Friday, 15 May 2015

Documenting Clown Training

This paper was presented at Salford Comedy Symposium ‘Documenting Comedy’ on 13th May 2015, hosted by University of Salford and Media City UK, Salford

Documenting Clown Training

I want to ask some questions about the nature of clowning, or a particular part of it, which arise when we consider the relationship between clown performance and its possible documentation. By doing so I will also reflect upon the nature of documentation itself.

What do we mean by clowning?
What do we include? Exclude? The term is multi-connotational and sometimes hotly disputed. It depends on who you ask, clowns or clowning are:

-          ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (Gaulier 2007a: 289)
-          It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh‘ (Simon 2009: 31)
-          Clowns are sad and exhibit ‘shabby melancholy‘ (Stott 2009: XVI).
-           The key feature uniting all clowns is their ability, skill or stupidity, to break the rules (McManus 2003: 12).
-          Etymologically, in 16th England, clowns those who do not behave like gentlemen, but in ‘uncivil fashions‘ (French Academy, 1586).
-           ‘a quest for liberation from the “social masks” we all wear‘ (Murray 2003: 79,  on Jacques Lecoq).
-          ‘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 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),
-          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).
-          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).

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, scary, joyous, melancholic, or as fulfilling any number of social, artistic, cultural or political functions as can be imagined.

There is one particular definition of clowning I want to look at here. It has its contemporary source in the experiments by Jacques Lecoq with clowning in the early 1960s: the flop... the eliciting and re-eliciting of laughter. Laughter as a response to the failure of the clown to make us laugh, which is the job, the agreed contract between clown and audience. And that this laughter should be as a result of our finding the clown himself the joke.

This definition or practice has been hugely influential, indeed dominant, over the last half century of contemporary clowning, and forms a pillar of clown training, in many, though not all, clown pedagogies.

Over the last half century clown workshops and training, since Jacques Lecoq’s experiments teaching clown in the early 1960s, have arguably gained prominence over clown performance itself. Clown teachers command international respect and power, aesthetic and financial, which very few clown performers can aspire to. In the workshop, theories, orthodoxies and philosophies have become established which often make transcendent claims to ‘truth’, in a manner that general actor training has done for some time.

Despite remaining a relatively isolated niche in the fields of performer training and comedy performance, this new-found boost in the value assigned to clown training and its practitioners has also visibly filtered into the public arena, via tributes paid by household names such as Sacha Baron-Cohen, or Edinburgh Perrier award-winner Phil Burgers (Dr Brown) and others to master clown teachers such as Philippe Gaulier.

However, outside the confines of the clown workshop, very little is known about just what the value of clown training might be. Are the experiences of students and teachers of clowning alike, which are often reported to be ‘life-changing’, destined to lie neglected as traces in the personal memories of participants? Or can they be documented and disseminated in such a way that a wider audience might share their insights?

So, how can we document this clowning? How can we document a flop?

Before addressing that question, I want to briefly ask what a document is.

What is a document/documentation?

Etymologically, a document means (early 15c) "teaching, instruction," from Old French document (13c.) "lesson, written evidence," from Latin documentum "example, proof, lesson," in Medieval Latin "official written instrument," from docere "to show, teach" (see doctor (n.)). Meaning "something written that provides proof or evidence" is from early 18c.

document (v.)
1640s, "to teach;" see document (n.). Meaning "to support by documentary evidence" is from 1711.

In Library and Information Science,

a document is, according to Suzanne Briet’s influential “What is documentation?” (1951) a theoretical construct, "evidence in support of a fact." (Buckland, Michael (1998). “What is a digital document?”)

In a Court of Law

I have to provide proofs, or documents, to convince you of the probability of my argument. These might be material evidence - signed papers, photographs, audio recordings, bus tickets, phone bills, scientific experiments, forensic tests. Or witness statements converted into written and signed statements.

Either way, the document’s function is to aid proof of an argument.

Clown documentation

If we take this sense of a document as only being a document as such when it serves the purpose of demonstrating, or proving, something, how does this then apply to clown documentation?

Imagine this: I have witnessed some clowning, some good clowning, but a friend of mine wasn’t there to see it. How will I explain and convince my friend of the value of the clowning? How can I show to those who were not present why it was good, or why it was clowning, or perhaps more objectively, why, or when we laughed?

