Jane Nichols
July 24, 2021

Just clowning around

Long after Abbot, an alumna finds her true calling: teaching clown
by Nancy Hitchcock

Not many people have a moment when they realize exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. But Jane Paffard Nichols ’61 did. It was 1983 and Nichols had been acting and directing for years. During a theatre workshop at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., a class in clowning was offered. That was all it took.

It was like coming home,” says Nichols, who currently is teaching in the graduate program at the University of Washington. “There was something so resonant and familiar and right about clown. I felt as though I met myself for the first time.

Nichols proceeded to study with numerous experts, including Philippe Gaulier (Ecole Gaulier), Clive Mendus (Theatre Complicité), Ronlin Foreman (Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre), Michael Kennard (co-founder of Canada’s Mump & Smoot), Davis Robinson (author of The Physical Comedy Handbook), and world-renowned Czech clown Bolek Polívka.

Her teaching incorporates skills and techniques of Le Jeu, Physical Comedy, Clown, Bouffon, Improvisation, and Mask. Over the years, she has taught at Yale School of Drama, Juilliard, Brown, Harvard, Cirque du Soleil, and American Conservatory Theater, as well as at universities, corporations, and studios across the country.

Nichols traces her love of teaching to Abbot Academy, which her three sisters also attended. One of her favorite teachers was English literature instructor Barbara Sisson, who passed away in 2007. Nichols remembers the teacher enthusiastically teaching Jane Austen’s Emma and Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. “She was so present and so full of life,” recalls Nichols. “Mrs. Sisson took such joy in what she did.”

Nichols went on to earn a BA in English literature at Wheaton College and an MA in literature and teaching at Boston University. She taught English literature in several Boston-area high schools, one of which was South Boston High School. While raising a family in Cambridge, she founded and was artistic director of Crosswalk Theatre for Children in Boston. During that period, Nichols acted in regional companies around the country, including the Dallas Theater Center, Portland Stage Company, Gloucester Stage Company, Shakespeare & Company, and Berkshire Public. At Shakespeare & Company she designed a curriculum for elementary and junior high school students that is still in use today. She also dabbled in film and television with appearances in School Ties, Heights, Law & Order: SVU, Ed, America’s Most Wanted, and Rachels Dinner, with Olympia Dukakis.

Now at age 77 and having taught clown for 35 years, Nichols shows no signs of slowing down. And she has yet to get bored.

She begins each class with simple games, such as tag or musical chairs to get bodies moving and spirits lifted. Once the body is playing, she says, the mind relaxes and the fun begins. Like all acting, clowning requires energy and vulnerability, but it also requires that you allow yourself to look ridiculous. It’s equal parts fun and scary. But Nichols loves it.

“Everyone's terrified of clown because you can't hide, and you can’t edit or intellectualize your work,” she explains. “You must be an exaggerated version of your authentic self, and you have to have fun doing that. The atmosphere in the room when you’re doing clown is magical. You’re in a room of joy.”

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