Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Clown Readings with Jon Davison - a Research Event at RCSSD



with Jon Davison
Tuesday 29 October, 5.30pm
 
In this talk Jon Davison will attempt to turn orthodoxy on its head by challenging current discourses on contemporary clowning, by exploring how clown practices, in both performance and training, are inextricably bound up with issues of history, theatricality, politics and gender. More…
http://www.cssd.ac.uk/events/research-events/clown-readings

Royal Central School of Speech & Drama
University of London
Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3HY



 
Visitors are very welcome to all seminars but booking is essential.  To reserve a place, please follow the links to the relevant seminar’s eventbrite registration page: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/org/2767814018

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

How to be a clown


by Jon Davison

This is a transcript of a paper given at the TaPRA Conference 2013, Glasgow.


In my paper of three years ago entitled ‘Clown Training Today’, assessing contemporary clowning’s attempt to impose its Lecoquian model on older traditions of clowning, I concluded with the following thoughts:

“My main purpose in exploring the ideological shifts in clowning since the 1950s is to develop clown training and performing appropriate to our own historical moment.  At the end of our exhaustive overhaul of a half century of contemporary clowning, what kind of clown training do we end up with?”

In this paper I report on some specific developments in clown training since then, describing possible ways forward for clown training in a post-Lecoquian world. My aim will be to describe in sufficient detail some of the ways that clown knowledge may be transmitted. In doing so, I would first like to outline three broad models of training.

Firstly, the apprentice/craft model, which has mainly been associated with clowns working either before or outside of the Lecoq/Gaulier approach, including ‘traditional’ circus, many ‘self-taught’ street clowns, and, arguably, all clowns pre-1960. This model privileges learning ‘on the job’, transmitting tried and tested, or codified, material which can be directly used in performance (gags, entrées, lazzi, routines, bits, prop-manipulation, audience-gathering techniques, etc.).

However, such a categorisation, where an ideology of how to approach clown training  matches up with a historical period or a particular perceived style of clowning, seems suspiciously neat and tidy. The apprentice model is in fact not limited to ‘material’ but also includes performing ‘techniques’ and strategies of stage presence. Andrew Davis, in his recent study of American burlesque comedy of the 1920s and 30s reports, for example, the comedian Harry Conley:

“I use psychology on the audience to make them laugh [...] It’s as though I am a child, a naughty boy, and the audience is put in the naughty-children frame of mind. [...] Fanny Brice used that technique as Baby Snooks.” (Davis, Andrew (2011) Baggy Pants Comedy New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

Such an approach is not a million miles away from elements of contemporary clown discourses which privilege innocence, as in clown teacher Eric de Bont’s answer to the question What is your focus in teaching “clown”?:

“to be a child again, with the innocence and freedom that we once enjoyed and that today’s society we live in has reduced to the farthest corners of our mind (in answer to the question: What is your focus in teaching “clown”? http://www.ibicasa.com/en/ficha_articulo.php?id_articulo=155 )

“The innocence of the clown is one of a child” (a review by Jass H Jilley of La Bufon S.O.S.ial clown Workshop in Bacalar Quintana Roo 3/4/2013 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=335825326520015&id=154855257950357 )

“the innocence of the clown-doctors” (Blair Hayashi: Dr. Duddley D. Diligent, Jest for Joy Clown Doctors, http://www.jestforjoy.ca/the_team.html )

The second training model I want to mention is the conservatoire/workshop model, which has come to the fore over the last half century in clowning, and is dominated by the Lecoq/Gaulier approach which assumes clowns are ‘personal’ or ‘inner’ and must be ‘found’.

This assumption that we each have a clown ‘inside us’, matches up with that standard Lecoquian ‘given’, that we each have ‘quelque chose à dire’. This model privileges exercises in the classroom over already existing performable material.

