Friday, 8 May 2020

Clown training goes online

With the help of a grant from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, I am exploring new and innovative online possibilities in clown teaching, by testing online options for clown teaching at London Clown School. Somewhat fortuitously, I came into our current situation having had some experience in the design and delivery of online teaching materials for clowning with the first Clown Studies Course (History, Theory and Analysis) in January of this year.  

My main focus has begun with adapting the syllabus from the former weekly ‘Devising for Clown Performance’ classes, which I have offered in London for a number of years. Through experimental sessions with interested performers, teachers, and students I began by testing some possibilities and limitations of online study in the area of creating clown performance. This area of clown training, with a large component of creation which occurs previous to the live performance, seems like it might lend itself more easily to online education. As a result, I am now at the stage of running a number of six-week series of classes.

The next phase will be to test the teaching of those aspects of live clown performance which normally assume or demand the physical presence of performers and spectators in the same space, which presents greater obstacles in translating to online media.

This process, at the moment, looks to respond to urgent current circumstances, but then will come questions in addressing the unknown of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in in the near future. We don’t know how much demand for online learning will be sustained. Perhaps it will maintain itself at the current level, perhaps it will increase, or perhaps it will drop off if circumstances change. Current responses to my own initial plans from both professionals and students suggest that especially those with difficult access to performer and arts training will continue to engage online after lockdown.

I hope that these innovations may have some useful impact on teachers and students in my field and play some role in the development of clown teaching and performance globally, which has always been of prime importance to me. 

So, instead of asking, ‘when will we return to like it was before with live audiences and workshops?’ we can ask ‘how do we do this now?’ (whether we return or not). Our unique new historical circumstances may lay the foundation for an exciting new way of understanding our artform. My hope is to be able to develop, innovate, and support the world network of clowns and clowning for the future.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Are prescriptions for clowning ridiculous in the age of coronavirus lockdown?

Recently, on a widely used clown forum, a question posed by the daily newspaper Le Monde was discussed in reference to our own specific artform:

‘Will we ever be close up together again watching a show?” What do you think?

My own answer was this:
I do not know. But I would rather ask the question: what is most important for clowning? A live audience present together in the same place? Or being in the here-and-now moment (but online)? Because both are not possible at the same time right now. And if both things are not possible, then maybe both things are not essential for clowning to happen. Otherwise, clowning would not be possible.

The original question is entirely comprehensible. But it feels to me that it runs the risk of pointless speculation, driven by an attachment to certain ways of doing things. Those ways of doing things are not available to us at the moment, so any clinging on to them will be likely just to generate anxiety. Attachment leads to suffering. Also, asking this question suggests that this, unavailable, way of clowning is the only way we can imagine it: with a bunch of people all close together in one place watching the performers who are also right there in that place in front of us.

If we can only imagine clowning under these conditions, then we are left with nothing. No clowning.

But what if we were to assume that these conditions were not necessary? What if we assume, instead, that clowning was possible under any conditions? Then we’d only need to find out how that clowning looked under these current conditions, right?

This question takes us right to the heart of the problem of prescriptions versus descriptions of clowns and clowning. Over the several decades since the 1960s when clown workshops have come to prominence in our artform, clown teachers and their students have played a large role in defining the narrative of what clowns are supposed to be, what they are for, and how we are supposed to understand them. Clown teachers generally love to make prescriptive statements, that begin: “the clown always/never ….” Whereas previous eras were more prone to descriptive statements, that began: “clowns do x, y, z …”

Within that world of clown teachers, there are many elements of this narrative which go pretty much unquestioned by most people. Strangely, given the supposedly free-thinking nature of clowns, not much self-critical thinking goes on about our own thinking about ourselves. This, despite the fact that previous historical periods had very different ideas about what clowns are, or should be. The historical specificity of contemporary ideas about clowns has gone fairly unnoticed. Until our historical circumstances suddenly change radically, and put those orthodox ideas under huge strain.

The question above seems to ask about only one condition, that of ‘liveness’. But implicit in that question are two of those tenets of contemporary clowning:

1.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same space, allowing for unmediated responses.
2.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same moment, allowing for immediate responses.

Now, the options for ‘being in the same space’ are severely restricted. But ‘being in the same moment’ is amply available through online technology. (Let’s not even mention that whole golden age of clowning, the silent movies, which willingly gave up on performers being in the same place and time as their audiences.)

If we insist on having both conditions then, okay, let’s give up clowning. Personally, I prefer to continue, for the moment exploring the online options of the remaining condition. Or to give up insisting on conditions for clowning. To give up on prescriptions for clowning, which now are not only tedious (they have been for a while), but plainly ridiculously untrue.

I mean, if we can’t even adapt to this, what would we do if, one day, the conditions for being in the same moment were also removed (internet lockdown)?!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

How did this come about? Part 2

I’ve been meaning to get around to updating my story for a while now. Seems like 14 years have passed since I last attempted to make sense of the path I have travelled! Ah well, maybe it’s a good time to assess those years? Because, right now, things don’t make a lot of sense.

