Laugh of the World

Feature in Issue 14-1 | Spring 2002

Kevin Brooking reports back from El Risa Do Terra festival.

The Laugh of the World Festival was held in the remote north-eastern state of Paraiba in Brazil, in December 2001. Over two years of frenzied planning and furious fundraising by actor and director Luis Carlos Vasconselo and his team resulted in a special and unforgettable event that brought together international clown personalities and around 200 Brazilian performers. There were workshops, symposiums, performances and street events – as well as some serious tanning.

The special flavour of the event was partly due to its exotic location in the far-flung city of Joao Pessoa. Even for the Brazilian actors this was a remarkable destination. The strong cultural traditions of the North-East meant that we were bombarded by tingling triangles, flutes and whistles, some very strange folk/carnival clans plus a heavy metal punk band which was backed by Brazilian batucada beats. A wonderful woman singer/goddess named Selma do Coco finished off one of the evenings with her royal rhythms.

The opening performance in the (too big) 2400-seater circus tent featured Tortell Poltrona from Barcelona. Tortell is the founder of Clowns without Borders. His haphazard clown character seems clumsy but he has the technique and precision of a ballerina. He is a likeable clown who uses a lot of audience participation, and he radiates the simplicity and generosity found in great performers.

Australian Sue Broadway, founder of Ra-Ra Zoo, one of the first circus theatre groups, was also performing in Joao Pessoa along with her partner. Her famous tea party with tea cups on the head and lovely open characters were a touch of beauty and elegance among the dust and the disorganisation.

Laura Herts (France/USA) performed her evening clown-mime concert Last Tango in Paradise which among other themes made fun of women’s quixotic pursuit of beauty. Her madwoman clown character with her trademark wild hair was like having a hyperactive child in the ring, unruly but charming

Brazilian Angela de Castro, founder of London’s Why Not Institute of Clowning, was the international clown coordinator for El Riso do Terra and her extraordinary silhouette appeared throughout the festival.

Jango Edwards (USA/Holland) is known for his show called I Laugh You. His beer squirting, hot dog and condom gags, as well as his playful nudity, were definitely shocking for the locals. The grand finale was in a more poetic tone. Jango called all the clowns on stage and spoke about clown love and clown hope for the world. A torch was lit and the clowns all paraded off to light a bonfire for a samba under the full moon.

I was also invited to perform in the festival. My Homus Plasticus is a kind of post modern futuristic Maori blue-footed booby dance. Patas Arriba is based on a man who is cold, spits ice cubes, and who then warms himself up on the audience. This was nicely incongruous in the hot and humid tropics.

Also in contrast to the heat was Kai from Denmark’s Odin Theatre. He performed in a full-body polar bear costume and lost many litres of sweat. Otto the Bear brought many qualities to the event. He played the accordion and trumpet, hula-hooped and led the musical parade for the final evening’s performance. Bravo, Otto!

I have to mention the Argentine Chacovachi. Calling himself ‘a clown for the third world’, he demonstrated how one aspect of the clown’s archetype is the shaman. Using rituals and games he created an energy in the audience that was convincing. His mastery of a big crowd and his experience were lovely to behold.

Brazil is truly a rainbow nation and clowns of all hues were performing. The Ghanaian acrobat/clowns Kakaloj were THE crowd-wowers. Their enthusiasm and total acrobatic control filled up the giant chapiteau.

Brazilians have a great love of red nose clowns. You could say that the tradition of the circus clown has become the defining silhouette of most of the Brazilian performers. One red-nose enthusiast was the organiser Luis Carlos (Xou-Xou), who in his pristine makeup and big shoes had the tent in roars of laughter with his comic patter as well as his water-spilling and trying-to-ride a unicycle routines.

The exception to the red-nose rule were two trapeze actors in ballerina drag. Called Las Minima, their trapeze technique was impeccable and the characters were perfectly subtle and very funny.

For the finale a special and original Brazilian group called Lumi presented very funny acts in classic clown gear, but most wonderful of all was their singing in the final musical parade of the last show. The packed house joined in the chorus, full of emotion, while the clowns poured out into the big top for a final bow.

I turned and noticed a small raggedy kid stumbling around in the ring blowing bubbles. He was loving all the excitement and I realised that if it was for anybody, all the work, effort and laughter was for him.

In the end everybody went their separate ways and the world is still fighting, but maybe in subtle ways the clown energy that was generated will grow. Maybe seeds that were planted in Joao Pessoa will take root, shaking a deep laugh out of the world… After being face to face with the magic in Brazil I can almost believe it.