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 One participant thought it was outdated and asked for a non-naturalistic and therefore, in her opinion, false delivery.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 Nor do I think I outdated.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.
...you 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.
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.