Shortly after writing up that last account, in Barcelona in 2005, I embarked on a new phase, prompted by a desire for a more stable pattern of work, which I hoped I would discover by returning to Britain, where I imagined teaching contracts would last more than the stipulated one-year maximum available in the Spanish system. The problem being, that in Catalonia, pretty much all the staff teaching performance or acting were (and probably still are) from the same generation. That generation sharpened their craft in the late years of the dictatorship, and belong to a heritage of cultural resistance that chimed with Catalanist national identity. As the law stated that a public institution must employ half its staff on permanent contracts, with the other half on one-year contracts, almost all the for-life posts were held by those who would all retire around the same time, being of similar age. I didn’t want to wait around another 20 years for my chance. However, forewarned by friends back in Britain that times had changed and in order to get a teaching job I’d now need a postgraduate qualification, I got myself a place on the MA in Drama by Practice-as-Research at Kent university. The one-year course proved ideal. I managed to maintain my residency in Barcelona while popping over for the required lectures: just one a week for 6 weeks or so, funding my trip with busking on Brick Lane each Sunday during the market, which back then was a joyous and chaotic affair, just before the grip of gentrification bleached the life out of the area. I was housed as a guest at an also slightly chaotic community of 17 people on the corner of Bethnal Green Road, a haven of relative peace which had survived since its initial founding back in the 80s as a Quaker initiative, now sadly dissolved under the pressure of grotesquely raised rents across much of East London, which has seen the disappearance not only of affordable housing, but of affordable spaces for artists to work in. The rets of my MA course was like a mini-PhD, under the marvellous supervision of Olly Double, stand-up comedian and expert on comedy past and present. It was an absolute joy to dedicate that year to researching how clowns have historically used prosthetics and amputations to make their work, and it culminated in a one-man show with a dozen or so recreated examples. I still make good use of my three-legged act and the extending arms, and would love to revisit the floating head illusion one day, too.

By chance, whilst in London during that period, I noticed my old lecturer in theatre from Nottingham, Simon Shepherd, was giving an open talk at Queen Mary University. To be honest, the topic didn’t draw me, but I was curious enough to go along and have a chat with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of decades. That brief post-talk conversation laid the ground for the next step: I would be applying for one of the new ‘Creative Fellowships’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, designed to support the re-entry of artists into the academy. And it would be hosted at Simon’s current place of work Central School of Speech and Drama. Having been accepted as the school’s very first Creative Fellow, I embarked on a three-year salaried period of investigation, exploring the current state of clown training in the wider context of actor training. It felt like the plan might be working out: I had a job, a full-time one. I immediately spent my first month’s salary on all the books I hadn’t been able to buy over the last several years. (Still haven’t read them all.) I became a permanent member of the Bethnal Green community, whilst continuing to share my time between London and Barcelona. My split life seemed to fuse. Central seemed to resemble the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, my previous pace of work. Both were dedicated to training actors. Yet a culture shock awaited me…

Monday, 23 September 2019

Clown wordlists / keywords

There are many clown teachers. There are many methods. They do not agree.  Here is a quick way to get an idea of my approach:

Words I use: funny, laughter, do, action, task, object, clown, clowns, clown-like, clown-ish, gag, number, act, exercise, pretend, simple, fake, real, why, feel, emotion, think, human, surprise, impact, intrude, disrupt, contradict, shame, love, audience, script, wrong, stupid, look, friend, plan, experiment, science, attention, drama, dynamics, mechanics, conversation, skill, repertoire, fear, ridiculous, conditioning, cultivate, aware, speak, humble, shit, …

Words I don’t use: spontaneous, authentic, sacred, self, inner, mask, truth, the clown, improvisation, play, game, high stakes, universal, difficult, wisdom, transform, art, collaborate, physical, spiritual, problem, status, ensemble, dark, tragic, contemporary, traditional, rule, creative, imagination, fiction, message, personal, mime, my clown, your clown, vulnerability, …

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Clown Universals?

Having just returned from teaching a five-day workshop in Canada, where there are many clown teachers and methods but one rather dominant one, I wonder whether we should stop talking about 'The Clown'?
As the process of writing thie Clowning Workbook advances, sometimes apace, sometimes snail-like, the thoughts refine and the questions expand and a larger picture starts to come into view: what is the practical output of training and how deeply does it reflect our assumptions about what those outputs should mean?
Clown Universals?
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for them, well, looking to see if there are any, testing the ones I’ve found a lot of people subscribe to, but it always happens that as soon as you think there might be something we can agree on, up crops a clown example that contradicts what looks like a universal principle. I still think it’s worth searching for principles, though, underlying structures that we can use to understand how clown/clowns/clowning happens. But those underlying structures are always going to be determined by each person’s own starting point, your own assumptions about the world and what is important, your own search for meaning generally, I suppose. So there will be many different versions depending on your own cultural background (clowns differ greatly across cultures in how they manifest), your own philosophical standpoint (whether that’s explicit or not) and what you believe in. Personally, I try and keep my principles simple, and they are always up for revision. At the moment, what I find most useful is to work with an assumption that clowns are figures which offer themselves as laughter-objects. So a clown is someone we are invited to laugh at, simply. Of course, those who believe clowns don’t have to be funny ill disagree with me, so I won’t be claiming to have defined all clowns/clowning/clown. The idea of the clown as object-of-laughter means that it is irrelevant whether this happens through means of reproduction of repertory or standard material/acts/gags, or by means of response in-the-moment to an audience, or by both means simultaneously (my preferred way). That’s why, for me, the article in this thread doesn’t help me at all, as it is looking for principles in the wrong place in my view. It is looking to define the clown through those aspects which seem to be immediate and in the present, but for me that leads down to a dead-end, one that I have got stuck in myself in the past. The way to get out of those dead-ends, I think, is to be brave and question whether the results are really good or not, or reliable, and not to rely on a belief that one has discovered the ‘truth’. Thinking that one has discovered the truth is, of course, very tempting, and seems to be prevalent in some clowning practice, perhaps due to the large impact that studying/experiencing clowning can have on a person at a subjective level, especially in the early encounters with it. This subjective experience might lead to placing quite a lot of stock in the feeling that the clown can be personally transformative, and therefore a path to knowledge and wisdom. Which it can be, but then again so can pretty much any human endeavour. So I would be suspicious of claims to sacredness or wisdom that set clowns/clown/clowning apart or above other human activities, and the idea of universality often accompanies the mindset of ‘wisdom’.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Impact Report - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Impact Report

