Friday, 18 December 2009

Clown Workshop at Shakespeare’s Globe, 16/12/09

The main purpose of this workshop was to teach basic clowning to the students on the MA in Shakespeare Studies. I was also interested to find out how clown works in the Globe, and how clown teaching works in this space. I wouldn’t address the very particular question of actual clown roles in Shakespeare, but instead explore what clown training can offer to the actor. The principal question is, what embodied knowledge and techniques can the clown-actor advantageously bring to the particular conditions of the Globe stage?

Clowning starts with some advantages in this space, as one of the keys to clowning is the immediate and here-and-now contact with the audience and the space. The clown is a master of direct address. Without this complicity, the clown is nothing, as her performance must take off without reliance on character or plot (though these may co-exist with the clown).

Initial clown training is geared towards finding this pleasure of being “naked” before the audience. Indeed, it is this very vulnerability that the audience will love you for. So how is this vulnerability to be achieved? By failing. We all fail constantly, but the clown admits it freely. Such candidness wins hearts and minds, and allows the clown to remain onstage despite failing continually. He has nothing to fear, he is indestructible. Of course, not all Shakespearean roles are clowns. But when the actor can build upon the shoulders of the presence that clowning brings, he will be as if fearless.

The Globe is an eminently easy space to work in. Its conditions naturally lend themselves to all of what I have just described. I have pretty much given up on most theatre spaces as being unworkable for clown, but this one is ideal. It has much in common with the circus, and also with the street. Actors and audience are in the same light, and the audience can be on all sides. So nearly everything I have previously said about the reality and honesty of the circular performing space can be said about the Globe. It does possess something of the fake-ness of theatre, though, that circus doesn’t have, due to its raised stage and the secretiveness of the tiring house. But I can live with that!

Reading up on some of the reports of actors who have worked at the Globe, I am struck their starting point is generally diametrically opposed to mine, as their initial feelings are that the Globe is a difficult space, and one to fear, as they can see the audience! However, their conclusions, having performed there, are much the same as mine. (Carson and Karim-Cooper 2008)

The Globe seems to be a relatively slow space. By this I mean the time taken for what the actor is doing to arrive to the audience is quite slow. About 3 seconds. I do think of it in terms of seconds, meaning that it feels I need to give that time to a gesture, or line, for it to be seen, understood, or ‘read’. Fixed points here feel comfortable lasting around 3 seconds. Other things that feel right here are playing with profile and face on positions. Before working in this space, one of my questions had been, ‘can we do the same things here as we see in most clown workshops in small classrooms where facial expression and understated action are convincing?’ In answer to this, I see that the same kind of subtlety is certainly possible, but that the understatement and facial expression doesn’t work. That’s a relief to me, as these are some aspects of contemporary clowning that I have grown to dislike. The Globe seems to erase the possibilities for low-key irony, hurray!

The usual range of basic clown exercise worked without problems on the Globe stage: playing for an audience who finds you ridiculous presented no real problems. I have one remaining doubt, however, which is the use of the red nose. At the time of the workshop, I felt that it didn’t really work in this space, that it even blocked our vision of the performer’s eyes. But looking at some of the video afterwards, I think it depends more on the other things I have mentioned. Also apparent is how colour and simplicity of costuming are vital here. It is a space of sombre colours, despite the decoration, and I think, as always, the brighter colours (yellow, red, pale blue) and simpler forms will work better here.

Works cited:
Carson, Christie and Karim-Cooper, Farah (2008) Shakespeare’s Globe, a Theatrical Experiment, CUP.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Clown Workshops: how do they work?

I have taught clown for nearly 20 years, and have always thought a lot about the best way to do it, looking for ever more effective clown exercises. Recently, however, I’ve begun to reflect on how people actually receive clowning knowledge, and just how divergent that process is from standard educational practices today.

I’ve never liked those hand-outs that tell the student exactly what they are going to learn, or what they have just supposedly learnt, with their aims and objectives all worked out beforehand. They remind me of watching the news on TV, being vaguely aware of some pre-packaged information gliding through my consciousness. In one ear and out the other.

Some recent clown teaching experiences threw some light on just why I feel like that. I realised that students are often fooled into believing that they have learned something, when perhaps they have not. This happens when the information or process is presented in a highly conscious and rational way, which enables the rational brain to understand, and thus thinks that the information has been learnt. But the brain has perhaps only understood the rational part: the aims, etc. In performance workshops, that commonly happens when the teacher explains the aim of the exercise before asking the students to do it, then gives feedback afterwards, and often gives the student the chance to repeat the exercise and, supposedly, improve. The end result is that everyone feels it’s been a jolly good class. But I would question whether anything lasting has been learned, at least in my field, clowning.

Another trick used to give the illusion of learning is to place these aims in a seemingly logical order. Surely it is better to learn to walk before you can run? But maybe not! A student recently commented to me that he wished he had learned a particular, very simple, element of clowning before having to present a performance in public, as it would have aided him in his performance. Maybe so. But I suggested that it might work the other way round. Perhaps learning a simple technique before realising its importance would be useless: perhaps it is better to think, “shit, I wish I’d known that before!” since this realisation would fix the experience in the memory, both consciously and in the body.

So perhaps we learn better back-to-front. It certainly seems more appropriate to clown, but maybe it is equally effective in other fields. Who knows, clowning might have a serious contribution to make to education in general.

Research Workshops
I've been running these workshops for two years now, but it's only recently that I've become fully aware of what they really consist of. A normal workshop works like a class as we know it: there's a teacher and some students, and the teacher has knowledge the students don't have and communicates it to them. (I'm not going to bother to discuss that particular relationship right now, which some people find problematic, quite simply because I don't have a problem with it.)

These research workshops appear to be like classes: there is someone with greater knowledge, who takes the others through a series of exercises designed to learn how clown works. So what are the differences?

Firstly, in the research workshop I don't have the responsibility to teach anyone anything. Instead, we use the teaching relationship to investigate how the learning process works. So I will propose an exercise or other activity, the students will carry it out and I will be looking for answers to some of my questions, such as "what's the best activity to help us get into a good state for clowning?" or "what's the best way to learn a written clown scene?". I will ask students for their reflections on this, often letting them do the detailed thinking whilst I concern myself with over-arching issues and ways of drawing together all the discoveries. In this sense the relationship resembles that of the researcher in science with his research assistants. Then, when I feel I have some answers, I move the process on, whether all the students have actually experienced the discoveries for themselves or not.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 10, 10/12/09

I began this last workshop of the term with what had always been my usual way: asking everyone for their thoughts since last time. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done that, I’m not quite sure why, perhaps I gave up due to a lack of response?

