Ulrike Lueke-Rosendhal used to be a schoolteacher, but now it’s the 63-year-old who acts the fool, not her pupils, touring Germany in a troupe of clowns made up of retirees.
“I became a clown because I like to make people laugh and because I like laughing myself. Laughter is incredibly liberating,” Ulrike told AFP during a break between performances in Bremen, northern Germany.
“My friends thought it was great from the start, my family wasn’t convinced. But they eventually got used to seeing their mother clowning about.”
Wearing just a touch of make-up, a plain skirt and a kitchen apron, her act involves a struggle with a clothes horse, which folds every which way. The audience lap it up.
She then waits for her washing to dry listening to the radio, tapping out the tunes, swinging to the music, and finally breaking into a dance. The small theatre roars with laughter.
Germany, like other Western countries, has a large and growing population of retirees, with nearly 17 million people over 65, some 20 percent of the population.
And many of them have decades of spare time to fill after stopping work.
The “Clowns 50 Plus” company that Uklrike belongs to was born of classes offered to pensioners by the Hanover School of Clowns, one of two such establishments in Germany with official recognition.
350 professional clowns
In the past quarter of a century, the school has trained around 1,000 clowns, 352 of whom went on to work professionally.
The members of “Clowns 50 Plus”, aged between 60 and 79, were trained for two years, four times a month, before their teacher Dieter Bartels decided they were ready to play to the public.
“It’s fun, but I found the training quite hard,” says Helgard Meyer-Berge, 70, a former professor, as she put on her make-up before the show.
“If you really want to be a clown you must be ready to take a lot on yourself to achieve comedy effects,” says Bartels, their 55-year-old trainer with a background in the theatre.
“To be really good can take a year or even 10 years,” he told AFP.
The students, sporting a red nose, an umbrella or a hat, each learn to create their own character — the boss, self-assured and full of himself, his sidekick, a joker, and the third man, always downtrodden and set upon.
Bartels encourages or criticises and mimes with a passion.
“By mixing with the others who point to character traits I didn’t even realise I had,” says Helgard, who goes by the stage-name ‘Carline’.
The troupe, whose members vary from show to show, give eight to 10 shows a year. They tour northern and western Germany, from Kiel on the Baltic to Muenster in Westphalia.
They do everything themselves, from seating the spectators to selling the programmes.
Jens Uwe Korte, a 69-year-old computer specialist, joined the troupe three years ago. He had previously done some amateur dramatics and then came along for an introductory lesson in clowning. He liked it and signed up for more.
“And now I’m a clown! Older clowns bring along with them life experience, something younger people simply don’t have. They are more spontaneous and less self-constrained,” he said.
“We’re more relaxed, we aren’t afraid of being ridiculous,” says Ulrike.
“Young people can’t afford to look ridiculous,” offers Bartels.
“They’re still playing the mating game; they must always look good and appealing. The old, thank God, don’t need that!” he adds.
“For many people, it’s just another way to enjoy retirement. I know lots of people who say — I don’t want to sit on a deck chair in Spain, it’s too boring. I must do something, I must express myself.
“For such people, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” he adds.