Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Clown Devising Workshop

Every Thursday 6.30-8.30pm
at Apiary Studios
Coming soon! - please let me know if you are interested in coming to this. We will start soon: once we have enough people.
Jon Davison
London Clown School

Following on from the popular success of the weekly clown workshop on Mondays (we've only missed one Monday since starting in April last year) I am happy to announce a new opportunity for all to develop their clowning.

The Monday class has been covering everything from discovering the joy of being stupid in front of others to the work of coming up with workable ideas for performing in public.
There's so much to do in such a short time that I've decided to open up a new class to focus on the devising aspects of clowning, leaving Mondays freer to work on the dynamics of clowning and enjoying your own stupidity and thereby making others laugh. That doesn't mean there will be no devising at all on Mondays, nor that Thursdays will ignore the essential need to actually perform your material as stupidly and funnily as possible. But it will allow for some more in depth work to take place in both areas.

The need for training in devising clown material

It’s all very well experiencing clowning in a workshop situation, where the teacher sets up the frame and conditions, but quite another matter when you come to perform in front of audiences out there in public. Learning the dynamics of clowning won’t be enough. Something else is required. Other kinds of comic performers habitually spend a lot of time and effort on ‘material’. Stand-up comedians worry over joke structure, sketch comedians search for strong premises for their ideas. Why should clowns be different? Popular misconceptions suppose that clowns just get up there and are funny just by being true to their inner selves. But looking inside yourself won’t really save you.

There are countless practical ways of devising material appropriate for your clowning. Awareness of and understanding of these is far preferable to just hoping the clown you ‘found’ will survive the real stage situation. These forms and structures of clown material also derive from simple notions of what clowns actually do. At the moment, my favourite terms for what clowns do are ‘wrongness’, the ‘unthinkable’, the ‘unexpected’ and the ‘obvious’.

This workshop is ongoing, drop in, continuous, unending - basically every week - so you can come regularly or occasionally or just once. It works for different kinds of people: you might have just started clowning and want to try performing in public; you might want to get back to it after a time away, or revisit your material and improve it or change it.

So now you will be able to dedicate even more time to clowning. Come to both days or just one. It's up to you.

Time: Thursdays 6.30 – 8.30pm
Venue: Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Road, London E2 9EG 
http://www.apiarystudios.org/
Cost: Single class £15; or £50 for four classes paid in advance; or £60 for five classes paid in advance; or £110 for ten classes paid in advance



Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Coming soon! Clown Studies

This will be the first of its kind. I started running these classes way back in 2006 when we opened the Barcelona clown school. It felt like an innovation then. No one was really teaching clown history or theory or analysis. To me it seemed self-evident that thinking and knowing about clowning could benefit your performing. Or that it could be a worthwhile study in itself.

Ten years later, and still no one is offering clown studies in this way, anywhere, as far as I am aware: neither in private clown schools nor in universities, despite all their talk of embracing ‘popular performance’.

I flirted with the academy for a number of years (aside from my experience setting up clown workshops myself), teaching and researching at high-level drama schools which had become part of the university system: the Institut del Teatre in Spain and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Britain. I learned much from my students in Barcelona and had great opportunities to research in London. But I realise that the academy is destined to remain a dead end as far clowning goes, insofar as no one is likely to take the subject seriously enough at an institutional level.

So after years of trying to forge a niche for clowning, either through systematising its teaching or by trying to set up an MA in clowning, I now prefer to put my energies into my independent teaching. Over the last year, the London Clown School Monday workshop has become well-established. We haven't missed a week, not even for Xmas. People come regularly or occasionally, and there is always a mix of old and new faces. Each participant gets to explore as they wish, whether it's discovering the joy of being stupid in front of others, or preparing performance material to try out in public. One of the many advantages of this format is that it avoids the crushingly standardised control of education today with its targets, aims and objectives. So there’s not a hint of "by the end of this course you will have learned x". As a teacher, it’s not my business to bet on what you may learn, nor when you may learn it.

So, now it’s time to offer, in a similar sustained way, an opportunity to explore the other side: the history, theory and analysis of clowning. Every week I receive requests from students needing advice, guidance and tuition for their projects, dissertations and theses investigating clowning. It's hardly surprising, given universities' long-term failure to invest in clowning.

This new initiative will offer a programme of studies in 2 formats:  
- a weekly drop-in class held in London 
- an online class, also following a weekly pattern

I’ll also continue to offer one-to-one tutoring, guidance or supervision either in person or online.

Clown Studies Syllabus
This falls into four broad areas: theory, history, analysis and personal research project.

Theory
General questions - What is clown? What is funny? How can we talk about clown? What is clown’s relationship to comedy? to humour? How do we know what clowns are? What are they for?

History
What is clown’s history? How are clowns specific to their time and place? Why do different meanings become attached to clowns according to their time and place? What is a Shakespearean clown? A circus clown? An auguste clown? A personal clown?

Analysis
Using practical observation of the work of clown performers, live or on video/film, contemporary or historical, how can we talk about them? What is the vocabulary of the clown critic? How can we answer the question ‘why is this (not) funny?’

Projects
Compiling a short project on a theme of your choice, in any presentation format (except clown performance itself) that can be stored or recorded for future clown students to consult.

Provisional expressions of interest:
Please get in touch if you are interested in any of these options and I will keep you posted on developments.

Best wishes,

Jon Davison
London Clown School

Friday, 27 November 2015

Monday Clown Workshops


Quite a few people have been asking me recently what the clown workshops held every Monday are all about (including some people who come regularly).

There are two main aims as far as I am concerned (participants might have other aims, of course). One aim is to work continuously on a better understanding in practice of what makes clowning happen. As the years have passed, I have more and more come to the conclusion that it’s all rather simple. So simple, in fact, that it’s easier to clown than it is not to clown (people often say comedy and clowning is so difficult, but maybe they’re wrong). You just have to create the right conditions. So that’s what I hope to do in a workshop: set up the best possible conditions for participants to clown, and, crucially, to understand how it works. Increasingly, then, I’ve preferred to whittle down what used to be a whole mountain of games and exercises into two or three fundamental forms, which can help you access the dynamics of clowning as directly as possible. And those forms, or dynamics, are derived in turn from the basic premise of clowning, which is to be the object of laughter for others.

