Introduction to Stilt Walking

Stilt walking was the beautiful art that really drew me into clowning. I have been walking on stilts since I was in middle school, and it was a multi-faceted lesson in overcoming my fear of heights, pulling me out of my shell, and teaching me where the limits lay in the human body. This skill, to my surprise has helped me get jobs outside of entertainment and has come to use in many facets outside of clowning. I would recommend anyone to learn how to stilt walk if they had the opportunity.

So stilt walking, what is it? You probably have an image of people walking on sticks. Perhaps that image contains an extension of that stick coming up above your head so that you have a place to put your arms. Yeah, those are stilts. The ones with the arm poles are called Hand-helds and the other type are called Pegs. Hand-helds are interesting, They date back to the earlier phases of stilts. There are ledges for your hands and feet, but no way to actually hold them in place besides your own grip. Nowadays they are mostly used as toys for kids as they tie up your hands and limit your ability drastically.

Peg stilts are kind of the classic, artsy stilts that a lot of performers use. They contain a small foot at that bottom of the shoe or sometimes a block of wood running down from the foot. Many entertainers will claim that they take more skill, my training will prepare you for those. As a clown that does more than just walking around on stilts, I find them to be very impractical. I will explain later, but on these stilts you cannot stand still for much longer than a quick picture, and though they are a cheaper type of stilt (and one that many people can make on their own) I would not say to buy them as a first pair. Like other types of stilts, there is a place to strap down your foot. Excluding Digitigrade stilts, these kinds will strap around your legs and then follow a straight path below your feet that runs perpendicular with the ground. The Digitigrade stilts also strap to your leg, but they have a right triangle block of wood that places your foot on the hypotenuse of the triangle and then runs down to the ground. These are primarily used for specific costume representations, most performers will not have to wear them.

The more advanced types of stilts are Spring/Jumping stilts, which are reminiscent of prosthetic legs that handicapped runners use, these have small foot bases like the Pegs, and are designed for running and jumping high. They are fun, but highly dangerous. If you put those on, I recommend slow training and safety equipment. There are also articulate stilts, which are very similar to the type of stilt that I will spend the rest of this article on. The only difference between these and what I will explain further is that the engineering in the foot of stilt is built to imitate the movement of your own foot, including stretching and bending of toes.

Finally, we have Dry Walling (aka Dura) stilts, the name comes from the profession that they were made for and the nickname comes from the main reason that entertainers love them. They are indeed durable. These stilts have a brace reaches up around the leg like the other stilts mentioned (aside from the hand-helds) and they also have a place to strap in your shoes. There are larger or multiple support beams that run from your foot to the foot of the stilt, making the foot of the stilt larger and more useful  that the foot of a peg. That is where stilt controversy comes into play. Peg purists will call it cheating, but I will always laugh and them as they must hobble back and forth just to stand in one place. These stilts allow you to stand still because the base is much sturdier, and they micmic more of what you can do on your own feet. With enough muscle you can stand on your toes and heels to walk around, kick higher, run around, and do most things, admittedly sometimes more. I prefer these as a performer, but especially for learning. One can pick the basics of these up faster, but a true artist will learn to look extremely natural in them. The skills you can learn in these also provide a safe way of learning to use pegs and other types of stilts.

So to learn!

There are 3 basic rules that I will give anyone I teach (and a 4th side note)

1. The most important part of the stilt is the brace. It makes the stilt nothing more than an extension of the leg. Always make sure that this part of the stilt is safely secured to your leg or else you can risk breaking bones and tearing muscles. Never do anything in a performance that can cause the straps to be compromised.

