Those Clowns Down in Peru

Americans may be familiar with Peru as home to the breathtaking Machu Picchu, or perhaps as a bordering nation to Lake Titicaca. But, the Republic of Peru is also home to 29.4 million people (UN, 2010), rich natural resources like copper, silver, lead, zinc, oil and gold (BBC 2011) and a small but fruitful world of comedy in its capital city of Lima.

A friend connected me with an aspiring comedian in Lima named Charly Cervera. To start, he described to me the current comedic climate in Peru.

Comedy in Peru is a small world; it’s only really practiced in the capital as stage comedy…In the provinces, comedy shows aren’t very developed. There are very few people involved in comedy or dedicated to this art. The most popular comedians are those who are able to get TV shows, and then perform their monologues in theaters or small cafes around the city.

In July, the BBC reported that Peru was “said to have one of the world’s fasted growing economies.” However, the rural provinces in areas like the Amazon and the Andes Mountains are home to many indigenous groups — as well as Peru’s disproportionate poverty. This may explain why the comedy scene has yet to flourish in these areas. Or, these groups may already have their own culturally-specific brand of comedy.

As far as Lima goes, though, I was unable to find information on comedy clubs anywhere on the web. When I asked Charly about comedy venues, he responded:

There are very few places dedicated solely to comedy; now we could say that there are 2. There are other theaters that show comic works but they aren’t places that specialize only in comedy.

Wait, did I mention Charly is a clown? Not just a clown as in all comedians are a kind of “clown,” but actually a red-nose-wearing clown. For financial reasons, Charly decided to leave the fulltime theater life for a more lucrative day job in marketing. However, he continues practicing his style of comedy with Clown Hospitalario, an organization that works to improve the atmosphere of children’s hospitals. He also performs around Lima when he can.

While Charly is unique in his own right, clowning is a very popular form of comedy in Peru and not just with kids. Peruvian clowning gags and jokes are universal, as Charly describes them: “hits, falls, the desire to find love, social recognition,” and they appeal to a broad swath of age groups in Peru. However the routines are also unique to Peru, employing slang and behaviors that reflect Peruvian society.

The art of comedic clowning was imported from Argentina into Peru in 1990 by a woman named July Naters. An actress since age 16, it was while Naters was studying in Cuba on scholarship when she first saw Argentinean “clauns.” This new performance style would lead her to Argentina for six months to study with Argentine Claun Clu. When she returned to Peru, she began teaching the new clowning techniques she learned. This inspired the formation of an influential comedy troupe known as “Pataclaun.”

Pataclaun ushered in a new generation of “clauns” in Peru that marked a departure from the traditional clown, as we know it. These clauns are characters who do wear red noses, but do not wear any clowning makeup, or oversized shoes, or flowers on their lapels that shoot out water when you get too close. Their costumes are still intended to present an exaggerated version of reality, but they do so by wearing bright and contrasting colors. The occasional wacky suspender still sneaks in, but you probably won’t catch a “claun” in a big oversized jacket (hopping out of a tiny car, in groups of 20).

In 1991, Pataclaun introduced their new genre to Peruvian audiences in Lima with a live show called  “Patacláun in LOVE.” It was a smash hit. Over the next five years, they would put on more shows, tour the countryside, release a video and start giving workshops. Then, Hollywood came calling. Well, not Hollywood, but Peruvian television.

Pataclaun the TV show premiered in 1997, and though it was a show intended for adults, the bright colors and broad routines attracted children as well. The story centered on a newlywed couple in their newly purchased house, and the wacky characters they encounter in the neighborhood. Here’s a clip:

As you can see, the characters have bright clothing and red noses, but none of the white face paint you might normally associate with the clowns from your nightmares.

Their eponymous show ran for two years on Peruvian television. Due to its popularity, the show was also aired in Ecuador and Colombia. It also launched the careers of many famous Peruvian actors, who have since gone on to host radio and television shows, act in telenovelas and continue with comedy. They would try their luck with television again in 2002 with a show called Carita Tuna, but it did not make it past that year.  Then in 2008, members of Pataclaun, including July Naters as director, would return to with a new show called The Holy Convent about three criminals on the run who pose as nuns to escape the arm of the law. Hiding in the convent of the Sisters of Perpetual mess, these fake nuns (red-nosed and all) encounter a host of wacky characters.

This past year, July Naters introduced a new show called The Holy Sazon, declaring to reporters: “Pataclaun is my life project.”

Though, Pataclaun as a troupe no longer exists. The group technically disbanded in 2001. The group’s founder, in turn, created the Cultural Association of Pataclaun, a school for clowning and improvisation. When not writing and directing television shows, July Naters is teaching new generations of “claun” hopefuls her variation of the techniques she learned in Argentina over 20 years ago. The school also trains performers in improvisational techniques. Shortly after the dissolution of the troupe, the School began organizing the Pataclaun Match Improvisational Theater. It continues to organize and judge improv competitions throughout Peru.

The Asociación Cultural Pataclaun is a prominent fixture in Lima, but it’s now becoming a tourist attraction as well. AOL Travel recommends checking out the school if you’re looking for a good laugh in Lima. However universal physical comedy may be, Spanish fluency is probably a necessity if you want to understand the instructions in their workshops.

These days, if you aspire to be a Peruvian claun, workshops are a must. The success of Pataclaun and its subsequent school has inspired many more theater schools to develop this particular art. Typically, school is broken up into three levels and after level three you can take workshops on specific topics like thematic formation, themes with music and teams. This process might sound familiar to those UCB improv students out there.

Clowning is not just a popular comedic art form in many South American countries. Spain has one of the most prominent schools in the world — the Erik Bont International School of Clowns. But the success of Pataclaun and the art form it introduced in Peru is perhaps due to the fact that the Peruvian sense of humor tends to skew towards slapstick and puns. As one expat blogger describes it, Peruvians have a “literal sense of humor.”

One Pataclaun alum uses her clowning skills not only to entertain, but also to heal. When not on television Wendy Ramos is a member of Bola Roja, a hospital clown group that focuses on child advocacy. They partner with non-profit organizations like the Gesundheit! Institute — of Patch Adams fame — to bring comic relief to impoverished and suffering villages throughout Peru.

In Peru, comedy therapy and comedy entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

Clowning is just one aspect of the small, but growing comedy scene in Lima. There are others, like stand-up comic Diana Levine, who are trying to grow other forms of comedy such as stand-up. With such a multi-ethnic makeup, Peru has the potential to develop many humorous perspectives and comedy styles. So long as comedy continues to prosper.

When I asked Charly to describe his perception of Peruvian comedy today, this is how he responded:

My perception is that it’s “in diapers.” But, we are creating more of a “theater” culture, a culture of people who will leave the house to hang out and spend some time laughing with friends…Comic theater has been forgotten for many years, and now it’s our generation’s turn to rescue it and raise it to the international level.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Those Clowns Down in Peru