My second aim comes from the fact that it’s all very well experiencing clowning in a workshop situation, where the teacher sets up the frame and conditions, but quite another matter when you come to perform in front of audiences out there in the world. Learning the dynamics of clowning won’t be enough. Something else is required. Other kind of comic performers habitually spend a lot of time and effort on ‘material’. Stand-up comedians worry over joke structure, sketch comedians search for strong premises for their ideas. Why should clowns be different? Popular misconceptions suppose that clowns just get up there and are funny just by being true to their inner selves. But looking inside yourself won’t really save you. There are countless practical ways of devising material appropriate for your clowning. Awareness of and understanding of these is far preferable to just hoping the clown you ‘found’ will survive the real stage situation. These forms and structures of clown material also derive from simple notions of what clowns actually do. At the moment, my favourite terms for what clowns do are ‘wrongness’, the ‘unthinkable’, the ‘unexpected’ and the ‘obvious’.

This workshop is ongoing, drop in, continuous, unending - basically every Monday - so you can come regularly or occasionally or just once. It works for different kinds of people: you might be just starting clowning; you might want to reinforce your understanding of clowning, or get back to it after a time away; you might want to start performing in public; or revisit your material and improve it or change it.

Time: Mondays 6.30 – 8.30pm
Venue: Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Road, London E2 9EG http://www.apiarystudios.org/
Cost: Single class £15; or £50 for four classes paid in advance; or £60 for five classes paid in advance; or £110 for ten classes paid in advance

Jon Davison
www.jondavison.net 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Documenting Clown Training

This paper was presented at Salford Comedy Symposium ‘Documenting Comedy’ on 13th May 2015, hosted by University of Salford and Media City UK, Salford



Documenting Clown Training

I want to ask some questions about the nature of clowning, or a particular part of it, which arise when we consider the relationship between clown performance and its possible documentation. By doing so I will also reflect upon the nature of documentation itself.

What do we mean by clowning?
What do we include? Exclude? The term is multi-connotational and sometimes hotly disputed. It depends on who you ask, clowns or clowning are:

-          ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (Gaulier 2007a: 289)
-          It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh‘ (Simon 2009: 31)
-          Clowns are sad and exhibit ‘shabby melancholy‘ (Stott 2009: XVI).
-           The key feature uniting all clowns is their ability, skill or stupidity, to break the rules (McManus 2003: 12).
-          Etymologically, in 16th England, clowns those who do not behave like gentlemen, but in ‘uncivil fashions‘ (French Academy, 1586).
-           ‘a quest for liberation from the “social masks” we all wear‘ (Murray 2003: 79,  on Jacques Lecoq).
-          ‘the main similarity between clown and Zen is that if you are you are thinking, then you are not where you want to be‘ (Cohen 2005);
-          ‘Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves‘ (Henderson 2008).
-          Some believe clowns are responsible for bringing rain to the crops: ‘they also fast, mortify themselves, and pray to Those Above that every kind of fruit may ripen in its time, even the fruit in woman’s womb‘ (Bandolier 1890: 34).
-          Some ascribe such powers to their taboo-breaking: ‘This “wisdom” magically acquired shows well that this is a question of the breaking of a taboo’ (Makarius 1974: 63).
-          Some think that clowns are a socially useful way to control traffic, since they ’can achieve what traffic police cannot achieve using warning and sanctions [...] by employing artistic and peaceful actions’ (Toothaker 2011),
-          Others believe that to be a clown is to sink below human dignity: ’I'm going to earn something, even if it’s as a clown’ (Partido del Trabajo de México 2009).
-          Some have believed clowns could stop wars: ’The laughter of Bim and Bom almost stopped the Russian Revolution’ (Schechter 1998: 33).
-          Alternatively, they might find themselves on the side of governments: ’Nikulin replied: “Who will be the subject of our parody? The government is marvellous”’ (Schechter 1998: 15-16).

The list is much longer. Clowns have been seen as revolutionary, reactionary, avant-garde, universal, marginal, irrelevant, fundamental, dangerous, harmless, immoral, exemplary, skilled, chaotic, wealthy, poor, innocent, cruel, scary, joyous, melancholic, or as fulfilling any number of social, artistic, cultural or political functions as can be imagined.





There is one particular definition of clowning I want to look at here. It has its contemporary source in the experiments by Jacques Lecoq with clowning in the early 1960s: the flop... the eliciting and re-eliciting of laughter. Laughter as a response to the failure of the clown to make us laugh, which is the job, the agreed contract between clown and audience. And that this laughter should be as a result of our finding the clown himself the joke.

This definition or practice has been hugely influential, indeed dominant, over the last half century of contemporary clowning, and forms a pillar of clown training, in many, though not all, clown pedagogies.

Over the last half century clown workshops and training, since Jacques Lecoq’s experiments teaching clown in the early 1960s, have arguably gained prominence over clown performance itself. Clown teachers command international respect and power, aesthetic and financial, which very few clown performers can aspire to. In the workshop, theories, orthodoxies and philosophies have become established which often make transcendent claims to ‘truth’, in a manner that general actor training has done for some time.

Despite remaining a relatively isolated niche in the fields of performer training and comedy performance, this new-found boost in the value assigned to clown training and its practitioners has also visibly filtered into the public arena, via tributes paid by household names such as Sacha Baron-Cohen, or Edinburgh Perrier award-winner Phil Burgers (Dr Brown) and others to master clown teachers such as Philippe Gaulier.

However, outside the confines of the clown workshop, very little is known about just what the value of clown training might be. Are the experiences of students and teachers of clowning alike, which are often reported to be ‘life-changing’, destined to lie neglected as traces in the personal memories of participants? Or can they be documented and disseminated in such a way that a wider audience might share their insights?

So, how can we document this clowning? How can we document a flop?

Before addressing that question, I want to briefly ask what a document is.

What is a document/documentation?

Etymologically, a document means (early 15c) "teaching, instruction," from Old French document (13c.) "lesson, written evidence," from Latin documentum "example, proof, lesson," in Medieval Latin "official written instrument," from docere "to show, teach" (see doctor (n.)). Meaning "something written that provides proof or evidence" is from early 18c.

document (v.)
1640s, "to teach;" see document (n.). Meaning "to support by documentary evidence" is from 1711.

