Friday, 30 October 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 4, 29/10/09

I thought we’d be moving onto the third and final scene of Act I, but in order to get a perspective on the whole, I decided to take a step back and look not just at Act I, but also at how it might set up Act II. The premise so far in Act I seemed to be the placing of the chair, but this doesn’t answer the question that must be in the audience’s mind, ‘what is the chair for?’ We therefore had a brainstorming devising session on what chairs are used for, beyond sitting.

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.

Works cited:
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.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 3, 22/10/09

Having got the chair onstage, what happens next?

I think it is still very much an open question in clown dramaturgy just how we construct the action. There are plenty of models to choose from, from theatre and cinema: variety (one self-contained piece after another), linear narrative, episodic narrative, or indeed from music: classical sonata form, Wagnerian climaxes, to name a few of the most obvious ones. The most developed clown entrées, from the ‘golden age of clowning’ c.1890-1945, if we follow Rémy’s judgement (Rémy 1945, 1962), last around 20 minutes, being based on a single, strong premise. The same holds true for vaudeville, as here discussed in reference to Harry Langdon:

Though Langdon’s vaudeville act was, as a comedy sketch, based upon a narrative format, Langdon was accustomed to working within the standard twenty minutes allotted to each act on a vaudeville bill. … This twenty minutes or less included at least one song by Langdon’s wife and the specially staged curtain call. This left only enough time for Langdon to establish a single, simple situation as the premise for his performance. (Rheuban 1983: 46)

Another form of premise-driven comedy is the TV sitcom, which, in its most highly developed state in the USA, fills 22 minutes in a 30-minute slot, broken down as follows:

Sitcom format: Credits - Story (Teaser/Cold Open) – Commercial – Story – Commercial - End of Story – Commercial – Tag – Credits (Sedita 2006: 8).

In other words, one idea will last you approximately 20 minutes, as long as you know how to develop it.

Having got our chair on, I now wanted to see a change of rhythm, and maybe a series of problems and attempted solutions. We tried playing with jumping over chairs and tables, or otherwise passing by them. Since I did a workshop with the Russian movement teacher, Natalia Fedorova, I have been intrigued by jumping over furniture. One of her classes consisted in just that, taught with a refreshing simplicity and without any neurosis about safety.

As with the previous week, we ended up with two devised pieces. Both had something but were incomplete, but both demonstrated the importance of rhythm when working in such a basic physical way. I think I would like to see a build up to a climax in this second scene, which could lead to a chair collapsing or some other big surprise.

Next, in theory, it seems to me that we will want a third and final scene, which will bring the action to a satisfying fulfilment. A kind of end of Act I, perhaps.

Works cited:
Rheuban, Joyce (1983) Harry Langdon: the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene, London: AUP.
Sedita, Scott (2006) The Eight Characters of Comedy, Los Angeles: Atides Publishing.
Rémy, Tristan (1945) Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Clown Training: Transcript of a Talk

Central’s AHRC Creative Fellows

Recipients of AHRC funding present their ongoing research on clowning and acting, telematic theatre, and the life and death of objects and puppets

Creative Fellows:
Jon Davison (JD), clowning and acting
Julian Maynard Smith (JMS), telematic theatre
Nenagh Watson (NW), the life and death of objects and puppets

Prof Andy Lavender (AL), Dean of Research, Central School of Speech & Drama

This event was held at Central School of Speech & Drama on 7 October, 2009

Andy Lavender: Thank you for coming this evening. I’m very pleased to introduce Nenagh Watson. Jon Davison, Julian Maynard Smith. Nenagh, Jon and Julian are all Creative Fellows at the school and they’re all here as a consequence of the Arts and Humanities Research Council grants and creative fellowship scheme. The scheme is for practicing artists to connect in quite a embedded way with an academic institution in order to have time and space to explore and develop their own artistic practice, to be more experimental than might ordinarily be possible or to look at slight re-routings of ones work, and then to feed back into the culture of the institution. So it’s hugely fruitful for us to have Jon, Julian and Nenagh with us. I should say, at the risk of embarrassing any of them, that the scheme is very, very competitive and last year, where we won two of the awards, I think there were 58 applicants and only six awards given.