1 What we achieved, compared with the original aims of the project:

The proposed project comprised a number of activities including rehearsal, performances and open workshops, all of which were carried out as planned. In rehearsal, a total of over 100 full days of artist employment were funded, shared between 5 core performers and 3 collaborating artists.  5 public performances were given, one per month, as planned, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. 5 open workshops were held, 3 at specialised performer training institutions (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Rose Bruford College and London Metropolitan University), one at a community arts centre (Kentish Town Community Centre) and one at Rosemary Branch Theatre.  Each workshop had at least a dual function: firstly, to further the process of the project’s research and development by involving participants directly in the questions and practice relevant to the participating artists at the time of the workshop; and secondly, to share ongoing findings, skills and approaches with participants such that the latter might reuse the experiences in their own artistic, personal, social and/or educational development. Each workshop took a unique focus, determined by the nature of the participating venue and users.

‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University shared with performing arts students the starting points that project artists had taken in the process of developing performance from training.

‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College invited students to create new links between training and performance.

‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre brought together resident and other artists at the theatre to experiment with some of the project findings and their impact on their own artistic development.

‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre used clowning and basic clown training in the context of social club events designed to bring neighbours of all ages together.

‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama invited staff and postgraduate students to ask practical questions about how clown training works within the wider context of performer training.

Rehearsals focused on the processes of bringing laughter-response clown training to the public stage. A total of 21 main exercises underwent this process of staging and were tested a number of times in the five public performances given.

The rehearsals also looked at how laughter-response training might bear upon non-clown, but related, forms such as circus and stand-up comedy, using the exercises to ‘filter’ these genres. These were also tested in the public performances.

The performances thus served as experimental opportunities to gauge the effect of such training on the quality of the dynamic relationships between performers and audiences.

Ongoing evaluation and monitoring of the project was carried out as proposed, using real-time online feedback through social media to gauge responses to work in progress.

2 What we learned, and how the project has helped us to develop:
Learning and development arose from all three of the main activities in the project: rehearsal, performances and open workshops.

Rehearsals: staging of training exercises was carried out in a variety of different ways - in bare form, with set-ups, with added narrative, or as filters for existing material. Work in rehearsals focused on:
1.      Adapting the exercise for stage, addressing how the information necessary to read the performance can be transmitted to a live audience without explaining the content as if it were an open workshop. This included staging means to set up the action and sometimes to add situational elements.
2.      Training in the execution of the exercises. This involved finding ways for performers to be autonomous without the need for the workshop teacher’s framing. Constant practice needed.

Through engagement with these testing methods for staging, a minimum set of requirements was developed for each of the 21 exercises. Also developed were staged versions with a maximum amount of added elements which still allowed for the clown dynamics of the exercise to drive the performance, without recourse to fictional layers of scripting. The forms which emerged thus drew their staged effects primarily from the clowning dynamics which the original exercises were designed to train, fulfilling the aims of the research which was to create clown performance derived from laughter response rather than from fictional characters, roles, narratives, sketches or variety acts.

Performances: each staged form was tested at least twice over the run of five public performances. These choices were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Focus, however, was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage.

It was found that some stagings/exercises proved more successful in public performance in terms of engagement of audience, laughter response, and ‘readability’ for spectators. Those stagings which were least successful were subjected to further research in rehearsals as well as open workshops before being re-presented in public.

Open workshops: over the course of the five open workshops, a variety of developments occurred.  
At ‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University there emerged new, unexpected and more complex forms of a group of exercises focusing on the intrusion of clowning into other genres of performance.  

At ‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College, participants helped develop new ways to experiment with specific exercises which we had yet to find way of staging. There emerged several options for training concerned with the immediate visual and vocal impacts of clowning.

At ‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre, participants and project artists worked together to develop a range of responses to the specific architecture and space of the theatre from the starting point of clowns in response to laughter.

At ‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre, participants joined project artists in basic clown training exercises before trying simple stagings of them. The event tested the extent to which non-performers might engage with the training ad performance of laughter-response clowning, with considerable success. This potentially confirms the hypothesis that this form of clowning reflects some fundamental notions of how clowning works which are shared across ages, communities and cultural experiences.

At ‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, participants came up with a variety of preliminary conclusions about the divergence of laughter-response clowning from mainstream actor training methods (including orthodox clown training current in UK drama universities).

3 Longer term impact the project has had:

The development of new staging choices derived from laughter-response clown training has led to a number of impacts beyond the process itself.

From training to performance:
The tested stagings were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Although the focus was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage, there emerged ways to create ‘bundles’ of stagings, which led performers and spectators from the simpler phases of the training on through ever more complex structures. Thus it was that sections of the performance presentations also began to work in a parallel path of ‘learning’. This pointed in the direction of a larger scale dramaturgy that would perhaps mirror the programme of training as it develops over the period of a training workshop or course. This long form can thereby act as the starting point for the building of a whole show, based upon the findings of this R&D project.

The varied and intensive nature of the open workshops, bringing project artists together with students, teachers and community and other artists, suggested future impacts which include:
-        - New approaches to be developed by non-project workshop participants in their own fields of performance, educational and community activity. These paths might draw upon the new links suggested by the project between training and performance, which may be applicable both to clowning and non-clowning work.
-         - Personal artistic development of project artists. Via the participation in the delivery of the open workshops, participating artists were able to evolve in their own practical knowledge and insights into facilitating workshops, opening up new avenues for individual artists’ future development as facilitators.

The project’s use of ongoing visual documentation by a professional photographer enabled a parallel research to be collaboratively developed into how clowning might be perceive, recognise or understood outside of the actual moments of performance. Visual images, still and moving, were regularly tested via social media to assess the impact of the clowning under exploration. The contribution of the professional photographer was thus extensive, via three main photo shoots covering rehearsals, performances and workshops. This served two main aims: firstly, to document the project; secondly, to explore visual images of clowning as a dynamic relationship between performer and spectator, researching means by which to communicate and chime with a contemporary audience who might be disposed to the experience of this new type of clown performance.