My next question was, ‘how should we proceed? What is the best way to work with the entrées?

Some requests were:
Perform the action-without-words version.
Learn all the steps first.
Don’t mess around with the basic action, the numbers are already good and we probably won’t improve on them to begin with.
Work in order: first learn the text (alone), second learn the actions (together), third perform it as a clown (your own clown), fourth find the relationships (together).

I’d go along with all of those.

Each clown in The Bottles has an objective which defines their role. Loyal wants the show to go well. Clown wants to show off his trick, and August wants the bottle. In this session we worked with just these three roles, so let’s leave the two counter-augusts aside for the moment.

All these objectives must be really clear to the audience, and if each clown can make us laugh just by embodying their objective, things will go fantastically. When working together, it’s the relationships which are important. One way to milk that more is to wind each other up! The conflicts happen because each role sticks to their own objective. Don’t give in! At the same time, you must leave each other space, setting up your companions so they can shine. It’s what is expressed so well in the French term ‘faire-valoir’, usually used to denominate the clown who makes the august look funny. But it applies equally to all kinds of clowns. This is real playing, in Gaulier’s sense. No role is deliberately out to sabotage another, but simply wants what he wants. I mentioned Meisner recently. And here we are again with some very simple, Meisner-ish instructions for the actor.

So what the audience witnesses in a good clown show is the performers themselves, and not their interpretations or ideas. We feel the performers, as people, and we laugh at their stupid desires, feeling and thoughts. In a bad show, we only see the performer’s ideas, their constructions that they want to show us, their own desire to show us their clever creativity, and we are very quickly bored.

In this session we worked on the first part of The Bottles, up until just before the entrance of the two counter-augusts. We did 8 different versions, rotating the roles, and began not only to get a grasp on the action, inevitably, but, more importantly, to glimpse the subtleties of the relationships. I strongly believe that these entrées are highly delicate and subtle pieces. But if you play them with characters, they descend into cheap imitations of clichés of clowns, that no-one wants to watch. They become parodies of clowns. But if you play them for real, they become delightful studies of human behaviour.

Thus we come to the end of the first term of the third year of the project. What lies ahead? I would like
- Serious rehearsing of the entrées and get them performed as much as possible.
- Settle on a Method of performing/rehearsing.
- Analyse the entrées to make them learnable.
- Revise other actor training, Meisner, etc.
- Continue to devise with tables and chairs.

In addition, there is new work to be started:
- Clown music: what is it?
- What can we learn from Commedia dell’arte scenarios?
- What long forms are appropriate to clown? Hollywood movies, Wagner, Mozart, Black and White Minstrels?

Works cited:
Meisner, Sandford (1987) On Acting, New York: Vintage Books.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 9, 3/12/09

One of the best numbers in Rémy’s collection is The Bottles, which is one of the 12 scenes that remain unpublished in English translation. In order to start work on this little masterpiece, I decided to dictate it directly to the performers, instead of writing out the full translation first. Would dictation work better than reading? I wanted to find the best way of transmitting this material, the best way of learning and assimilating it.

So I talked 5 clowns through the scene, translating from the French, into English, whilst someone else did the translating from my English into Spanish, as I didn’t think I could cope doing a double translation. We needed to do that twice before anyone really got the idea of how the number works, and so the conclusion is that it isn’t a very efficient method. For the next new number, I will try preparing an already-analysed version, where the principal real actions are highlighted, and grouped into sections so that the form can easily be grasped. For example, how many times does the august interrupt the clown before the latter first makes the bottle disappear? This would then be a script more appropriate for clowns than just the entire spoken words and stage directions all recorded without attention to structure.

The session in a sense was a dismal failure as a result, though it is now clear how (not) to proceed. A clear case of learning through failure!

Works cited:
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 8, 26/11/09

Back to William Tell, as we have a gig. We decided to try out our recent experiments on the numbers by performing one at a cabaret at a squatted pub in Bow, The Rose and Clown. Three of us are available, so that’s the cast. So this workshop began by being dedicated to a straight rehearsal of the three performers, with three other participant directing and aiding the process.

I had various questions I wanted to answer as a performer. How can we play as clowns the seemingly high status and less stupid roles? Do you have to ‘be’ that kind of clown in order to play that role? Or can anyone do it? Do you have to ‘construct’ a clown role? Would that make it into a character rather than a clown?

After running the scene through a few times, the question of language came up. One participant thought it was outdated and asked for a non-naturalistic and therefore, in her opinion, false delivery. I personally think the available English translation is not particularly well written, in an American English that nonetheless tries to retain some kind of period (1920s) Europeanness, which ends up as a linguistic mishmash.

But I don’t agree that the two performance mode options are naturalistic and convincing, or theatrical and false. Nor do I think I outdated. Comedians use this kind of language, often repetitive and standardised. What I am looking for is something that both convinces and is theatrical.

We experimented with making the august role high status and knowledgeable, the one who drives the action, whilst the clown became the victim. It worked better in some ways for me, playing clown, as it was nearer to my natural style, but for the august it was introducing too much psychology. It had become a constructed character. don't have to worry about being a character. You have one thing to do and concentrate on. That is the character. “That’s the character?" Ray asks. Yes. “So you don't have to play at being the character, it's right there in your doing it." Meisner (1987: 24)

All this led us to the simple conclusion: ‘play it as ourselves’. And with our real names. This proved easy, satisfying, fun and funny. We still disagreed, though, about whether this was naturalistic or not. I thought it wasn’t, as there was still plenty of theatricality. We were convincing and playful and ourselves. We were playing for real.

We then shrank the prologue into a direct presentation by Loyal of the demonstration of shooting, introduced as the result of the fellowship research investigation. The idea behind this was that this introduction was truthful and real, following on from us playing the roles as our real selves.

This session, though it began as a regular kind of rehearsal, had become something more complex and interesting: a rehearsal that was asking some fundamental questions about how acting works. These questions addressed the issues of the relationship between the actor and he role, which is the central question in this research project. I had a feeling now that we were at last having the conversation I had been waiting for over two years for. We were even asking, ‘what happens when actors play clown texts and vice versa?

The next big question, having decided to ‘be ourselves in the role’ (easier said than done), was whether and how I could transfer this knowledge back into the realm of orthodox theatre and acting? Are we moving back towards other methods of actor training, and if so, which? Meisner comes to mind first of all, as do David Mamet words.

