Playing with food

Spaghetti clown, Alex Tabrizi

I clown. It’s not to say I’m not a researcher, I am also a researcher. But so too am I sometimes a clown. We’ve heard a lot from the researcher about food, but what is the more playful take? What does the clown feel about food? Last month, with co-creative Miranda, I facilitated a group of clowns to explore food through their senses and bodies. No critically minded books for their research, thank you. They want the real deal: crisps, spaghetti, carrots, cans of…. Actually no, we drew the limit on giving the clowns cans of baked beans.

We know that we experience the world (academic jargon: we get our data) from more than just books and speeches. People like Sarah Pink [1] and Norman Denzin [2] have pushed for a long time for us to take our other senses seriously when it comes to discovering, interpreting and knowing the world. So, I try and bring the visual methods, or the workshops, into my research. But in explaining the serious, people seem wedded to words. These clown sessions gave me a chance to take food out of the box and see what happened to it with some intuitively trained, instinctively sensitive and utterly curious adult types who had opened up to the state of clown.

Miranda and I set the clowns into a state of play in a way that can only be attributed to Holly Stoppit’s approach to conscious clowning, or mindful play. In this mindful practice we ground the session through a short meditation, sharing circle and allow everyone to acknowledge the (stressed/tired/joyful/numb) state that they have arrived in before inviting them to connect with the group and the session.

Miranda then got our bodies involved with a movement warm up that led into the next games (trolls, beach ball) and the first big food activity of tracing the stories of our lives through our experience with food. This was a little edgy, as many of us have experienced darker moments with food, through sickness and health. The activity was well supported though, from the solid inspiration of both an activity from Holly’s summer school, and my experience of an exercise in which, with earlier theatre friends in the group, Cactus, we traced our lives through our relationship with water. This proved an amazing way of physically connecting with an environmental issue [3]. Anyway, the food activity was deep and involved so we had some writing time and a steady check out. The second session followed the same format, but with the new main activity – adopt a food – which in reality meant: PLAY!!

The clown shows food through another window. They play with food. My clown, your clown, and all the clowns that are given the permission to play. Clowning is many things, not fixed, but rather a state. If you are brave enough you can enter into the state of clown. This is a state of permission in which the rules can be bent, broken and stamped all over, all in the name of play. Your life and food, how much of it would you show? The clown not only shows it, it plays with experience – and with the games that are the social norms you don’t even realise that you are obeying.

cereal box in action

By finding the game, finding what you really want to see, and what I really want to do, we can see human experience from another angle. Is it the banana you want to see peeled? The carrot you want to see thrust around? Or do you want to sit in the corner and eat all the crisps all by yourself? Perhaps you just want to make a big mess. We love mess, not in our kitchens, because it isn’t allowed, and we don’t have the time to clear it up. But what is more satisfying than breaking a rule? Social rules can never be seen so clearly as when they are broken. This is a basic from anthropology. Kate Fox shows it beautifully in ‘Watching the English’ as she queue-jumps just to test how ingrained the British queue really is [4]. Anyway, the mess was so big that week that we had to bring ‘cleaning up’ into the session as part of the game: the clowns played it.

Social norms don’t come with documentary-style labels that pop up as they occur in society. We just follow them, with adjustments by country and culture, but mostly, we just follow them. ‘Don’t stare’, ‘eat with your mouth closed’, ‘don’t snatch’…. do what the powerful people say (a less explicit but equally powerful message we receive). These things are learnt so young that we forget that they exist. By making them big and visible, the clown will remind you they are there. They will share with you the joy of winning the game, or the misery of losing it. Then comes the recognition that it was a game in the first place: were you playing hide and seek? Or snatch the orange? Or were you playing I’m better than you, give me the job, love me?

Over the last year I have been exploring clowning as an art form and as a space of exploration, creation, and release. I used to be more artist than academic but as the big issues pressed on me, I moved away from paintbrushes and masks and towards text books and travel. Yet the further into the serious I get, the more I see the value of the silly, stupid, freeing potential of play. Playing is not just cathartic, it actually shows the ‘serious’ world its shadows, just as satire, stand-up and the jester in the court room have done through the ages. This exploration provides space for the whole human body and all five of our senses in ‘researching’ the world around us. In this state, you don’t need to read a book on power to discover it, you find it, feel it and see it as one clown steals the food of another.

These are things I am re-discovering a sensitivity to, after several courses with the clown extraordinaire, Holly Stoppit, and through practice with a mutually-set-up co-led collective that a small group of us began in September 2017. Watch this space for a play, we might even play with food.


1. Denzin, N. K. (2003) Performance ethnography : critical pedagogy and the politics of culture, Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage.

2. Fox, K. (2005) Watching the English : the hidden rules of English behaviour, London, Hodder.

3. Jiménez-Aceituno, A., Medland, L, Delgado, A, Carballés-Bretón, A, Maiques-Diaz, A, Muñoz, LD, Marín-Rodríguez, M, Chamorro-Ortiz, P & Casado-Cid, B. (2016) Social Theatre as a Tool for Environmental Learning Processes: A Case Study from Madrid, Spain. In: MARTHA MONROE, M. K. (ed.) Across the Spectrum: Resources for Environmental Educators.: North American Association for Environmental Education.

4. Pink, S. (2007) Doing visual ethnography: images, media and representation in research, London, SAGE.