In conclusion, this period of research and development has enabled us to move to a position where the creation of a complete show may be envisaged clearly as the next phase in our artistic development.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Research workshops - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

As part of our Arts Council-funded R&D exploring new forms of clown performance, we're looking at how to bring some of the experimental outcomes of workshop training onto the public stage. In this session we will share some of our processes and engage in some practical research with those who wish to join us (or you can just observe). The focus will be on mixing modes of performance and how clowns might intrude into other genres.
The session will be led by Jon Davison and members of Citizens of Nowhere, who produce the monthly performance Friday Flop at 
Rosemary Branch
June 22nd: Clowning Experiments
at Rose Bruford College
This practical workshop will engage participants in our ongoing research into how to use traiing exercises as performance material. We will be inviting participants to experiment with specific exercises which we have yet to find way of staging. Hopefully, our joint roles as researchers and guinea pigs will merge!
We have particular questions about how to take advantage of some of the impactful outcomes form exercises such as:
- "Attention Seeking"
- "Instant Impact"
- "Make a Loud Noise when you have the opportunity"
Friday Flop invites you to join us for a day of practical workshops, discussions and experiments

Friday Flop is about clowning research into laughter response and using workshop training exercises to make theatre.

We have loads of questions – We guess you do, too - Maybe we can answer each other’s questions?

Questions like:
• How to reproduce on the stage the best shit you came up with while devising, training or rehearsing?
• How to keep the bad shit (fears, stress, habits) out of the way and just engage with audiences in the way you want?
• How can we turn exercises into performance? Bring your exercises!

Join us on Sunday 21st July between 11am and 5pm at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

Where we’ll spend the day exploring these questions through
• Workshops
• Discussions
• Experiments and yet to be imagined ways of sharing

The day is open to anyone who finds these questions interesting, whether you use clowning or not.
And it’s free of charge

Plus: if you learn nothing, you’ll get a full refund

Venue details: Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Road, London N1 3DT
Nearest stations: Essex Road, Haggerston

If you would like to participate, please let us know by emailing Jon Davison here: 

July 17th: Commuity Arts Clowning
at Kentish Town Community Centre
In collabortaion with NorthLDNCares, a talk, a workshop, a chnace ot have a go at clowning in the context of one of the many social club events organised by designed to bring neighours together, of all ages. 
Clowning is accessible to aoslutley anoyne. There are no limits in terms of age, physical ability, experience, education, etc. 
A chance to see if the clown trianing exercises we use profesisonally can also work for anyone who wnats to enjoy the pleasure of being silly in front of their friends and neighbours, or simply to be an audience for those who wish to!
Is clowning still a truly popular art?
We invite you to spend the afternoon with us engaging in experimental clown training practice as research.

We are in the midst of an Arts Council-funded R&D project investigating the relationship between performer training and live performance. Our main questions are around how to reproduce on public stages some of the biggest impact outcomes which occur in the training studio.

We have been working with performers, trainers, researchers and other practitioners with an interest in engaging with our ever-expanding list of questions, by participating in some of our ongoing experiments in transferring training to performance.

Some of our questions currently are:
- How can we navigate from the studio to the stage?
- How is training useful?
- What are we training to do?
- How can training exercises be redesigned for clown purposes?
- What are ‘clown choices’ in performance?
- How can we cause imbalance or uncertainty such that the unexpected might occur?
- How do we learn clown?

The session will take place in RR6 and is open to all RCSSD staff, students and alumni
If you’d like to know more, please contact Dr. Jon Davison
Clowning research today (22nd July 2019)

I am interested in the genealogy of training exercises and the way in which they transmit ideological assumptions through practice.

This interest began to be explicit in my research which re-examined clown training and the dominant orthodox notions of the personal clown, spontaneity, authenticity, etc. (AHRC-funded Creative Fellow, CSSD 2007-10). But such an enquiry had roots way back in my pedagogical practice development in the 1990s as I began to both shed the exercises which seemed not to serve clowning (ensemble) and at the same time design new exercises to elaborate on the results of such methods as Guy Dartnell’s Expressive Theatre, focusing on the response of the performer to stimuli and impulses.

Having side-lined the old outdated notions of authenticity and the inner self in clowning, as well as assumptions that clowning is driven by improvisation or play, I began to build what could take its place. The gap was filled by laughter-response conditioning, which has part of its roots in Gaulier, but is founded upon an assumption that clowning, like all performance, is produced by a series of material actions which are themselves understood by their organisation into sets of conventions. This materialist notion of clown practice, articulated in my PhD, then formed the theoretical basis for our current ongoing project, Friday Flop, which asks the question ‘How does clowning happen in a theatre?’ The methods used in this project are various attempts to stage clown training exercises which are driven by laughter response. Future phases of the project will look at broader issues of clown dramaturgy, considering how these disparate bits of clown theatre might be bundled together and eventually written as a whole performance. But, for now, we are still focusing on the bits in isolation.

The current phase of the project is a five-month period of Arts Council-funded R&D, now nearing its end. In this final month, a surprise happened. We had assumed that our ongoing development would continue simply to find new and better ways to stage the training. But suddenly we found that we wanted to go ‘back’, to some of the exercises discarded long ago. Exercises which trained and conditioned our behaviour in relation to the architecture of the theatre in which we work. The place where we work. This led us back to training which is interested in how humans move in a space and in relation to each other. And so we began to replay some of those exercises. I had to delve back into my notebooks from the 90s and re-read how I was trying to come to terms then with a legacy of training which felt inappropriate for what I wanted to explore. Now, today, that coming to terms with lineages of training regimes is distinct. In part, because some of my questions from that decade have been answered. Which seemed to lead me a rather naughty thought. What if we were to take some training exercises that were explicitly aimed at producing the opposite effect to clowning, and then ‘clown’ them in order to make them work for us? Which exercises would they be?

