Following are the fundamental actions that most answer the question, ‘what did you bring the chair on to do?’ The most obvious perhaps is to eat, and suggests a need for a table. Also strong, but rather over-situated are to have your teeth pulled out, and to have your hair cut, or get a shave. These two are classics in the clown repertoire, of course, scenes with barbers and dentists giving plenty of scope for clowning. Even more common, though, are scenes with food and drink. Rémy’s collection of 60 entrées includes no less than 16 which deal with the subject (Rémy 1962).
What is it about being obvious that attracts clowns? And why am I so interested in primary behaviour at the expense of being original? One explanation is that when you perform such a basic action as eating, or sitting, the audience generally will accept what you are doing without the need for further explanations. In other words, you do not need to justify your actions. We don’t need motivation for these everyday acts that all of us engage in almost without thought.
This is a great advantage to the clown, and indeed to the actor in general. As we do not need to explain our actions to the audience, we do not need to add anything to our performance beyond actually doing those actions. Said in another way, we do not need to interpret our actions or, even, we do not need to ‘act’. The English language is a bit confusing here, as I would like to use the word ‘act’ to denote ‘simply doing the action without adding anything’, rather than to denote the interpretation of one’s own actions which is implied when we speak negatively as in ‘stop acting’. The Spanish word for acting, ‘interpretar’ gives us a better idea of what I mean, though the French ‘jouer’ takes us completely in the opposite direction. All of which might serve as a warning that, when trying to talk about what acting is, it is often simply a case of avoiding semantic pitfalls.
So, looked at in this way, the choice of actions for our clown show might be based on the criteria of ‘needing no motivation/justification’. We can then see the relative weakness of actions such as: to reach something up high; to read; or to put your shoes on. All of which suggest questions of ‘why?’ ‘what?’ and ‘where?’: ‘what are you reaching for?’ ‘what/why are you reading?’ ‘where are you going, and why?’
Even more, we can also now see that the actions sited at the barber’s and the dentist’s do in fact require more justification than eating. They ask us to suspend our disbelief. They are in a sense more fictional than the action of eating and drinking, which can happen almost anywhere and anytime. Now, if we actually situated that eating and drinking in a restaurant, for example, then we would be asking the audience to do the same work as when they watch the barber or dentist scene. Which, in my opinion, is a very good reason not to create that restaurant. For, once you have your restaurant, you will have to keep referring to the damned thing, and will be more restricted in your choices, but without gaining anything from the situation.
Taking a situation and finding as many gags in it as possible is a common enough procedure for generating material. Chaplin did just that in the early part of his cinema career. And - surprise, surprise - the restaurant was one of the best!
Although I hadn’t a story, I ordered the crew to build an ornate café set. When I was lost for a gag or an idea a café would always supply one.(Chaplin 1964: 180)
Of course, the later Chaplin would build longer and more complex forms that could no longer rely on this simple procedure.
As my skill in story construction developed, so it restricted my comedy freedom. (Chaplin 1964: 180)
In Chaplin’s medium, film, the actual café was absolutely necessary and unavoidable. It is virtually impossible to have unsited action on camera, as photography demands that all the space be in a sense real. But live theatre is much freer. We can perform without set, without costume, without lights, without just about everything except the actor and the audience. The performance doesn’t so much represent a reality, copying it like film does, as exist as a primary reality itself. And the less we use fictional time and space, the more real the performance becomes in itself. I personally believe that clowning belongs more in this kind of ‘real performance’, and that this brings it closer to circus, which is also a performance of real rather than fictional actions.
Circus draws this ‘realness’ from two principle sources. The first is the nature of feats of difficulty. The performance of difficulty or danger is, in itself, dramatic. It is ‘enough’. We need no story, no fiction, no theme, though many have thought differently throughout the long history of cross-fertilisation between circus and theatre, contrary to the pretensions of new circus practitioners who claim to have invented circus theatre. Early circus combined a ring and a stage.
From one point of view, early circus can be seen as an awkward hybrid, pending the emergence of its natural form, the unitary ring, in the late 19th century… From another point of view, we can see early circus as the perfect expression of its age… an oscillation between the three-dimensional action in the ring and the pictorial display on stage. (Wiles 2003: 199)
The logic of the early circus was a binary one. The beauty of the material body was displayed by athletic horsemanship and by living sculptures in the ring, while nobility of spirit and the ethereal beauty of exotic landscapes were displayed within the idealist world of the stage. (Wiles 2003: 200)
Early circus at Astley’s loved to put on shows recounting great military theatrics –The Courier of St. Petersburg, The Vicissiudes of a Tar, starring Andrew Ducrow; the Battle of the Alma; or Richard III - and at the Cirque Olympique, which in order to escape Napoleon’s regulation of the theatres of 1807 argued that it was not a theatre, famous performers in dramas included Coco the Stag and Baba the Elephant.
Military circus re-appeared in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, most notoriously in Makhno’s Men, where star clown Vitaly Lazarenko was cast as the villain, the anarchist leader Nestor Makhno.
While Makhno’s Men brought a new historical “realism” into the Soviet circus, the pantomime’s river flood and its military battle reconstructed with circus artists riding horses were hardly avant-garde innovations. Charles Dibdin staged “aqua-dramas” in England as early as 1804. The 1824 London pantomime, The Battle of Waterloo, featured riders dressed as Cossacks in cavalry battles more than a century before the Red Army’s cavalry chased Makhno’s men across the ring in Moscow. Like the Russian pantomime in 1929, the Cossack spectacle at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London included the blowing up of a bridge. (Schechter 1998: 43)
Times had changed: at the beginning of the decade clowns had symbolised the revolutionary spirit; Stalin’s view was that they represented the dangerous forces of individualism and anarchy.
