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.

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