And that is what we will try and explore here today.

How do we ‘clown’ the performer exercises which were designed to induct us into the particular set of normative constraints founded upon the false assumptions that we are equal, fair and live in a democracy?

We are referring particularly to those exercises and training methods aimed at producing the ensemble.

By ‘to clown’ I mean the practice of bringing to bear of a critical approach founded upon clown theory. This approach is, of course, enacted by means of practice. In other words, it is Practice-as-Research. ‘To clown’, then, is a verb to describe a critical process. This critical process would question or subvert dominant cultural expectations about equality, fairness, and suggest a subversive reading of the practice of ‘ensemble’, producing a transgressive position and potentially useful training exercise for clowning.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Was Chaplin a (good) clown? - circus clowns reply in 1929

I just came across this by chance. Some of the top circus clowns in France, in 1929, giving their opinion on Chaplin and whether he was a clown or not, soon after the release of his film ‘The Circus’.

Here some of the replies given in interviews at the Cirque Médrano, published in an article in the magazine Cinémonde (no. 17; 14th February 1929). (It seems like it's not just today that clowns are overly critical of each other.)

Porto: “I was disappointed. First, let me say that the Americans don’t understand circus… The clown doesn’t exist for them. Charlie did know the circus well. That’s undeniable. But he undoubtedly sought to please his compatriots. He conformed to their tastes. As Charlie Chaplin is an old circus artist, a music hall artist…. I thought Charlie would be more daring. Wasn’t he more of a clown in other films? I loved him in his role as bank teller. As he is a true clown, and I can see him in our place in the circus. he has the physical play like Footit had… He is a conjuror. He is an acrobat. You can see he was a clown, as he can play pantomime. “

Cairoli: “I don’t think he’s a clown. he knew the circus well, but I think he couldn’t do all that we do. In the cinema, it’s easier to make people laugh. If you do a bad take, you cut a few metres of film or you do it again. With us, you can’t erase a single gesture. You have to be at all times, unfailingly amusing. And that, I can tell you, is very difficult.”

Francois Fratellini: “Certainly, Charlie Chaplin is a clown. He was one a long time before becoming The Little Tramp in the cinema. I remember seeing him at the Olympia. He was with the Karno troupe then. He took all the slaps that weren’t intended for him, and retreated offstage, form where he bombarded his fellows with al kinds of objects. … I don’t like tis film. I found Charlie a lot funnier in other films. There was more fantasy. No doubt, he posses all the qualities which make a good clown. It’s just that his job is easier. His jokes in front of the camera don’t have to work first time. Despite that, Charlie is for me a good clown. But a clown I’d like to see in the middle of a real circus.”

Friday, 29 June 2018

Does anyone want to be an actual clown?

I was recently asked to collaborate in a photographic project documenting the supposed ‘decadence of clowning in western culture’. My response was to ask, ‘what decadence?’ I have been involved in clowning performance, teaching and research since the mid-1980s and from my perspective there is a continuous stream of people interested in training in clowning and performing it, as well as in exploring its social use beyond the orthodox set-up of performer/spectator and into the realms of healthcare and politics. Clowning has also gained a modest recognition in academic circles, with the publication of a range of books over the past couple of decades.

But my instinct to see the positive trend in clowning is also counter-balanced by my concern about the direction clowning is taking in western culture. Barnaby King, in his recent book. ‘’Clowning as Social Performance in Colombia’, wrote tellingly about how the influx into the country of an ‘international style’ of clowning, from Europe via Argentina, could be read as paralleling the ‘apertura’, or opening up to global markets, of Colombia. This ‘globalised’ style of clowning might even threaten local and indigenous ways of understanding the artform, which is of concern.

I witnessed something similar during my return visit to South Africa some months ago, when a major theatre festival programmed, for the first time, a piece of ‘clown theatre’. A laudable move, indeed. But the piece was an unfortunate, and perhaps isolated, example, of how safe clowning has sometimes become. It could have originated in any part of Europe or North America. But its seeming lack of insights, whether personal, political, cultural or aesthetic, nonetheless drew considerable approval from middle-class white audiences who would normally go to see standard theatrical fare. I felt like we could have been anywhere - London, Paris, Bogotá. This is a far cry from the classic example of South African clown-influenced theatre from the 1980s, 'Woza Albert!' (see photo)

This blandness was nowhere to be seen, however, when workshopping clowning with Sowetan teenagers, who, when asked to ‘do something silly to make us laugh’, would come up with the most outlandish, grotesque and daft things imaginable, setting everyone off in bursts of uncontrollable laughter. Back in London, one just has to imagine presenting audiences with that kind of clowning to quickly realise that the most common reaction would be to back off. In my experience, the grotesque in clowning is getting harder and harder to pull off, in our society where ‘taste’ means seeking out yet more uncrossable lines which clowns should stay clear of.

My other work in South Africa was with Clown Without Borders, who in that country are different in that they work extensively within their own country. Elsewhere in the world, it is more common for CWB projects to be expeditions travelling some distance across the globe. Many of these projects do great things, but a side-effect can sometimes be the inadvertent exportation of the western idea of what a clown is.

The multiplication of distancing might explain in some way the drift from clowning towards stand-up which is another concern right now. It’s probably always been the case that British clown students and performers have been tempted by the culturally dominant magnets of irony, sarcasm and wit, but lately it seems like it’s getting harder to resist. With performers with little or no clown-factor now boldly advertising themselves as clown-influenced Gaulier graduates, it looks like the picture is going to get even more confused. Does anyone still want to be a clown?