I’m going to introduce them as it were en masse and then ask them to present for about 15 minutes. We’ll take some initial questions in relation to each presentation and then open up for discussion.

Jon Davison is in the third year of his fellowship with us exploring clowning in relation to acting. Nenagh, as you’ll have gathered, is exploring object animation and puppetry, so Jon’s exploring clowning and acting up to a point, and connections between the two. Jon’s training includes workshops and courses with Philippe Gaulier, Complicite, Franki Anderson, John Lee, Moshe Cohen and Fool Time Circus School in Bristol. Not so long ago he completed an MA in Drama Practices and Research at the University of Kent, so he comes to us already with a sort of practice research profile.

In 1993 Jon co-founded Companyia d’Idiotes with Clara Cenoz in Barcelona and Jon has been based in the city pretty consistently since then. Consequently a lot of Jon’s clown practice and teaching has been in Barcelona: he devised and performed Clown Klezmer with Clara Cenoz at the Street Theatre Festival in Madrid as part of the International Clown Festival (later presented in London) and devised and performed work for the Mercat de les Flors in Barcelona and the Esparaguerra International Mime Festival and the festival of humorous visual art in Barcelona and other locations.

Jon is a member of the World Parliament of Clowns and has taught for many years, principally at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona and the Col.legi del Teatre. He’s also a musician, playing accordion with two or three groups ranging from sort of folk and world music, through to Jewish and Gypsy music. In a shared past several years ago, Jon and I busked together at one point!


So I’m very glad to welcome the three of them; three people with very interesting practices that have international scope and a lot of experimentation to them. They’re here with us to test and explore and extend that practice. I think Jon is starting as I think Jon has been with us a couple of years.

Jon Davison: Thank you Andy. Well, clowning is traditionally thought to be a very informal kind of performance practice. I’m going to endeavour to be rather formal in my presentation but being a clown and prone to accidents and failure, please forgive me if I don’t manage it. Hence two laptops, a whole range of audio visual things to deal with, and a glass of water near the laptop. So here we go!

I dare say clown performance, or rather clown training as a preparation for performance, is the subject of my research, and clown performance is both familiar and rather unfamiliar at the same time: familiar in the sense that it’s played a role in just about every culture and every historical period in some form or another (I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet who has enough knowledge of every culture in every historical moment to say with absolute certainty); unfamiliar in that it’s seldom been the subject of serious research, at least academic research, or even practice-based. There’s something about clowning that says, we don’t need to think about it. Now I have various thoughts on why that should be so, but that would be a very long talk. I just want to point that up.

So the potential impact of clown research is rather wide, taking place in a field of activity that has the power to reach many but remains relatively unexplored. I think the position of clown as performance, at least in the West, if we can still use that term (I think it’s applicable in contemporary clowning), appears consolidated. Analytical reflection is rather thin on the ground so the danger is that the field is left open to assumptions, lazy ideological thinking, fashions, and outdated ways of seeing things, all of which are all over the clown world over the past 50 years. When I talk about ‘contemporary clown’, it’s a neat and tidy way to think of it in terms of the last half century for various reasons, one of which is the figure of Jacques Lecoq, the actor trainer, if I may call him that, who in the early 1960s introduced clowning into the programme of studies at his school in Paris. Since that date, he and those who have followed him have established a particular pattern, or I would say orthodoxy, of clown training and hence performance. So that’s what I’m talking about.

Of course there are other strands that are particularly interesting and less well known in the West (again that term comes up) that were happening at the same time as Lecoq in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, but again that’s a whole big area that I’m not going to deal with now. In short, there have been a whole lot of new practices happening from the 1960s, but the 1960s were 50 years ago. What has been happening that’s really new? Sometimes when I look at contemporary clowning and contemporary clown teaching it seems like we are still in May 1968.

