My Peekskill — # 5 – The Clowns Have Something To Teach Us


Peekskill Oh Peekskill

Peekskill Oh Peekskill

Welcome to My Peekskill, my weekly column that’s off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush. I’m a new guy in town, and if it’s presumptuous to talk about “my” Peekskill, then color me presumptuous.

Once a week I’ll write about Peekskill. This town is changing, and changing quickly, and I feel lucky to have shown up when I did. There’s an old Peekskill I don’t know much about. As I learn, I’ll write about that Peekskill too. If you’d like to see all the columns I’ve written so far, please visit the My Peekskill Archive.

Nose to Nose

Nose to Nose

It was one of those perfect summer evenings. Peekskill was out for Saturday night, cheerful and flirting with all being right with the world.

Boswick the Clown, photo by Amanda Demme for New York Magazine

Boswick the Clown, photo by Amanda Demme for New York Magazine

It was my first visit to the Taco Dive Bar (TDB) and I was with people from the clowning workshop I almost didn’t take.

The truly life-changing events are neither big nor official – not graduation, but something small, and personal, toward the end of junior year: a realization, a risk, an impulse that turned out to be a first step in the new direction that hasn’t stopped yet. Maybe, around the second shrimp taco – so good – something like that happened for me.

Here’s the basics. Karen Marmer, the classical musician (here) and interesting-person-about-town (like this), organized the workshop. The workshop was hosted by 925 and provided another important milestone 925’s process of saturating all its rooms with new and positive energy. (925, in case you don’t know, is downtown Peekskill’s 925 South Street. As in #WaitingFor925.)


Kristin in high contrast.

It was facilitated by Kristin Spaeth Crowley from Nose to Nose (learn more here. Please.) and attended by a handful of people from the greater Peekskill area, one (remarkable) woman who drove down from Vermont, and me, who said I wouldn’t but did. It’s not the clowning you’re thinking of, with the makeup and big shoes and the clown car. It’s something smaller and more intimate, one person onstage, maybe two. Think Red Skelton, Charlie Chaplain, Harpo Marx.

Another picture of Kristin, this one kind of hazy and soft focus

Another picture of Kristin, this one kind of hazy and soft focus

As we enjoyed the very good tacos and top-drawer atmosphere at TDB, she told us about her visit to a 10,000 year old community of First Peoples in Southern Alaska, part of a New Old Time Chautauqua (NOTC) tour. NOTC is a substantial clutch of clowns, musicians, performers and roustabouts working in a nearly lost American tradition.

Chautauqua box
She told us about Chautauqua, which was amazing and enormous. Even if you know from Chautauqua, you probably don’t completely get it. They were tours of entertainment, education, religion and more. At it’s peak (the 1920’s) the Chautauqua movement visited 10,000 communities and had an audience of 45 million (out of a population of 111 million). Teddy Roosevelt said that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.” I think he was right, and his remark articulates the experience I had hearing about it on the Peekskill waterfront the other night.

Chautauqua feels homemade, non-hierarchical, a kind of taking care of each other, born of knowing everyone has something to teach that someone else doesn’t already know. And knowing we can make something of real worth, for each other, with our own hands and heads and hearts. And in Deep America, where we all secretly live, that’s what we want; we know that’s where real life is to be found.

Learn more about NOTC here (Their mission: Delight, Inspire, Entertain, Educate. Who am I to disagree?)

It turns out clowns and shamans make sense to each other. Their work springs from a relationship with the same world the rest of us live in, but a deeper, more saturated relationship. Maybe they’re more open to it, or maybe the world regards them differently. What they do isn’t show business, but it is performance. It’s for the good of the community. Not a doctrine enacted, but an experience condensed and revealed.

It was good for me at the clown workshop. My experiences helped me finally understand two things I’ve been nearly understanding for quite some time.

One: I’m going to have to perform again to do what I’ve set out to do. I’ve performed before (in the theater, an improv troupe, a one man show, from the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Café) and thought I might be done.