Friday, 22 June 2018

ClownBlog is back

I’m returning to blogging, as a way of bypassing the academic model, which has frankly become a bit of a dead end lately, with its jealously guarded sites of knowledge exchange - accredited modules, peer-reviewed journals, niche conferences - becoming ever more ponderous and exclusive. That doesn't mean I'll be stopping teaching at universities, speaking at academic conferences, or publishing books, but am looking forward to a more open-ended medium through which I can communicate. 

The return to blogging also marks perhaps the end of a very productive few years of engagement with Facebook, through the group Clown Theory which I created a few years ago.  I was curious then to know others’ opinions on matters I was grappling with. It’s gone relatively quiet recently, mainly I think because we’ve ended up having the same conversations and debates several times over. Also, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be daunting entering an online discussion sometimes, where even clowns can come across as bossy, dismissive or knowalls. The blog might be my way to fill the gap, then.

It might prove useful for mulling over things which will later find their way into books. It will also allow me to bring to light more immediately some of the fascinating insights which occur weekly in my work. These insights can crop up in a clown class, in a rehearsal or in a performance or while reading about or watching other clowns. I have always felt that theory, thinking, teaching, learning, performing and spectating are one single activity. I hope, then, to bring the thinking out into the open for those who haven’t been in those classes or rehearsals. Perhaps that will help some people decide to go deeper into clowning and do some, or more, training, or even just watch a show. That would be good.

It’s been a few years since I regularly wrote short or medium length pieces about clowning. I began ClownBlog to test out some ideas when I started my job as a research fellow at CSSD in 2007, investigating clown and actor training. Much of those blog posts later fed into my first book, Clown Readings, and influenced the second one too, Clown Training. I then got caught up in writing my PhD thesis, and a third book, The Clowning Workbook, currently under way. 

Although I have always continued to generate my own teaching and performance work, during that time I became accustomed to the academic model of writing/practice. That is to say, academic employees in the performing arts are expected these days to produce research outputs in order to justify their posts. This is because of the vast amount of money that universities receive for research, the amount of which is determined by how far up the league table (REF), they get, every seven years. To gain their position they must show research outputs. Since the early 2000s, in the performing arts we have realised that we hold knowledge, in the practices we engage in. So that research doesn’t have to be in a library or written. Knowledge can be gained and transmitted through the practice of performance. A simple and early example often given was the knowledge I have from having learned to ride a bicycle. This is embodied knowledge. The research of such knowledge has come to be known as Practice-as-Research (PaR). Quite a simple idea, really.

Many drama schools, incorporating themselves into universities and thus enabling grants to be given to students, thus found themselves obliged to produce research. But instead of drawing on the knowledge and practices of those who taught and practiced acting, directing, writing and stagecraft, the trend has been to import researchers from fields which, from a conservatoire point of view, are marginal. Today, you are more likely to get work in PaR if your practice is in intermedial studies, or if you have no practice at all, and highly unlikely if you research in practices of acting, circus or, in my case,  clowning.

The publishing of performing arts research has also followed the traditional route and has, if anything, narrowed down. To keep your job, you must publish. That means that publishing in itself has no value, monetarily. Journal articles make money for the publisher but never for the author. Access is expensive for researchers and only really feasible via university libraries which can pay the exorbitant fees. That leaves those without access to university libraries out in the cold. Likewise, even if you have single-authored a book, the royalties are so minimal as to be meaningless. And often the price tag on an academic book is way out of reach of individuals. Once again, it’s the libraries who can afford it.

So, instead of chasing a non-existent academic post by conforming to the academic publishing mode, i.e. not being paid, I’ve decided to put my writing energies back into a more immediate public sphere, the blog. 

Without wanting to be a hostage to fortune, the areas I’m hoping to write about look like they’ll fall into the following categories:

With that in mind, I'll be tagging posts accordingly.

Some subjects ‘m keen to tackle are:
New research on the history of women clowns
The grotesque vs. inner clown debate
Non-western clowning
The drift towards irony and stand-up
The state of clown-tagged performances today 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

"Clown Readings" Bibliography

Here is the full bibliography, listing all the sources cited or collected in "Clown Readings"

Abbott, Bud and Costello, Lou (1944) Lost in a Harem (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer).

Adams, Patch (1993) Gesundheit! (Vermont: Healing Arts Press).

- (1998) House Calls (San Francisco: Robert D. Reed).

- (2007) Interview on Roda Viva, 9th April 2007 (TV Brasil),, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Allen, Tony (2002) Attitude: Wanna Make Something Of It? (Glastonbury: Gothic Image).

Anderson, Franki (2009) Fools Gold,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2011) Interview by telephone, 13th December 2011.

Angelo, Henry (1828) Reminiscences (London: Henry Colburn).

Anderberg, Kirsten (2005) ‘Women Street Performers and Sexual Safety’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Armin, Robert (1972) Collected Works ed. Feather, J P (London: Johnson Reprint Corporation).

Arratoon, Liz (2011) Review of Slava’s Snowshow in The Stage, 19th December 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Aspa, Jordi (2009) ‘La Integridad del Círculo’ in Zirkolika, Revista Trimestral de les Arts Circenses no. 21, Summer 2009, p.33.

Astruc, Gabriel (1929) Le pavillon des fantômes (Paris: Grasset).

Atkinson, Rowan (1992) Visual Comedy, a lecture by Rowan Atkinson M.Sc. (Oxon.) (Tiger Television).

Auerbach, N (1990) Private Theatricals: the lives of the Victorians (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).

Ball, Lucille (1951) I Love Lucy Pilot Program, unaired episode (CBS).

- (1952) I Love Lucy Season 1, Episode 52, 22nd December 1952 (CBS).

