The Making Of A Professional Clown

So this is my profile feature story.

It is about a German Professional clown who is against all odds in life, finally finds his life calling in the clown profession.

I met him when I was traveling in Mexico. We met in the same hostel. Maybe due to travelers’ nature, people are generally more forthcoming when it comes to story-sharing. We started with general chit-chats, then as the night fell deep, the conversation went deep as well. He started to reveal his not-so-glamorous past to me.

Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded. — Virginia Wolf

I wrote this profile in an attempt to leave a mark in the history.

From A teenage punk to a mature man, each one of us will find part of ourselves from his story.

The encounter

“Can you help take a photo of me with the tattoo?” asks a man with a British accent in a hostel in Mexico.

He is in his late twenties, around six feet tall, and he’s wearing a just-woke-up look: uncombed brown, curly hair; half-open, greenish blue eyes; clothes he just grabbed from somewhere.

“It is not a real tattoo. I need to ask my mother what she thinks before making it real,” he says. For some reason, he feels compelled to add: “I am from Germany. I have been to South Africa for one year, that’s how I picked up the English accent.”

The fake tattoo in the shape of an anchor is on his left wrist. He stands against the wall; his right hand holds his left hand in position just under the tattoo, modally looking into the camera.

And then he adds some more information. “I am a professional clown. Together with my partner, we form a duo. We just attended the world-wide circus festival in Puebla, Mexico.”

He gracefully took back his camera and invited his photographers to come watch him. “My name is Merlin. You should come to see our street show in the city center this afternoon.”

The afternoon show had to be cancelled because the amplifier was not working.
“Without the amplifier, we can’t play the music loud and without the music, our show won’t work,” he said later that day.

Feeling lost, Merlin and his partner Lukas sat on the stairs of the square, observing passers-by coming and going.

Not too far away, a few other clowns in funky cloths were throwing balls and making balloon animals.

“They can’t be called clown,” Merlin said disparagingly. “Anyone can put on a costume and make balloon animals, but it is not the art of clowning.”

Merlin said he graduated from the Die Etage, a professional performing arts school in Germany, and specialized in pantomime and mime. He said clowning is an art form, and that it is about self-expression and self-actualization.

“By clowning, I can share the great sensation of what I experience,” Merlin said. “Therefore,I am my work and I am there in that very moment, fully there with all my loose screws and difficulties and weirdness–they are all me. I celebrate the moment of performance and hope that it comes across to the audience.I think I wouldn’t be able to have that if I was just doing balloon animals. ”

It took years for Merlin to gain the knowledge and self-confidence to speak with such passion and insights. It isn’t easy to be Merlin Benedikt Pohse, the 29-year-old German professional traveling clown.

The bewilderment

Merlin developed faster than peers during adolescence, so he did not feel challenged enough. He intentionally failed to do schoolwork and to participate in class – these were his attempts to be heard. He also transformed himself into a punk at age 13: wearing the ‘outfit’, hanging out with other punks in parks, drinking beers, smoking pot.

“It was rebellious and cool. I felt I was someone special by doing so,” he recalled. “The general feelings of helplessness and being lost made me feel a whole lot of rage at that time. That nobody would see me as a person and nobody, not even myself, could understand what was going on with me. ”

Driven by the need to prove his existence and uniqueness, Merlin smoked, drank beer, stole from shops and refused to do anything for the school so as “to show that I was indeed special, to get the approval from people around me, so that they would look up to me.”

The root cause of all this can be traced to a long-felt sense of being ignored, even abandoned in his family life.

He was the third in a family of five children. All his siblings, except the youngest sister who had Down’s syndrome, did not receive much in the way of parental care.

Young Merlin understood why his parents gave their attention to the youngest sister, who was a decade younger than him, and who died at age 10. Yet the knowledge did not fill the hollowness in the heart of a growing teen in need of parental attention and recognition, especially after his parents chose to work as house parents in a children’s home on the other side of Germany.

“I felt bitter when having to share parents with some 30 other children,” Merlin said. Visiting his punk friends in the old town became his escape. “It all has come down to a slightly depressed feeling at home, so I was hardly there.”

On one occasion, his father had to fetch him from the old town. Feeling furious at seeing the drunken Merlin with blue-dyed hair, he made him shave it all off and threw away his boots.

“I hated him for that but somehow also liked the intensity of the moment because it was so rare,” Merlin recalled. “From how I see it now, turning into a punk was a cry for attention, to be acknowledged with my needs and difficulties.”

It explains why a phrase ‘’I just wish someday you would be over this” from his mother has contributed to his turning of a new leaf.

