Story posted March 25, 2005
Bowdoin College senior Selena McMahan was first bit by the clowning bug as a child growing up in France. She and her parents frequently attended street theater festivals that featured puppetry and clowning.
"I was always most interested by the tricksters - the many clowns and actors in the street theater performances who would pause for a minute and size up the audience with a special glint in their eye," she says. "I always felt that they were looking directly at me. I relished the moments when I was brought onto the stage as a volunteer or included in a joke. It was wonderful to be a part of the clown's world."
Throughout school, her interest in clowning influenced her studies, from junior high school - when she started taking theater, dance and performance art classes, and writing and directing - right through college.
Her work will continue after graduation in May. McMahan has been awarded a $22,000 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to pursue independent exploration and travel outside the United States for her project "Contemporary Clown Circuit: Performances Across Borders."
McMahan will spend the next year traveling throughout Africa, Asia, and Central and South America to work with organizations that use clowning performance and circus skills to help people who have experienced group trauma.
McMahan has always been struck by the artist-audience relationship and those moments of direct interaction that are alive, evolving, and improvisational.
"Throughout my studies I have focused on [that relationship]: how the artist and audience learn from each other and how the border between them can become vague," she says.
Her interests solidified and became more focused during her time at Bowdoin, where she took theater and dance and visual arts classes. She completed two independent studies, one that examined the link between exercise and dance, and another that actively involved an audience in viewing art.
She studied away in the Czech Republic in a program that examined how historical and political change in that country have gone hand in hand with its artistic movement.
During a summer workshop called "Humor Your Human" with a clown named Mr. Yoowho she discovered that the connection between a clown and the audience is particularly powerful.
"I found that clowning synthesized all the meaningful aspects of theater and dance for me," she says. "It was about being honest, delving into unknown and scary material, but always finding some part of even the most tragic emotions that were ridiculous."
An intensive workshop in Pochinko Clowning technique followed.
"[With this technique] you focus on making contact with the audience, being honest, having fun, listening to the audience, listening to yourself, surprising yourself and the audience, taking the audience with you, going wild, keeping the audience safe, going for the unknown, dropping the script, trusting your impulses, and knowing when to leave," she describes.
McMahan soon began thinking about spending a year traveling and clowning. She had heard of an organization called Clowns Without Borders that sends performers to war-torn countries. Further research led her to other organizations that do similar work: Cirque du Monde, which works with street kids, and Caja Lúdica, which offers workshops and public performances.
Working with these organizations through the Watson Fellowship program will allow her to continue exploring the nature of the artist-audience relationship and how performance can effect social change.
"I am involved with political activism in the U.S. and did a senior independent study on activist art," she says. "So the whole question of how to make art purposeful is also, for me, a question of how to fuse my artistic work with my political work. The Watson Fellowship is political in that it builds international relations on a person-to-person basis. This strikes me as especially important now when international opinion of the U.S. government is not so positive."
McMahan is among 50 college seniors nationally who have received a 2005 Watson Fellowship. Nearly 1,000 students from 50 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities applied for the awards. This year, 184 students competed on the national level, after their institutions nominated them in the autumn.
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program was begun in 1968 by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM Corporation, and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, to honor their parents' long-standing interest in education and world affairs. The Watson Foundation regards its investment in people as an effective contribution to the global community.
The year of travel provides fellows an opportunity to test their aspirations and abilities and develop a more informed sense of international concern.
"The awards are long-term investments in people likely to lead or innovate," says Beverly Larson, executive director of the Watson Fellowship Program and a former Watson Fellow. "We look for people with passion, a feasible plan, leadership potential and creativity. The recipients get unusual freedom in global experiential learning."