Balderas, Elizabeth (2009) Letter to El Chamuco, reproduced at, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Bandolier, Adolf (1890) The Delight Makers (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company).

Barker, Clive (1977) Theatre Games (London: Methuen).

Basch, Sophie (2002) Romans de cirque (Paris: Robert Laffont).

Baskervill, Charles Read (1929) The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

Baudelaire, Charles (1855) ‘On the Essence of Laughter’ in The Mirror of Art (1955) tr. & ed. Mayne, Jonathan (London: Phaidon Press).

Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes (Cahors : Cicéro Éditions).

Beeman, William O. (1981) ‘Why Do They Laugh? An Interactional Approach to Humor in Traditional Iranian Improvisatory Theatre: Performance and its Effects’ in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 94, No. 374, Folk Drama (Oct. – Dec., 1981), 506-526.

Bellocq, Éric, Lavenère, Vincent de et al. (2004) Le chant des balles (Vic-la-Gardiole: L’Entretemps).

Bellos, David (1999) Jacques Tati (London: The Harvill Press).

Billington, Michael (2008) Review of Varekai in The Guardian, 10th January 2008.

Boese, Carl (1931) Grock (La vie d'un grand artiste) (Universum Film AG).

Bogdanovich, Peter (1972) Leo McCarthy Oral History (Los Angeles: American Film Institute).
Bolton, Reg (1987) New Circus (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation).

Bouissac, Paul (1972) Clown Performances as Meta-semiotic Texts in Language Sciences 19, 1-7.
- (1997) The profanation of the sacred in circus clown performances, in Richard Schechner and W. Appel (eds) By Means of Performance 194-207 (Cambridge: CUP).
Brecht, Bertolt (1955) translated by Geoffrey Kelton (1998)The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent, in Collected Plays: Three (London: Methuen).
- (1994) Mann ist Mann (trans. By Gerhard Nellhaus) in Collected Plays: Two (London: Methuen).

Brinn, David (2011) ‘It’s not just clowning around with Slava and his Snowshow’ in The Jerusalem Post, 13th August 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Brown, Ismene (2011) Review of Slava's Snowshow in theartsdesk, 29th December 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Brown, Maria Ward (1901) The Life of Dan Rice (New Jersey: Long Branch).

Bryant, Arthur (1952) The Age of Elegance 1812-1822 (London: Collins).

Buten, Howard (2005) Buffo (Arles: Actes Sud).

Caillois, Roger (2001) Man, Play and Games (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).
Cairoli, Charlie (1966) The Milk Number at The London Hippodrome,, date accessed 29th December 2011.
- (1973) The Milk Number at Cirque Bouglione, Paris,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Calvi, Nuala (2011) Interview with Slava Polunin in The Stage, 16th December 2011.

Cameron, Anne (1981) Daughters of Copper Woman (Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers).
Campardon, Émile (1880) Les Comédiens du Roi de la troupe italienne (Paris: Berger-Levrault et Cie).
Carlson, Marvin (2003) ‘The Golden Age of the Boulevard’ in Joel Schechter (ed.), Popular Theater (London: Routledge).

Carse, James P. (1986) Finite and Infinite Games (New York: Random House).

Cashin, Pat (2011) Clownalley (

Cazeneuve, Jean (1957) Les dieux dansent à Cibola (Paris: Gallimard).

Ceballos, Edgar (1999) El Libro de Oro de los Payasos (Mexico DF: Escenología).

Cenoz, Clara (2009) Banana!, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2011) Interview at Escola de Clown de Barcelona, 20th November 2011.
Chai, Barbara (2011) ‘The Red-Nosed Revolution’ in the Wall Street Journal, 1st November 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.
Chamberlain, Franc and Yarrow, Ralph (eds.) (2002) Jacques Lecoq and the British Theatre (Oxford: Routledge).

Champsaur, Félicien (1901) Lulu, Roman clownesque in Basch, Sophie (2002) Romans de cirque (Paris: Robert Laffont).

Chaplin, Charlie (1916) The Pawnshop (Mutual Film Corporation).

- (1921) The Kid (First National).

- (1928) The Circus (United Artists).

- (1931) City Lights (United Artists).

- (1936) Modern Times (United Artists).

- (1964) My Autobiography, (London: The Bodley Head).

Chekhov, Michael (1953) To the Actor (New York: Harper and Row).

CIRCA (2006-11), date accessed 29th December 2011.

Claretie, Jules (1881) La Vie a Paris (Paris: Havard).

- (1888) Boum-Boum (New York: William R. Jenkins).

Clay, Alan (2005) Angels Can Fly, a Modern Clown User’s Guide (Newtown, Australia: Artmedia Publishing).

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Cohen, Moshe (2005) ‘A Short Look at Clown and Zen’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2007a) ‘Conversations with Roshi Egyoku: The Three Tenets’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2007b) ‘Conversation with Roshi Bernie Glassman’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2007c) ‘Conversations with Egyoku: Joy and Zen’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2012) ‘The power of the (clown) Nose’, in Sacred Mischief,, date accessed 11th January 2012.

Copeau, Jacques (1990), Texts on Theatre, edited and translated by Rudlin, John and Paul, Norman H. (London: Routledge).
Cortés, Edouard (2007) El Pallasso i el Fuhrer (The Clown and the Fuhrer) (Televisió de Catalunya).
Cosdon, Mark (2010) The Hanlon Brothers: from daredevil acrobatics to spectacle pantomime, 1833-1931 (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press).

Coward, Simon and Perry, Christopher Woodall (2009) Bob's Full House (Dudley: Kaleidoscope).

Crane, David and Kauffman, Marta (1994-2004) Friends (NBC).