But again, the neatness of categorising contemporary clown as ‘inner clown’ (with the assumption that this is a binary opposite of ‘traditional’=’outer’) is by no means watertight. According to David Wiles’ study (1987) Shakespeare’s Clown (Cambridge: CUP), at a certain point around the last three decades of the sixteenth century, the idea that each civilised city-dweller of London might harbour a rough, anarchic, ignorant ‘clown’ (the recent coining of the term ‘clown’ refers here to the person who is ‘not a gentleman’) inside was quite acceptable. Many of those Londoners were, of course, immigrants, former rural residents come to the city, or only one generation away:

“The majority of Tarlton’s London audience must have been visitors or first generation immigrants. Tarlton tapped spectators’ anxieties about the rustic boor latent within themselves.” (Wiles 1987: 23)

But soon, according to Wiles, this idea would wane, the idea of the duality of clown/gentleman losing relevance in a consolidated urban culture.
But as the cultural climate in London moved on, this privileged position of the clown would soon be challenged:

“[Tarlton’s] comedy cut across barriers of class, proving acceptable both at court and in the tavern, because most people could accept the proposition that beneath every exterior there lurks a coarse anarchic peasant. By the end of the century, this proposition was less acceptable. Court, theatres, Protestantism and many sometime immigrants had achieved permanence. There was less concern with original sin, more with the innate character of gentility, and with the power of education to change the man. Inversionary anarchy, both at court and in the playhouse, was perceived as a threat to social order. For such reasons as these, stage clowns in the 1590s and 1600s confronted new conditions and adopted new working methods.“ (Wiles 1987: 23)

So already we can see that notions of clowns as inner or outer are rather prone to historical, political and cultural flux.

Thirdly, I would like to identify a model of clown training in potential construction, centred on the academy, which so far brings together reflective analysis and a version of the conservatoire workshop model. We are, at this moment, engaged in this model. Our own analyses are inevitably already conditioned by this new ‘self-reflexivity’ in clowning and other popular performance forms.

I have already hinted at the leakiness of some binaries of clown discourses, such as material/personal, outer/inner, etc. My own teaching practice, as developed at the Barcelona Clown School, attempts to open up these leaks as far as possible, guided by a watchful academic eye.

I would now like to take you through an example of how this leakiness might be productive. This involves ways in which we can teach devising for clown performance, and so involves both the preparation of ‘material’ (our supposed Model no. 1) and the delivery of that material in live performance (supposedly our Model no. 2). My own work in this area has been driven in part by the practical need to redress the imbalance created by the ‘personal clown’ Lecoq/Gaulier approach in its privileging of presence over material. Put simply, most clown students spend a lot of time ‘finding’ clown, and next to no time on creating work which can stand up in front of general audiences. When they do attempt to create, they find their options limited. They can either rely on ‘improvisation’ (too risky a route for most) or resort to elements of non-clown theatre such as narrative, characters, and the creation of fictional worlds [Spymonkey, Nola Rae, Gardi Hutter] (bizarrely so, since clowns tend to work against these kinds of constructs). In a few (famous) cases [Polunin], they resort to appeals to metaphysical or transcendental significance as a way to shore up weakly constructed material.

The devising clown performance I am referring to forms part of an intensive clown training course of 250 hours classroom time at ECB. Before introducing devising, we have already work for a considerable time on playfulness, the dynamics and pleasure of the flop and stupidity, the relationship between clown and audience, all solid Gaulierian stuff. This is supplemented by work on the dynamics of emotions in clowning and the beginnings of clowning with text. Also, the rudiments of the structure of comedy appropriate to, although not exclusive to, clowning, such as: the rule of three, correct/incorrect behaviour, problem solving, etc. In addition, analysis of the work of both historic and contemporary clowns is undertaken constantly.

The key point comes when a student faces the issue of how to bring together the tasks of reproduction of devised material and the in-the-moment and vulnerable-before-an-audience clowning.

One method of devising where this confluence can be particularly evident is in working from an individual student’s own non-clown performance skills. I would like to briefly describe the method and one recent example. 


1. Students make lists of skills they have. These include performing arts techniques, daily skills and skills they lack.
2. We (student, teacher and other students) choose one performing skill we are curious to see. (Later we will work on the non-skills, either creating separate material, or combining them with the high skills.)

In one recent example I will use to illustrate, the student had experience as a dancer from an early age, trained in classical, contemporary, folk and popular forms.

3. The student performs their skill for the class. They are encouraged to show their maximum ability, to show off in fact. A skill presented in this way often has the effect on an audience that we feel that we are seeing something special, in other words something we are not capable of. This marks the activity out as a ‘skill’, perhaps a virtuoso one.

In our dance example, the student showed a mixture of traditional ballet and semi-improvised street dance moves.

We are perhaps more accustomed to associate clowning with lack of skill. However, as I hope to demonstrate, one way to more easily attain clown ‘effects’ is to work from virtuosity.

