The Silence of the Clowns

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In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)

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3 thoughts on “The Silence of the Clowns

  1. pamelamaemery

    Interesting, Katie. Lots I never knew about you! I am glad you have a voice again, I was going to suggest you get tested for allergies (I lost my voice totally, for more than a week before I went to the doctor for help – he put me on prednisone for 10 days, and said whatever I must have really had a huge dose of whatever I was allergic to: turned out it was mold!) I like the fact that you try to understand the big and small pictures of your varied life experiences. Keep writing, keep sharing. Sending love, Pam

    • Ew – even if you aren’t allergic to mold, that sounds like more mold exposure than is healthy… As for my absent voice, in this case it turned out to be a chest cold that presented itself three days after the laryngitis. I’m still glad it’s over! My love back to you (and Benny)! 🙂

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