If you’ve ever done, seen or trained in clowning, you may have had the experience of trying to recount your experience to someone who wasn’t there. ‘Oh it was so funny what they did, one of them was smiling then he stopped and we all laughed, then the other one left and it was hilarious!’

At times, while teaching clowning, I venture to suggest that this undocumentability, or more precisely, this undisseminatability, is a good indication that good clowning has taken place. If clowning, at least of this type, is about you, the clown, being the joke, then how could I possibly transmit or explain ‘you’? If on the other hand the pleasure was in the jokes, as in other kinds of non-clown comedy, or the farcical situation, or in the characters, then I would be more likely to be able to convey, to recount to retell the jokes, the stories or the situations to my friend. Even if I couldn’t tell the jokes as funnily as the comedian, my friend would at least have seen that, in the hands of a professional, this material might well elicit laughter. That would be enough to convince my friend that when I say I laughed a lot when I saw that show, I am not lying, nor am I completely mad.

Gaulier argues precisely this, that clowning is not about having good jokes, but the opposite

A question:
‘Why do clowns choose bad jokes?’
If the jokes were good, they would be comic actors. They wouldn’t meet Monsieur Flop. They wouldn’t perform with the feeling of having committed a blunder. (Gaulier: 307-8)

The audience doesn’t laugh at the gag, but at the imbecile who has a moronic idea. (Gaulier: 308)

How can I convey the essence of the clown’s comedy by retelling some bad jokes? Conversely, if the jokes are too bad to be retold, does that demonstrate that they were clown jokes, or at least that any laughter provoked by them in the show was a result not of the quality of the material, but of the quality, if you like, of the clowning?

In short: if clowns have shit material, what can we document? What document, what proof can convince my friend that it was indeed funny and that they really should have been there?

You may say here that I should have just videoed the performance on my phone so I could share it afterwards, with ALL my friends. But will the video be a good enough document for the clowning to hold up in court?

Or, should we just be happy with no documentation? The idea that clowning might be by its nature that which cannot be documented might indeed be appealing... but is it strictly true? Or is it just a bit of rhetoric designed to claim for clowning that unmediated presence so sought after by performance practitioners and scholars?


I want to address the issue of video briefly and perhaps throw a spanner into the works of my argument so far. A few years ago at a performance conference I was presenting a paper entitled ‘describing clowning’. I had been wrestling with how to describe my own practice in order to then make arguments about that practice as evidenced in the descriptions. I wanted to keep at bay any temptation on my part to impose my own preconceptions about the meaning and effect of my own performance work. Searching for a ‘rigorous methodology’ to do this, I had recourse to Gilbert Ryle’s notion of thin and thick descriptions. Grossly oversimplifying, thin descriptions tell us what happened in an event, thick descriptions also tell us what those happenings might mean.  By dispensing with thick description I hoped to remove all trace of my pre-interpretations of the event.

Up until that point I had written several thick and thin descriptions of my performances but had not been convinced of the value of this exercise. During the paper presentation I had planned to show a short video clip of my own clown performance, in order to support my argument about the dynamics of laughter in clowning. When I came to the part where I was going to show the video, I felt that those present would most likely find this boring: watching a youtube clip on a distant projector screen in poor lighting, with poor sound, no context and no sense of what the performance event had actually felt like. That event had taken place in a room crammed full of spectators sitting on the floor and anywhere they could find, in a circus community in London. In an instant there came to mind so many occasions when I had shown to friends and family a bit of video of a show I had done, only to be disappointed by the blank looks on their faces as they tried to figure out what was going on in this little 2D rectangle, and most importantly, just when or why they were supposed to laugh. Excruciating. So I made a quick decision to dispense with the video. In its place I elected to read the thin description of the same event shown in the video clip. Before commenting further on this, I will now repeat that reading.

Thin description of a performance....

The compere says, ‘okay, and so for our next act, please bring your hands together and welcome Jon’, and exits the stage.

The audience applaud.

One second later I enter, taking one step onto the performing area, in the upstage right corner. I am wearing a black suit, a white shirt, black tie, black shoes with white laces. Looking at the audience, I am smiling. I remain there. I bring my hands together in front of me then return them to my sides. Silence for six seconds. The audience applauds again. I adjust my tie a little, after which it is slightly longer than before. I say, ‘Thank you’. Silence for six seconds, during which my smile disappears.