I’ve divided my three years up into self-contained packages, trying to reduce the whole big subject of what clown training is into something manageable. For my first year I looked at ‘presence’, a very simple thing to look at, you can do that just in a year. The question was – How is a clown to be convincing? This is really the age old question of actor training – how is the performer/an actor/a clown to be convincing? – and it’s one that I think is at the root of all serious actor training methods or attempts to train the actor, certainly it’s there explicitly since Stanislavski, and way before probably.

A short aside: I’m afraid I use the words ‘actor’ and ‘clown’ interchangeably. It’s a bit naughty, I shouldn’t really do it, but it helps us blur some of the distinctions that have been drawn up between clowns and actors. Clown particularly has been favoured as a method for training actors, but as one little piece of the training if you like, so clown could be a little sub-set of acting for me. Let’s just say they are the same thing for now.

Back to the question: how is an actor, or clown, to be convincing? I wanted to look at that from three different angles. The first year would be: How is that presence established, how does one as a performer convince an audience that it’s real, that it’s convincing, what exactly is that question? This is the thing that comes up time and again, but I want to look at it in terms of clowning, because that’s my field. Now that led me within the first year of the research to question a whole lot of assumptions. Contemporary clowning has very much focussed on one notion, which I’m keen to preserve, and that’s failure, the notion that by failing, assuming one’s failure, one convinces an audience that… what? That’s the question! Be convincing of what? That it’s real? That it’s authentic? What is it that performers do that we need to convince the audience of? Like I’m trying to convince you now, trying to hold your attention, what is that? Is there something behind it? These are the questions I’m looking at. How does a clown do that? Principally by failing, admitting it, and thus attaining extra points for being more honest. That’s a very rough definition of failure and success, and that’s something that’s quite familiar with those who have engaged in clown training over the past 50 years particularly.

We’ve extended that a little bit perhaps over the first year, but while looking at how a clown can be convincing I wasn’t so happy with some of the other assumptions of this orthodox thinking, if you like the post-Lecoqian orthodox thinking in clowning, concepts such as clown as mask, clown as play, clown as improvisation, or even clown as theatre or clown as physical theatre. I was very happy to jettison all of these concepts, or at least put them to one side as not really being those mechanisms that make clowning happen. That’s a rather strange thing to be saying in a drama school these days: ‘Let’s not use games, let’s not use play, it doesn’t work, it’s nothing to do with theatre.’ I’m stating the case rather extremely but that’s what I’ve done over the first year in order to see what’s left. Can we have clown as clown? What is it? How can we describe what it feels like to be present as a clown? What is it? What is the phenomenology of the clown? And once we have an idea of what it is, how can we get there? How can we train people?

As I say I’m happy with the failure dynamics, but a lot less with some of the others. I think my impression is that they were again going back to May ’68. They were very suitable then, but they’re not so much now in the 21st Century. I know that’s very polemical with a lot of clown practitioners, but that’s why I’m here! My conclusion, in a way, is let’s gets rid of all this ideological baggage and let’s end up with what clown is.

I did salvage a little bit of play, we did find that it was useful to use. Roger Caillois, who wrote about games and play, had four categories of play, one of which was ‘vertiginous’ play, which is that kind of activity that produces vertigo if you like, which in turn produces a de-censoring of the self, a loss of focus – for example, spinning, or jumping for a long time. We used chasing, but we tried to eliminate the rules so we were no longer playing rule-based games. We were using activities that could be termed ‘play’, very primitive play, in order to generate some kind of presence, which was not clowning but which was similar to clowning, a presence that could then get us into a suitable state in order to then clown. Again, it’s trying to use something as a function of something else. It’s quite difficult. It’s very tempting, I think, for practitioners and teachers to go, ‘Oh, ok, if clowning is a mask – for example, the red nose is the smallest mask in the world – then we can work with that and then we are doing clowning.’ But maybe we’re not. Maybe we are then working with the red nose, which historically and trans-culturally is not a necessary condition of clowning. It’s a very culturally limited symbol.

