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The education of clowning around

Big shoes and a big red nose are characteristics of a classic clown.

But the art of clowning isn’t what it used to be. Students of all ages are now pursuing a form of comedy that left the circus behind.

Class was in session on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Shake and Shine Festival on Mission Bay. Among the health and wellness booths, there was a group of young children running around using their imaginations and energy to be clowns.

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M.G. Perez
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KPBS
Danielle Levsky performs as Ella the Clown at the Shake and Shine Festival at the Mission Bay Boat & Ski Club, San Diego, Calif., Nov. 19, 2022.

Ella the Clown was the teacher, proudly wearing her colorful makeup and big red nose.

“This is the world’s smallest mask, it's very true. But it’s not a mask because it’s hiding anything. It’s a mask because it’s helping you reveal inner truths and feelings,” said Danielle Levsky, a certified clown, writer, producer, educator — and Ella the Clown’s alter ego.

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Levsky works with students of all ages. In the yard of the Mission Bay Boat & Ski Club, she formed a circle with a group of children 12 and younger. They were instructed to express themselves with exaggerated emotions.

She said truthful emotions are the most entertaining, taking the audience on quite a ride.

“It is quite like a volcano. It starts building up, starts rumbling, and then it erupts! It’s very exciting. It’s a big moment for everyone and it slowly goes back down. There’s some joy to be found there, too,” Levsky said.

Ella the Clown is just one of the characters Levsky uses to educate and entertain.

Another is “Baba Yana, the Soviet Jewish grandma clown.”

Becoming Baba Yana involves the traditional white makeup, along with what Levsky calls "grotesque" bright blue eye shadow and plenty of penciled-in wrinkles.

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M.G. Perez
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KPBS
Danielle Levsky putting on makeup for her clown character Baba Yana. She hosts the monthly Sassy Salon open mic cabaret at Diversionary Theatre, San Diego, Calif., Nov. 17, 2022.

“She's also based on the women in my family. All of their neurosis and anxieties and love and care wrapped up into one chaotic clown,” she said while transforming into Baba Yana to emcee the Sassy Salon at Diversionary Theatre earlier this month.

For the past month, Levsky has led a weekly class at the theatre on Monday nights, teaching adults how to clown. The classes are sponsored by The Clown Schoolbased in Los Angeles. While the exercises are more extensive and introspective than the children’s curriculum, she said truth is always the most important characteristic for learning the art form at any age.

Brittany Wood, one of her students, has a profession that might not be expected from someone learning to be genuinely funny embracing the joy in failure and re-discovering their inner child.

“I’m an epidemiologist. I work for the county and I do data research for opioid overdoses, substance abuse, and mental health disorders. So, this is quite different from my day job,” Wood said.

Wood is an example of the growing diversity in students who wanted to get “outside the box” of their routine lifestyle.

“This is the first time I’ve gone on stage and really been silly in front of other people and let go. It’s kind of cool I can show other people that side of me,” Wood said.

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M.G. Perez
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KPBS
Baba Yana is a Soviet Jewish grandmother clown character performed by Danielle Levsky at the monthly Sassy Salon on the Diversionary Theatre cabaret stage, San Diego, Calif., Nov. 17, 2022.

And she said it's making a difference off-stage too. She's practiced what she’s learned on some of her coworkers at the county health department.

“I feel like I’ve been making more jokes and I’ve been a little more open, using my facial expressions and trying to be more engaged and open with myself,” Wood said.

Clowning around can be therapeutic not only for the clowns, but for those they entertain. Dr. Fancy is a professional clown with a mission in medicine. He is a character created by Skyler Sullivan, who is the education director at the Diversionary Theatre. He also works as a therapeutic children’s hospital clown with the national non-profit organization, Healthy Humor.

“In a child who is fighting for their lives in a chronic or terminal situation, there are still pieces of that human that can have joy and release by laughing,” Sullivan said.

His work has taken him all over the country comforting chronically and terminally ill children using songs and humor. Sullivan said he believes that community outreach could be strengthened with a younger generation of theater students who include clowning in their repertoire.

The heyday of clowns in a three-ring circus appears to have evolved to a higher purpose. It is happening in the controlled chaos of a classroom led by veteran teachers like Levsky.

When her current class graduates in a couple of weeks, they will each be closer to owning their big red nose and the joy and growth that go with it.


  • San Diego hospitals are preparing for more patients after the Thanksgiving holiday. Experts have warned of a “tripledemic” as COVID-19, RSV and flu cases increase. Plus, California officials have long hesitated to list the beloved Joshua trees as endangered. Why? Climate change has never been used as a reason for a species’ possible extinction. And, a place where being a “class clown” is a good thing — Diversionary Theater in San Diego is teaching the art of clowning to students of all ages.
  • Cyber Monday spending is expected to break records with a projected $11 billion in sales. Next, now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, health officials are monitoring how holiday get-togethers impact flu and other respiratory cases across the county. And, UC San Diego climate scientists will share their thoughts on the latest UN climate conference later this week. Then, a changing climate is threatening the beloved Joshua trees in the Mohave Desert. But for years, California officials have struggled to decide whether to list the western Joshua tree as an endangered species. Next, a look at the role prefabricated housing could play in the rental prices. Finally, from our archive, an interview with border artists the de la Torre Brothers whose work is on exhibit at The Cheech through Jan. 22.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information about The Clown School.

As a former special education teacher, I look forward to connecting with you and reporting on stories that often go underreported in education. #WeAreBetterTogether
What stories are we missing when it comes to education in San Diego County?