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Interview with Clown Sebastian

Posted 19/10/2018

Interview with Clown Sebastian 

Clown Sebastian is an international circus professional who might be familiar to you not only from circus but also from TV, kindergartens, cruise ships and amusement parks. He delights children with magic, ventriloquism and general clownery. These days he is also the host at Sirkus Finlandia. In this interview Sebastian tells about his career as a performer.

 

1. How did you end up in this line of work? Did you perhaps work as a comedian or in theatre first or did you feel a calling to the profession when you were a kid?

I started doing magic tricks when I was six years old. The spark was ignited when I met the magician Simo Aalto who is commonly known from (the show) Jokeri Pokeri Box. Gradually I also got to perform in front of an audience. Once a year before schools started Sirkus Finlandia always visited Oulu. It was a magical place and drew me to it like a magnet. I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket but the ringmaster’s wife always let me into the tent in exchange for me helping with smaller jobs in the circus. Every time the circus continued its journey I was left with a feeling that I want to go with them. When I was sixteen, I joined the circus. Time passes by so quickly as next year it will be twenty years since that first tour.

The first few years I was part of the tent-crew and I also took care of the camels in the circus`s stables. Occasionally I sold tickets. Then in 2001 President Tarja Halonen was coming to our show and on the same day a magician’s assistant had to leave the show. I got to take his place and the first performance was done without any bigger rehearsals while the president was seated in a reserved box. For the rest of the tour I was the magician’s assistant and had transferred from the stables to the manège. A year after that a Spanish clown family joined the circus. One of the family members had to stay back in Spain and I got to perform as a clown in their show. That’s how my career as a circus performer really started.

 

2. What is your definition of a clown? Would you rather be called a clown or a buffoon?

Clown’s external markings are pretty clear; red nose, makeup and often big shoes. Of course, history has known famous clowns, like Charlie Chaplin, who didn’t use a traditional clown makeup. But what is a clown is a more intriguing question. To me a clown is in a way a caricature of the person. One uses their own personality in their clown persona and this differs from acting where one has a role and transforms into someone else. You could say a person is an exaggerated version of themselves under the clown costume. If you keep an eye on people, you can usually find comic features in them. In my work you highlight those features and bring them to the surface to make them more obvious. One can add some characteristics to one’s clown persona that they don’t actually possess, though every good clown seems to have a clear point of contact to their own personality. This is the reason why people can see themselves in a clown, there is something familiar and human in the performer to be recognized. A clown faces similar situations and problems as other people but can`t handle things as “discreetly” as the way other humans do.

I`ve always used the term clown myself probably because from the very beginning I`ve performed also in Swedish and the word clown works in both languages. I don’t mind being called a buffoon though, I hear it rather often. Both words (essentially) mean the same thing and it really doesn’t matter as long as everyone is having fun.

 

3. How did you come up with your character and what similarities do you find between your character and in your own persona?

This is what I alluded to earlier. They both have a lot in common and that’s the reason my character is believable, though Clown Sebastian is a lot braver than I am. Maybe the clown also represents what I would like to be. I think when I started my career I was more like myself – Seppo in a clown suit. As years have passed certain features have risen in the character and it has evolved into this clearly exaggerated and funny version of me.

 

4. Would you tell a little bit about your life on the road and what your days usually include? Can working as a clown become a routine or are there a lot of changes?

Our mornings in the circus usually start at six by packing our vans and driving to the next location. Once we get to our new destination, the tent building starts though I’m not involved in it. I usually visit schools and other places before noon promoting the show. I do some magic tricks and talk about the circus. All the props needed in the show get prepped in the tent during the day. I’m hosting this year, so I don’t have as many props compared to when I perform as a clown. Couple of hours before the show starts we have a sound check and makeups and such get the final touches. The show lasts about two hours and afterwards we start packing everything up again. Then it’s time for some sleep to have enough energy to start travelling again the next morning.

A clown can probably never do his work with just routine. You always have to pay attention to the crowd’s reactions and be ready to react to them. That’s the only way to keep the performance lively and not make it seem like a rehearsed act. Obviously you have to have a well-rehearsed base for your performance but surprise is one of the things which evokes laughter. And to surprise the audience, everything truly has to appear happenstance.

I made a short video last year showing what a day in the circus looks like. Link.

 

5. Working as a clown must differ quite a lot from normal theatre and improvisation. Do you use more emotions or physics on the stage and how often does a grown-up play?

I’ve never thought of myself as an actor. I think many clowns would make terrible actors since the general idea behind acting is different. An actor is like an empty vessel who then adapts to the character’s mind and physical movements. A clown on the other hand is an exaggerated version of the performer. Actors also practice a different role for every new play, whereas a clown usually portrays the same character their whole life. You could say gut-feeling plays an important part and then the pre-rehearsed structure is movements and physics. A clown truly is an adult who plays and that must be the reason why children are so fond of clowns. He is an adult some ways but acts like a child. A clown misbehaves and just like a child, a clown should learn from their mistakes. A clown can neither act or for example answer to kids in an adult way because that would break the illusion of what a clown is. So again, we come to the point that a clown is not so much of a character that you can drop, rather the clown lives in the performer and the performer in the clown.

 

6. Let’s talk a little bit about fear of clowns. How does that affect your profession, and do you have some tricks to ease the fear? How do you feel about this phenomena?