In Library and Information Science,

a document is, according to Suzanne Briet’s influential “What is documentation?” (1951) a theoretical construct, "evidence in support of a fact." (Buckland, Michael (1998). “What is a digital document?”)

In a Court of Law

I have to provide proofs, or documents, to convince you of the probability of my argument. These might be material evidence - signed papers, photographs, audio recordings, bus tickets, phone bills, scientific experiments, forensic tests. Or witness statements converted into written and signed statements.

Either way, the document’s function is to aid proof of an argument.

Clown documentation

If we take this sense of a document as only being a document as such when it serves the purpose of demonstrating, or proving, something, how does this then apply to clown documentation?

Imagine this: I have witnessed some clowning, some good clowning, but a friend of mine wasn’t there to see it. How will I explain and convince my friend of the value of the clowning? How can I show to those who were not present why it was good, or why it was clowning, or perhaps more objectively, why, or when we laughed?

If you’ve ever done, seen or trained in clowning, you may have had the experience of trying to recount your experience to someone who wasn’t there. ‘Oh it was so funny what they did, one of them was smiling then he stopped and we all laughed, then the other one left and it was hilarious!’

At times, while teaching clowning, I venture to suggest that this undocumentability, or more precisely, this undisseminatability, is a good indication that good clowning has taken place. If clowning, at least of this type, is about you, the clown, being the joke, then how could I possibly transmit or explain ‘you’? If on the other hand the pleasure was in the jokes, as in other kinds of non-clown comedy, or the farcical situation, or in the characters, then I would be more likely to be able to convey, to recount to retell the jokes, the stories or the situations to my friend. Even if I couldn’t tell the jokes as funnily as the comedian, my friend would at least have seen that, in the hands of a professional, this material might well elicit laughter. That would be enough to convince my friend that when I say I laughed a lot when I saw that show, I am not lying, nor am I completely mad.

Gaulier argues precisely this, that clowning is not about having good jokes, but the opposite

A question:
‘Why do clowns choose bad jokes?’
If the jokes were good, they would be comic actors. They wouldn’t meet Monsieur Flop. They wouldn’t perform with the feeling of having committed a blunder. (Gaulier: 307-8)

The audience doesn’t laugh at the gag, but at the imbecile who has a moronic idea. (Gaulier: 308)

How can I convey the essence of the clown’s comedy by retelling some bad jokes? Conversely, if the jokes are too bad to be retold, does that demonstrate that they were clown jokes, or at least that any laughter provoked by them in the show was a result not of the quality of the material, but of the quality, if you like, of the clowning?

In short: if clowns have shit material, what can we document? What document, what proof can convince my friend that it was indeed funny and that they really should have been there?

You may say here that I should have just videoed the performance on my phone so I could share it afterwards, with ALL my friends. But will the video be a good enough document for the clowning to hold up in court?

Or, should we just be happy with no documentation? The idea that clowning might be by its nature that which cannot be documented might indeed be appealing... but is it strictly true? Or is it just a bit of rhetoric designed to claim for clowning that unmediated presence so sought after by performance practitioners and scholars?

Video

I want to address the issue of video briefly and perhaps throw a spanner into the works of my argument so far. A few years ago at a performance conference I was presenting a paper entitled ‘describing clowning’. I had been wrestling with how to describe my own practice in order to then make arguments about that practice as evidenced in the descriptions. I wanted to keep at bay any temptation on my part to impose my own preconceptions about the meaning and effect of my own performance work. Searching for a ‘rigorous methodology’ to do this, I had recourse to Gilbert Ryle’s notion of thin and thick descriptions. Grossly oversimplifying, thin descriptions tell us what happened in an event, thick descriptions also tell us what those happenings might mean.  By dispensing with thick description I hoped to remove all trace of my pre-interpretations of the event.

Up until that point I had written several thick and thin descriptions of my performances but had not been convinced of the value of this exercise. During the paper presentation I had planned to show a short video clip of my own clown performance, in order to support my argument about the dynamics of laughter in clowning. When I came to the part where I was going to show the video, I felt that those present would most likely find this boring: watching a youtube clip on a distant projector screen in poor lighting, with poor sound, no context and no sense of what the performance event had actually felt like. That event had taken place in a room crammed full of spectators sitting on the floor and anywhere they could find, in a circus community in London. In an instant there came to mind so many occasions when I had shown to friends and family a bit of video of a show I had done, only to be disappointed by the blank looks on their faces as they tried to figure out what was going on in this little 2D rectangle, and most importantly, just when or why they were supposed to laugh. Excruciating. So I made a quick decision to dispense with the video. In its place I elected to read the thin description of the same event shown in the video clip. Before commenting further on this, I will now repeat that reading.

Thin description of a performance....

The compere says, ‘okay, and so for our next act, please bring your hands together and welcome Jon’, and exits the stage.

The audience applaud.

One second later I enter, taking one step onto the performing area, in the upstage right corner. I am wearing a black suit, a white shirt, black tie, black shoes with white laces. Looking at the audience, I am smiling. I remain there. I bring my hands together in front of me then return them to my sides. Silence for six seconds. The audience applauds again. I adjust my tie a little, after which it is slightly longer than before. I say, ‘Thank you’. Silence for six seconds, during which my smile disappears.

There follow a couple of small laughs from the audience.  I smile and take one more step onto the stage, in a diagonal line towards centre stage. Silence for six seconds. A beer bottle in the audience is heard rolling onto the floor. Six seconds of silence. I turn towards the exit, smiling and saying, ‘bye!’ The audience laugh loudly. I turn back and take another step towards them. In amongst that laugh is a faint single voice which sighs ‘oh!’ I stand, smiling and say: ‘Thanks’. More audience laughter, patchy. I take one more step forwards, and repeat ‘thanks’. More patchy laughter. I take another step as the audience laughs and some applaud. Stopping, I drop my smile and look down at my tie, which I adjust, leaving it longer than before. Silence, six seconds, then more applause (no laughs), I elongate my tie more. Some of the audience laugh, in spurts. I take a step whilst saying thanks. Four seconds silence, audience laugh, I step and say thanks. This again, a laugh and step, then I also laugh, a single burst that ends in a snort. A one second pause and a single hysterical-type laugh from the audience. I look quizzical. I laugh again and say: ‘oh, thank you very much’. A big laugh from both the audience and myself, which I end by faking the laugh. More audience laughs, as I step towards them.