What I’m getting at is – How do we do something for itself? And how do we train performers in that? I think contemporary dance, or even contemporary circus, has been several steps ahead of us in the sense that they’ve tried to look at their own art form on its own terms. And that’s where I basically ended up at the end of the first year.

I would like to show you a little bit of video which gives you an idea of vertiginous play might look like. This is a bit of edited video of some workshops in Barcelona in the first year:

Video plays

Ok, that’s how we might get into a state for clowning, but what would we do with that state, once we’re in that state?

I shall speed through year two. In the second year, basically what we did was look at what it’s like to do clown, what do clowns do – and again that’s challenging the orthodox contemporary clown view that your material comes out of your being, so your authenticity will generate your material – the actor as author. Again I wanted to challenge that assumption and see if we could look at the clown authorship away from the devising physical process, and we found that we could. We came up with a little encyclopaedia of clown, because there’s about 50 ways you can write clown material or analyse it. We’ve used that this year to generate a little demonstration piece to show how that works; the sources have been anything from clown autobiographies to watching other people’s shows. I’ve watched an awful lot of shows this year, good, bad and indifferent, and I’ve tried to fill what I perceive to be a hole in the contemporary clown training method, which prepares students for feeling clownish and then leaves them with nothing to do. So that’s been our reasoning this year.

Year three is going to be an attempt to put all that together in front of real, rather limited audiences. We have a number of projects on the go that will put the material out with higher production values and to a wider range of audiences to see if we’ve got it right, to see if this adjusted (I wouldn’t say completely new) form of clown training is going to do the job, which in the end is to produce performance that will convince.

AL: We’ll pause before we move on to take two or three questions. I have a question to kick off with, which is to ask about failure in relation to acting and if part of this project deliberately blurs a distinction between clown and actor. I can understand that failure might be completely crucial to characterising what clowns are and what they do. Does that apply to acting as well or is that distinctive unto clown?

JD: That’s an interesting question. In the first year, I taught on several of the MA courses here at Central as well as workshops in other institutions. In the actor training and coaching MA, for example, there’s an exercise in clowning where you have to cross the stage. You take one step every time you get a laugh, you can only move when you get a laugh, then you translate what you are doing into a rather more complex kind of scene, with this if you like, but every bit of action needs a laugh before you can move on.

Then we tried to apply that, but without getting the laugh, and we found we could. There was a mysterious way you could have the same process but leave aside looking for the laugh, which seemed to eliminate that reliance on failure that seemed to preserve a sense of complicity with the audience and that the audience were kind of writing this work, at least its timing, or its breathing because the laugh is also very related to patterns of breathing. I think we had some success there, but I think the theory behind it and why it worked, does escape me because we kind of eliminated failure, there’s a version of thinking a clown exercise but about doing it for something with more serious purposes. So yes and no.

AL: Jeopardy in the moment.

JD: Yes, I think if you’re not clowning, there’s a sense as an actor that you’re on the edge of a precipice that brings presence to your performing. So that’s why that happens.

AL: Any other questions to Jon?

Audience Member 1: Jon, do clowns have a different relationship to objects than other performers?

JD: There, you see, the same question – clowns are not performers! I think they have the same relationship as other good performers but not the same relationship as other not-so-good performers. Of course there are other not-so-good clowns, which we won’t talk about… I could talk about the relationship of clowns to objects. I think that is a real relationship. There’s a sense in which clowning is real, it’s here and now: this laptop is not a laptop which represents a laptop from the 18th Century; this is not a glass, it’s a plastic glass and if I’m going to break it, and my hand crush it, it will behave as it will behave since it is very material. Clowning is very material, so we do have that relationship with objects. When we come to using complex props, that creates a problem for prop designers and makers because we’re always saying, ‘I want this!’ then, ‘It doesn’t behave like I thought it would behave so shall I change the prop or shall I change my material?’ So there is a lack of fiction in clowning, which translates into a real relationship with objects and I think that one can permit oneself to a higher level of a fictional world as another performer, which one cannot in clowning, and that applies not just to objects but to character and to time and to light and to space. Clowns are just here in this space, with this light.

