Send in the Clowns: San Francisco Clown School Looks to Revive Forgotten Art

PHOTO: Derrick Gilday, 30, is a student at the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco.
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"A clown is unafraid to go out there and do anything."

At the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco, clowning is no joke.

Its mission: to revive a maligned art.

Dan Griffiths and Joe Dieffenbacher run the place. Their goal is to take the creative license that has been around for centuries, often associated with a big red nose and puffy costumes, and messing with it to reinvent the modern-day clown.

"We want to expand what people imagine for a clown," Griffiths said. "We will put many people out into the world that do clowning in lots of different ways and you can look at those and decide."

Added Dieffenbacher: "The clown recognizes no rules or boundaries. You can do anything. You can go anywhere. People will allow you to do anything."

Students from across the country come to this clown boot camp. Each pays nearly $10,000 for an invasive 20-week course in clowning, learning at the slapped knees of the masters.

"We'll train anyone that comes," Griffiths said. "If you walk through the door, we'll teach you to clown. That's our job."

Student Derrick Gilday, 30, got into clowning through the circus eight years ago, performing in the United States and Europe. After doing festival work and fairs, he has gone back to school to work on his clown craft full-time.

"I think a clown is within everyone," he said. "It's an intergalactic explorer. For me, it's someone who can take chances, take risks, make fun of themselves. But really for me, it's just a journey looking inside yourself to what really shines."

So dedicated to his clown calling, Gilday lives in his van around the corner from the conservatory for the duration of the course.

Just a few months ago, Leah Orleans, another student at the conservatory, was a high school junior in Chicago and dreamed of going to college -- not the Ivy League, but the plastic squirt-y flower league.

"My parents said, 'You can go, if you finish high school,'" Orleans said. "So I took the entire summer and did my entire senior year on an online program.

"I'm living alone and going to clown school," she continued. "Clown school for me, to be honest, is a little bit of therapy."

To her, clowns represent something more meaningful than just being a goofball.

"The clown is the essence of innocence and honesty," Orleans said. "An entertainer who can make people feel things they are too afraid to feel."

The Clown Conservatory is not just for aspiring professionals. It offers evening classes for other sober, upstanding members of society, the buttoned-up people, from corporate lawyers to businessmen, drawn to the release of such stupidity.

"[That person] can learn to really listen to the people that are in the room with him, with his body ... how to partner with someone. Clowns are the ready partner for everything," Griffiths said.

Griffiths and his wife, Danielle, take their clown characters into the world to play. For example, on their way to a hospital, one of the hardest places to joke around, but a place that desperately needs some laughter, they donned lab coats and stethoscopes.

"We're clowning the character of a doctor," he said. "You spread some laughter at a place that can sometimes be a pretty sterile environment."

When it comes down to it, Griffiths and Dieffenbacher said they believe that being a clown can reveal a part of oneself that would be difficult to reveal in other circumstances. In short, clowning can be liberating.

"The clown takes what is a weakness, like for me it was awkwardness, feeling clumsy all the time, and turns that into a strength," Dieffenbacher said. "So, suddenly, I can make my clumsiness into a slapstick act and people are laughing."

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