Uptown Downclown - Christmas 1983

Submitted by root on Thu, 10/16/2014 - 18:00

The Idea

The Uptown Downclown Play Scheme  took place over 11 days during the winter break of 1983/84 (28th December - 8th January). The Play Scheme set out to explore the world of clowning through workshops where people could learn such clowning skills as acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking and unicycling. A main aim of the Play Scheme was for the kids and adults who participated in it and the Blackie staff who helped to run it  - working as a team - to produce a final day performance using the skills they had learned.


The theme of 'Clowning' involved The Blackie team in researching the role of the clown through history.  'The Book of Clowns' by George Speight, in particular, provided a wealth of information both practical and historical about clowns and clowning.

The most recognisable form of clowning for a modern audience probably comes in the form of the circus clown. The exaggerated facial expressions of the circus clown, their often oversized costumes and apparently clumsy behaviour make them natural figures of fun and provide a sense of anarchic escapism from everyday life.  The Blackie team recognised the similarities that exist between clowns and clowning and the attitude often taken towards life by children, eg: an attitude full of fun, enthusiasm and energy.

How It Was Structured

It was decided to concentrate on two main areas

1) Mime and Improvisation

2) Physical Skills

In addition there would be workshops devoted to Face Painting, clownrelated cake-making, Crazy Contraptions and prop making for the final performance.

The Playscheme took place on two floors in The Blackie - the Ground Floor Gallery and Basement Studio area.

The Workshops

The Blackie Staff lacked the skills to lead either of the main clown workshops.

Two professions clowns were found - Fay Predergast and Richard 'Three Balls Taylor - who ran the clowing skills workshops.

The other workshops were run by Blackie Staff and volunteers.  It was also their job to act as links to help visitors and participants find their way round the different workshops, ensuring that everyone who wanted to take part got a chance to do so.

 Mime and Improvisation was led mainly by Fay Prendergast. Fay had run theatre projects all over Europe and had been involved in all aspects of performance - writing, directing, acting and dancing - during her long career. She was also a trained drama therapist and found the idea of 'clowns' especially useful in developing a rapport with kids.

She taught kids to juggle with bean bags, perform some basic acrobatics like forward rolls, cartwheels and handstands, and generally 'put on a show' as clowns would do in a big top circus

Physical Skills  was led by Richard Taylor, who came with a wide range of skills  including:-  Juggling, Acrobatics, Unicycling and Fire Eating.

He passed on these skills to the to the kids so they learnt to walk on stilts, juggle with clubs and balls, ride a unicycle and other balancing activities.

Though one of his skills, fire eating, remained exclusive to him. And while he gave more than one demonstration of it during the Play Scheme and in the final performance there was, perhaps wisely, no fire eating workshop. We can safely say that no kids were burnt or went up in flames during the eleven days of 'Uptown Downclown'!

Crazy contrraption started with the intention of creating  a machine constructed entirely from 'salvaged' materials. The purpose of this machine would be to make cogs and gears turn and propellers spin. It would run on pedal-power and have a strategically placed umbrella. A distinctly Heath Robinsonian inspired piece of work!

Unfortunately, the idea of a machine that doesn't  seem to do anything (for example, make the lights come on or wash your clothes) failed  almost completely to appeal to the kids (mostly older lads) - who pointed out that all their efforts would have no practical outcome. As a result the workshop was discontinued somewhere near the halfway point of the Play Scheme - though the people running the Play Scheme took a lesson from the failure: that craziness alone with no possibility of a practical outcome has a limited appeal - especially, in this example, to older lads. There is no photographic record of this workshop.

Face Painting and Propskids invented their own clown face in paint and also their own clown name - ready for rehearsals and later on the performance. Costumes were also largely designed and made by the kids with help and advice from Betty and Margaret McHale (both older Blackie kids who had volunteered to work on 'Uptown Downclown') and Blackie staff Jane who led the workshops and  Sue and Ian who assisted her.  Over 30 different costumes were created, all vividly coloured and no two the same.


sing the clowning skills they had learned over the course of the 'Uptown Downclown' Play Scheme, the kids, with Fay and Richard, put on a show in the Basement Studio in The Blackie for assembled parents and guests. They got rave reviews! The skills they had learned and the confidence they showed in performance may have been largely responsible for this - but the fact that most of the routines on display as well as the props were devised by the kids themselves played a great part in the overall success of the occasion.

The eleven days of the 'Uptown Downclown' Play Scheme were very busy - with attendances of something over 100 kids on peak days.

The Team

The Play Scheme was led by Mel Bewers with Katie Cox  assisted by Chris Rodis, Jane Willis, Neil Johnson, Dermot Dunne and Sarah. The two full time volunteers on the Play Scheme were: Betty McHale and Margaret McHale.

Clowns Fay Prederghast and Richard 'Three Balls' Taylor


- Vi Caffrey for inventing and making some prototype clown costumes

- Julie Hallam, Wendy Harpe and Judy Gough for advice and support

- Roy Poole from The Charles Wooton Centre for the loan of video equipment

To the following individuals and companies for donations of make-up, crepe paper, latex, wood, tights, bike wheels , fruit, marzipan, a parachute, the loan of 6 gym mats, (and anything we may have missed out):

Mr Wilkinson, Eyeline Ltd. Gwinbrar, Wales; The Ace Place, 73 Dale Street, Liverpool; Mrs Saunders, Granada Studios, Manchester; Revlon, London; Littlewoods, Liverpool; Cortaulds Ltd. Flint; Malcom Spensley and John Watson, Selected Print Ltd.  Bradford; Mr O'Brien, Bootle Co-op Installations; A.J Beer & Co, Liverpool; Mr Stephenson, Courtaulds Hosiery Ltd., Belper; John Cotton Ltd., Huddersfield; Fleets Ltd., Liverpool; Salesflow, Liverpool; Raleigh Bike Shop, Liverpool; Mr Prince, Atfield Price & Sons, Liverpool; Whitworths Ltd., Northants; Mr Reed, H.Q. Equipment Ltd., Surrey; Mr Mitchell, Liverpool Education Dept.

A special thanks to everyone who took part in the Play Scheme and helped make it an enjoyable and successful eleven days.