The performance. Basically, it was a rough gig. We didn’t stand our ground and remain true to ourselves-playing-the-roles. There is no excuse for this other than to look to our own performances. Having said that, there were some mitigating circumstances. The idea of the introduction didn’t work. I don’t think introducing clown, as clowns, ever really comes off. It’s far too clever. A clown presenter can exist, but he wouldn’t say much that made sense. We also altered the ending, due to problems with props, at the last minute.

But more than this, the cabaret context was not in our favour. What is it about cabarets that escapes clowns? I have been performing in and watching quite a few over these past weeks. They are superficially different kinds of places, ranging from smoky squats to west end burlesque. But they still seem to have something in common, and it is a something which doesn’t sit well with clown, perhaps.

In order to analyse what this is, I tried comparing these spaces with other spaces where I did feel that clown was the natural order of things. My most recent example, and one where I have performed and worked quite a lot, is the tent at Cal Clown (Escola de Clown de Barcelona). So, what are the differences? In the tent, the performers have a circular stage of 11 m diameter, with the audience seated on all sides apart from a small entrance. The performer thus has a lot more space than the audience does. This relationship is marvellous and gives the performer a sense of freedom to expose all to the audience. And everything is seen.

In contrast, in a cabaret, the performing space is tiny, much smaller than the auditorium. Cabaret needs the minimum space for one or two people to stand. They don’t need to move. The performance style that this results in is one that doesn’t reveal truths to the audience. I’m not sure what it does do, but for me the cabaret audience is looking for something negative, parody or satire basically, which is not something vulnerable and honest, but instead a more critical and darker view of things than what a clown brings. The cabaret performer is typically saying to the audience, ‘look at this, isn’t it awful?’ Pretty much the opposite to the clown, whose line would be, ‘look at this, isn’t it amazing?’

Maybe I have given a too harsh judgement, but I am genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of this, to enable us to perform clown in this setting, if it be possible. If not, then we won’t. Having set cabaret and clown against each other, I would also say that perhaps there can be something of cabaret in clowning, and that it might appear principally in the white-face clown. Or maybe even more so in the solo clown, the eccentric. More of that another day.

Works cited:
Meisner, Sandford (1987) On Acting, New York: Vintage Books.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.
Rémy, Tristan (1997) Clown Scenes, trans. by Sahlin, Bernard, Chicago : Ivan R.Dee.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 7, 19/11/09

In this workshop I wanted to try another of Rémy’s entrées, The Cakes in the Hat, one that is structurally less clear than William Tell. This one doesn’t have two separate parts (prologue and action). But two functions are present. We can extract the action (the cake trick done twice) from the remainder, which provides the context of the clown trying to show his skill, and the august trying unsuccessfully to emulate him. Here, the august has more of an objective, though at first he as in William Tell, simply reacting to the proposals of the clown. But the august soon wants to adopt the same objective as the clown, of doing the cakes trick, with disastrous results.

Our rehearsal method was to first block the piece without using any of the dialogue. The question is, how much can we do without the spoken words? I excluded the use of pantomime as a substitute for words (especially those gestures that seek to make others do as you wish, such as signals for ‘come here’, ‘wait’, etc.) Also forbidden were non-verbal sounds. And finally, all the performers must appear to be normal, intelligent people, and not imbeciles.

All of these warnings originate in my seeing these boundaries crossed time and time again by clown students and performers. How many countless times have you seen clowns tell each other, and the audience, what to do? Or use pantomimic gestures, as if the audience were so stupid they didn’t understand! Each performer, as in any theatre, must only worry about their own role, and retain their independence, allowing their partners to be themselves, thus creating the conditions for drama, conflict and fun. Likewise, performers should leave the audience to comprehend by themselves. After all, they are just as intelligent as you are.

We then had a kind of ‘action-script’. Anything that appears in the text, but is not an actable action, must be omitted. So we don’t attempt to act any non-actions. What is a ‘real action’, then? The first one in The Cakes in the Hat is when the august hides his hat from the clown. That’s real, in that it can be done by the real body in real, present space. And we can add the motivation in the way that we do this action. But without the action this would be impossible, to show only the emotional drive for the action but without the action itself. In the moments immediately after his real action, we can add some more business that is a consequence of the real action. In this example the clown shows his lack of interest in the august’s hat, and the august is offended. But it would be impossible to show only this ‘offence’. Moving on, we will need to get to the next real action, and so on.

Having got this far, we then added back in some of the spoken text, but only if you feel that the words will add to the audience’s pleasure.

Works cited:
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 6, 12/11/09

Halfway through this term and we move on from devising new numbers to the problem of how to perform already existing material. These are not just any old bits of clown ideas. They are texts of actual performances given by some of the leading clowns from the Golden Age (c.1890-1945), as recorded by the clown historian, Tristan Rémy, in Entrées clownesques. Rémy’s collection has been translated into at least English, Spanish, German and Italian, but the Spanish version (a Mexican edition) is out of print and the English one only contains 48 of Rémy’s original 60 numbers and a heavily truncated preface. I have no idea why this is so, as some of the very best scenes are omitted, most glaringly Les Bouteilles, a masterpiece for 5 clowns.

I have worked with some of this material in the past, but now seems to be the moment to really take the bull by the horns. We begin with William Tell, and the first question is, ‘how do we begin?’ The other main question is, ‘how do all three performers remain true to their ‘own clown’ whilst interpreting clearly defined roles?’

A first analysis of the text leads me to split the piece in two. The first part consists of a kind of prologue, where the scene is set and the clowns become known to us. The second is the action proper, consisting of the trick played on the august by the clown. In the first part, each of their individual desires, needs or, if you like, super-objectives, are exposed. We are talking theatre here, where an actor will want to know what his role wants from the scene.

We have M. Loyal, the ubiquitous circus owner or director, so-called after the famous circus-owning family of the Loyals, and thence used as a generic name for this figure. The English term ‘ringmaster’ doesn’t really capture the same connotations. Strictly speaking the ringmaster takes his place at the centre of the ring in order to direct the horses who canter around its perimeter. Loyal’s place is more at the barrier, the entrance to the ring. Loyal’s desire is that the show go well, that the audience are happy.

Then we have the clown. In the terminology of the time, this is what we understand as the white-face clown, and not the red-nosed one. His role is to drive the action, for it is he who habitually has something to show, something to prove, even. This may be a piece of music, or a magic trick, or anything that involves skill, fantasy or pretention. Clown entered the circus in its early days, and has taken many forms - acrobatic, musical, verbal - according to the fashion of the times. Determining just why fashions come and go is a tricky business. But we can often identify factors such as circus architecture, censorship laws, war, or depression. For example, in 1864 the law in France changed to permit circuses to present spoken dialogue.