A few more steps follow similarly, I laugh, the audience laughs. I look at the front row to my left, who aren’t laughing. Looking at them, my smile drops, my mouth becomes down-turned.

[The Hive, Hackney Wick, London, on 09/03/13. A video of the performance can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnnRhMRViSQ]

The semiotician of circus and clowning, Paul Bouissac, repeatedly bemoans the fact that when commentators talk about clowning, they mostly restrict themselves to a few well-worn clichés about what clowns are deemed to engage in (Bouissac 2015).

What Bouissac wants, instead, are detailed descriptions of what particular clowns actually did. Thin descriptions, in other words. His own publications have repeatedly tried to redress this imbalance. Only when we have an accurate description of a routine, Bouissac claims, can we begin to analyse and interpret how the meaning is constructed in a clown performance.

This also chimes with what the clown and fool expert and teacher, Franki Anderson, has to say about observation. One of her exercises consists in one student showing a small performance of themselves as themselves, while their companions (their audience) observe and then recount to them what they saw. Two types of observation are suggested by Anderson; subjective and objective, which coincide with the thick/thin binary. Although not universally so, what many report is that the objective/thin description is the one which offers the descriptee the most useful information. By useful here I mean that this kind of description gives the descriptee the potential to: 1. Recall the action (a kind of rehearsal notes, or script) 2. Recall how it felt to do this performance, and maybe how to regain that feeling when re-performing (a kind of mnemonic for reencountering the clown state, or however you want to call it). What seems surprising about this is that the subjective description does not give the descriptee the tools to rediscover the feeling or state, despite, or perhaps because of, subjectivity’s aim being precisely to capture emotions, states, intentions and motivations.

Could it be, then, that a kind of Beckettian script is what serves clown documentation best? Perhaps. Though I’m not sure that the next time I see a clown show and then try to tell a friend in a pub how funny it was, that I will begin by saying.... a tall figure, sex undeterminable, enters and stands upstage right, left foot first. .....!

Conclusions

This all finally brings us back to the flop, and to Gaulier. In his book, ‘The Tormentor’ Gaulier uses a character named ‘Victor Francois’ to illustrate typically clownish behaviour. This Victor resorts to joke shops and, crucially, a written document in his drive to be funny:

Joke shops sell vulgar half-masks, big hooked noses, with (or without) a moustache, big potato-shaped noses, with (or without) glasses, alongside squeaking cheeses, exploding sweets, fake brandy, plastic turds and the Encyclopaedia of Jokes.

I know someone who goes to these shops regularly on Fridays after work. He opens the door and looks along the shelves. He considers carefully. How will I be funny tomorrow? He buys this and that: not too much but just enough to make his friends burst out laughing. He knows exactly what to choose. He longs for tomorrow evening. He has to learn three gags by heart from his Encyclopaedia of Jokes. Ah, his Encyclopaedia! He bought it thirty-five years ago. He has never lost it or left it anywhere. The Encyclopaedia has pride of place on his bedside table. In the evening he reads it before going to sleep. According to his wife, he often chuckles when he’s asleep. [...] His favourite joke is the story of the archbishop who ... he has told it too often. It’s got worn to death... Three new jokes tomorrow.

[...] He admitted to me he was better on the visual and dramatic front, rather than with jokes.

He forgets them.

‘You understand? I begin. It’s OK. Then, little by little, I flounder. I tie myself in knots. I forget the punch line or say it too soon. The surprise effect is lost. I say I’m sorry I got it wrong. Everyone laughs. Unfortunately they don’t laugh at the joke. They laugh at my stupidity. (290)

And so, the encyclopaedia of jokes is the clown’s greatest prop. The idea that one can pluck a joke from a document and then make people laugh with it, is, frankly, funny!


Appendix 1:  jokes as doumentation

This observation might lead us even further, into the territory of jokes, comic material and indeed theatre in general. The pattern is: event, observe event, retell event/re-perform event. Until now I have taken the event to be the original clown performance; the observation being my own in the moment and then in notes plus watching the video afterwards and annotating it – or going to see a show then telling a friend about it - or, in Bouissac’s case, going to the circus several times until he has a detailed description for the purposes of semiotic analysis.

But we can also begin from a non-performance event. Let’s say, my mother-in-law said something to me last Tuesday... and so on. The observation is simply me remembering what happened. And the retelling becomes, you guessed it! a joke. ‘my mother-in-law.....[cite joke

The doorbell rang this morning. When I opened the door, there was my mother-in-law on the front step.
She said, 'Can I stay here for a few days?'  I said, 'Sure you can.' And shut the door in her face.
]

This is the standard staging of this kind of joke: a presumed event retold.

Of course, it is also the standard pattern for joke-stealing! Watch a comedian, write down the joke, tell it next night. And not just stand-ups. The Fratellinis tell of how their competitors would be lurking in the audience on first nights, paper in hand, ready to steal their new routines and reproduce them tomorrow, in the same bill as themselves, but earlier, thus sabotaging their act.

Of course, according to Brecht, this is also the nature of theatre: a retelling of an event, in such a way as to allow for new interpretations and meanings. Brecht’s image of the witness here [cite] also brings us back to the heart of documentation: the purpose of which is to ‘prove’ (in court) the truth or otherwise of a particular interpretation of the meaning of someone’s acts. In the case of the mother-in-law joke, what, we might ask, would be proved by this ‘document’? that all mothers-in-law are x, y, z..... of course!

This perspective on the nature of comedic material gets us away from obsessing over punchlines and how they work (incongruence, rhythm, timing etc.) such an ‘ontology’ of comic material fits the pattern even better in the case of the less structured or formulaic format of observational comedy. In this light, Jerry Seinfeld is the ‘witness’, and the case to be proved is that, well, isn’t the world a funny place?


Appendix 2: Lenny Bruce

Here is an example which confounds both the nature of performance documentation and the status of performance as proof in a court of law.