2. Keep your feet in a box. This is something that anyone can exercise, even without stilts. Stand up so that your legs are about shoulder width apart and in parallel. Now look down at your feet. They are currently making a box. As a stilt walker, you will always want to maintain that nice sized box. This size box creates a sturdy structure and looks natural from the audience’s perspective. Moving your legs closer makes the base of your human pyramid smaller, thus compromising the strength of the base. Making it much wider makes the shape look very unnatural and can provide some provocative moments. If you were to cross one leg over another, thus breaking the box, it puts the stilt walker in a compromised position. Thus, practice things like turning so that you do not need to compromise this box. As you become a more skilled stilt walker, it is okay to compromise the shape, but for now we are just doing the basics.

3. DO NOT lean back. Any stilt provides either a built in or a natural spring. Some stilts will have a spring on the front of the foot. It’s force will push upward and behind you with a constant force. Other stilts have the braces built a little lower on your leg so that your legs themselves will act as a spring. Either way, you are allowed to bend a bit forward into the spring and have a force acting opposite to even you out. However, there is no force that will push you forward if you lean back. In fact, the stilts with springs built in will continue adding a force that will push you even further back. When you get up on stilts for the first time, I suggest establishing your box and then hold on to a friend’s hands who are standing in front of you. Use them as support as you test your boundaries as you lean forward and back before you even begin to move your feet.

4. Remember that there are indeed boundaries.  This sounds like common sense, but most of the time that people fall do so because they get cocky and gutsy and do not test the waters that they plan on diving into. Stilt walking is like dating. The first time should feel a bit awkward. Each time after that you can kind of test the waters a bit differently and learn what is okay to do. But if you do not take a slower approach to learning, you will probably fall flat on your face and be embarrassed.

That being said, the next steps are basically steps. I suggest utilizing a partner so you have two arms that you can rely on as you start moving about. Try to find a place outside on flat pavement and learn there. Try moving from one wall to another and back a few times in shorter distances and slowly ween yourself off of using both hands until you are capable of walking alone. Until you are very very very very very comfortable, you should probably keep someone around in case you panic and need support. Then try find some slight inclines to move up and down and test out areas with more terrain. When walking uphill, lean into the hill. You will mostly utilize the toes of the stilt. When going down hill you can utilize the heel of your foot and lean slightly back. Switching to terrain will help you begin to focus on your surroundings and not so much your feet. Really feel how the different terrain feels below you. As you learn, it’s best to focus on things other than your feet, you can have someone toss a tennis ball back and forth with you to put your attention on your hands, just don’t lean back to catch anything out of reach. Things like telling jokes are also a great means of keeping your mind elsewhere. But at this point it is your own journey. Take it in a wider stride!

Figuring out a clown “type”

This, in my opinion, is the hardest (and yet one of the earliest) steps to becoming a clown. Do not let this task daunt you though. Choosing a clown type is actually pretty simple if it is your first time around. Before you read any further, go grab yourself a pencil and a sheet of paper.

Got it?

Okay, put down the pencil and paper. Don’t touch them for a moment. Just lean back and give a hard thought towards what your image of a clown is. Think what the quintessential clown to YOU looks like. Now modify that clown to fit your gender in your head if you have not already done so. Or keep it the same, that does not really matter. Got a strong image in your head? If you can’t manage to picture it all at once start with one part of the body and now pick up your pencil and start drawing it out. Whenever you flesh out one of those body parts, move over to a neighboring part. Do this until you have the full clown fleshed out.

Done?

Alright, now take a gander at your (possibly crudely drawn) figure. This by no means have to be what YOUR clown is, but it is a good representation of your concept of a clown. In terms of working on your clown character, it is often easier to begin with how you are comfortable beginning in appearance and then modifying your look as you explore your character and better understand the clown world. It is easier to have fun when you are comfortable in your own skin. So perhaps your drawing, or something similar, would be a nice place to start. And here’s the best part. Your clown character doesn’t need to change just because they look different. The personality and name of your clown is your own creation, the appearance is just your creative way to express the character. Really, don’t worry about this yet.

Now if you are like me, you might want to have some more guidelines of types of clowns. And that is what this blog post is about. You might want to put a name to the kind of clown that you drew and then learn about those types of clowns while creating your clown character. Then again, you might want to create your clown character first and then come back to this later. If you would prefer the ladder, then by all means, feel free to stop reading. But if you are among the former then press on!