The gibberish of the heirs to the English clowns lost favour. Now the comedy of situation could be added to the comedy of gesture and attitude … French clowns could play scenes with several characters in a language the audience understood. The comedians of the French ring could now vie with the clowns of the English spirit. (Rémy 1945)

Speaking clowns, sometimes referred to at this time as “shakespearean clowns”, such as Tom Matthews, had indeed been popular in England in the 1850s, since the passing out of favour of Grimaldi-style “total clowning”. But any thoughts that this new style of clowning is any less vulgar or explosive than its predecessor are dispelled by Baudelaire’s comments on seeing one, probably Matthews, in Paris:

The English Pierrot arrived like a tempest, fell like a sack, and when he laughed, his laugh shook the theatre: that laugh was like a happy thunderclap…Where Deburau dipped a finger in the milk, the English plunged both fists and feet. (Baudelaire 1855)

If England had Clown, born of the genius of Grimaldi, the French had Pierrot, made famous by Deburau. But even such a national treasure was doomed to passing trends. Talking of Kalpestri, the successor (c.1860-80) to the Deburau family style, Isabell Baugé considers this to be the beginning of the end of the Pierrots.

His style was vulgar and gross. In any case, the fin-de-siècle audience had abandoned the mysterious creation of Deburau for a more macabre and decadent Pierrot, who was disquieting rather than comic. (Baugé 1995: 11)

It was the turn of acrobatic pantomime to rule in the 1870s. Rémy is quite scathing in his comments on the Hanlon-Lees, the greatest exponents of this form, considering it a style performed by specialists, often without much innate comicity. The Hanlon-Lees Brothers rose to fame through the appeal of

their fantasy-worlds, diabolical rather than spiritual, emphasising strength, precision, illusions, props, miracles, and a violent upside-down world. (Remy 1945: 53-4)

Their biographer, John A. McKivern, gives specific details:

In “Pierrot Menuisier”, Pierrot sells upholstered coffins to people. When he kills a man for declining to purchase, he is hunted by the man’s ghost wearing the coffin he had tried to sell him. As gendarmes approach, Pierrot fires a gun and hits a pregnant cat producing a hailstorm of kittens falling on the stage. (McKinven 1998: 34-5)

So what was it that brought about a turn of fortune for the Hanlon-Lees, for they had been around for a while, debuting in London back in 1847?

For over a century English pantomimists had been celebrated in France for their eccentricity, their awe-inspiring rough and tumble. The Hanlon-Lees startled even English audiences… Violence was a characteristic of their work from the very beginning; it was one of their greatest attractions in the eyes of Parisians…in 1872. (Thomas Walton in Entortilationists, quoted in McKinvern 1998: 34)

But it is Émile Zola’s comments of 1876 on the 13-month successful run at the Folies-Bergère of their show Do-mi-sol-do, that suggest their humour chimed with the post-Franco-Prussian War climate:

This exotic art provoked the only laugh of which we were capable at that moment, a laugh without gaiety, convulsive, full of fear. (quoted in Rémy 1945: 57)

The descendents of such mayhem might be spotted much later on in the cinema of Mack Sennett and his Keystone Kops, or the TV of The Young Ones. In our history of clown, however, I have dwelled on the dark violence of the 1870s merely because it is the storm before the calm. For it is the next decade which brings us to the third clown of our trio, the august.

The success of the august was born of a reaction by the mass public against the solemn and over-fabricated style of acrobatic pantomime. Through his freedom of action and the spontaneity without which he could not fulfil his role, the august led a protest against the select and stilted milieu of the circus of the second Empire… Demystified and explained, the mechanics of the Hanlon-Lees and their successors were becoming banal. The shows at the higher quality circuses were becoming serious and people were beginning to get bored of them… (Remy 1945: 83)

Rémy attempts to unravel the various myths and legends about the origin of the august clown, dedicating a whole chapter to “Birth of the August”. Being a historian dedicated to unearthing as much truth as is possible, Rémy is suspicious of the clowns’ own words. In fact, clowns at first regarded the august as a terribly inferior role, and only later, when the august gained popularity, claimed to have been the inventors themselves. Rémy regards the clowns’ own memoires to be vastly unreliable evidence. So let’s stick to the facts.

His [the august’s] remarkable history begins with James Guyon who appeared at the Hippodrome de l’Alma, at the end of the 80s, and who gave life to an august who became the prototype of all the others. The fact is that after James Guyon one finds but a single circus without a more or less comic august, but so little different from the model that each imitator can claim to be the original. (Rémy 1945: 64)

Despite this sudden craze, augusts are regarded by (white-face) clowns as grossly inferior. Edouard de Perrodil, in Monsieur Clown (1889), gave this warning:

Never make the mistake of calling a clown an august in his presence, he will take you for the most contemptible, vulgar and unintelligent ignoramus. On the other hand, I do allow that you give the name of clown to an august, he will be flattered and will offer you his hand as a sign of recognition. (quoted in Rémy 1945: 65)

Despite their disdain, the clowns claimed to have somehow collectively invented this new figure that was taking the limelight. The Fratellinis may be the source of one particular legend, picked up by Pierre Mariel:

One evening, in 1864; an English horseman, employed in a Berlin circus, trips as he exits the ring where he has just placed some equipment. Tom Belling, named August (the name of this horseman), was known, urbi et orbi, for his intemperance. Such that some fools, not doubting that his fall, somewhat comic, was due to a state of endemic drunkenness, heckle him with: “August, August”. He gets up and looks at the audience, laughing… His ridiculous manner and his red nose cause the auditorium to repeat, with a gay abandon: “August, idiot”.

So what kind of clown is this august? He starts as the clown dressed as a citizen, the parody of the Ringmaster.

The ringmaster knew just how to take advantage of the incredible stupidity of the August. He gave him a special costume which has been kept since then and that everyone recognises: ill-fitting black suit, with ridiculous tails (de Perrodil quoted in Remy 1945: 67-8).

This simple figure is not primarily an acrobat, but a professional comedian, irrespective of whether he has other skills or not.

The august’s role can be summed up in one word: reaction. Whilst the clown is continually proposing, the august is continually reacting, mostly in a way that conflicts with the clown’s goals. An essential feature of the august is that he doesn’t appear alone. He needs the clown, and it is this partnership that, from the 1890s onwards, ushers in the golden age of clowning.

