Ash Perrin, also known as Bash the clown is a professional noise maker, childhood conservationist, rabble raiser and lifelong Play enthusiast. Author of ‘The Real Play Revolution’, and Founder of The Flying Seagull Project charity; for over a decade Ash has taken play and dynamic fun activities into the forgotten corners of the world sharing smiles and laughter with more than 130’000 children. Working in Orphanages, refugee camps, shanty settlements, hospitals and often out on the streets the mission is simple and the agenda direct: every child has the right to a happy childhood.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
This is a tough question, because there are so many things every day that looked at with the right eyes can be amazing. From really obvious and cliched things like sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, cloud formations, et cetera, to the more commonplace and often overlooked of acts of friendship, or moments of empowerment in everyday activities. I’m constantly amazed by members of my team and how determined and dedicated they are. Or by my mother who is summoning every scrap of energy she has to fight some pretty challenging health issues.
But the thing I wish to share here is something that I suppose I found very moving and amazing, because it was an opportunity for my role to be reversed. I’m very lucky in that one of the ways we raise the funds for the seagulls is to perform at music festivals and cultural events across the whole of the world through the summer. This means I get to see incredible performances of music, circus, and cabaret. During one of the festivals at the end of the summer I went to watch a band whose name unfortunately I have forgotten, who were described to me as a psychedelic wizard frog mash up jazz rock collective. With an introduction like this, there was no way I wouldn’t have gone to see it, but what I didn’t realise was how inspiring I would find this experience. In my work I am the one that usually delivers and leads the creative performances and events, it has been a long time since I felt that I was held within a creative space by someone else or some other’s creative energy. That is precisely what happened when watching this group. More than musicians, they were entertainers that somehow in spite of the huge amount of music, bands and acts over a huge amount of years, have managed to create something extraordinary and unique. It was peculiar, punchy, provocative, and un-apologetic, and yet it felt extremely warm and intended to lift the spirits of those watching. It was just sounds made on instruments added to voices performed by humans, and yet somehow I was reminded again that when the right energy and intention is put into anything it leaves the realm of the logical earth and becomes part of that gloriously magic overcoat that from time to time we are lucky enough to remember the world is wrapped in. I was amazed and I was pleased. For the next few weeks I was reminded how spectacular and unexpected the joys of each day can be when viewed through the eyes of exploration.
Can you give me a brief sketch of your life and how you ended up working in refugee camps?
As unusual as my current working life may seem, and as peculiar as ending up there having been born to relatively normal family in a fairly boring part of England, it was actually fairly obvious and quite direct path that brought me to become what I would describe as a childhood conservationist and relentless enthusiast towards encouragement.
I was born deaf, or at least 80% of my hearing capacity was not functioning, and it wasn’t until I was three that an operation restored the full range. Having been told by the school system that I would need to attend a school focused on children with special needs or educational challenges, my mum decided to entirely ignore that and instead believed that learning music would be more effective in helping me gain the confidence and strengths I would need to catch up and eventually do fairly well within schooling. This meant that the tools that I was taught at a very young age to be tools of empowerment and strength were creativity, music, theatre and play.
As soon as I was old enough I left school and joined a course in college that focused on the performing arts, music and literature. Though my grades may not reflect it, I absolutely loved this course and the freedom of expression that it allowed me. Having been encouraged to talk as a child to help me with confidence, by the time I left school I was quite obviously a talk-a-holic and instinctive show off. From performance college I gained a scholarship to acting school in London and after three years studying there I entered the world of professional performance. We have never had excess money as a family, so I found a job during my drama training performing as a clown at weekends. Not only is this lucrative, but actually the best training I think I could have had. It absolutely fitted my personality, and abundance of slightly unwieldy energy. Clown work is the essence of mischief channelled into a positive and all-inclusive performance meant to amuse, comfort, and equalise the world. From the very first clowns in the royal courts that would be the only citizens who had permission to mock or caricature the higher members of social hierarchy, clowns were representatives of all classes and members of none. A clown takes the flaws or challenges of every living person and plays with them until what was once a punishing source of self-doubt can become a rich well of humour and gentle playful acceptance.
With these qualities being implicit in the role of the clown, it was a very natural next step to take these into the aid and humanitarian world. A child who has been abandoned, or faces health issues that will shorten their lives, or communities fleeing war facing nothing but uncertainty and hardship, have other significant losses than just material or survival. They also have the loss of joy, morale and that warm happy feeling life can sometimes share. For the children we work with, the clown is the perfect vessel for facing, exploring, and hopefully overcoming some routes and sources of anxiety or despair. I’m in absolutely no way suggesting that this removes the suffering of the situations they find themselves in, but as a means of comfort or support it is an extremely honest and effective one as it sees them entirely as they are and loves them without question in full knowledge of this. Within our shared world they are not ‘other’, we become an assemblage of equal respect and mutual playfulness and value.