Dauven, L R and Garnier, Jacques (1971) ‘Fellini’s Clowns’ in Le Cirque dans l'Univers #81 (Club du Cirque), trans. by Goodman, Diane in (1978) Mask, Mime & Marionette, vol. I, no. 1, Spring 1978: 41-4 (New York).

David, Larry (2000-2011) Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO).

David, Larry and Seinfeld, Gerry (1989-1998) Seinfeld (NBC).

Davis, Janet M (2005) ‘Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs, and Lady Savages:

Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America’, Lecture at the University of Virginia 5th-8th October 2005,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Davison, Jon (2008) The Phenomenology of Clown, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2009a) The Dramaturgy of Clown, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2009b) An Encyclopaedia of Clown, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2010) Clown Training Today, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Diercksen, Laurent (1999) Grock: un destin hors norme (Bévilard, Switzerland : Laurent Diercksen).

Denis, Dominique (1985) Le Livre du Clown (Strasbourg: Éditions Techniques du Spectacle).

- (1997) 1.000 gags de clowns (Strasbourg: Magix Unlimited).

Dickens, Charles (1837) The Post-humourous notes of the Pickwickian Club (London: E. Lloyd).

Dimitriev, Yuri (1967) The Soviet Circus 1917-1941 (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Disher, Maurice Willson (1925) Clowns and Pantomimes (London/New York : Benjamin Blom).

- (1937) Greatest Show on Earth (London: G. Bell and Sons)

Double, Oliver (1997) Stand-Up: On Being a Comedian (London: Methuen).

- (2005) Getting The Joke (London: Methuen).

Dromgoole, Nicholas (2007) Performance Style and Gesture in Western Theatre (London: Oberon Books).

Dryden, John (1811) The poetical works of John Dryden, vol. 2, eds Warton, Joseph and Warton, John (London: Rivington).

Duranty, Louis-Edmond (1995) Théâtre des Marionnettes - Répertoire Guignol du XIXe siècle (Paris : Actes Sud).

Durwin, Joseph (2002) Coulrophobia and the Trickster,, date accessed 29th December 2011.
Eisenberg, Avner (c. 1980-2011) Exceptions to Gravity (live one-man show).
- (2005) Eccentric Principles,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

- (2011) Interview with Christopher Lueck, 3rd February 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Evans, Mark (2006) Jacques Copeau (London: Routledge).

Feldberg, Robert (2010) 'Banana Shpeel is a Cirque du Soleil attempt at vaudeville’, review of Banana Shpeel at The Beacon Theater, New York (in The Record 27th May 2010).

Fellini, Federico (1970) I Clowns (Radiotelevisione italiana).

Findlater, Richard (1978) Joe Grimaldi: his life and theatre (Cambridge: CUP).

Fisher, John (2006) Tommy Cooper – Always Leave Them Laughing (London: Harper Collins).

Fleisher, Julian (1996) The Drag Queens of York (New York: Riverhead Books).
Franc-Nohain (1907) Les mémoires de Footit et Chocolat (Paris: Pierre Lafitte).

Franconi, Victor (1855) Le cavalier, cour d’équitation pratique (Paris: Michel Lévy).

Fratellini, Albert (1955) Nous, Les Fratellini (Paris: Éditions Bernard Grasset).

Fratellini, Annie (1989) Destin de clown, (Lyon: Éditions La Manufacture).

- (1997) Article about Annie Fratellini in L’Humanité, 2nd July 1997.

Fratellini, Valérie (2002) ‘Ça mange quoi, un clown? Soliloque d’une dinosaure’ in Jeu: revue de théâtre, no. 104, (3) 2002, p. 109-15,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Frediani, Aristodemo (Beby) (1930) Mémoires d’un clown (Paris: La Liberté).

Frichet, Henri (1889) Le Cirque et les Forains (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils).

Frost, Anthony and Yarrow, Ralph (1990) Improvisation in Drama (Palgrave Macmillan).

Fumagalli (2011) Le Miel et la reine des abeilles (The Honey and the Queen Bee),, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Jané, Jordi (1996) Charlie Rivel (Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya).

Jané, Jordi and Minguet, Joan M (eds) (1998) Sebastià Gasch, El Gust pel Circ (Tarragona: El Medol).

Gardner, Lyn (2009) Review of Le Cirque Invisible at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in The Guardian, 5th August 2009,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Gaulier, Philippe (2007a) Le gégéneur/The Tormentor (Paris: Éditions Filmiko).

- (2007b) The King of my School,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

von Geldern, James and Stites, Richard (eds) Mass Culture in Soviet Russia (Indiana: Indiana University Press).

Gehring, Wes D. (1990) Laurel & Hardy: a bio-bibliography (Greenwood Publishing Group).

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Gervais, Ricky, Merchant, Stephen and Davis, Warwick (2011) Life’s Too Short (BBC TV).

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Goudard, Philippe (2005) Anatomie d’un clown / Lire et Écrire le cirque (Vic-la-Gardiole: L’Entretemps éditions).

Grantham, Barry (2000) Playing Commedia – A Training Guide to Commedia Techniques (London: Nick Hern Books).

- (2006) Commedia Plays – Scenarios, Scripts, Lazzi (London: Nick Hern Books).

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- (1957) King of Clowns (London: Methuen).

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Hanna, William and Barbera, Joseph (1954) Hic-cup Pup (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer).

Harris, Paul (1996) The Pantomime Book: The Only Known Collection of Pantomime Jokes and Sketches in Captivity (London: Peter Owen).

Helm, Alex (1971) Eight Mummers’ Plays (London: Ginn).

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- (2009) ‘Behind the Scenes at the Circus’, talk and panel discussion at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 31st March 2009,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

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- (2000) ‘Early Female Clowns’ in The Clown In Times, Volume 6, Issue 3.

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- (1927) College (United Artists).

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