What do you think a clown is?" professional clown Mark Brutsche asks the seven-to nine-year-olds in a Clowning Around workshop run by the Smithsonian Associates.
"It's a person that dresses up in makeup and makes people laugh," answers Will.
"He makes up jokes and does things people don't usually do," replies Michele.
"I saw one once that twisted himself into a pretzel and put himself in a giant oven," says Karen.
Bev Sheehan, Brutsche's partner, who like Brutsche is wearing a union suit and baggy pants held up by brightly striped suspenders, agrees that those are all valid points about clowns.
"But the main thing about clowns," she tells the kids, "is that even though they wear funny clothes and makeup, they're all human beings. They show us that it's okay to be what we are. Clowning is about everyday life.When you watch a clown, keep in mind the things that happen to you every day that are crummy."
"Like when a clown dresses up like Superman and lands in a garbage can?" suggests Karen.
After everyone gets a dab of red grease-paint on the tip of his or her nose, ("because when you're illustrating with your bodies you should wear your character on the tips of your noses") the kids practice being mirror images of each other, then move on to takes.
"Know what a take is?" asks Sheehan. "It's a reaction. A clown walks down the street -- that's an action. There's an object in the way, and he reacts to it -- that's a take."
"The take will just be a head movement to the right. Walk down the street, find something to focus on, then . . ." says Brutsche, illustrating with a slow but meaningful movement of his head. A double take, he explaines, is when you see something, react, look away, the come back and react again.
"You can either react in an exaggerated way or in an understated way," says Sheehan, telling Will that his foot is on fire.
"Water, quick!" yells Karen, and Will hops madly around the room on one foot while the others pretend to douse the other foot.
"Now if we ask you if you want to dance and you react as if your foot is on fire, that's an exaggerated reaction," says Sheehan. "But if we tell you that you foot is on fire and you react as if you wanted to dance, that's understatement."
"One other element is the trip. We fall down a lot. As you're bringing your right foot by your left foot, kick your heel and go forward," Brutsche explains, illustrating the point by tripping over his too-big, unlaced boots and almost, but not quite, falling on his face.
"Introducing Bennet, the famous tripping clown," announces Sheehan, as the kids line up to try tripping. Bennett not only trips; he falls, face down, on the floor.
"This is a hard floor -- you don't really have to fall," cautions Sheehan, but nobody wants to be outclowned and the floor is soon covered with kids.
Clowning is not only tripping, but a lot of other action words that end with -ing, Sheehan explains, and as the kids think them up she writes them on a blackboard: sneezing, kicking, eating, jogging, hitchhiking. It's also a lot of attitude words that end in -ly: happily, sadly, sleepily, lazily, crazily, triumphantly, politely.
The third element of clowning, says Brutsche, is characterization, inviting the kids to take on a character by putting on a funny hat. There's a mad dash to the table where the hats are, and Matt becomes a Navy officer. Michele dons a beach hat. Christian becomes a cowboy, Bennett a sailor, and Will a Mexican in a sombrero.
After the kids write down some obstacles for their clown -- things like raw eggs, banana peels and chewing gum -- they put all the elements of clowning together into routines. Matt, characterized by his Navy officer hat, hitchhikes lazily across the room until he trips over a raw egg. David, frustratedly trying to sneeze, slips over a banana peel and sneezes at last. Patrick, wearing a Damon Runyon character's hat, eats sloppily and finds a fly in his soup. Then Christian and Karen team up for a routine that has everyone stumped until Tamara finally figures it out.
"Maybe he was hunting a chicken and the chicken laid an egg and he slips in it, and the birds get away," she guesses.
"Notice how he slipped in the same place where she laid the egg," Brutsche says approvingly, "That's important."
The kids now have a million routines up their sleeves and want to do them all, but parents are at the door.
"Clowning is an attitude of pessimistic optimism," says Brutsche, "the comic spirit is that deep down inside you know what your fate is, but there's always hope. If a clown gets a pie thrown in his face, he turns it into a free meal."