Two: the model’s wrong. The educate and engage model. We’ll educate people about what’s wrong with, say, a devastatingly explosive pipeline right next to an aging nuclear plant. Or about what’s good about Bernie Sanders knowing what’s wrong with a bunch of stuff that’s overwhelmingly wrong. And then people will be amazed and engaged and good things will happen so fewer bad things will end up happening. And even if the model’s wrong, it’s true and right and what else are you going to do?

I hadn’t understood what I understood about the model until I learned something at the workshop, something about clowning being horizontal. Acting and melodrama are vertical or diagonal upward (one could say), and clowning is not. It’s horizontal. It’s not pretending. There’s not really a fourth wall. A clown can look the audience in the eye, pull someone onstage, go through her purse. A clown is drifting through the world having experiences just like you are. It could just as easily be you up there, or the clown could just as easily be portraying what it’s like, actually, to be you.

What I understood: It’s necessary but not sufficient to explain.

These (floods, wildfires, storms, deaths, droughts) are from climate change. Here’s the handwritten, undated, incorrect document the aging nuclear plant’s engineers made to show the NRC, so they could show it to FERC. (Learn more. Please. Here.)

I don’t know, given everything, what the call to action ought to be, I don’t.

Clowning is about what we all have in common. That’s where it comes from.

We need to acknowledge, admit, share with each other, what it’s really like to be us, and what we all actually know. We know we’re screwed, we know we’re disconnected from each other, from the real world, from what’s been done. It’s hard to never see the huge hunks breaking off the edge of Antarctica. It’s hard to not know at least one person who’s had some fear, some nasty surprise, or something much worse happen because of climate change. If there was democracy, there’s not now. The corruption’s so deep that what there was before, that got corrupted, is almost all gone. We know so much in our guts that we can’t stand to say, or think. What really needs to happen starts from here.

And if we skip this step – people being with people, inside of what it’s really like, and what’s really happening, 45 million of us in 10,000 towns – it’s like doing stupid things faster with more energy, like looking for the keys over here where the light’s better, like whistling past the graveyard, like believing going faster (or more efficiently) is helpful even in the wrong direction. Skipping this step leads to time-consuming, hysterical and distracting activity that feels like it’s accomplishing something, but isn’t, and won’t.

I believe we love – the world, Deep America, ourselves, our descendents – too much to not learn this. And I believe that the clowns can help us claim our experience – that we fear the state of things, that we don’t know the right thing to do, and don’t think we could do it if we did know – and in that claiming, that admitting, that communing with one another, we will start to understand what action we’re being called to enact.


End Note 1: Shortly after the clown workshop I experienced the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by the very valuable Davis McCallum. (It’s amazing. Go see it.)

The play is a story of two kings, one queen, their children, and everybody’s love lives. One king’s daughter, mistakenly believed to be the product of an affair between the queen and the other king, is abandoned on a beach (the occasion of the best stage direction in Shakespeare, or mabye anywhere: Exit, pursued by a bear) and adopted by a rustic shepherd. The middle of the play doesn’t happen at court, but at a sheep shearing festival attended by the shepherd, the daughter, the other king’s son (guess who likes each other…), and a whole bunch of very entertaining common people. Anyway, the change of scene is a pleasure, a breath of different air. And there’s a clown (played by one of the harder working men in show business, Mark Bedard). He played the guitar, sang Bob Dylan, went through an audience member’s purse, and was hilarious. It was a visceral experience of a beautifully realized instance of clowning being horizontal, and I loved it.

End Note 2: There’s been talk about another clown workshop being offered here in Peekskill, maybe in September. No promises, except the promise that all are welcome and there’s no pre-req’s. If you’re interested, you can stop me or Karen Marmer in the streets, or indicate your possible interest in the comments on this very post. That is all.

1 comment to My Peekskill — # 5 – The Clowns Have Something To Teach Us

  • Sarah Young

    Wow! Fellow Clown student – thank you for articulating what I feel! I agree with you wholeheartedly and will follow your MY PEEKSKILL! Long live the Clowns!

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