I think you can divide this subject into two segments; the usual fear of clowns that has always existed and to the clown terror that started fall of 2016 which was wildly spread by the media.

It’s been clear from the very beginning (when performing to children) that some children fear clowns. This problem doesn’t touch only clowns since some children get scared when a new performer is coming to visit for example the kindergarten. I’ve noticed that these fearful kids start crying before they even see the performer. The same happens with familiar magicians who don’t look like clowns.

In these situations, I usually instruct that those who are scared could possibly go to next room with an adult and sneak a glimpse of the show if they want to (do so). When these kids notice that others are laughing and having fun, the fear usually eases up. Sometimes those who were scared in the beginning slowly come back to see the show and even start participating by the end. You don’t want to take a child completely away from the situation because doing so could leave the child only with a memory of crying and swiftly seeing a clown. It increases the feeling that the situation was scary and it is extremely likely they will be scared in the future too. I also often notice, while waiting for the show to start, that especially in kindergartens the nannies might be a little guilty to the atmosphere being tense. They tell the kids ”it’s a funny clown, there’s nothing to fear.” Adults bring the word fear into the situation and that might cause uneasiness amongst the children. I think it would be best to leave it to the kids to decide how they choose to respond.

Teenagers usually go through a phase where they think that clowns are for little kids so many times they come to tell me they fear clowns. Since they come to tell me in person, I don’t believe their fear is real or very strong. If they’d truly be scared, I believe they’d rather avoid than approach me. Other thing teenagers tell me is that they’re scared of clowns but not me. I think this is the key to what they’re scared of which I believe to be the American styled clown. It’s a tradition in United States that clowns have a strong, full facial makeup and usually a bright colored wig. Their style of performance differs from the European one, US clowns often behave and talk like animated cartoon characters. I believe some people fear this abnormal behavior. European tradition doesn’t include such a strong make-up and there are a lot of different performing styles. You could say clowns are more human-like here.

I’ve noticed in events in Finland that if someone (not a professional clown) does dress as a clown, their style is usually that American style which is probably familiar from foreign TV shows.

In the fall of 2016 I heard from my American colleagues how clown spooks had rapidly spread there and the scale had just gone crazy. I got a call from a reporter from Iltalehti. Nothing scary had happened yet in Finland but the reporter wanted to write about it nevertheless. I suggested that since nothing was happening here, there shouldn’t be any articles about the topic. At worst, youths could get stupid ideas if the topic was brought up. The reporter pleaded that it’s the job of the press to tell about issues and phenomena. So I gave an interview. You can read it here: Link.

Soon the Finnish youths started scaring people and newspapers were keen to write about it. Ilta-Sanomat wanted to do a video where Clown Sebastian appears ”angry” and bashes the scary clowns. I refused. I told them I could appear on a video as myself and a performer but not as a clown because clowns are not angry. We came to a compromise and I spoke as clown but not angry and not with the text the reporter would have wanted. You can find the video here: Link.

During the fall of 2016, I spent a lot of time talking about this topic with event organisers and such. It felt truly frustrating and unfair since those happenings had nothing to do with us, the real clowns. Youths went on scaring people in those American style costumes, and explanations and solutions were asked from the real clowns. We had absolutely no way to prevent that phenomenon. I was even asked to perform without my costume at previously booked events. I refused, since I’m a clown (after all). I told the organizers there were two options; I come and perform as we have agreed or we cancel the shows. Not one show was cancelled.

Around that time Finnish clowns started to organize a big event where real clowns would’ve reminded the public what real clowns are. I was asked to participate but I declined because I disagreed with the message. I suggested the event gets cancelled and we just continue our work since we weren’t to blame for the craziness happening around us. The old saying ”don’t run if no-one is chasing you” felt appropriate. I was also afraid of the possible tabloids and the media turning against us. People listened to me and the event was cancelled. After October the topic luckily started to drop. That’s the good thing about craziness that spreads via internet and media: they’re quickly forgotten.

Last fall (2017), the press tried to start the clown hysteria again. I got requests to do interviews again. I declined and instead wrote my thoughts on my Facebook-page.

The topic didn’t really spread last fall although the press tried to spark interest.

The whole episode left a really bad taste in my mouth since I’ve worked hard so that people would have fun and they could enjoy themselves. This incident used this tradition on something completely opposite and it hurt. Back in fall of 2016 I got to hear some truly hurtful and absurd comments, even from adults. I believe though that real clowns are here to stay even though popular trends truly and wholeheartedly change. All I can recommend to those who are truly afraid of clowns is to go out and try to see a real clown. Maybe those fears would ease up if the clown is a professional. Or then just avoid clowns if that feels like a good solution.

 

7. What kind of greetings you would like to send people who are interested in clown work or working in a circus? How do Finns usually get involved in those fields of professions?

Circus and clownery are both amazing and lively traditions that have existed for hundreds of years in this world. This tells me there is a need for them. If someone is interested in comedy or clownery, I suggest be bold and start by getting to know them. You can find a lot of new qualities in yourself through clownery. There are so many different styles and customs available that there’s something for everyone. You could also ask for help and ideas from (professional) clowns. I consider it a great compliment when I get approached by new, beginner performers seeking advice. I’m glad to help and guide them forward. There’s also great variety in the places where clowns perform; events, kid-parties, circuses, hospitals and such. Different places call for a different style of clown.

 

Sebastian’s own website: http://www.klovnisebastian.fi/