4. Immediate feedback. The class answers the questions ‘which bits most impressed or appealed to you most and you wanted to see again?’ These may not be what the performer themself likes or values most, nor the most skilled things.

In our example, we preferred some ballet steps which were clearly recognisable and beyond our capabilities; and the most ‘grotesque’ full body moves from other styles. We ask the student to perform these bits again.

As a clown, one must focus on the audience response, to the extent that if they like something, one will do it again in order to achieve the same success.

5. Further questioning. We ask ‘what is the expected attitude, state of being or emotion of such a performer?’ This may be obvious or not. The more restricted the skill, the easier it is to identify the attitude: flamenco dance/pride, ballet dance/light, juggler/focus on objects, magician/confident or dominant, and so on.

We agreed that the performer exhibited what we interpreted as ‘seriousness’, confidence and a certain amount of pride, with focus on a point in space. This we perceive as ‘correct’, or ‘expected’.

The concept and practice of ’correctness’ is key to understanding how clowning functions, and, together with ‘incorrectness’, forms the backbone of much clown devising.

6. We then ask ‘what is the opposite of this attitude?’ There are many potential opposites, so we will try them all to find which one gives the most result.

We suggest: frivolity, smiling, focusing on the audience. The student shows the skill with these ’incorrect’ attitudes.

Some of these appear immediately to us to be not just wrong, but funny. Wrongness in itself can never be simply equated to funny. The best way to discover what works is of course to try it. And what works for one performer will not necessarily be a good idea for another.

7. We then look at what happens when the performer uses two opposing attitudes, one correct, one incorrect. This kind of binarism works well for clowns, perhaps because it involves strong contrast, another of our comedy structures. It is also a means to improvise, and in my own improvisation work I have leant heavily on this method. Ruth Zaporah suggests that freedom is best found within the format of having two opposing options, as in her exercise ‘Back to Front’:

“The participants only have a few choices, yet within these choices lie vast possibilities of experience.”(Zaporah, Ruth (1995) Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, p.86)

Having two options gives one endless freedom, one can keep choosing to do the same or its opposite. And the limited number of options removes the need to search for decisions. It is a kind of pure improvisation where content is a non-issue. Again, non-content material seems appropriate for clowns.

In our example, some switches from silly frivolity to composed seriousness make us laugh. However, the student exhibits such an extreme, to us, seriousness, that his silliness cannot attain such an intensity. This will now lead us to search somewhere rather different in order to begin to construct the basis of a clown dance number with this particular student.

8. We next look to apply four basic structures that are commonly found not just in clowning but in other forms of humour too. These are:
-          Contrast
-          Rule of three
-          Problem/solution
-          Wrongness

We have already touched on contrast and wrongness in the context of performer attitude. But as we were dissatisfied with the results, we ask the question again, in a more general way:
‘what would be most wrong/incorrect for this dancer? What, in general, would be most incorrect, for example, in a ballet class?’ the student himself has easy access to several answers by recalling what things would have got him chucked out of a class during his training:  laughing, chatting, smoking, eating, drinking...

9. We ask him to dance and also perform some of these incorrect actions, and decide that we like him dancing ballet while smoking, eating and drinking. Indeed, these choices also allow him to push his seriousness to an extreme and act as the contrast with the wrong behaviours, such that we dispense with the need for a ‘wrong attitude’ from now on.

10. I now work one-to-one with the student on devising his piece. We search for maximum contrast and find that this mostly works best when the dance and wrong behaviours are performed simultaneously. For example, a series of assemblés while drinking from a can of beer; a kind of changement while nibbling a biscuit; finishing with a double tour en l'air to the knee while smoking.

With several bits of action now working we begin to order them. We decide that the beginning of the number must establish the correctness and the frame of reference, also demonstrating the virtuosic skill. We choose a musical accompaniment which reflects this, the Dance of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. We use 8 bars of the music to establish the skill, the first 4 bars being almost ‘pure’ skill, the second 4 bars introducing some ‘wrong’ moves, where body movements and arm movement are isolated and separated from each other. Here we have an example of how to preserve a performance skill whilst also clowning. It does not involve trashing the skill at all.