So this is how I ended up working in refugee camps, orphanages, on the streets with children who have no one and nowhere to be. That belief in the worth of the individuals experience my mother had and my violin teacher shared, and the first clowns that showed me the potential of the crafts power already knew, is one of the ingredients that can help to rebuild a shattered confidence or a sense of non-belonging. Much like that as I had as a small child who couldn’t hear but overcame with the right influences. My hope is that the same determined and loving influences that put me in a position I was not meant or expected to attain at birth, I can use to create at least the beginnings of change in those I work with.
What would a day in a refugee camp look like with The Flying Seagull Project?
There is no such thing as an average day in a camp with a seagull project, but I’ll give you a rough overview working on the hypothesis that there wasn’t some sort of extraordinary unforeseen disaster/absolute change of plans that we didn’t expect but that happens frequently…
The day begins early, as a team we always sit down to breakfast together. Some of the pressures and tensions through the day can be trying on an ensemble, and it is essential that we stick together, have each other’s backs and perform as a group so that we can bring the most energy possible. A shared meal is a good way to kick off the day.
Once food is done we get into costume. In spite of us being ‘clowns’ I am very particular about the costumes. I want them to be a statement of quality, magic and professionalism so the kids know we take their happiness seriously. Each day all team have to pass a costume inspection, then it’s then time to load the vans. Depending on the day the van load will include giant sumo suits, circus equipment such as hula hoops, stilts, Curly clown wigs, giant bowties, juggling balls and spinning plates. We will also usually have some sort of evening entertainment lined up; so for the sake of our day let’s say we will have the projector, cinema screen and PA system.
We arrive on-site and after a document check by the military personnel that are stationed at the gate, we gather the children by playing loud brass instruments, banging drums, singing songs. I will usually peddle a Penny Farthing bike to further capture their intrigue and interest. Once we have the children assembled the morning session is all about energy. These will be big loud fast games that get their bodies and minds woken up and burn off any of the frustrations of fear that the night before may have held. Camps are often unhappy and unsafe places, so allowing them to move physically through these held tensions is essential for them to be able to gain the most from what we will share that day.
Early afternoon we will launch some sort of interactive and wholly participatory activity. This can be the full Seagull special which includes bouncy castle, zip wire, sumo wrestling (with safe extra padded suits), Circus free play, probably ending with a music session.
Before the sunsets we will hand out tickets to all of the children with plenty of spares for siblings and parents for the evening’s entertainment. This will be either cinema night, disco, or even full-sized professionally lit stage magic and comedy show. After a quick bite of food somewhere we then re-dress the big top tent with lights and if it’s winter and it’s working the big top heater. As soon as the exterior floodlights are lit groups of excited children and their families gather with their tickets ready for a night at the circus. If it cinema there is usually crisps or hot chocolates depending on the time of year, if it’s the circus then we have to make sure there is space for everybody as there is not a person on site that doesn’t try to squeeze their way in for the spectacle. The evening sessions are probably my most favourite, because the energy becomes so robustly joyful that even some of the tougher more challenging members of the parents or adults on site let go of that potentially hostile energy, and allow themselves to be embraced by a strong sense of happy community and solidarity. The day will have started at eight with breakfast and if we lucky, we should be home by 10 ready for a quick bite and off to bed because who knows what tomorrow will bring.
Why is play so important to you? Why should we play more?
Play is more than just a flippant side product of being a child, it is the way in which from the first breath drawn we explore, make sense of and find our place in this world. Play equalises us all. In play there is no importance put on the end result, only the experience of participation. There is no competition in true play, and no entry requirement either. In a world so insistent on dividing us and categorising worth based on these divisions, play brings us back to even. For me, born deaf and only gaining hearing from 3 years old, play was what gave me the confidence to express myself, the environment to make friends, and the tools to equip myself with skills and coping mechanisms to ride out the challenges my later start presented. I have clear memories of my first speech therapist using an apple toy to encourage me to talk, and when I did a wiggly worm would come from the toy. Play is the birth right of us all, and until we are emotionally able and linguistically fluent (this is approx. 21 years old for human creatures) Play is our indigenous and non-restricted communal language.