AL: Thank you. I’m going to move on so we can leave a little time at the end for anything that might cut across two or three of the fellowships, so I’m going to hand over now to Nenagh Watson.


AL: We have five minutes or so, and I’m inclined to see whether there are any questions that pertain more broadly or perhaps concern the previous presentations as well?

Audience Member 6: This might be a really naive question, but to what extent can you think about the clown as an object manipulator of his or her own body?

JD: Very much so. It comes back to this thing of presence, which it is impossible to attain and you will fail inevitably to be authentic. It’s an impossibility, from a clown point of view. Everything is ridiculous as a failure: my own emotions, my own thoughts, my own movement, my own body… So you kind of separate yourself, you don’t identify with yourself, you know you’re playing away from yourself all the time, so there’s a sense in which all these things – your feelings your thoughts, your body, your life – are in sense an object being manipulated.

AL: I’d like to ask just one more question that I’ll put perhaps to Jon and Nenagh that comes out of what you said, Julian. You talked about creating a combined narrative space so one can appreciate the challenges of making the technology work and the challenges of the performers. Dramaturgically I think you’re interested in a sort of story telling, or at least creating a narrative experience, and I wonder whether that’s another theme that runs through all three presentations, the idea of presence and immediacy and some kind of instability and intimacy in the moment. But on the other hand, I wonder if, you’re also attempting to create things that work through sequence, things that work through our understanding of narrative and through story, which is a different paradigm perhaps than the paradigm of presence.

JD: In the case of clown I think that’s something I’m keen to look at in the last year of my research: what narrative, or if it’s not narrative, what structure is appropriate for clown, beyond what has traditionally been the case, where a premise-driven idea is given in about 20 minutes, or 22 in the case of American sitcoms. How do you make a piece that is full length – if you like, an-hour-and-a-quarter – in clowning without being boring? Something which challenges and is up there with the greats of theatre authorship. The Shakespeare of clowning. How can you do that? I’ve never seen it. There are lots of issue shows around, and some of them are excellent, but they’re not Shakespeare.

AL: The Holy Grail.

JMS: But why do you feel that need? Buster Keaton was fine with 20 minutes.

JD: Yes, absolutely, you see, you can’t sit through a whole Buster Keaton. I suppose because it’s been tried and hasn’t quite worked. I suppose it’s commercial as well.


AL: Well I think it’s time for a glass of wine before you jump on a train. I’d like to thank Jon, Julian and Nenagh. I’m glad that we’ve introduced them to you and we’ll find opportunities later this year and subsequently to share this work as it develops and moves into showings and public manifestations. And of course those of you who are studying here might also see them in class.


Friday, 16 October 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 2, 15/10/09

Prior to getting on with the job of stringing together some of the primary chair and table actions in a form appropriate to clown, I issued a warning: clowning isn’t always fun. Over the last 50 years of clown workshops, the orthodoxy of clown-as-liberation has sold itself as the answer to all those students who don’t like discipline, hard work or sacrifice. Why else would a clown school be founded in Ibiza of all places? Mostly, this clown-as-play ideology traces a false ancestry back to Philippe Gaulier, but Gaulier means something very precise and focused when he talks of play, which has very little to do with what most students regard as ‘having a good time’ (and Gaulier remains in that most studious and serious of places, Paris).