It is most likely Pierantoni and Saltamontes who were the first example of a pair of clowns that were not simply brought together occasionally for the performing of an interlude or an entrée, but who were united by a team spirit and capable of playing the whole repertoire according to their own games and their own ideas. (Rémy 1945: 101)

Such a partnership is founded on dramatic principles, relying on a theatrical complicity born of a long-standing pairing. which is the beginning of the revolution in clowning. It was Foottit and Chocolat who were to become the first stars in this new format.

Thanks to [the august]… the classical entrée… extends, expands, takes on the proportions of a comedy sketch and becomes theatrical in form. (Remy 1945: 103)

Their repertoire depends on the personalities of the performers, rather than their techniques or staging. This is the beginning of the golden age of circus clowning, where the dramatic possibilities of the clown/august relationship, together with the Ringmaster, will be explored fully for the next half-century.

So there we have them. Two clown roles, and a straight man.

In this workshop w concentrated on the second part of the text, working on getting the mechanics of the action right. Once we were more or less satisfied with our results, we turned our attention again to the prologue. IT makes sense if you perform the number in a circus, but what if we were to do it somewhere else? Like a pub, for instance, or in the street?

Creating a new context doesn’t mean creating new material, or corrupting what you have. This isn’t an exercise against the flow, like those awful politically correct renderings of little red riding hood, for example. We are not looking for an ironic reading, but a renewal. So in devising a new prologue, we will probably use all the ideas already present, unless they absolutely contradict our new context.

Our pub results were pretty satisfying. Loyal becomes the publican, Clown strides into the bar, weapon in full view, and causes a stir, understandably. Loyal wants to know what on earth he’s up to with that rifle in here. Clown talks him round and Loyal demands a demonstration. At which point Clown calls on August, who has been sat there at the back all this time, planted in the public. The rest is textual…

This gave rise to an interesting discussion on reality. What happens when you walk into a pub with a big gun on your shoulder? You get arrested! Or shot! So we have to make some choices from the options available. In order for the gun to have an effect, it must be believable, to an extent. But it must also be in play, as this is clown. If the audience know the clowns are coming, we can get away with more realism. But if it’s a surprise, we have to signal that it’s only theatre.

I shall report back when we have tried it out a number of times.

Works cited:
Baudelaire, Charles (1855) De l’Essence du rire.
Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes, Cahors : Cicéro Éditions.
McKinvern, John A. (1998), The Hanlon Brothers, Illinois: David Meyer Magic Books.
Tristan Rémy (1945), Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 5, 5/11/09

We must now finalise Act I, or at least draw some conclusions about how we might conceive of this opening part of a full-length clown show. For this is an investigative workshop, at this stage investigating the devising process, and is not a true devising session in itself.

By full-length show, I mean 90 or 120 minutes. These days when people talk about full-length shows, they often mean barely 60 minutes. Is it because of a lack of audience attention span, o a lack of ideas? When we spent two or more years devising our first show as Companyia d’Idiotes (1993-6), we scraped through to 50 minutes, or an hour on a good night. It’s not easy devising a long piece of work.

It is not only the length that dissatisfies me when I see a full-length clown show. It is also the structure. That’s leaving aside the shows that are plain bad, either because of their content or their performers, of course. Even the decent shows seem to lack a sense of how they are put together. One of the most successful clown shows of the last decade or so, Slava’s Snowshow, is structurally a horrific hodge-podge of numbers of varying type and rhythm, seemingly stitched together without thought. Yet it has received critical acclaim (though not amongst clowns, in my experience). The fact is, there is little to gauge good clown work by. WE have no ‘Clown Shakespeare’, at least not visibly so, though I could argue the case for the Fratellini’s William Tell, or Dario and Bario’s The Bottles, for example.

There is still a feeling that clowns do not produce good full-scale work. The clowns themselves are sceptical:

Working in a theatre doing shows of an hour is very difficult, it takes it out of you, it demands brilliance. Usually a clown burns out in an hour, although there have been people who have done it very well. (Interview with Oriol Boixador in Zirkolika 2008, my translation.)

The question remains of which structure to use. Discounting a series of numbers, as well as a unified fictional setting (or ‘clown-theatre’, as they might call it in Britain), I await clarification via our ongoing investigative work. If we tread carefully, I am sure the right forms will emerge.

Back to Act I, we now know several key elements of how it will work. We know the action will not need motivation, that it will lead to a second Act concerning food and drink, and that a table and one or two chairs must be onstage by the time the first act finishes. We must still decide if the objective of eating is to be stated from the outset, later to be fulfilled or bettered. Or if this objective is to emerge. My feeling is to incline for the statement of intent at the start. It is stronger to set up an audience expectation, then thwart it, then overcome the obstacles, and finally achieve the objective and go one better.

This is true of even the smallest street show, where structure is vital. If I start by getting out my accordion, then I am effectively making a promise that I will play it. After a series of problems and attempted solutions, I must eventually give the audience what they want, or more. Anything less will lead to my audience walking off in disappointment.

Our structure will thus look something like this:

Act I
Scene 1: business of bringing chair on, keeps getting removed, finally in postion.
Scene 2: rhythmical sequence of moves, involving leaping, chasing, falling and other slapstick, building to a climax, possibly with broken furniture.
Scene 3: order is restored, and we end up not just with a chair or two, but a table as well.

Act II: food arrives?

So much for the devising process, then. I will now leave the nuts and bolts work on this piece for other rehearsals and, in these research workshops, move on to working with already-scripted numbers.

Works cited:
Companyia d’Idiotes, Mamiydaddy, Barcelona, 1996.
Dario and Bario, (1930) The Bottles in Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.
Fratellini, Francois and Albert, Guillaume Tell in Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.
Slava Polunin, Slava’s Snowshow, Barcelona, 1999.
Zirkolika (2008), Revista de las Artes Circenses, no.19 Winter 2008.

Friday, 30 October 2009

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

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

Following are the fundamental actions that most answer the question, ‘what did you bring the chair on to do?’ The most obvious perhaps is to eat, and suggests a need for a table. Also strong, but rather over-situated are to have your teeth pulled out, and to have your hair cut, or get a shave. These two are classics in the clown repertoire, of course, scenes with barbers and dentists giving plenty of scope for clowning. Even more common, though, are scenes with food and drink. Rémy’s collection of 60 entrées includes no less than 16 which deal with the subject (Rémy 1962).

What is it about being obvious that attracts clowns? And why am I so interested in primary behaviour at the expense of being original? One explanation is that when you perform such a basic action as eating, or sitting, the audience generally will accept what you are doing without the need for further explanations. In other words, you do not need to justify your actions. We don’t need motivation for these everyday acts that all of us engage in almost without thought.