As I said there are huge divisions and a growing force behind them. Accusation, aggressive protection of property and presumed cultural ownership and even reluctance to share the most basic and plentiful resources with those desperately in need, for me is a lot like not playing properly. Do you remember your parents saying share your toys, don’t always keep the best one for you, make sure everyone has a turn, include your little brother! These principles are the principles of life and community, taught to us through play. I deeply believe that if we could encourage this more and raise it to an intergenerational activity we could pull down some of these social barriers and see each other as playmates in the game of life, rather than threatening outsiders.
Why is joy & happiness just as important as food & water?
Because humans are more than just a machine that needs to be oiled and maintained, intertwined in a set of logistics from birth to growth to career to death. Humans are a magnificently creative creature. They can explore the notion of existence, and as such create myth and story and play and magic. A child can adapt physically to almost anything, even lack of food to a certain degree, and even discomfort to a certain degree. But a child’s brain simply does not develop in a healthy or natural way if it is starved of love, comfort, creativity and play. This idea that the body and the mind are two separate things, one of which ‘the body’ must be kept moving, the other of which ‘the mind’ is a bonus, to be honest is quite ridiculous. I’m so excited by the progress of epi-geneticists, bio social scientists/researchers, psychologists and even quantum physicists who are striving to explore and understand the incredibly intertwined, intricate and inseparable link between both body and mind. An unhappy mind creates an unhealthy body, whereas a happy mind can do the mirrored and make it healthier. One third of all medical treatment in the world is placebo! Simply by believing that you are feeling better and beating your illness, you do. The opposite of this is known as ‘nocebo’ where believing that you are getting worse or suffering from an illness literally creates that to be the truth. So, joy and happiness are just as important as food and water not just in a hypothetical or spiritual way, but in a physical and neurological way. Also, what is the point in life if it is simply to eat, drink, grow, move, stop. Joy and happiness are the gifts that balance out the stress and difficulty of the human’s awareness of itself.
How does silliness relate to being playful?
Silliness goes hand-in-hand with being playful. It is not that you have to have no rules, or run around with your tongue out, your fingers in your ears making the sound of the turkey, that’s one sort of silly. We are speaking of silliness as a philosophy for action and a foundation for play. To be truly playful you have to let go entirely of your sense of self, your attachment to your egoistic display of idiosyncratic choices that tell the world who or what you are, and you have to embrace a sort of goofy/clumsy/naive openness that is unusual as we leave our childhood behind and move into adulthood. To play is to be truly present, which means there can be no filter as to what you wish to offer and what you wish to hold back. This is fake play, which lots of grown-ups do because they think that children won’t see the difference. Children can smell a rat before the rat even realises it’s a rat! The other fantastically punishing irony is the harder you try to display play the less of the benefits of real play you will get out of things. There’s nothing to lose from acting like a supposed ‘loser’ and allowing yourself to simply participate. To create the sense of ‘other’ is to create a shield or a costume that prevents the true you from receiving the true play. To be silly is to be proudly revealed, and as such is utterly essential if you’re going to attempt to be truly playful.
Is “laughter the best medicine?”?
No, penicillin is probably the best medicine, but laughter is certainly a good comfort food. There are many many many very clever people who have studied the exact impacts of laughter and of amusement in relaxation and its impact on recovery, and on combating aggressive and life-threatening illnesses. I’m sure that though this is extremely interesting most of us would find it quite difficult to comprehend precisely what each part of their research means. I’ll make it a lot simpler and say this; those who feel better heal better. For example, when you are in love is almost neon lighted obvious to everybody that sees you, because your body radiates a sort of glowing healthiness. When you’re miserable, the opposite is also true. Sometimes when you’re stressed and feel that there is no hope, all it takes is one evening having a few drinks and some close friends and belly laughing about silly little things. Laughter is more than a medicine, it’s food for the soul, and it is the re-connection between life and the magical crystal shining sparkly fantastically generous energy that is existence.
What is the role of a clown in the 21st century?
The clown is the same today as it was in the very first beginning moments when they stepped up to make mockery and offer comfort. The role of the clown is to imitate to a level of caricature-esque magnification the wonder, the terror, the love, the intellect, the stupidity, the generosity, the selfishness and all other extremities of this human psyche in a way that is both self-aware and provocative. They must comfort the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. A clown allows us to take in a goalless look at ourselves and find humour in areas of weakness that we have been told we should fear and define pride in areas of stupidity that we are told we should be embarrassed about. There’s no perfect human on the face of the earth, if there was there would be no clowning. Thankfully every human creature has got something about them that is worth noticing, and lovingly taking the comedic rise from as a way of allowing joy and happiness and laughter from the absolute essence of the human condition which is to be different from each other.
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