In the ‘Golden Age’ of circus, the drama was provided by extended clown entrées performed by duos and, later, trios. Much later, New Circus later would have an obsession with characters and narrative that revealed a curious sense of inferiority in relation to theatre, and which had the disastrous effect of ousting the clown from a central position in the show.
As Contemporary Circus began to theatricalise circus and develop longer shows bound by a single artistic vision, addressing a narrative or thematic line, the clowns found themselves marginalized. Even circuses like the Pickles Family Circus, which was described by Mankin as ‘clown-sensitive circus… a “clown-love zone”’ (2001: 106) struggled with integrating the longer, narrative clown entrées. (Peacock 2009: 52)
Today, Cirque du Soleil content themselves, and their audience, with a theme, a kind of wave towards meaning which avoids actually having to make any.
The negative impact of Cirque du Soleil’s vision of itself as creating a new kind of theatricality is that the shows become pretentious, imbued with a meaning which Cirque du Soleil claims in its marketing of the show but which is rarely discernible to the audience. In over-theatricalizing, Cirque du Soleil seems to have lost sight of one of the potential purposes of theatrical performance; to communicate meaning. (Peacock 2009: 56)
The second source of realness in circus is of more general appeal, at least to me as a clown and actor. It is the circular performing space. Performing in the round means you cannot hide anything. All is visible, physically, and therefore psychologically and emotionally too.
This makes it practically impossible to convince the audience of the existence of fictional worlds, or to create places which are nor actually present.
The circle is unsympathetic to the spaces which plays most commonly represent: rooms, roads, fields and so forth. (Wiles 2003: 165)
It thus also inhibits narrative, which is essentially fictional.
To recover a Greek spatial relationship [the circle] combining physicality with narrative, concelebration with political statement, is an elusive El Dorado for many modern practitioners. (Wiles 2003: 164)
In other words, what happens in the circus is for real, it is here and now. Raffaele de Ritis points out that in circus, death may happen in the ring, before our eyes, in contrast to Greek theatre, where it happens offstage and out of sight.
When we started to teach clown at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona in the new tent, we realised that the space solves half of the problems involved in training in clown. Reducing the possibility of fiction, students are required to address the reality which is before them, which is an empty space and an audience who have come to enjoy themselves. What better context for the production of clowning?
Once one has accustomed oneself to this relationship, one has to learn how positions within the circle produce meaning in a very different way to working on a rectangular theatre stage. Wiles refers to Stephen Joseph’s experience of theatre in the round at Scarborough:
He argues that the circle is not vectored and has but a single strong point, namely the centre… He makes an analogy with the interior of a lighthouse, saying that lighthouse-keepers are known to go mad because they have no point of orientation. (Wiles 2003: 165)
It is this lack which distinguishes the circle from the square, the latter being defined by a sense of north, south, east and west. In the square, back and front are different, as long as the audience are only on one of these sides. Even left and right take on significance. So, when I move, as an actor, downstage, I create meanings, which are distinct from when I move upstage, for example. In contrast, in the circle, there is no backwards or forwards, or even sideways. It is irrelevant which point on the outer edge of the circle I am at, for example. I will always be in the same relationship to the centre, and indeed to the audience.
I agree that the centre is a strong point. But I also feel that there are other meaningful points in the circle. There is a kind of outer ring, a little way in from the edge of the circle, which is a different space to the very edge. For at the very edge I virtually disappear from the performing space, and become associated more with the audience and its space. A third important point in the circle is the one near the artists’ entrance, which partly breaks up the unity of the circle. Standing just in front of this entrance, I command the space in a particular way. In a related, but less present way, I can command the space from the barrier, the actual gateway into the ring. To generalise, we can place the white-face clown at the centre of the ring, the august on the periphery, and the ringmaster, or director, at the barrier.
So we know how the ring determines the relationship between performer and audience, but how would it affect the relationship between student and teacher, if used consistently? The traditional position of the teacher, sat in the centre of his watching students whilst one or two are onstage working with the exercise, produces a clear power relationship that maybe has helped create the figure of the master/guru which is so common in the world of clown teaching. What would happen to that guru if he were merely one of many, watching from the rim of a circle? This is something I am keen to experiment with in the near future.
Going back to our devising process, we did just have time for one more thing in this session. Looking at objects that easily accompany chairs, as sources of more action, we found attractive those that might produce accidents or danger when placed on the seat, such as drawing pins, plates of food, hats, glasses, candles, etc.
But the main conclusion points towards food and drink in Act II, thus allowing us to ‘just do the actions’ whilst, of course finding them ridiculous and making the audience laugh. A kind of ‘clown Mamet’, if you like.
Chaplin, Charlie (1964) My Autobiography, London: The Bodley Head.
Mamet, David (1999) True or False, New York: Vintage.
Peacock, Louise (2009) Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect.
de Ritis, Raffaele (2007) El Cercle I la Poetica del Risc, in Generalitat de Catalunya (ed.) (2007)El Circ: la Poetica del Risc, Barcelona: KRTU.
Schechter, Joel (1998) The Congress of Clowns and Other Russian Circus Acts, AK Press.
Wiles, David (2003) A Short History of Western Performance Space, Cambridge: CUP.