Complicity – what clown teaches about working together

Renowned theatrical John Wright defines complicity as “the act of being an accomplice”.  This simple practice from clowning can teach us interesting things about being a great facilitator.

The example I’ll use here begins with a movement game Wright teaches in clown class to help students understand what it means to lead, together.  In this game, after alternating the role of leader a few times, there inevitably arrives a point where both are “accomplices”, neither able to say who is in the lead but smoothly working together towards a common goal.

Try this:

  1. Stand opposite a partner about three metres apart, right palms raised, palms facing each other.
  2. Nominate the leader of the pair who begins to move their hand, slowly at first. The follower must then move too, such that there is always 3m between your facing palms.
  3. Swap roles, initially by saying ‘change’ out loud.  Eventually you can shift to naturally swapping back and forth.

You may come a point where movement is seamless and no one knows who is leading.  The right palms of each player stay three metres apart.

This is an example of complicity.

In this game, the rules are well established (palms must be three metres apart). Who is in charge is of no consequence to the outcome of the game (initially it’s to move together but coud turn into something else completely).

A player may take the lead because the other has deemed to have led for long enough. Someone may choose to be a follower because they are tired. Still the palms stay three metres apart.

In facilitation or teaching we might ask what it means to be ‘in charge’. Does the teacher give the child information didactically? Does he guide learning? Does a manager direct from ahead or does she lead a team from backstage?

We learn through clown that once two parties establish complicity and understand their shared goal, they can negotiate the hierarchy from moment to moment. Whoever is in charge is the best to be in charge at that moment to get a little closeer to the goal.

The negotiation of roles may be subtle or it may be more coarse. It can be based on a myriad of ‘rules’ that were formed during the process of finding complicity in the very beginning.

In the work of facilitation, establishing complicity with the group early on allows us to establish the nature of our relationship and choose our goal together. Maintaining complicity lets the facilitator negotiate and play the role they see is required in each moment to take the group where it is asking to go.

The play of clown allows us to recognise complicity in groups, to understand how we personally respond to the dynamics of hierarchy, and to carefully hold the balance while the group explores its question.


Read more by John Wright in Why is that so funny? A practical exploration of physical comedy, 2006 or book Clowning for Facilitators at your organisation.

Published by rachaelwest

Strategic Speaker Coach | Founder | Engineer

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