Why did I bring this up now? Among the volunteer participants in the research workshops were some who had been with the project since the start, some who had joined halfway through, and several newcomers. I asked everyone what their interest in clown was, and the answers were as varied as can be: clown has a history; Shakespeare’s clowns; what is it really? ; to get a show together; it’s like a drug; it’s a module on a course; the only thing that’s creatively fulfilling… I like all of these answers, and they are all true. But my own reasons in this last year of the project are very precise: how do we maintain the unbounded clown presence (that we trained in in the first year) when working with the structured forms of clown performance? Clown is a highly patterned activity that nonetheless relies on the simplicity of being ridiculous before you’ve actually done anything. That’s quite a hard thing to achieve, and requires self-sacrifice.

Sacrifice isn’t a word I’m accustomed to using, so what do I mean by it? What should we actually give up in order to do good clown work? I think we should be prepared to give up our own personal ideas, our own feelings, our own desire to be recognised. In a word, our ego. In the context of performer training, in a drama school or clown school, that means dropping all those demands by the student to be ‘treated as a creative, mature adult’, by which I am referring to the ever more bloated trend towards the view that everyone deserves ‘respect’, regardless of whether what they are offering is a load of rubbish. I find it ridiculous that in a clown class so many students rebel against the demands on them to be funny! Their pathetic justification for producing dull and narcissistic nonsense in front of an audience is that ‘clown doesn’t have to be funny’! Since when? If clown ceases to be funny, then clown ceases to be.

So in truth it is this fundamental demand, to be funny, that drives the discipline appropriate to clowning, and not any woolly notions of enjoying yourself, expressing yourself, or being friends with your class-mates or the teacher. As far as I can, I try to work by this maxim, and thus hope to avoid bludgeoning students with my own ideas, feelings, or ego.

[Note on 19/12/09: it is noteworthy that the group of participants is at its smallest now since the project began. Of course, this may be for other reasons, but I am not surprised that clown-as-hard work doesn’t quite have the same mass appeal as clown-as-do-what-you-want. Maybe the whole boom in clowning is based on such a falsity. Maybe soon, when we awake to the reality of what clown is, this fashionable popularity will fall away. Maybe I am biting the hand that feeds me!]

So, we then got to work, in groups, on devising action sequences with chairs. At the end of the workshop we had two examples. One was pretty satisfying, and could form the basis for a decent show. The other was frustratingly incomprehensible and lacking in appeal for an audience. What were these differences, and why did they occur?

The first piece took as its premise a first action which was clown “A” bringing a chair onstage. This makes a simple promise: someone will use this chair to do something chair-like, such as sit down, to play an instrument or to eat or whatever. “A” then remembers something and exits. While “A” is off, “B” enters and removes the chair. “A” comes back, finds the chair missing, and exits to get another one. “A” then exits as before, having forgotten something. Same business with “B”. Then comes the surprise: “A” brings on a chair for a third time, but “B”, instead of waiting and removing it, comes on at the same time, also carrying a chair. Both leave with their chairs. “A” returns, and finding no chair, exits and returns with “B” together with all the chairs accumulated. And so on.

There are numerous routes you can take through this maze, and many which will work. The logic remains, based on attempts at solving the basic problem of getting the chair on. At some point the end must come, the chair is on, and scene 2 can begin.

The second piece had no such clear premise to begin with. Instead of a clear action in space, things here centred around non-actions motivated by embarrassment: people not wanting to sit close, and so on. The comedy of embarrassment must surely be one of the worst aspects of British humour, or at least one of the least exportable elements. Happily, I have cured myself of any temptation to laugh at people saying ‘sorry’, by leaving the country 16 years ago, and am now fully vaccinated against politeness. Along with dryness and irony, politeness is what most turns the majority of worldwide audiences off from British comedy (including clowns). It isn’t a recent phenomenon. Tristan Rémy recounts the history of the battle for dominance between English and European clowns that dragged on for around a century.

Thanks to [Medrano], the formula of the gay circus prevails definitively. He never permitted, for example, an artist to be costumed in black. Everything, for Medrano, from attitudes to colours, had to lead to joy… If the French Pantomime managed to rid the ring of the clown of British spirit, the splenetic buffoon and character with a humour without “éclat”, it is to Medrano that we owe it. (Rémy 1945: 87-8)

The Cirque Medrano becomes known as the ‘Clowns’ Circus’, promoting the new style of ‘latin’ clowns: popular, light and comical. The next half century would see at the Medrano: Grock, the Fratellini, Porto, Pipo, Rhum, Achille Zavatta, etc.

