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"The first thing you do in clown school is stand in front of an entire class and try to make them laugh. It's so tough"


LAUGHS: Jonathan, left, performing on the street

LAUGHS: Jonathan, left, performing on the street

LAUGHS: Jonathan, left, performing on the street

I was so very shy as a teenager. One year, all the guys I hung around with applied to be in the school play and I realised I'd have no one to hang around with at lunch if I didn't join in.

I got the part of a randy monk, and I channelled the 'Carry On' movies that my dad made me watch years earlier. And so it began. I told my guidance counsellor that I wanted to study drama at Trinity, and what I heard was: "You'll never get in. Try electronic engineering instead." Which is what I did.

A while later, my sister heard from a friend that she was struggling to find an actor for a play for the Galway Youth Theatre and put me forward for that. We read the script for about an hour. I was so uncomfortable the first time round. The second time round, I was leading it. Some change took over there and then.

I met the same lady in a club later on, and she told me she was studying physical theatre at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Thinking I'd at least become a great disco dancer out of it, I applied.

Jacques Lecoq was an incredible experience. It's a very physical course, so you express yourself physically. It means that you are on stage with someone from Tokyo, and then in walks someone from Brazil, and you can understand exactly what's going on.

In Lecoq you study clowning, and I loved the comic performing and the inventiveness and the chance to unleash your inner idiot. People expect you'll be learning to fall down the stairs and how to slap each other and all that, but you have to start really slowly. The first thing you do in clown school is stand in front of an entire class and try to make them laugh. It's so tough.

How I describe clowning is this: when you see a child who is hungry, they're eating their sleeve, licking the floor – they're 100pc, completely hungry and they don't edit whatsoever. We as clowns don't edit our emotions, so you need to be able to tap in and know who you are.

I toured through Africa with a company that we created in Lecoq. When I came back to Paris, I was advised to contact Clowns Without Borders (a collective of performers who entertain children in crisis zones). Eventually, through a series of happy accidents, I set up Clowns Without Borders Ireland. Right now, we're putting together a trip to Jordan to work with Syrian refugees.

With a lot of my CWB work, many of the children are traumatised. They've seen things that they're not equipped to deal with, and they forget how to be children. We come and play and give them a licence to be children again.

Last year, we were in a Congolese camp and one of our performers, Brian Fleming, starts to do his dance, and a kid comes up and starts to dance with him. That is gold for us. You follow that child's cues and push it as far as you can go. It's the same with the work here in Ireland – the best performances happen in the moment and you can never plan for them.

That said we've had hundreds of mishaps. A CWB friend did a show in Guatemala and in his routine he gave another performer a fake slap so that she landed on her bottom. A guy in the audience got really offended, went off, came back on his horse, lassoed Tim and dragged him around by his ankles. Luckily, Tim is fit as a fiddle. I'm not sure I'd have coped.

Another time, in Nepal, we did a routine where I spit water, and the audience went completely silent. They seemed gravely insulted. Afterwards, we asked what was the problem, and we were told in Nepal anything that passes your lips becomes religious, so we were essentially being sacrilegious. Another time, on the West Bank in Jerusalem, we were hanging out after a show in this small village. A big armoured car pulled up towards us, and these soldiers started running and shouting at us, because we were "acting strange" in the square.

In Ireland, you get away with breaking all kinds of taboos as a clown. Like if I'm doing a funny show on the street, I'll jump into the arms of a garda and shower them with kisses, and you get away with it. In fact, they're delighted. Because there's an innocence to the show, you can get away with loads. Irish clowns are good-natured, but we really like to push buttons. Irish clowns are so bold.

Christmas is definitely our busiest time. I also do storytelling in schools and teach on the drama course in NUI Galway. I don't tend to do kids' parties – I don't know where they learn it, but the kids seem to think they can do anything with the clown at a kid's party. They get over-excited, so basically you leave with the shins kicked out of you.

More information on Clowns Without Borders Ireland is at cwbireland.com. Jonathan stars in Branar Teatar do Phaisti's production of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas', which tours 10 venues nationwide until December 22. More information is available at branar.ie

In conversation with Tanya Sweeney