This is a great advantage to the clown, and indeed to the actor in general. As we do not need to explain our actions to the audience, we do not need to add anything to our performance beyond actually doing those actions. Said in another way, we do not need to interpret our actions or, even, we do not need to ‘act’. The English language is a bit confusing here, as I would like to use the word ‘act’ to denote ‘simply doing the action without adding anything’, rather than to denote the interpretation of one’s own actions which is implied when we speak negatively as in ‘stop acting’. The Spanish word for acting, ‘interpretar’ gives us a better idea of what I mean, though the French ‘jouer’ takes us completely in the opposite direction. All of which might serve as a warning that, when trying to talk about what acting is, it is often simply a case of avoiding semantic pitfalls.

So, looked at in this way, the choice of actions for our clown show might be based on the criteria of ‘needing no motivation/justification’. We can then see the relative weakness of actions such as: to reach something up high; to read; or to put your shoes on. All of which suggest questions of ‘why?’ ‘what?’ and ‘where?’: ‘what are you reaching for?’ ‘what/why are you reading?’ ‘where are you going, and why?’

Even more, we can also now see that the actions sited at the barber’s and the dentist’s do in fact require more justification than eating. They ask us to suspend our disbelief. They are in a sense more fictional than the action of eating and drinking, which can happen almost anywhere and anytime. Now, if we actually situated that eating and drinking in a restaurant, for example, then we would be asking the audience to do the same work as when they watch the barber or dentist scene. Which, in my opinion, is a very good reason not to create that restaurant. For, once you have your restaurant, you will have to keep referring to the damned thing, and will be more restricted in your choices, but without gaining anything from the situation.

Taking a situation and finding as many gags in it as possible is a common enough procedure for generating material. Chaplin did just that in the early part of his cinema career. And - surprise, surprise - the restaurant was one of the best!

Although I hadn’t a story, I ordered the crew to build an ornate café set. When I was lost for a gag or an idea a café would always supply one.(Chaplin 1964: 180)

Of course, the later Chaplin would build longer and more complex forms that could no longer rely on this simple procedure.

As my skill in story construction developed, so it restricted my comedy freedom. (Chaplin 1964: 180)

In Chaplin’s medium, film, the actual café was absolutely necessary and unavoidable. It is virtually impossible to have unsited action on camera, as photography demands that all the space be in a sense real. But live theatre is much freer. We can perform without set, without costume, without lights, without just about everything except the actor and the audience. The performance doesn’t so much represent a reality, copying it like film does, as exist as a primary reality itself. And the less we use fictional time and space, the more real the performance becomes in itself. I personally believe that clowning belongs more in this kind of ‘real performance’, and that this brings it closer to circus, which is also a performance of real rather than fictional actions.

Circus draws this ‘realness’ from two principle sources. The first is the nature of feats of difficulty. The performance of difficulty or danger is, in itself, dramatic. It is ‘enough’. We need no story, no fiction, no theme, though many have thought differently throughout the long history of cross-fertilisation between circus and theatre, contrary to the pretensions of new circus practitioners who claim to have invented circus theatre. Early circus combined a ring and a stage.

From one point of view, early circus can be seen as an awkward hybrid, pending the emergence of its natural form, the unitary ring, in the late 19th century… From another point of view, we can see early circus as the perfect expression of its age… an oscillation between the three-dimensional action in the ring and the pictorial display on stage. (Wiles 2003: 199)

The logic of the early circus was a binary one. The beauty of the material body was displayed by athletic horsemanship and by living sculptures in the ring, while nobility of spirit and the ethereal beauty of exotic landscapes were displayed within the idealist world of the stage. (Wiles 2003: 200)

Early circus at Astley’s loved to put on shows recounting great military theatrics –The Courier of St. Petersburg, The Vicissiudes of a Tar, starring Andrew Ducrow; the Battle of the Alma; or Richard III - and at the Cirque Olympique, which in order to escape Napoleon’s regulation of the theatres of 1807 argued that it was not a theatre, famous performers in dramas included Coco the Stag and Baba the Elephant.

Military circus re-appeared in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, most notoriously in Makhno’s Men, where star clown Vitaly Lazarenko was cast as the villain, the anarchist leader Nestor Makhno.

While Makhno’s Men brought a new historical “realism” into the Soviet circus, the pantomime’s river flood and its military battle reconstructed with circus artists riding horses were hardly avant-garde innovations. Charles Dibdin staged “aqua-dramas” in England as early as 1804. The 1824 London pantomime, The Battle of Waterloo, featured riders dressed as Cossacks in cavalry battles more than a century before the Red Army’s cavalry chased Makhno’s men across the ring in Moscow. Like the Russian pantomime in 1929, the Cossack spectacle at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London included the blowing up of a bridge. (Schechter 1998: 43)

Times had changed: at the beginning of the decade clowns had symbolised the revolutionary spirit; Stalin’s view was that they represented the dangerous forces of individualism and anarchy.

In the ‘Golden Age’ of circus, the drama was provided by extended clown entrées performed by duos and, later, trios. Much later, New Circus later would have an obsession with characters and narrative that revealed a curious sense of inferiority in relation to theatre, and which had the disastrous effect of ousting the clown from a central position in the show.

As Contemporary Circus began to theatricalise circus and develop longer shows bound by a single artistic vision, addressing a narrative or thematic line, the clowns found themselves marginalized. Even circuses like the Pickles Family Circus, which was described by Mankin as ‘clown-sensitive circus… a “clown-love zone”’ (2001: 106) struggled with integrating the longer, narrative clown entrées. (Peacock 2009: 52)

Today, Cirque du Soleil content themselves, and their audience, with a theme, a kind of wave towards meaning which avoids actually having to make any.

The negative impact of Cirque du Soleil’s vision of itself as creating a new kind of theatricality is that the shows become pretentious, imbued with a meaning which Cirque du Soleil claims in its marketing of the show but which is rarely discernible to the audience. In over-theatricalizing, Cirque du Soleil seems to have lost sight of one of the potential purposes of theatrical performance; to communicate meaning. (Peacock 2009: 56)

The second source of realness in circus is of more general appeal, at least to me as a clown and actor. It is the circular performing space. Performing in the round means you cannot hide anything. All is visible, physically, and therefore psychologically and emotionally too.

This makes it practically impossible to convince the audience of the existence of fictional worlds, or to create places which are nor actually present.