These isolations we then order according the rule of three. The rule of three can be understood in many ways, for example here we establish the sequence parade in circle, then move arms horizontal to vertical. This happens twice, and the third time the arm movements are also ‘extra-wrong’ as they do not come from classical ballet. The whole sequence thus follows the pattern: expected, expected, surprise.

We continue in a similar way with 8 bars of dance while drinking, 8 bars eating and finishing with smoking as the ‘’wrongest’ of our behaviours, using the student’s highest level skill as a finale.

11. Finally, after so much structural thinking, we come back to the present moment. Does it work in front of an audience?

Taking care for the form of one’s material by no means excludes the usefulness, the necessity, of actually making the thing work in the moment.

Nor should we fall into the error of splitting clown performance completely down the middle. Yet one aspect of what I do in performance is the material, my plan, my script. Another aspect of my performance is how I engage in the here and now with the real audience I have. This conversation is necessarily made up as I go along, I must take the audience with me, they must be convinced of my clown-ness in every moment.

These two tasks have different focuses, but that doesn’t mean we should set them up as mutually exclusive binaries. How can I combine this seemingly spontaneous moment with my rigorously built material? There are some clown exercises which serve us both at the beginning and the end of a course of study. I like to use one, the step-laugh, as both an initiation into the dynamics of clown and as a re-training and final fine tuning of a number before we let it loose on the general public in a public show.

Step-laugh consists in taking one step to cross the space, only when and if the audience laughs. If there is silence for six seconds or so, you take a step back. The exercise is fascinating since it deals with the in-the-moment, whether something is funny in this moment or not determines whether the clown moves forwards or backwards. But it is this very point, that it focuses on the ‘moment’, which frees this exercise from the obligation to also create ‘material’. In the basic exercise, there is a kind of ‘script’, which is the step, the crossing of a space from A to B. This script can then be understood in terms of more complex steps in a script. By re-performing the worked out number with these rules, the student re-learns the importance of the moment-ness, whilst hitching their material to this dynamic. And it is this dynamic which guarantees that the number will indeed be a ‘clown’ number, and not any old kind of humour.

Again, I emphasise, none of this excludes the importance of the beloved individuality of the clowns spontaneity. In order to find the best ‘surprise’ in a sequence of three, for example, one would be well advised to push oneself to crazy limits. In order to bring richness to the contrast of emotions/attitudes, one would ideally commit oneself fully to the play of emotions and their ridiculous effect. There is no point using ‘anger’, for example, if anger expressed by you as a clown doesn’t make the audience laugh. Hence, many of the choices made in the devising process will depend on the particularities of the performer as a clown, as someone who makes us laugh with their own ridiculousness. But what is different to the more common approach is here that these ‘personal clown qualities’ cannot in themselves solely create a well-formed number. They need help.

Clowning is a richly anarchic and surprising artform. But avoidance of form only serves to place on a pedestal such qualities as the ‘personal’, ‘self-expression’, which only serve to drag us down into the murky waters of psychology and as vehicles of oft-repeated ‘messages’.


© Jon Davison September 2013

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Deconstruction of Clowning


 

Clowns frequently claim to access authenticity by unmasking social conventions or exposing the workings of performance genres, thus presuming power within society as taboo-breakers and truth-tellers.

Contemporary clown’s version of this tale stresses the dynamics of the ‘flop’ as the gateway to such truth. The performer, admitting failure to convince the audience of his/her competence, seems thereby to reveal a reality behind the mask of convention. By owning one’s flops, one is identified with ‘truth’, since to make a mistake must, by definition, be unintentional (i.e. they escape manipulation).

However, the professionalisation of clowning indicates that this unintentionality is in fact willed, practised and skilled. The ‘flop’ is an ‘authenticity-effect’ which stages ‘reality’. Given that clowns habitually admit to conventions, how might one declare this particular ‘truth-trick’?

Would such a ‘deconstructed clowning’ still seem like clowning and give the same pleasure as that staging of the authentic which clowns presume to do?

‘The Deconstruction of Clowning’ is a performance and discussion which takes place on Thursday 3rd October at 7pm and Friday 4th October at 2pm and 6pm, at Central School of Speech and Drama, London.



Jon Davison has been a clown performer, teacher, director and writer for the last 30 years. He is co-Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona and a former AHRC-funded Creative Fellow at CSSD. He has performed at festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe. His first book, ‘Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice’ was published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan, for whom he is now preparing a ‘Clown Theory and Practice’ on clown training.

