The Clown or the Great Failure

An Interview with Hélène Gustin 

International School of Humour Workshop - January 27th to 29th

RED NOSES International (RNI) regularly invites renowned individuals to the International School of Humour (ISH) to share their expertise with our artists.

We recently (tried) to sit down with Hélène Gustin from France. Educated by the great Alain Gautré, on clowning and dramatic writing in the 1995, she has since devoted her life to the art of clowning. Her character “Colette Gomette” is a strong visual clown, who is recognized for her energy and her "animality". That same energetic nature made the interview all the more interesting! 

We explored such themes as the importance of body language and the importance of play. A condensed version of the conversation is below:

RNI: Good morning Hélène! Despite the miserable weather outside, you have many participants who are eager to begin the workshop. Can you tell us a bit more about your workshop?

H: Bonjour! Everyone here is already an experienced hospital clown, I want to unlock more of their potential. I’m looking forward to instructing the RNI clowns over the weekend. 

I will teach them more techniques on how to develop play. Even if you can improvise, you need tools in hospitals for all situations. Each clown needs to know how to play on a simple idea to better connect with their young patients. I will dedicate my time to enhancing their awareness of their body language.

Clowns wear a mask, actually, it is the smallest mask in the world. Nothing is hidden from our interactions with patients. The body, as a result, is an essential part of our profession. It communicates so much. You can see every emotion, every gesture, every action. 

RNI: What is the most important thing the clowns will learn from the workshop?

H: Admitting to themselves that failure is an acceptable path for the play to go. All of us do not internally do well with failure. The clown figure must learn to embrace failure and rise up from the problem. If the clown learns how to fail and to fail again, this gives the power to the child. 

RNI: You are not talking about actual power, like electricity or physical strength, are you? I suspect you mean an emotional and intellectual power?

H: Mais oui, bien sur! It’s about giving the children a semblance of control in their daily life. Sometimes, in these hospital settings, the child feels helpless and without any way to express their emotions. When we come in, we do not dictate where the interactions will go. 

Instead, we give the controls back to the children. They are the ones who guide and illuminate our interactions. They become alive in these situations, their intelligence shines through. My golden rule as a clown is – the child is always right.

RNI: This is your second workshop here at the ISH, where have you taught previously?

H: Thanks for inviting me back. Obviously, the clowns gave me good reviews! This is my 25th year teaching – needless to say, that’s a lot of time. 

My background is in dramatology. Through many years as an artist, I learned dramaturgy with Alain Gautré, written many screenplays and acted in many dramatic productions. This creative exercise always helps me in the hospital. It enables me to explore my character, but also to develop new methods to connect with young patients in hospitals. As a regular coach with Le Rire Medecin, we place a high premium on transferrable knowledge. I hope I can continue to share this with RED NOSES clowns.

RNI: What an impressive resume! So with your vast experience, can you share with us what is your definition of a good clown?

H: For me, a true clown knows how to connect with the audience and truly make them release their emotions. Whether that is through laughter, through shock, or simply through a meaningful connection, a clown must be able to masterfully navigate the range of emotions they will encounter. It is like an experienced musician playing an instrument. Through a combination of awareness of time, consistence practice, and a natural potential, you can truly see when a clown gets it right.  

RNI: Last question. What is one piece of advice you would share with our readers?

H: When you become an adult, life becomes more serious and full of serious decisions. It’s not easy to take a breath and survey the present. You learn without playing, you do not enjoy life as you once did. From my experiences, most adults lose the sense of joy when you were a child. 

So my advice is simple. Introduce play in all areas of your life; with your partner, with your children, even with random strangers. Continue to play. Don’t lose that sense of joy. It’s essential for life!

RNI: Thank you Hélène for coming back to Vienna. We are positive that after this weekend our clowns will be even better equipped to bring joy to those who need it most. Au revoir! 

All photo credit: Richard Fiala

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