So, with scene 1 in hand, we can now move on to ‘what happens next?’

Works cited:

Tristan Rémy (1945) Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset

Friday, 9 October 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 1, 8/10/09

Having just wound up the second year of this project by compiling An Encyclopaedia of Clown, where I had concentrated on how clown works at the level of gags and short pieces of action, I began to think about how larger forms and structures work. How can we make whole numbers and, beyond that, full-length shows, using the principles worked on over these last two years?

I started by asking myself what the primary, normal actions and behaviour with tables and chairs are. I had the idea that these two pieces of furniture would provide more than enough setting for a 90 minute show in the round. They can operate at the centre of a circular performing space, as they are three-dimensional, unlike sets, doors, sofas, and so on. They have a history of involvement in clowning, and are easily portable. And they allow us to do scenes with food and drink, which I suspected would be the theme of our performing work this year.

So we began by applying a simple spatial exercise to these pieces of furniture. Three performers are free to use the table and chairs in any normal way, but must maintain certain fixed distances from each other. Performer “A” is arm’s length from “B”, who in turn is a leg’s length from “C”. “A” and “C” have no specified relationship. I chose to work with groups of three, as I also had in mind that I wanted to explore fully the possibilities of clown trios.

I had used this exercise many times to teach a kind of clown status. There are many status exercises around, but they mostly base themselves on psychological concepts, demanding that the performer use their head in order to create status relationships. And so they generally create relationships based on a psychological understanding of character. In clown, we don’t need or want characters, we just want you. Fixed spatial relationships give you more than enough to play with and you don’t have to think about what and why you are doing whatever you are doing.

So that deals with the relationships. What about the actions themselves? We needed quite a bit of work for everyone to understand just what normal behaviour is! Unfortunately, much theatre and clown training encourages students to think that they must be creative. So using a chair as a machine gun rather than to sit on is regarded as more interesting. Keith Johnstone does a great demolition job on this twisted way of thinking in his seminal work, Impro, so I won’t go into it in detail here.

I tend to think in terms of three categories of actions: primary (normal use of objects, using them for what they were intended); secondary (logical other uses, that work but are not what they were intended for); and tertiary (fanciful uses, that may not be logical or possible even). In reality, the three areas blur into each other, but I wanted to get down on paper the basic examples in all three for chairs and tables, as follows.

Primary uses
sit on it, stand up from it, pick it up, move it, offer it, accept it, change places, lean on it
Table: sit at it, walk round it

Secondary uses
stand on it, fall off it, pull it away, jump off it, fight with it, share it, leap over it, put feet up on it, sleep on it
Table: stand on it, leap on it, hide under it, lie on it, dance on it, block the door with it

Tertiary uses
Chair: tame a lion
Table: balance it on feet

Aside from direct actions with these objects, we can combine them with other objects. For example, normal objects to put on a chair might be: cushions, clothes, hats, newspaper. Secondary ones might be: plates, glasses, drawing pins.

One more thing: the objects themselves can be primary or secondary. That is, a chair can be made normally or not. Normal chairs are made of wood, metal, plastic, etc. Abnormal chairs would be made of paper, rubber, or bubble-wrap. Normal chairs support your weight when you sit in them. That’s what they are designed for. But abnormal ones might fall apart, or bend, or give you an electric shock.

As you can see, I’m not really interested in those tertiary uses. What is interesting for me is how you shift slightly from normal to surprising uses. And how it’s these secondary actions that are often funny.

Now we’ve clarified just what kind of actions we can call upon, it should be an easier job to devise something that works, avoiding the pitfalls of creativity or self-expression that plague so much contemporary clowning.