Please visit our Contact and Bookings page for further information on how to book your free ticket.

If this works, the live video will be available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo4i4yt25ts
 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Clown Workshop Weekend in London with Jon Davison


 
Dates: Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th July 2013
Time: 10am – 5.30pm
Venue: Morris Space, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP http://parktheatre.co.uk
Cost: £85
Email info@transmissionworkshop.com to secure your place.
More info: http://www.transmissionworkshop.com/events/2013-07-27
 
Special Offer to all participants of the two-day intensive weekend: Jon’s new book, ‘Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice’ at the reduced price of £17 (normal price £25)
 
The Workshop will introduce participants to the fundamentals of clowning, learning to feel and enjoy our own ridiculousness. Converting our habitual fear of ridicule into the pleasure of laughing at ourselves, we can use it to make others laugh and experience the freedom of the clown.

When you really look, most things are ridiculous: our bodies, our movements, our ideas, our emotions, our words, our relationships, the universe. The only aim in clowning is to turn failure into success, fear into laughter, suffering into joy. We don’t need to change ourselves, just look at everything from another perspective. It’s a human thing to do, so anyone can do it. Although only a few will choose to dedicate their lives to it, anyone can experience the clown.

This course is suitable for anyone interested in exploring clowning, with or without experience.
 
Jon Davison is a clown performer, teacher, director, researcher, writer and musician with 30 years experience. Co-founder in 1993 of Companyia d’Idiotes, he has toured festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe from Sicily to the Arctic. He trained at the École Philippe Gaulier and Fool Time Circus School (Bristol).

He is a co-founder and co-Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona since 2006, the world’s leading centre offering comprehensive clown training programmes covering both practical and theoretical aspects of the clown arts. He previously taught clown, impro, and acting at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona from 1996-2006, and was a Research Fellow investigating clown training at Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London), where he is now a visiting lecturer as well as working towards his PhD on clown performance.
 
Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice is Jon Davison’s first book, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. This rich collection of readings offers a wide-ranging and authoritative survey of clown practices, history and theory, from the origins of the word clown through to contemporary clowning. Covering clowns in theatre, circus, cinema, TV, street and elsewhere, the author's stimulating narrative challenges assumptions and turns orthodoxy on its head.
 
For more information about Jon Davison:
tel. +44 (0)7796 155546
info@jondavison.net
www.jondavison.net
www.escoladeclown.eu

Friday, 31 May 2013

Clown Workshop in London with Jon Davison


Date: Monday 3rd June 2013
Time: 6 -10pm (the workshop runs from 6.30-9.15pm, preceded by an optional warm-up at 6pm and followed by 45 minutes when anyone in the room can show/work on upcoming pieces).
Venue: Morris Space, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP http://parktheatre.co.uk
Cost: £10
Email info@transmissionworkshop.com to secure your place.
More info: http://www.transmissionworkshop.com/events/11/t101-jon-davison/
 
The Workshop will introduce participants to the fundamentals of clowning, learning to feel and enjoy our own ridiculousness. Converting our habitual fear of ridicule into the pleasure of laughing at ourselves, we can use it to make others laugh and experience the freedom of the clown.

When you really look, most things are ridiculous: our bodies, our movements, our ideas, our emotions, our words, our relationships, the universe. The only aim in clowning is to turn failure into success, fear into laughter, suffering into joy. We don’t need to change ourselves, just look at everything from another perspective. It’s a human thing to do, so anyone can do it. Although only a few will choose to dedicate their lives to it, anyone can experience the clown.

This course is suitable for anyone interested in exploring clowning, with or without experience.
 
Jon Davison is a clown performer, teacher, director, researcher, writer and musician with 30 years experience. Co-founder in 1993 of Companyia d’Idiotes, he has toured festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe from Sicily to the Arctic. He trained at the École Philippe Gaulier and Fool Time Circus School (Bristol).

He is a co-founder and co-Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona since 2006, the world’s leading centre offering comprehensive clown training programmes covering both practical and theoretical aspects of the clown arts. He previously taught clown, impro, and acting at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona from 1996-2006, and was a Research Fellow investigating clown training at Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London), where he is now a visiting lecturer as well as working towards his PhD on clown performance.
 
Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice is Jon Davison’s first book, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. This rich collection of readings offers a wide-ranging and authoritative survey of clown practices, history and theory, from the origins of the word clown through to contemporary clowning. Covering clowns in theatre, circus, cinema, TV, street and elsewhere, the author's stimulating narrative challenges assumptions and turns orthodoxy on its head.
 
For more information about Jon Davison:
tel. +44 (0)7796 155546
info@jondavison.net
www.jondavison.net
www.escoladeclown.eu

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Opening Paragraphs from 'Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice'

Here are some of the opening paragraphs from Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice

Preface
 
The comedian, Bill Hicks, told this story in his show, Sane Man:
 
I was in Nashville, Tennessee last week and after the show I went to a waffle house, right, and I’m sitting there eating and reading a book, I don’t know anybody and I’m eating and I’m reading a book, and this waitress comes over to me and ‘tut tut tut tut tut! What you reading for?’ I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked that!’ Not, “what am I reading?”, but “what am I reading for?” well, goddammit, you stumped me!’ [...] then this trucker in the next booth gets up, stands over me and goes, ‘Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader!’ (Hicks 1989)
 
This book, another kind of reader, has all the makings for being turned into a joke. A book about clown, clowns and clowning, and a serious one at that. Olly Double, the stand-up comedian and academic, begins his second book, Getting the Joke (2005), with a section entitled ‘I’ve Got a Degree in Beckhamology’ where he tells of the media reaction to his obtaining a full-time academic post at the University of Kent:
 
The idea of teaching stand-up comedy at university had all the hallmarks of a silly-season classic, and the press went for the hey-you’ll-never-believe-what-these-crazy-academics-are-up-to-now angle. The Guardian’s piece started:

I say. I say. Did you hear that they’ve hired a clown at Kent University? No, really. He’s going to be teaching the students stand-up comedy. No. Seriously, laze ‘n’ gennermen, he’s got a Ph.D. in it. Actually, Dr Oliver Double is not a clown, but he is a practising stand-up comedian. And he will be teaching third-year drama students who want it — and ooh, we all want it, don’t we, missis! — the art of rambling into a pub microphone and making people choke on their pints with mirth. (Double 2005: 1-2)
 
Of course, the idea of being serious about something which isn’t serious, like comedy, or clowning, is funny. In fact, being serious about anything, in the clown’s world, is funny. But the idea that we don’t, or can’t, have ideas about clowns is just plain false. When I was researching this book, I wrote some short reviews of clown performances, books, films and other phenomena, as I wanted to find a vocabulary with which to talk about clown on its own terms and not by the criteria of other genres. One clown took offence, not because I had reviewed him negatively (I hadn’t), but because he believed that none of us had the knowledge or the licence to be able to criticise others in the profession. Clowns today may on the whole be mutually supportive, as is to be expected given our present low status, both culturally and economically (it was not always thus), but ideas and beliefs - positive and negative, insightful and banal - about clowns are all around us. It might be useful to draw some of them together so that we know what they are and can think about them.  
 
Introduction: Clown Ideas
 
We would expect to begin with a clear definition of the field of enquiry. But defining what a clown is is not a straightforward matter. Just about everyone has ideas, preconceptions or opinions about clowns. Clowns themselves certainly do. There is a surprising variety of ideas around about clowns, especially when you start looking beyond your own time and place.
 
Some define clown in terms of the dynamics of both laughter: ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (Gaulier 2007a: 289) and failure: ‘this big idiot who regrets not being funny’ (Gaulier 2007a: 301). Although others disagree: ‘It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh‘ (Simon 2009: 31), whilst others believe clowns to be sad or to exhibit ‘shabby melancholy‘ (Stott 2009: XVI).
 
Some define clown in relation to expected behavior or rules: clowns ‘contradict their context‘ (McManus 2003). The key feature uniting all clowns, therefore, is their ability, skill or stupidity, to break the rules (McManus 2003: 12).
 
An etymological definition would take us back to the origins of the word clown in 16th England, referring to those who do not behave like gentlemen, but in ‘clownish or uncivil fashions‘ (French Academy, 1586). Some identify the clown with the red nose, which they consider to be ‘a tiny neutral mask for the clown’ (Wright 2002: 80), which is also ‘a quest for liberation from the “social masks” we all wear‘ (Murray 2003: 79,  on Jacques Lecoq).
 