The circle is unsympathetic to the spaces which plays most commonly represent: rooms, roads, fields and so forth. (Wiles 2003: 165)

It thus also inhibits narrative, which is essentially fictional.

To recover a Greek spatial relationship [the circle] combining physicality with narrative, concelebration with political statement, is an elusive El Dorado for many modern practitioners. (Wiles 2003: 164)

In other words, what happens in the circus is for real, it is here and now. Raffaele de Ritis points out that in circus, death may happen in the ring, before our eyes, in contrast to Greek theatre, where it happens offstage and out of sight.

When we started to teach clown at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona in the new tent, we realised that the space solves half of the problems involved in training in clown. Reducing the possibility of fiction, students are required to address the reality which is before them, which is an empty space and an audience who have come to enjoy themselves. What better context for the production of clowning?

Once one has accustomed oneself to this relationship, one has to learn how positions within the circle produce meaning in a very different way to working on a rectangular theatre stage. Wiles refers to Stephen Joseph’s experience of theatre in the round at Scarborough:

He argues that the circle is not vectored and has but a single strong point, namely the centre… He makes an analogy with the interior of a lighthouse, saying that lighthouse-keepers are known to go mad because they have no point of orientation. (Wiles 2003: 165)

It is this lack which distinguishes the circle from the square, the latter being defined by a sense of north, south, east and west. In the square, back and front are different, as long as the audience are only on one of these sides. Even left and right take on significance. So, when I move, as an actor, downstage, I create meanings, which are distinct from when I move upstage, for example. In contrast, in the circle, there is no backwards or forwards, or even sideways. It is irrelevant which point on the outer edge of the circle I am at, for example. I will always be in the same relationship to the centre, and indeed to the audience.

I agree that the centre is a strong point. But I also feel that there are other meaningful points in the circle. There is a kind of outer ring, a little way in from the edge of the circle, which is a different space to the very edge. For at the very edge I virtually disappear from the performing space, and become associated more with the audience and its space. A third important point in the circle is the one near the artists’ entrance, which partly breaks up the unity of the circle. Standing just in front of this entrance, I command the space in a particular way. In a related, but less present way, I can command the space from the barrier, the actual gateway into the ring. To generalise, we can place the white-face clown at the centre of the ring, the august on the periphery, and the ringmaster, or director, at the barrier.

So we know how the ring determines the relationship between performer and audience, but how would it affect the relationship between student and teacher, if used consistently? The traditional position of the teacher, sat in the centre of his watching students whilst one or two are onstage working with the exercise, produces a clear power relationship that maybe has helped create the figure of the master/guru which is so common in the world of clown teaching. What would happen to that guru if he were merely one of many, watching from the rim of a circle? This is something I am keen to experiment with in the near future.

Going back to our devising process, we did just have time for one more thing in this session. Looking at objects that easily accompany chairs, as sources of more action, we found attractive those that might produce accidents or danger when placed on the seat, such as drawing pins, plates of food, hats, glasses, candles, etc.

But the main conclusion points towards food and drink in Act II, thus allowing us to ‘just do the actions’ whilst, of course finding them ridiculous and making the audience laugh. A kind of ‘clown Mamet’, if you like.

Works cited:
Chaplin, Charlie (1964) My Autobiography, London: The Bodley Head.
Mamet, David (1999) True or False, New York: Vintage.
Peacock, Louise (2009) Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect.
de Ritis, Raffaele (2007) El Cercle I la Poetica del Risc, in Generalitat de Catalunya (ed.) (2007)El Circ: la Poetica del Risc, Barcelona: KRTU.
Schechter, Joel (1998) The Congress of Clowns and Other Russian Circus Acts, AK Press.
Wiles, David (2003) A Short History of Western Performance Space, Cambridge: CUP.

Friday, 23 October 2009

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

Having got the chair onstage, what happens next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Clown Training: Transcript of a Talk

Central’s AHRC Creative Fellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video plays

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

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

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

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

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

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

AL: Jeopardy in the moment.

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

AL: Any other questions to Jon?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

AL: The Holy Grail.

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

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


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


Friday, 16 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited:

Tristan Rémy (1945) Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset

Friday, 9 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

An Encyclopaedia of Clown

[This is a lengthy piece of work, so I thought I'd publish it bit by bit. Here are the first two entries to be going on with.]

50 ways or elements (a kind of clown periodic table, perhaps?) to understand how clown works and how to generate material.

We used the Encyclopaedia to devise a short demonstration show for the Festival Of… at CSSD in September 2009, designed to test, compare and demonstrate the wide variety of forms and structures in clown performance.

To read more about how we compiled the Encyclopaedia, see my paper ‘The Dramaturgy of Clown or “What do clowns do?”’

1. Breaking the written rules of the game.

By “rules of the game”, we mean any norms of behaviour stated explicitly, and which are designed to generate a particular activity in an orderly way. Evidently the breaking of these norms will threaten or even destroy the activity. Donald McManus defines clown’s role as contradicting the context: “Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears” (McManus 2003: 17).

We commonly use words like “cheating” or “disobeying” to denote these disruptive behaviours, but perhaps the most radical way is to “refuse to play”. The Olympic 100-metre runner who takes drugs (cheats) is abhorred by the sporting community, but is ultimately understood, as their behaviour is motivated by the ethic of winning the game, and thus shares the same values as sporting society. But the runner who strolls down the track instead of trying to win is an affront to the community’s ideals that cannot be assimilated within its value-system. The clown’s role thus situates him/her as an outsider, one who knows that: “There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for these rules, and so on” (Carse 1986: 10).

We all have the impulse to disobey, as well as the impulse to maintain order. Both are key elements in clown.

2. Breaking the unwritten rules of social cohesion.

By “rules of social cohesion” we mean any norms of behaviour not stated explicitly, but which are implicitly applied by mutual agreement of a group. As with the above entry, the breaking of these rules leads to the threatened or actual unravelling of the pretended order. Relationships between people, and between people and objects, start to fail.

In order to know when we are breaking the rules, we need to know and acknowledge what the correct behaviour would be. For example, we know how to use a chair properly: we can sit in it or stand up from it. We can move it or stack it, offer it or accept a seat in it.

Improper uses might be: standing on it, pulling it away when someone sits, or fighting with it. All these uses are common and logical, but remain improper in the sense that we or the chair fails to comply with the primary use it was intended for.

Going still further, we can find fanciful or tertiary uses: taming a lion, balancing it on your forehead, a chair which collapses, a chair made of paper.