Bruce used courtroom transcripts, about the alleged obscenity of his act, in his act, telling the story of how a policeman would come to see his act and make notes on the rude things he said, to be reproduced in front of the judge as evidence in a case.

[This was Bruce’s penultimate stand-up performance of his life, soon after he was convicted, virtually banned from performing, and died of an overdose.]



Jon Davison is artistic director of the clown-circus-pantomime company, Stupididity, co-founder of the Escola de Clown de Barcelona, Visiting Lecturer at RCSSD, author of Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice, and Clown Training, a practical guide, both published by Palgrave Macmillan.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Weekly Clown Workshop in London taught by Jon Davison


Dates: from 13th April until 29th June 2015
Time: Mondays 6.30 – 8.30pm
Venue: Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Road, London E2 9EG http://www.apiarystudios.org 
Cost: £15 per class; or £60 for five classes paid in advance

How to register and pay for the course: please send an email to info@jondavison.net indicating your interest and to know if there are places available.
This course is suitable for anyone interested in exploring clowning, with or without experience.
Maximum number of students: 16

These classes will start by looking at the fundamentals of clowning, learning to feel and enjoy our own ridiculousness. Converting our habitual fear of ridicule into the pleasure of laughing at ourselves, we can use it to make others laugh and experience the freedom of the clown.

We will also look at ways of devising material for performance, forming and structuring your individual clown idiosyncrasies into clown numbers as well as learning from the classics.

Most things are ridiculous when you really look: our bodies, our movements, our ideas, our emotions, our words, our relationships, the universe. The only aim in clowning is to turn failure into success, fear into laughter, suffering into joy. We don’t need to change ourselves, just look at everything from another perspective. It’s a human thing to do, so anyone can do it. Although only a few will choose to dedicate their lives to it, anyone can experience the clown.
Jon Davison is a clown performer, teacher, director, researcher, writer and musician with 30 years experience. Co-founder in 1993 of Companyia d’Idiotes, he has toured festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe from Sicily to the Arctic. He trained at the École Philippe Gaulier and Fool Time Circus School (Bristol). As well as performing solo, he is part of the four-person clown/circus/pantomime company, Stupididity, currently touring Not A Real Horse.

He was co-founder of the Escola de Clown de Barcelona, one of the world’s leading centres offering comprehensive clown training programmes covering both practical and theoretical aspects of the clown arts. He previously taught clown, impro, and acting at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona from 1996-2006, and was a Research Fellow investigating clown training at Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London), where he is now a visiting lecturer as well as working towards his PhD on clown performance.

He is the author of Clown Readings in Theatre Practice published by Palgrave Macmillan, a rich collection of readings offering a wide-ranging and authoritative survey of clown practices, history and theory, from the origins of the word clown through to contemporary clowning. His second book, Clown Training, a practical guide for teachers and students, is due out later in 2015.

For more information about Jon Davison and clown courses in London:

Friday, 12 December 2014

Clown Workshop taught by Jon Davison


Dates: Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd February 2015
Time: 10am – 5pm
Venue: Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Road, London E2 9EG http://www.apiarystudios.org  
Cost: £90
Email info@jondavison.net to secure your place.

This workshop will look at the fundamentals of clowning, learning to feel and enjoy our own ridiculousness. Converting our habitual fear of ridicule into the pleasure of laughing at ourselves, we can use it to make others laugh and experience the freedom of the clown.
When you really look, most things are ridiculous: our bodies, our movements, our ideas, our emotions, our words, our relationships, the universe. The only aim in clowning is to turn failure into success, fear into laughter, suffering into joy. We don’t need to change ourselves, just look at everything from another perspective. It’s a human thing to do, so anyone can do it. Although only a few will choose to dedicate their lives to it, anyone can experience the clown.
This course is suitable for anyone interested in exploring clowning, with or without experience.

Jon Davison is a clown performer, teacher, director, researcher, writer and musician with 30 years experience. Co-founder in 1993 of Companyia d’Idiotes, he has toured festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe from Sicily to the Arctic. He trained at the École Philippe Gaulier and Fool Time Circus School (Bristol). As well as performing solo, he is part of the four-person clown/circus/pantomime company, Stupididity, currently touring Not A Real Horse.

He was co-founder of the Escola de Clown de Barcelona, one of the world’s leading centres offering comprehensive clown training programmes covering both practical and theoretical aspects of the clown arts. He previously taught clown, impro, and acting at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona from 1996-2006, and was a Research Fellow investigating clown training at Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London), where he is now a visiting lecturer as well as working towards his PhD on clown performance.

He is the author of Clown Readings in Theatre Practice published by Palgrave Macmillan, a rich collection of readings offering a wide-ranging and authoritative survey of clown practices, history and theory, from the origins of the word clown through to contemporary clowning. His second book, Clown Training, a practical guide for teachers and students, is due out later in 2015.

For more information about Jon Davison:

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Clown History Today

by Jon Davison

This  is a transcript of a paper given at the TaPRA Conference 2014, Royal Holloway University

Abstract


This paper will outline some of the options open to us today for the analysis, interpretation and writing of the history of clowns and clowning. It begins with an overview of the more commonly found forms of clown history, the ‘monumental’ and the ‘anecdotal’, together with their aims and limitations. It then goes on to explore an approach to clown history which places clowns and clowning within their social, political and historical contexts. How might such a perspective bear upon how we understand such widely differing historical manifestations of clowning as clown performers in Shakespeare’s company, the New Woman clowns of the 1890s, or issues of lineage and genealogy in the spread of roles such as Pierrot, Clown or Auguste across the worlds of clowning, pantomime and commedia?

And how might such an examination affect how we interpret contemporary clowns and clowning, whose stories and histories have tended to be self-written, from Jacques Lecoq to Slava Polunin? Can mapping distant clown histories provide a model, methodology and indeed the courage to confront our own period and practices with a critical eye?

In conclusion, this paper argues for a critical and rigorous approach to clown history which demonstrates a healthy scepticism towards clown practitioners’ self-mythologising, guided by the clown historian Tristan Rémy’s observation, in Les Clowns, that ‘Clowns, notably, have a propensity to mystify’ (1945: 381).


Introduction

I have two main points:

First, that most ways of doing clown history have been utterly useless.