Some consider that clowning is a route to spirituality and self-knowledge, via ‘a great joy, a great confidence, a great acceptance of ourselves, and thus of others too‘ (Cenoz 2011); ‘the main similarity between clown and Zen is that if you are you are thinking, then you are not where you want to be‘ (Cohen 2005); ‘Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves‘ (Henderson 2008).
 
Some see clowning as a means to relieve suffering, ranging in status from ‘respected complementary care providers [and] members of the health care team‘ (Koller and Gryski 2008), to the more humble friend: ‘I would never agree laughter is the best medicine, I’ve never said it. Friendship is clearly the best medicine‘ (Adams 2007).
 
Some believe clowns are responsible for bringing rain to the crops: ‘they also fast, mortify themselves, and pray to Those Above that every kind of fruit may ripen in its time, even the fruit in woman’s womb‘ (Bandolier 1890: 34). Some ascribe such powers to their taboo-breaking: ‘This “wisdom” magically acquired shows well that this is a question of the breaking of a taboo’ (Makarius 1974: 63).
 
Some think that clowns are a socially useful way to control traffic, since they ’can achieve what traffic police cannot achieve using warning and sanctions [...] by employing artistic and peaceful actions’ (Toothaker 2011), but others believe that to be a clown is to sink below human dignity: ’I'm going to earn something, even if it’s as a clown’ (Partido del Trabajo de México 2009).
 
At times, some have believed clowns could stop wars: ’The laughter of Bim and Bom almost stopped the Russian Revolution’ (Schechter 1998: 33). Alternatively, they might find themselves on the side of governments: ’Nikulin replied: “Who will be the subject of our parody? The government is marvellous”’ (Schechter 1998: 15-16). Some think that clowns can teach politicians: ’The World Parliament of Clowns will give scientists, politicians, managers and entrepreneurs, artists and religious leaders [...] immunity to say all their thoughts and ideas and to give all their wisdom to the world without the fear of blame and humiliation. One of the rights of clowns is to fail’ (Moshaeva 2006). Others see politicians as clowns: ‘In order for the balance to be harmonious, the President must be a whiteface clown and the Prime Minister an auguste, in their nature as much as in their function’ (Fallois in Rémy 1945: XIX).
 
Some see clowns in the street: ’skills that are necessary for clowning, such as [...] street theatre’ (Haifa 2006) whilst others do not: ’Dreams of grandeur save the idiot. His ambition isn’t to play in the street (not a very comfortable place) but at the Paris Opera’ (Gaulier 2007a: 291).
 
The list is much longer. Clowns have been seen as revolutionary, reactionary, avant-garde, universal, marginal, irrelevant, fundamental, dangerous, harmless, immoral, exemplary, skilled, chaotic, wealthy, poor, innocent, cruel, joyous, melancholic, or as fulfilling any number of social, artistic, cultural or political functions as can be imagined.
 
Today for some, the clown is a figure that has survived from the past, pre-technological, pre-modern, pre-literate even. For others, clown has undergone a renewal and branched out into new and highly contemporary fields:  the post-Stanislavskian training of performers; therapy and a means to spiritual self-discovery; or a tool to change politics and decision-making in a world racing towards disaster.
 
All of these views could be shown to be at least partly true, at least at a particular moment in a particular place. The opposites could also be shown to be true, perhaps in other places and at other times. The point is that clowns, though they may be ubiquitous, are just as varied as any other phenomenon. They have a history, indeed many histories. They occur in different cultural contexts. There are often very precise reasons for why they are the way they are. We can usually trace particular characteristics to particular dates, or specific people and places. By looking at a wide range of material on clowns, we can see just how historically and culturally determined they are. If we can see what is specific to times, places and individuals, perhaps we can also see more clearly what clowns have in common, and if there is anything which always holds true for clowns.
 
[...]
 
Containing such an array of perspectives, this book is also bound, at some point or another, to go against the grain of what you think you know about clowns. Whatever one’s grain is, it will probably go against it. My own included. And in a way that’s what clowns are, they go against the grain. Whenever I see two people in agreement, my instinct is to disagree with them. Maybe that’s what led me to be a clown. In any case, it’s a useful research tool. A kind of naive scepticism, no malice intended. When two people agree on what clowns are, my ears prick up even more, ready to provide the contrary view if called upon. Or even if not.
 