There are many “types” of clowns. Please keep these guidelines as loose bouncing points as you continue on with your character, because they are not so hard and fast as you would think. In all honestly, the character itself is more important and their “story” will guide the understanding of every choice that you might make for the clown far more than their appearance will. The appearance is just meant to be one of the many choices that you can make for the clown.

There are three genres of clowns, the Whiteface, the Auguste, and the Hobo each of these have their own subcategories and then there are clowns that go beyond these three types by connecting them in ways to characterize more freely.

Whiteface clowns are the typical image that people have in their minds when they think of clowns, so let us start there.

The Whiteface clown is generally considered the leader clown of a pack and thus though most reserved as clowns go. They are split into Straight and Grotesque. Both of these take a white paint and cover any visible skin with it and then add features.

  • The Straight whiteface clown is the straight man of the group in comedy, acting as the aristocrat and artist of the group. They normally sport many colors beyond their white and would wear a whitened bald cap without any crazy hair. They typically wear more of a one or two piece suit as to not have as exaggerated features as other clowns. A girl Straight whiteface would not have to be bald, but rather just have a neater look to hair that is not as obnoxious as it could be.
    • The European Whiteface is often categorized separately, but is really the same as a Straight whiteface in characteristics. The main difference is that they have more of a classic feel, sporting a Pierrot hat and very classy clothes. I like to describe this one as the kind of clown that you would want to sit on your shelf. These clowns were famous for their one piece suits which have been adopted over to the Straight. They were also more keen on regular feet sizes, which are sometimes transferred over to the Straight.
  • The Grotesque is the closest idea to the typical clown. They still have white faces but have as the word suggests, they are odd and unnatural in appearance, shape and/or character. If you look up Bozo, you would see a famous and commercialized clown that fits this description. The Grotesque is Whiteface in essence with a nice splash of Auguste, holding more to physical comedy and slapstick than the Straight (though causing rather than receiving the joke) and having crazy hair, facial characteristics and motions. These clowns will be most of the whiteface ones that you see wearing crazy multi piece suits that are highly exaggerated with big clown shoes.

The Auguste clown originated in Germany when people would look at his clown type and cheer “Auguste! Auguste!” meaning foolish. These clowns choose a skin tone to paint any exposed skin with (yeah, clowns often paint anything that is seen as to not lose their cartoon appearance) and then they create exaggerated features on top of that, oftentimes this involves whiting out large areas around the eyes and jaw to over accentuate them and then bordering or further highlighting with color inside the white. They will always sport a wig with crazy hair, whether that involves a full head of hair or the bald spot left in the middle. They wear baggy clothes with multi piece costumes. Most importantly about the Auguste is that they are the biggest pranksters. Though they would receive the pie from a whiteface, they would happily toss it at the Hobo. They bring the energy to a whole new level with their pranks and because of that their own tricks can often backfire on them.

The Hobo clown is my personal favorite. This clown is the one with a painted frown on its face and a scruffy beard. They do not wear bright colors often and normally have dark aspects to their faces to represent the accumulated dirt. They are often loners and the brunt of the joke in a clown act. These poor clowns are known for being down on their luck.  However, their subcategories tell us a lot about how people handle this tough luck. All clowns in this category begin as a Hobo clown and grow if they choose.

  • The Hobo is the clown that will accept this bad luck and not really do anything to better themselves. They personally feel more content but from the outside they just look miserable and too lazy to do anything about it. For anyone that needs a non clown equivalent, this is like Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. If they were to find an apple on the floor, they would just eat it.
  • The Tramp is a clown that is down on their luck but wants to do something about it. This type will appear more like a vagabond about to hop onto the next passing train and hope for the best. What is so important about this type is that they are not content with their situation, but find their happiness knowing that they can be happy one day. If they found an apple on the floor, they would wipe it off so it looks brand new and then eat it if they had not decide to save it for the road.
  • The Bag Lady is not not quite her own category, but a modification of one of the two. Often time she falls under the Hobo category, as I find that a girl could easily follow the concept of the Tramp. They are the concept of the Hobo without a beard. They often host big hair, and sometimes they have forgotten to take the curlers out. They may not be as dirty as the hobo, but they look quite desperate with their makeup design.

