Staring at my computer screen, bored, I tried to make it look like I was doing something useful.
I was 27 and temping as a receptionist at a health and safety company in London, but it left me feeling uninspired, to say the least.
A few weeks later, after I’d done all my duties for the day and was sitting waiting for people to ring the doorbell, my boss told me to at least pretend I was working.
It was my lightbulb moment. I remember very clearly thinking to myself: What am I doing with my life?
A couple of months later I handed in my notice. It was a real leap of faith but I knew exactly what I wanted to do instead.
It was the dream that had captivated me since I was a teenager, and a hobby I had kept up, but wanted to make my livelihood.
I wanted to become a professional clown.
It may seem like an unusual calling, but performing is in my blood. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, with a theatre director mom and set designer dad, it was inevitable I’d end up on stage.
In fact when I was a little girl my parents put me into their productions rather than paying for childcare!
I originally wanted to be a professional theatre actress, but during a family trip to Paris, aged 15, fate intervened in the form of a tall man with a red nose and high-waisted baggy trousers held up by braces.
He was part of a street show of clowns that had me captivated. To me, their antics represented absolute freedom. They were so playful and it was clear they weren’t taking themselves seriously.
During our holiday I went back to that show about five times, and one afternoon I got talking to the performers. That’s when I discovered there was such a thing as clown school.
Back home, I had a civics and careers class in high school so I asked to research clowning but my teacher told me I wasn’t allowed because it ‘wasn’t a real profession’. Luckily, because my parents worked in the arts they were more open minded.
It gave me something to aim for, but I had challenges to overcome first.
Aged 17 an accidental overdose at a teenage party left me fighting for my life.
My recovery gave me time to rethink my priorities and make some changes. I changed schools and distanced myself from destructive friendship groups, and embraced spirituality by going on retreats. I also felt even more drawn towards performing.
In hospital I’d spent my days thinking about comedy, theatre and clowning. As soon as I was discharged I auditioned for and landed a year-long role at Canada’s Shaw Festival, a theatre company.
Aged 18, I started studying at several clown schools – including L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris and Clown Through Mask in Toronto.
After six years of study, I moved to London and began supplementing my acting and clowning income with temping jobs, while finding some work as a clown teacher on a part-time basis.
I hadn’t given up on my clowning dream; I was running a cabaret show called The Lost Cabaret every Friday night and was gigging on the comedy circuit doing stand-up as a clown several nights a week.
But I wanted all in.
When I decided to quit my reception job seven years ago I immediately went on a retreat with a friend to clear my head and re-focus on what I wanted to do.
I told myself it was time to use the skills I’d been honing for so long. By that time, I had been training in clowning for a decade and had learned from around 45 different mentors and clown teachers.
In early summer 2016 I became a full-time clown performer and teacher – working under the stage name Zuma Puma. Zuma was my mom’s nickname for me as a child as I was always zooming around. I called my business Clown Life.
My friends and family told me I was crazy – asking how I would make my living as a clown or pay my rent. But a friend helped me to produce my first weekend clowning workshop and it immediately sold out, so I knew I was onto something.
With clowning comes the freedom to tap into the ridiculousness of life, embracing fun and joyfulness, or fully expressing yourself during challenging times, whatever is happening.
Clowning helps us break down the barriers we create around ourselves as adults and revel in the unpredictability of life. When people came to my clowning classes I could see huge transformations – they became more confident and playful.
People find out about my classes via social media, word-of-mouth, or after seeing me performing. I’m determined to make clowning for everyone – not just natural-born performers – and if they feel shy or awkward in the beginning that’s perfectly natural.
My love of retreats led me to create clown-specific retreats, which take place at various locations including Car Mabon in Snowdonia, and Forest Retreats in the Wye Valley.
One barrier that I felt needed to be stripped back was the idea of a traditional clown costume.
The masks and oversized shoes can be intimidating to some, so I just tell people to wear whatever they need to wear to make them feel ridiculous. It might be as simple as bright colours or a funny hat.
The traditional clown’s red nose is sometimes the only prop I use – I think of the red nose as the smallest mask you can wear because it immediately lightens the mood.
Now I always finish my retreats with a clown celebration of life – a ritual performed in a picturesque location where people can honour how they’re feeling however they want – whether that’s laughing and throwing their arms to the sky or crying into the earth.
One day last summer I was with a group on a beautiful hillside in the Lake District. We were all wearing various bits of colourful costume and we were shouting, laughing and jumping about.
Then I spotted a baffled runner who had stopped dead and was staring at us with his mouth wide open. It completely blew his mind.
‘Oh wow, what’s going on?’ he laughed. ‘I need to do more of what you’re doing.’
For me, clowning is the ultimate way to get in touch with yourself because life really can be ridiculous, so it’s about celebrating that and allowing yourself to act with total freedom.
I followed my curiosity and stepped away from what I knew was no longer serving me – and now I am one step closer to the life and the world that I want to see. My advice is to follow your instincts, embrace those lightbulb moments to change your life and let curiosity be your guide.
That’s my Red Nose Philosophy!
As told to Jade Beecroft
For more information visit: www.clownlife.org or find @zumapuma.clownlife on Instagram.
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