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 One participant thought it was outdated and asked for a non-naturalistic and therefore, in her opinion, false delivery.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 Nor do I think I outdated.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