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Best Non-Couch Therapy San Francisco 2011 - Clown Class with Christina Lewis

By Ashley Harrell

From time to time, Christina Lewis dons her black-and-white-striped pants and goes for a stroll through Bernal Heights. The way she walks — at a carefree pace, with her shoulders relaxed — is something that didn't always come naturally. To achieve this nonchalant stride, Lewis spent three decades in self-directed clown therapy.

Show up to her Monday night clown class in the Mission and you'd never guess she was once an existentially challenged young woman with anxiety and an eating disorder. "I had inner turmoil," she explains, then transfers her clown nose — which she affectionately refers to as the smallest mask in the world — from atop her head onto her face.

Immediately, her eyes seem to expand and her bottom lip begins to twitch. Her arthritic left toe pops up, her posture slumps, and she paces around, apologizing and laughing nervously. Lewis's clown character is a compilation of her fears and perceived shortcomings, and their repackaging as entertainment does two things. One: It makes Lewis acceptable to herself. Two: It makes her hilarious to others.

Lewis got her clowning start at Oberlin College, where she joined a mime troupe. After graduation, she moved with some of the troupe members to San Francisco, which she found to be a bit like a giant circus. Although the mime troupe has long since split, Lewis built her life — and her clowning — here.

While earning a master's degree in drama therapy, she performed guerrilla theater in vacant lots, discovered her passion for helping disabled children, and walked around on stilts. Intent on building her clowning expertise, she briefly joined a traveling circus in Nicaragua and studied clowning in Czechoslovakia and Mexico. Eventually she enrolled in a local workshop run by Arina Isaacson, and created skits based on her own psychological material. Now she teaches that workshop. Her Advanced Clown Performance Class puts on a performance each summer; this year's takes place June 3 and 4 at 8 p.m. in her studio at 3252 19th St.

"The clown is about celebrating that which is imperfect in us," she tells her students. "That's what makes us human. In saying yes to those imperfections and revealing a truth, a catharsis occurs."

For Lewis, learning clowning was a gift, and a life-changing one at that. "I didn't want to be anxious and unhappy," she says. "I took that ship and I changed its direction."

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