Second, as a result, we are asked to rely on stories and myths with no basis in reality such as sad clowns, inner clowns,  clowning as healing, women can't clown and other such mystifications, in order to try and understand clowns and clowning. In other words, bad history produces bad theory.

In this paper I want to present an overview of a history of clown history. What has clown history been ...so far in history?

I’ll briefly look at different common presentations of clown history and ask what those concepts (of what history is) produce, in terms of how we are then able to conceive of clowns.

In their place I want to suggest a more critical kind of history which places clowns and clowning in their political and cultural contexts. In order to see what such an approach might produce, I propose a brief look at some historical and contemporary clowns.

  1. What is clown history?

Clown history isn’t just a question of history, whether that is a history of clowns or of their practices. It also concerns philosophy and theory, or how we think about and theorise what clowns do or are supposed to do.

Victor Vladimirov, Director of the Moscow State College of Circus and Variety Arts, speaking at the 1993 World Clown Congress, asserted that:

“In order to have any movement forward in clowning, you have to have a philosophy of clowning. In order to have a philosophy of clowning, you have to have a history of clowning” (cited in Bruce ‘Charlie’ Johnson (2010) ‘History and Philosophy’ in Clowning Around, March/April 2010).

Monumental History

Foucault’s take on Nietzsche’s three classes of history put monumental history in the first type:
the second of the Untimely Meditations  called “monumental history”: a history given to re-establishing the high points of historical development and their maintenance in a perpetual presence, given to the recovery of works, actions, and creations through the monogram of their personal essence. But in 1874, Nietzsche accused this history, one totally devoted to veneration, of barring access to the actual intensities and creations of life. The parody of his last texts serves to emphasize that “monumental history” is itself a parody.
(Foucault, Michel (1971) Nietzsche, Genealogy, History in Foucault (1991)The Foucault Reader, p. 94)

By way of an example, here is Clown Bluey doing Nietzsche’s second kind of history, the monumental one:

So, where did clowns originate from? Right through ancient history there have always been men (and women!) who have had the ability to make others laugh…
Ancient Egypt 5000 years ago used to keep African Pygmies known as Dangas in the Royal Courts to amuse the Pharos and Royal Families…
Ancient China had clowns attached to the Imperial Court as long ago as the Chou Dynasty (1027-221 B.C.)… One is named as Yu Sze, who was clown to Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, who built the Great Wall of China…
Ancient Greece had clowns who wore short tunics (“chiton”) which were grotesquely padded at the front and rear and knitted socks like tights…
Ancient Rome had several types of clown. Some were known as Sannio ... Another clown was Stupidus (hence our word stupid) which was Latin for mimic fool…There was also a lower form of clown who was known as Scurra …There were yet others known as Moriones…
In Malaya, clowns exist today who are similar to ones who performed thousands of years ago. They are called P’rang …
A well known clown existed in Turkey in about 1440 … His name was Nasr el-Din who was court jester to Tamburlaine (or Timur) the Mongol Conqueror. ..
In the East, a strong tradition of Jesters existed and indeed goes back further than that of Europe, certainly as far as the 8th Century…
In the 1700′s, Italian Commedia del’arte al improviso (professional improvised comedy) was imported into this country…
In 1778, there was born a man who, by his own personality, skill and sheer hard work was to snatch the Harlequinade away from the Harlequin and hand it firmly to the Clown. The man was Joseph Grimaldi …
Prior to this, in 1768, Philip Astley opened his Amphitheatre, the first “circus”…
The Auguste appears to have made his appearance in the middle of the 19th Century and many tales are told of his origin…
(Clown Bluey (2013) ‘Clowns International: Clown History’) http://www.clownbluey.co.uk/more-info/clown-history

If you map these monuments of clown history you get this kind of thing:





Timelines make us think in terms of cause and effect, one thing leading to another. Which is another kind of concept:

Evolutionary History

In evolutionary history, the assumption is that nothing can exist without having grown out of something which existed before. This gives us a sequence of generations, where each new generation can only come into being because of the existence of the previous one, and is supposed to retain some of its characteristics. It is a family resemblance model.

One of the most popular examples of evolutionary history in clown studies concerns the commedia dell’arte. This probably has everything to do with the fact that there are a range of characters with names, which cross historical and national boundaries. It already looks like a family migration.

The problem here is that, for instance, whilst ‘Pierrot’ might be, linguistically speaking, the French form for ‘Pedrolino’, this tells us nothing of why Deburau’s Pierrot does not resemble an Italian Pedrolino of previous centuries. In other words, family trees don’t explain why particular manifestations of clowns actually occurred when and where they occurred.

At worst, they entertain the idea that the elements of a clown are somehow contained within that clown, essential inherent, not historical, and can be passed on in some kind of genetic way.

At best, such genealogies create connections which are highly disputable:

‘The clown, being of recent tradition, has no ancestors beyond a few generations. ‘
(Rémy, Tristan (1945) Les Clowns, p.14)

A third form of history is one of the most popular with clowns themselves.

Anecdotal history

Clowns are notorious for encouraging self-aggrandising myths and legends about themselves. As the clown historian Tristan Rémy’s observed, in Les Clowns, that ‘Clowns, notably, have a propensity to mystify’ (1945: 381).

Everything from claiming to have invented a clown number that has been around for centuries (most clowns), or a costume likewise used by all (Chaplin)to having cured spectators or children of not being able to walk (Charlie Rivel), deafness (Grimaldi) or from dying (Fratellinis) to posing as the ‘philosopher’ clown (Grock, Polunin). The same stories attach themselves to different clowns, cropping up in autobiographies over the years. In Grock’s case, even, one story of daring-do was lifted straight from the pages of a novel.

Perhaps we should include in this category such free-floating myths as the ‘pathetic or tragic clown’, invented by Modernist painters and authors at the end of the 19th century and maintained by moody teenagers, morphing into the trope of the evil clown at the end of the 20th. This is more a case of a kind of mock ‘clown theory’, but in a historical discussion I think it pertinent to point out that theory’s own particular history. And most importantly, that it has one!

Finally, in this list of pop forms of clown history, we have:

Erased history

The attempt to erase clown history occurs, of course, in a particular historical moment.

