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

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