It's after the election when I decide to rescue Petunia. For the past five years Petunia has been living in a plastic turquoise bag at the back of my closet. It’s another gray Chicago afternoon when I go digging for her. I shove my hand into the plastic bag and feel for her round nose, her satin white bloomers, her floral nightgown. I dust off a few unsightly dust buffaloes from her black rubber rain boots and her prized plungers. It is time. It is 2017, the year of Petunia.
Petunia is my clown. We first met in Colorado when I attended a month-long clown workshop with people from around the world who were just as curious and hungry as I was. When I say clown, I’m not talking about floppy shoe birthday clown, or rainbow wig circus clown, and especially not slasher killer psycho clown—those guys have given the rest of us a bad name—I’m talking about physical theatre clown. Think Carol Burnett or Charlie Chaplin, but with a nose. When I put on my red nose, I’m able to see the world anew. It’s that feeling I remember as a kid, where imagination is king, and anything is possible.
In the clown workshop we worked very physically. One of the defining exercises of clown is called walks. One brave soul walks around the space while the group watches. The group is looking for her physical habits—what part of the body she leads from, where she carries tension, any remarkable physical habits. After a few minutes, she sits down, and then the group goes up and reflects back to her what they saw. The group starts naturalistically, assuming her physical posture, and then, as they walk, they exaggerate her form until they have created a caricatured version of her physicality.
It is here that the work becomes very personal. Often times, people will cry: that’s not me! that's not what I look like! But it is in this moment that we discover the essence of clown: it is you on steroids! your fear! your joy! your anxiety! all reflected and expressed through your unique physical body. As my clown teacher says, “what is not expressed will become impressed.” And perhaps it is this very sentence why clown resonates with me. As a highly emotional person, who at the age of three was having tantrums off the Richter scale, creative expression is how I survive. And clowning is all about expressing what my teacher calls “your unique stupidity.”
We all have a unique stupidity, and it turns out that mine is named Petunia. Petunia talks in a very nasally voice, and slouches and bends and spreads herself on any surface she can find. She’s never quite figured out how to close her mouth, and so she usually looks lost. She runs around town in rubber rain boots with her hair flapping in a floral handkerchief, and she carries a plunger, just in case. Try as she might, she is anything but prepared.
Petunia and I have our similarities, but we also have our differences. Whereas I might be more of a rule follower, Petunia doesn’t have rules; whereas I may plan and overthink, Petunia approaches every new situation with open arms and beating heart.
After the clown workshop ended, I wasn’t ready to let Petunia go, so we applied to clown school. We were accepted to a clown school in Florence, but after a month of flying high, we learned the school was closing. We regrouped, moved to Chicago, and were accepted to another clown school. One month later, lo and behold, the school closed. The story could stop here, but because the number 3 is poetic, we tried once more—applied to clown school in Colorado—and you guessed it, were accepted, and then…the school closed. Though Petunia would have continued to apply to clown schools (she has endless faith in people, clown teachers, even legumes), I stopped. This was a sign. If clown school was not going to take us, then we had one choice: homeschooling.
2017 has presented us with a unique challenge to be our best and most daring selves. We have witnessed our country change overnight, putting our hopes, our dreams in question. But where there is pain, there is always joy. And it is here, in the middle, where the clown emerges, ready to witness, to reflect back, to celebrate. This year I am homeschooling Petunia. In our own small way we will be spreading love, laughter, and light. For the next year, Petunia will be driving my car around Chicago. You might see her in traffic, or dancing at a red light. If you see her, say hello. She’d love to meet you.