By full-length show, I mean 90 or 120 minutes. These days when people talk about full-length shows, they often mean barely 60 minutes. Is it because of a lack of audience attention span, o a lack of ideas? When we spent two or more years devising our first show as Companyia d’Idiotes (1993-6), we scraped through to 50 minutes, or an hour on a good night. It’s not easy devising a long piece of work.
It is not only the length that dissatisfies me when I see a full-length clown show. It is also the structure. That’s leaving aside the shows that are plain bad, either because of their content or their performers, of course. Even the decent shows seem to lack a sense of how they are put together. One of the most successful clown shows of the last decade or so, Slava’s Snowshow, is structurally a horrific hodge-podge of numbers of varying type and rhythm, seemingly stitched together without thought. Yet it has received critical acclaim (though not amongst clowns, in my experience). The fact is, there is little to gauge good clown work by. WE have no ‘Clown Shakespeare’, at least not visibly so, though I could argue the case for the Fratellini’s William Tell, or Dario and Bario’s The Bottles, for example.
There is still a feeling that clowns do not produce good full-scale work. The clowns themselves are sceptical:
Working in a theatre doing shows of an hour is very difficult, it takes it out of you, it demands brilliance. Usually a clown burns out in an hour, although there have been people who have done it very well. (Interview with Oriol Boixador in Zirkolika 2008, my translation.)
The question remains of which structure to use. Discounting a series of numbers, as well as a unified fictional setting (or ‘clown-theatre’, as they might call it in Britain), I await clarification via our ongoing investigative work. If we tread carefully, I am sure the right forms will emerge.
Back to Act I, we now know several key elements of how it will work. We know the action will not need motivation, that it will lead to a second Act concerning food and drink, and that a table and one or two chairs must be onstage by the time the first act finishes. We must still decide if the objective of eating is to be stated from the outset, later to be fulfilled or bettered. Or if this objective is to emerge. My feeling is to incline for the statement of intent at the start. It is stronger to set up an audience expectation, then thwart it, then overcome the obstacles, and finally achieve the objective and go one better.
This is true of even the smallest street show, where structure is vital. If I start by getting out my accordion, then I am effectively making a promise that I will play it. After a series of problems and attempted solutions, I must eventually give the audience what they want, or more. Anything less will lead to my audience walking off in disappointment.
Our structure will thus look something like this:
Scene 1: business of bringing chair on, keeps getting removed, finally in postion.
Scene 2: rhythmical sequence of moves, involving leaping, chasing, falling and other slapstick, building to a climax, possibly with broken furniture.
Scene 3: order is restored, and we end up not just with a chair or two, but a table as well.
Act II: food arrives?
So much for the devising process, then. I will now leave the nuts and bolts work on this piece for other rehearsals and, in these research workshops, move on to working with already-scripted numbers.
Companyia d’Idiotes, Mamiydaddy, Barcelona, 1996.
Dario and Bario, (1930) The Bottles in Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.
Fratellini, Francois and Albert, Guillaume Tell in Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.
Slava Polunin, Slava’s Snowshow, Barcelona, 1999.
Zirkolika (2008), Revista de las Artes Circenses, no.19 Winter 2008.