‘the circus clown [...]  has little to offer theatre’ (Jacques Lecoq in Murray, Simon 2003: 70)

‘Certainly I understand that the Fratellini are the guardians of an old circus tradition, a tradition respected down the centuries. But the times demand that this tradition should be broken and it is this that accounts for the appearance of the realistic clown.’ (Popov, Oleg 1970: 93)

Or Fellini, in his mock-documentary of 1970, The Clowns, who pronounced the clown to be ‘dead’. [play video]

Allusive history

Something all these kinds of history have in common is that they merely allude to clowning, rather than specifying what clowns do, such that we might be able to think about them. Instead, they allude from the vantage point if a pre-established myth, or ideology, if you like.

The anthropologist Paul Bouissac, who has written extensively over several decades on clowns and clown theory, says most clown history only alludes never specifying what clowns did or do thus depriving us of a means to theorise about what they do. Bouissac is concerned how this useless history of clowns and clowning prohibits any kind of theorising about clown performance which would have any kind of historical perspective, and much of his work is driven by a desire to describe and then analyse how clowns produce the effect they produce.

The historical literature generally deals with biographical and chronological data and their interpretation, and offers little information on the precise behaviour of clowns as performers. A trick may be mentioned out of its immediate context, or part of a costume may be described, but the circumstances in which they were used are not given.
Bouissac, Paul (1976) Circus and Culture: a semiotic approach, p.153.

Bouissac accuses a range of commentators, including anthropologists, psychologists, artists and film-makers, of ‘second-hand knowledge’. These commentaries make the mistake of assuming that clowning can be summed up by merely listing some of it’s obvious features, without understanding the structures and forms by which it organises itself (Bouissac is a semiotician, by the way). As in this example, in S. Tarachow’s Circus and Clowns:

“The clown does incredibly stupid things and never seems to learn; even in the judgment of the child he is stupid. Equipped with a broom, he tries to sweep away a circle of light cast by a spotlight, but never succeeds. He follows a bauble suspended from his own headdress. He engages in endless bickering or problems with another clown, problems and quarrels that could be settled in a moment if either clown showed an ounce of intelligence. Other clowns act out the most fantastic childish indulgences. One might endlessly break dishes, another eat enormous amounts of pie. Another is abysmally dirty. Sometimes the dirty clown creates a comic situation in which the superego is gratified. The clown removes a fantastic number of dirty shirts and finally arrives as a spotlessly clean one. There is a good deal of aggression as well as masochism. They strike each other, quarrel, fall, trip. The slapstick and bladder are prominent.”

All of these statements are true, but their sum total is a very poor account of observable sequences
(Bouissac 1976: 153-4)

Bouissac’s own analyses instead focus on the specific cases of individual clowns.

It’s almost as if no-one wants us really to have a proper history of clowns and clowning. Now why would that be?

So, how could we do better?

Let’s have a brief look at some specific examples

Take the history of women clowns.

  1. What is women’s clown history?

Bruce ‘Charlie’ Johnson tells of an instance in 1990 of a variety arts magazine editorial complaining that women were taking the men’s clown jobs because they were more popular. The author

implied that women were hurting the art of clowning. He supported his position by claiming the only woman to star in a circus until recent times was Annie Oakley and that female clowns had not existed until late in the twentieth century. (Johnson 2010)

Two myths are implied here already. One, that women clowns don’t have a history. And two, that women are not, or should not be, better clowns than men. This latter complaint about women clowns taking the men’s jobs would of course be an extreme form of erasure. Simply put, they should ‘disappear’.

Johnson’s written reply to the editorial disputed this view of history, citing Evetta Matthews, who appeared on an 1895 Barnum & Bailey Circus poster. And elsewhere, in Early Female Clowns (2000), Johnson lists: ancient Greek female Dorian Mimes in the 7th century BC; medieval glee-maidens; Mathurine, a seventeenth century jester at the French court; and the role of Columbine in Commedia dell’Arte.

Johnson’s defence of women clown history is to be applauded, but as we can see, he has had to have resort to those forms of history I have argued are non-functioning. He inserts female figures in the list of monuments. This doesn’t get us very far. Nor does mentioning Columbine. Despite being a part of the commedia ‘family’, women clowns don’t really ‘count’ in those family trees of pierrots, harlequins and others...  Which would beg the question: how is it that in recent times suddenly female clowns were ‘born’?

Evetta Matthews

But if we dig a little deeper, and look not just for allusions to women clowns, but specifically what one of them did, we can get somewhere more interesting.

The poster Johnson mentions announces ‘Evetta, the only lady clown’. On the surface, this looks more like a publicity gimmick playing on the novelty value of a woman appearing as a clown, quite the opposite of an acceptance of women clowns in circus.

But what did Evetta actually ‘do’? Here is a contemporary account:

Mathews boldly sat down next to male audience members, made faces at children, and danced, tumbled and twisted ‘like a rubber doll’ while in the arena. Press releases noted that she had ‘all of the new woman's fads’ because she rode a bicycle, swung Indian clubs, ‘and does everything a man does to keep herself in proper trim.’ [From ‘A Very New Woman,’ unidentified newspaper clipping, 1896, Circus World Museum] (Davis 2005: 5)

The description is really an interpretation lacking specific details of how she constructed her performance, or what meaning it might be intended to have. But if we look at Matthews’ own words, they confirm that she consciously saw herself as being in tune with the progressive times:

I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man. All of my people laughed at me when I told them that I was going into the ring as a clown; but they do not laugh now when they see that I can keep an engagement all the time, and earn as much money and more than they can in their branches of the business. [From ‘A Very New Woman,’ unidentified newspaper clipping, 1896, Circus World Museum] (Davis 2005: 5)

The context is of course the New Woman movement, and circus performance was one of several public arenas which women were claiming:

starting in the late 1890s, ‘New Woman numbers’ were a frequent part of the largest circuses: women, clad in ‘becoming’ bloomers, ‘of the most trim fitting, advanced new woman dress reform pattern,’ played all roles in the arena: ringmaster, grooms, and object holders.
Janet Davis (2005) ‘Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America’, p.2.

From this perspective, Matthews’ clown is not just a freak one-off.