“She gave me the feeling that even though she didn’t understand what I was on about, she would see me,” Merlin said, recalling that one day as he was about to smoke dope, the sentence emerged from her mouth and he stopped.

The lost and found

After the death of his youngest sister, the binding force for his parents’ marriage, the unity of the family disappeared. His parents divorced; his mother suffered from a nervous breakdown; his elder brother moved away from home.

Unsure what he wanted in life after finishing high school, 19-year-old Merlin needed a shelter. Knowing that he can perform his civil service in South Africa, he applied for it without hesitation. There, he worked in a residential home for handicapped children as well as a class helper in the attached school.

“The one-year stay didn’t change me much,” Merlin said. “All the questions I had I didn’t answer there. But it made me aware of the fact that I need people around me and I quite like teaching.”

After returning from South Africa, he enrolled in a university to study history and English. His passion for acting was re-ignited during this stage; while in high school, he had gotten the best grade in his academic life in an acting project.

“I loved the idea of not being me but put all my emotions into that not-me character on stage,” he recalled.

He joined the English theater group at the university and was involved in a few theatre projects. He did not study, however, and eventually dropped out.

To turn his passion into a profession, Merlin decided to go to Die Etage, a professional performing arts school, to sharpen his creativity and skills. That’s how Merlin met Lukas and the development of the Duo began.

Lukas was in his final year when Merlin entered the school, but the difference didn’t matter and they worked well together in two projects and felt a chemistry develop between them.

Merlin remembered wandering around Hamburg with Lukas and together finding their inner clowns and sleeping in a park. He also recalled a nearby institute for theater and music nearby that he had applied to years earlier. He and Lukas sneaked in to take shower and made up stories they would tell if they were caught.

Then Lukas invited Merlin to travel to the coast and do street theater with him during a summer holiday.

“On that first trip we got into so many crazy situations that were unplanned. We were high all the time because we are thrilled about life, about traveling. It felt like punk again but in a good sense.”

Re-constructing those flashbacks, Merlin’s face filled with excitement. “In him, I have a partner who is willing to do an absolutely ridiculous thing if there is an adventure in it. I have so many great plans for my life and with Lukas, I can fulfill most of them.”

Despite the ‘go-with-the-flow’ life philosophy, there is a reason for Merlin to choose to work as a clown.

“It is pure and you can’t hide behind the production or the director. It is you and that’s all and that is great and frightening and good and the essence of being — to deal with you and your weaknesses and your strengths and failure and success.”

He paused, before adding: “One of the biggest lessons I have learned and still am learning is to be true to myself and get to know myself — this is the great thing of my clown profession. I have to be honest with myself. Otherwise it would not be true and you can see it when I perform.”

To Merlin, clowning is also a part of healing process to clear out the leftovers of his troubled youth.

“To find a way to accept myself and to deal with it; to catalyze all the strange feelings and fuzzy ideas; to channel this immense outburst of energy that used to show as anger into a creative process are biggest topics for me. Whenever I do it and something works out, I feel so relieved.”

I am there

The Duo has been together one and half years. Merlin and Lukas have done street shows around Europe. Mexico was their first step outside the European continent. Traveling and working has fed the libertine soul, yet the family man inside demands notice.

“I just wrote to my father, who I have not contacted for years, telling him what I am up to,” Merlin said.

Looking at the anchor tattoo, Merlin said there is a need for him to get grounded, and re-establishing ties with family members is a way to achieve it.

Merlin also visits his mother and sisters more often. Since the death of her youngest daughter and divorce, his mother has suffered three nervous breakdowns.

“Over the years, she has grown old and at some point I have realized that now I am in the position of calling her every now and then to see if everything is alright,” he said, grinning at the reversal of roles.

Looking back at what he has been through, Merlin said he has found his life is great actually. “I have the luxury of doing things that I love to do; I get to travel and see the world and have my work with me wherever I go.”

In a retrospective way, Merlin would like to tell the insecure and uncertain self back then:

“It is all good no matter what you do. That every path you choose is good because you have chosen it. Don’t worry too much because worries don’t help. They just block you.”

Merlin said he wants to travel and see the world the next few years, then gradually move more into directing and producing theater.

“My long-term plan is to be able to finance and produce an ‘opera’, not in a classical sense but an opera is the biggest thing I can think of,” he said with a smile. “I will probably go into teaching as well. If I eventually teach mime and physical theater it will feels that somehow a circle is complete.”

Merlin quoted Craig Ferguson, the Scottish comedian who had a rough drug-and-alcohol youth but now hosts a big late night show in the United States:

“Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.”


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