“I needed an outlet to fail.” The clown unmasking our vulnerabilities


All Pretina wants is to be taken seriously. She doesn’t fit in with the cool kids at school. No one likes her dance moves, and people laugh when she’s on stage. They’re really laughing at Klara van Wyk, the professional clown who plays Pretina. As Van Wyk adopts her pink-haired persona, the audience roars at her snarky antics. But the smirk across her face hints at a deeper torment. Peeling away layers of teenage angst, Van Wyk reveals the humanity underneath.

Van Wyk is an academic and performer trained in clowning. She discovered the art form while studying theatre, and realised it had immense possibilities to create social change. For Van Wyk, clowns aren’t scary masks and giant red noses. Belying the colourful costumes is a person with insecurities and vulnerabilities, just like everyone else. “I was drawn to the idea of being a clown when I desperately needed an outlet to fail, to play, to not be scared of the world, and to open up,” Van Wyk says. She conceived Pretina’s character after reading a series of stories about the effects of bullying, which led her to reflect on her own adolescent experiences. It culminated in her one-woman play, You Suck (and Other Inescapable Truths), designed and directed by Francesco Nassimbeni.

To confront the challenges of growing up, Van Wyk has performed across schools as part of her anti-bullying campaign. “I think it’s really important that we as South Africans start having these real, and often difficult, conversations,” she says. “Who’s to say we can’t laugh while we’re at it?” As Van Wyk pursues her PhD that examines the capabilities of clowning, she’s giving the youth a space to speak up. When we are vulnerable, we can grow. “There is strength in being able to laugh at yourself,” Van Wyk says.