to poke fun at. Or it might be heartbreaking in exposing institutional ills, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

JR: Of the many clowns who have been in the White House, some have performed more admirably than others. I imagine all of them would have benefited from professional clown training.

JW: Very well! Clowns (and artists in general) tend to live in a near-constant state of existential crisis. That gives you perspective on what’s important and what’s not, which can’t hurt when you’ve got the nuclear codes at your elbow. Add a great sense of humor and an ability to interact honestly and humbly with all people—(cough) Obama—sounds like good president material to me!  

In a world that often seems dark and disheartening, what keeps you laughing?

KC: A profound sense of irony. People’s tattoo choices. Puppies and kittens. Farts.

JR: Slapstick comedians who pursue the impossible despite pies to the face: Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, and my all-time hero, Wile E. Coyote. There’s a great poem, “Slapstick,” by Wisława Szymborska.

JW: As many wiser than me have said, “If you learn to laugh at yourself, you will always be entertained.” The extent of human folly is endless, and sometimes the only sane reaction I can find to the insanity of the world is to laugh, and thereby render it a bit less scary.

Anything else?

KC: The loosely sewn-up slit in the back of jackets and skirts is supposed to be undone after you get home from the store. Please take that stitching out—life is too short.

JR: I’m feeling a bit nostalgic because I just bought a rechargeable seltzer bottle: the old-fashioned kind. I’ve only used it for cocktails, but have been very tempted to squirt someone in the face with it.

JW: To copy the illustrious Dumbledore, I would like to say a few additional words: rutabaga, fortuitous, hegemony, kumquat. Thank you.

Clowning Around