Clowning thus engages directly with material and social reality, first and foremost. It sees things “as they are”. In spite of our constant breaking of the unwritten rules that surround us in our activities, those rules never go away. They may change, but new ones are continuously appearing. The goal of eliminating them is an unattainable utopia. Clowns are content to play infinitely with the rules, and thus take up no permanent political or ideological position. They are constantly responding to and contradicting the context, which is constantly changing.

I think this is a salutary lesson at our own historical moment in clown in the West. Clown is far simpler than those who equate it with self-expression, or creativity, would have it. It does not consist in having far-fetched ideas that bear no relation to reality. In brief, clown is not a short-cut to escapism. Only by accepting and coming to terms with reality does the clown truly free him/herself from the weight of materiality. You can’t change reality – it will always remain reality. This acceptance parallels the recognition of the flop in performance, when one accepts one has failed, and the audience duly laugh.

Paul Bouissac argues that not only do clown routines depend on playing with the real, but they actually serve to define what is perceived to be real and unreal. According to Bouissac, clowns thus reveal and demonstrate the tacit principles underlying society, and are thereby the producers of a kind of socio-anthropological theory-in-practice: “circus clown performances demonstrate the basic but unwritten rules on which our construction of a culturally bound meaningful universe rests” (Paul Bouissac 1997:195).

Bouissac goes further: “Profanation is not so much the breaking of a rule made explicit in a legal code as the exposure of the rule of the rules, the principle or principles that are so fundamental for the holding together of the regulative system that they cannot be formulated. For instance to make explicit and to publicize the following rule, “it is forbidden to British subjects to sneak into the Queen’s bedroom unannounced at dawn,” is unthinkable, in terms of the system, because it would imply that this action is indeed a possibility… it seems obvious that the nature of the rule transgressed, not the quantity of the transgressions, distinguishes profanation from simple rule breaking. It is as if a cultural system with all the prescriptive and prohibitive rules which form its body were actually relying on a few crucial but unformulatable rules, some sort of culturally tacit axioms or silent dogmas from which all the other rules are derived and justified but which are themselves undemonstrable, unjustifiable and ultimately impotent…. In a way we could say, metaphorically, that every morning a clown sits on the Queen’s bed, at the risk of losing his passport.... Founding rules cannot be justified by the rules they generate. In this sense, any society hangs from an unsupported hook.... I would like to lay down for discussion the claim that profanation denotes a class of actions which question these tacit principles through the selective transgression of some of the rules that are derived from them or by exhibiting some behavior which implies a system of rules that would be derived from the negation of these cultural axioms; circus clowns would then specialize in such demonstrative actions performed in the ritualistic mode which is the only way in which the unthinkable and unspeakable can be actualized within the system” (Bouissac 1997: 197-9).

3. Objects or people are in the wrong place

Paul Bouissac splits what he calls profanation into five categories. His first one goes like this: “a particular object assigned to a certain place or position is moved to and placed in an inappropriate place or position” (Bouissac 1997). To simplify, I would say: “objects are in the wrong place”. And to this I would add the category of people.

To illustrate this principle, here are some examples:

- Someone sits on a chair placed in front of the door
- A lifeguard in the desert
- A little rubber duck in someone’s mouth
- A clown is in the audience

Another sub-category of this is the absence of an object where it should have been:

- A coat hook is missing, so the coat hung falls to the ground
- A teacher is asleep in bed while his students sit in the classroom

A similar analysis to Bouissac’s has been made by Rowan Atkinson, in his TV programme, Laughing Matters, in which he discusses the rules of comedy. According to Atkinson, “an object or person becomes funny by being in an unexpected place”.

4. Objects used by the wrong person

This follows the first part of Bouissac’s second category: “an object that should be manipulated in a certain manner (or simply be seen) by a particular person or class of persons, is manipulated in this manner (or is seen) by an unqualified person…” (Bouissac 1997).

- A baby drives a car
- A business man sucking a dummy
- A bald woman uses a hair-drier
- A granny uses a pneumatic drill

A simple way of coming up with ideas of this kind is to ask the question, “ what’s the worst birthday present you could give someone?”

5. Objects used wrongly

I have separated this category out from Bouissac’s second, which continued thus: “… or is manipulated in an inappropriate manner” (Bouissac 1997).

- A hammer to break an egg
- Wipe your nose on your sleeve (while holding a hankie)
- A dining fork to dig the garden
- Drying your hair with a bike pump
- Eating a shoe

6. Action done by the wrong person

- A tramp unveils a new shopping centre
- The Queen does a car insurance advert

The same kinds of people keep coming up when we think of examples of people out of place. Favourites are: the Queen, tramps, the Pope, babies and animals.

This group covers those actions that are not so strictly attached to a particular object and its inappropriate use.

The word ‘inappropriate’ is quite a good one here, but it does sound too euphemistic to me. That’s why I use the word ‘wrong’. We all know when something is wrong, or right.

7. Action done for the wrong person

Bouissac’s third category is: “a patterned behaviour that should be performed in the presence of an object or person is performed in the presence of an inappropriate object or person”.

- A wheelchair is wheel-clamped
- A conductor conducts the audience
- A comedian tells jokes to dogs

8. Action done when you shouldn’t

The first part of Bouissac’s category number 4: “a patterned behaviour that is prescribed in a specific context is performed in another context…”

- TV news reader falls asleep
- Laughing at bad news

Most bodily functions have such socially restricted correct contexts that they easily lend themselves to being done when you shouldn’t: farting, peeing, shitting, burping, yawning breastfeeding, having sex, and dying are comedy classics!

9. Action not done when it should have been done

And now the end of Bouissac’s number 4: “… or is not performed in the prescribed context”.

- Bride doesn’t say “I do”
- Doctor stands by
- Forget to open the door in order to go out
- Suicide bomb fails to explode
- Sun doesn’t set
- Parachute doesn’t open

10. Misunderstood words

Bouissac’s number 5 is: “a word or text to which a prescribed interpretation is attached, is interpreted in another manner or, still worse, the consequences of this new interpretation are actually implemented”.

The following are some famous examples. A prize for anyone who knows who said them.

- “I’ve got one, too”
- “Who’s on first base”
- “Four candles”

Other routes to verbal chaos are through:

- speech impediments
- foreign languages
- deafness

Works cited

Atkinson, Rowan (1993) Laughing Matters, Tiger Television for the BBC.

Bouissac, Paul (1997) The profanation of the sacred in circus clown performances, in Richard Schechner and W. Appel (eds.), By Means of Performance, Cambridge: CUP.

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

McManus, Donald (2003) No Kidding! Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater, Newark: University of Delaware Press.