So can we theorise that the actions of women clowns in the 1890s and 1900s produced progressive models of women? Unfortunately things are not so simple.

Lulu the clownesse

Here is a description of Lulu the clownesse:

Lulu, in her extraordinary pre-dinner evening dress, but still in her clownesse’s wig,  mounts a fixed bar installed in the centre of the ring by two riders, and she bends backwards to place her sweet, cheeky face with its strange smile between the rustling frills revealed there beneath,  which suddenly frame the inverted oval of her little face, delicate and wicked – her mouth calling – between her black-stockinged legs and white umbellate petticoats.
Champsaur, Félicien (1901) Lulu, Roman clownesque p.653

The clown is purely fictional, from a novel and pantomime by the generally despised vaguely pornographic author, Champsaur. When fictional clowns are described in more detail than real ones, we know that clown historians are in trouble.

The most obvious lesson, though, is that we would need to know much more about what each of these clowns did and how they did it, in order to distinguish between clown as new woman and clown as male erotic fantasy.

  1. Clown history today

What can these lessons in clown history teach us today when we come to look at clowns nearer our own time?

I suggest that, following Bouissac, we first observe what clowns do, and pay no heed to what they, or most others, say, before beginning any kind of analysis.

A quick browse through contemporary women clowns, for example, might reveal that, while most, in a post 60s liberated world, might claim genealogy, as it were, with Evetta rather than Lulu, nearly all do at least one of the following things:


  1. Dress as a man [Annie Fratellini]
  2. Impersonate a ‘monument’, whether male [Nola Rae] or female [Gardi Hutter]
  3. Deal with supposed ‘women’s issues of romantic love [Pepa Plana], marriage [Caroline Dream], or beauty [Clowns Ex Machina]
  4. Exceptions are rare: [Clara Cenoz, Kate Pelling]

Likewise, if we look at contemporary male clowns, we find what they say doesn’t necessarily match what they do.

By ‘what they say’ I am here referring to which discourses are used to explain, frame or theorise on the fundamental questions of ‘what clowns are’ or ‘what clowns mean’. Which is what, I would say, history is for. These discourses may be employed by the clowns themselves, by audiences, reviewers, commentators or, as here, academics. The discourses appear in programme notes for shows, interviews with the media, facebook clown groups, workshop blurbs, and so on.

Let’s take the case of

Slava Polunin

What do they say? And what do they do?

Polunin himself, has the following:

in Russia under Brezhnev Licedei was an island of spiritual freedom in the country where there was no freedom at all. (Polunin 2001)

I prefer when comedy and tragedy are together (Polunin 2001)

I had a dream to turn it into a contemporary art form, to make it more than just fun for children. I thought there was something more profound, a mystery, a modernity in it. (Polunin 2011)

It’s that ‘more than’ which is the key to selling this particular ideology. ‘More than’, together with its sibling, ‘not just’, are of course fairly poor rhetorical devices which disguise the fact that you are unable to say what the ‘more’ bit is. It remains unsayable, mysterious, ideological.

And he is followed by a steady stream of fawning middlebrow theatre critics, such as Alexander Kan, Arts Editor of the BBC's Russian Service, who interviewed Polunin on his return to London in December 2011, with Snowshow, which basically strings together those old clown numbers from the 80s:

Slava Polunin is proud to be a clown. But when you look at what he does you see much more than conventional fooling around of a circus jester. His work is deeply rooted in contemporary avant-garde theatre and dance. (Polunin 2011)

Other tropes from such critics are the delight in spotting the winks to serious modernity:

The foolery on display owes something [...] to Beckett (the proceedings begin with a Godot-style visual gag about hanging yourself). (Paul Taylor in The Independent, 23rd December 2011).

Louise Peacock interprets the noose gag as follows:

Around [his] neck is a rope, carrying with it the full symbolic force of the noose. Simply and directly, the notion of mortality and, perhaps, of life’s unbearability (Sartre’s ‘Anguish’) is communicated to the audience. (Peacock 2009: 81)

If we are in the game of interpretation, then a more level-headed analysis might suggest that there are two main possibilities here. One, that the nooses are ‘just nooses’, and the gag works because it’s impossible for either clown to be hanged. Or, two, that clowns are in the habit of messing about with the serious stuff of fears, death and our inability to make the world as we want it. Either way, there is nothing special about this scene to set it apart from other clowns. But of course, if one expects to see Sartre, then Sartre one shall see.

As both a clown historian and a clown performer myself, I can honestly assert that I see nothing original or exceptional about this gag. So either all clowns are existential geniuses or none of them are. But in no way does this number mark Polunin out.

Even the critics of Snowshow make use solely of allusive description:

When he made Snowshow in 1993, it was soon after the fall of communism, and the grimness of that world lent its weird population of tramps an edge and pathos that now has dissipated. [...] And now, how does it fare nearly 20 years on? [...] The pace is excruciatingly slow, and I have to admit that this time round, many years after my first amazed encounter, I felt the slowness, and the cosiness, rather more keenly. [...] At any rate, I felt that I remembered, seeing Polunin in this long ago, something more hesitant, isolated and withdrawn in the performance. (Ismene Brown in theartsdesk, 29th December 2011)

Perhaps the most telling data, though, aside from the raw evidence of the actual clowning onstage, is that provided by online reviews by audience members. A quick perusal of current online reviews by spectators (not a scientific survey, admittedly) reveals an almost equal divide between mostly 5-star and 1-star reviews. And although the comments are diametrically opposed – typically ranging from ’clowning at its most sophisticated’ to ‘pretentious tosh’ (ticketmaster 2011) – they are agreed on one thing, that the issue is meaning, and not how funny the clown is.

Conclusion


I hope I have gone some way in showing how our received notions of clown history are misleading. Instead, I propose we view clowns and their clowning as specific practices, occurring in different moments in different societies, being shaped by those moments and societies. In other words, clown history is part of all other histories: cultural, social, political, economic, technological, ideological and so on. If we simply set our sights on what clowns did and how they did it in each historical moment, and how what they did was inter-related to those moments, we might end up with a clown history which is more complex and probably more intriguing than the potted one which re-hashes the march of empires or the regurgitation of tired ideologies of unequal genders, masks, or mystical inner selves.

© Jon Davison 2014