The Hobo clown often focuses on a look that is reminiscent of the Great Depression, as that is where it originates from, but this bunch can be modernized in creative ways. The Bag Lady is a much more modernized version than the Hobo clowns that you might have seen in pictures.

Lastly there are Character Clowns. These are clowns with more specific occupations. They may claim characteristics of the various types listed above, but they are not limited to the typical traits. You are probably familiar with the rodeo clown, but even a clown like my dad’s Captain Visual is in that category. He takes the characteristics of a superhero and space ranger.
If you are having trouble visualizing any of these clowns, check out the gallery I added of examples of these types that I stole from various sites!

A Dying Art And Why I Am Here

Good evening, or morning, or what have you.

I will not say that I currently am a clown. At least, that wouldn’t be truthful as I write this blog post. I could tell you that I come from a family of clowns, that I have grown up attending clown conventions, and that I frequently don stilts and a bag of balloons to perform. My college dorm has entire shelves dedicated to clown magazines and books, I even have a dozen clown costumes sitting under my bed. But I, and probably you, are not yet clowns. In fact most people out there that can say that they are clowns are older and have been working the “biz” for years. That doesn’t mean we can’t become clowns, and that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t become clowns very soon.

The art of clowning is a pure but dying art. It is one that has managed to escape the conformity of academia, and for that reason alone it has remain pure, and for that reason, it has not been preserved. Preservation, though it stunts growth, keeps the world from dying. Yes, there are clowns in the world that have conglomerated together to create conventions and tutorials to teach clowning, but the community has never stopped to say “this is what clowning has to be.” And that is not what I am setting out to do. I am setting out, starting today (and many yesterdays that have passed), to become a clown. Along the way I will document my process in case you would like to become a clown as well. I will offer links and images of things that are inspiring my journey, and I hope that if you decide to wear a painted smile and a nose that you would be kind enough to share your stories with me.

So what’s a clown? To me, it is a living, breathing cartoon. It is a character with its own life, and its own stories. Most of all, it is the most honest expression of human emotion that we can find in the world. It is more than just putting on a nose and squirting someone in the face with a flower prop. A clown is designed to entertain, but it is designed to make us smile. If theatre and art is supposed to be the best representation of the real world, then there must be a reason that a playwright “sends in the clowns” after something bad has happened. They lift our spirits and tell us that everything will be okay. And, perhaps, they grab us by the hand and lead us to a world where everything is indeed okay.

Why is clowning dying? College, mostly. We learn that you need to go to college to be okay in this world. Nobody joins the circus anymore to escape the world, they just accept the world for what it is. That’s okay. But the world needs clowns, too. The world can’t survive if we are all doctors and lawyers and businessmen.

Before I begin, I must note that a clown isn’t the same thing as the person underneath the makeup. There aren’t many people that are the same clown as someone else, but a person can be multiple clowns. For the sake of explanation, it’s like playing a role that doesn’t stop. There’s the person, and then there’s the role(s) that the cultivate. That being said, a person doesn’t need to be multiple clown characters. I will set out to have two. The first of which is named Brabble, and he is truly a clown of my own thought processes. I will get into clown types in another post, but Brabble is what we call a hobo or a tramp clown. Because of his type, I felt it necessary to have a character that I can utilize when I am performing alone in public. My second character is actually one that is being passed down to me. If you are a clown, you may know him as the world’s one and only Super Clown, Captain Visual. My dad had created the character, and it is a character that he wants to stay young, so I will soon give rise to a new genesis of this character.

Welcome aboard and away we go!