So hopefully you will find something in this book that will make you think you might be wrong about clown. Which would be no bad thing, since clowns inevitably end up being wrong. I say to clown students that 93% of our lives and actions are failures and only 7% of it turns out right. That isn’t because I or anyone else has done such a scientific experiment; I took to the idea some years ago after reading that 93% of communication is apparently non-verbal. I liked the idea, though for the life of me I couldn’t see how you could measure such a thing. So given that the scientist in question was, in my opinion, making it up, I thought I might as well do the same. It feels about right to me, as a clown. When I say 93% of our lives, I mean all human beings, not just clowns. One thing one might say about clowns, though, is that they could be happy with such a statistic. Perhaps that is what marks you out as a clown from the rest. This admission of failure is the bedrock upon which most clown training of the last half century has been founded (Gaulier, Cenoz, Clay, etc.). The World Parliament of Clowns promotes the use of failure as a form of intelligence, hoping to influence world policy-makers (Antoschka).
 
I trust, then, that we will all be happy to give up some of our assumptions about clown throughout the course of this book, and that it will fail to live up to our own prejudices and expectations.

© Jon Davison 2013 Palgrave Macmillan

To buy this book directly from the publisher: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=498885

 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

NEW CLOWN BOOK: "Clown Readings in Theatre Practice", by Jon Davison




My new book, Clown - readings in theatre practice, is finally out and available!

It's a mixture of clown history, philosophy, and practice, with a lot of the material I've come across over the last few years of research. My aim has been to present as many different perspectives on clown in their historical and social contexts, and covers a range of topics: the origins of the auguste/clown duo, shakespearean clowns, female clowns, contemporary clown training, gags books, analyses of clowns past and present, etc.
More information here: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=498885

Friday, 4 January 2013

Historicising Contemporary Clown

The Colloquium of Performance Research at Central School of Speech and Drama

Thursday 17th January 12-13.30

details and registration: http://www.centralcpr.co.uk/

Jon Davison: Historicising Contemporary Clown

Contemporary clown generally presents itself as a myth-breaking form of clowning, one which dispenses with the supposedly false forms of history, which since the onset of the contemporary period (ca 1956/1960) would be marginalised by the newly-coined term ‘traditional’ clown (Little 1991), now deemed ‘useless’ (Lecoq/Murray 2003) or ‘dead’ (Fellini 1970), the new clown aspiring instead to ‘art’ (Simon 2009). Anyone of the general public who still thinks clowns ‘wear big shoes’ or even ‘has to be funny’ is, under this new regime, regarded as hopelessly ignorant, backward and misguided, a cultural under-class unworthy of forming part of the audience for the new clowns.

This elitist hegemony of the art-clown has reigned for half a century, an age which has not dampened the orthodox claim still to be equating clowning with such concepts as authenticity, truth or freedom, more suited to a post-Second World War Paris, in awe at a godless world where personal freedom as preached by existentialism seemed the only way to take a step forward in an absurd world.

I propose that it is time to make a start on the notoriously tortuous task of contextualising our own historical moment (albeit a ‘moment’ lasting five decades), and begin to see the present as history, exploring contemporary clown’s genealogy as a clown critic seeking to expose self-myth-making.
In order to make this pill easier to swallow, I propose firstly a trip back into ‘real history’, 100 years ago, where distance makes paradox and complexity easier to accept in ‘clown history in the past’, before returning to our own times to uncover the ‘clown history of the present’. It is thus hoped that the mapping of distant clown histories may provide a model, methodology and indeed the courage to confront our own period and practices with a critical eye.

I will examine two histories 100 years apart which demonstrate how clowning throws up multiple meanings and ideological alliances, thus reaching a fuller understanding of the complex embedding of clowning in the wider social and historical context.

Clowns and the New Woman (1895-1914)
Images and texts on women clowns of the period signify both the physical and public liberation of the New Woman and the woman as available object of male fantasy. The politically aware Evetta Matthews was billed as ‘the only lady clown’ on Barnum and Bailey’s 1896 poster, whilst the fictional character ‘Lulu’ in Félicien Champsaur’s pantomime (1888) and novel (1901) of the same name is the precursor of future femme-fatale Lulus.

Perestroika Clowns (1985-2012)
Video and textual evidence of Slava Polunin’s performances from 1985 and today appear to show an unchanging performance, masking the facts of historical change from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to today’s globalised tours.