There follow a couple of small laughs from the audience.  I smile and take one more step onto the stage, in a diagonal line towards centre stage. Silence for six seconds. A beer bottle in the audience is heard rolling onto the floor. Six seconds of silence. I turn towards the exit, smiling and saying, ‘bye!’ The audience laugh loudly. I turn back and take another step towards them. In amongst that laugh is a faint single voice which sighs ‘oh!’ I stand, smiling and say: ‘Thanks’. More audience laughter, patchy. I take one more step forwards, and repeat ‘thanks’. More patchy laughter. I take another step as the audience laughs and some applaud. Stopping, I drop my smile and look down at my tie, which I adjust, leaving it longer than before. Silence, six seconds, then more applause (no laughs), I elongate my tie more. Some of the audience laugh, in spurts. I take a step whilst saying thanks. Four seconds silence, audience laugh, I step and say thanks. This again, a laugh and step, then I also laugh, a single burst that ends in a snort. A one second pause and a single hysterical-type laugh from the audience. I look quizzical. I laugh again and say: ‘oh, thank you very much’. A big laugh from both the audience and myself, which I end by faking the laugh. More audience laughs, as I step towards them.

A few more steps follow similarly, I laugh, the audience laughs. I look at the front row to my left, who aren’t laughing. Looking at them, my smile drops, my mouth becomes down-turned.

[The Hive, Hackney Wick, London, on 09/03/13. A video of the performance can be viewed here:]

The semiotician of circus and clowning, Paul Bouissac, repeatedly bemoans the fact that when commentators talk about clowning, they mostly restrict themselves to a few well-worn clichés about what clowns are deemed to engage in (Bouissac 2015).

What Bouissac wants, instead, are detailed descriptions of what particular clowns actually did. Thin descriptions, in other words. His own publications have repeatedly tried to redress this imbalance. Only when we have an accurate description of a routine, Bouissac claims, can we begin to analyse and interpret how the meaning is constructed in a clown performance.

This also chimes with what the clown and fool expert and teacher, Franki Anderson, has to say about observation. One of her exercises consists in one student showing a small performance of themselves as themselves, while their companions (their audience) observe and then recount to them what they saw. Two types of observation are suggested by Anderson; subjective and objective, which coincide with the thick/thin binary. Although not universally so, what many report is that the objective/thin description is the one which offers the descriptee the most useful information. By useful here I mean that this kind of description gives the descriptee the potential to: 1. Recall the action (a kind of rehearsal notes, or script) 2. Recall how it felt to do this performance, and maybe how to regain that feeling when re-performing (a kind of mnemonic for reencountering the clown state, or however you want to call it). What seems surprising about this is that the subjective description does not give the descriptee the tools to rediscover the feeling or state, despite, or perhaps because of, subjectivity’s aim being precisely to capture emotions, states, intentions and motivations.

Could it be, then, that a kind of Beckettian script is what serves clown documentation best? Perhaps. Though I’m not sure that the next time I see a clown show and then try to tell a friend in a pub how funny it was, that I will begin by saying.... a tall figure, sex undeterminable, enters and stands upstage right, left foot first. .....!


This all finally brings us back to the flop, and to Gaulier. In his book, ‘The Tormentor’ Gaulier uses a character named ‘Victor Francois’ to illustrate typically clownish behaviour. This Victor resorts to joke shops and, crucially, a written document in his drive to be funny:

Joke shops sell vulgar half-masks, big hooked noses, with (or without) a moustache, big potato-shaped noses, with (or without) glasses, alongside squeaking cheeses, exploding sweets, fake brandy, plastic turds and the Encyclopaedia of Jokes.

I know someone who goes to these shops regularly on Fridays after work. He opens the door and looks along the shelves. He considers carefully. How will I be funny tomorrow? He buys this and that: not too much but just enough to make his friends burst out laughing. He knows exactly what to choose. He longs for tomorrow evening. He has to learn three gags by heart from his Encyclopaedia of Jokes. Ah, his Encyclopaedia! He bought it thirty-five years ago. He has never lost it or left it anywhere. The Encyclopaedia has pride of place on his bedside table. In the evening he reads it before going to sleep. According to his wife, he often chuckles when he’s asleep. [...] His favourite joke is the story of the archbishop who ... he has told it too often. It’s got worn to death... Three new jokes tomorrow.

[...] He admitted to me he was better on the visual and dramatic front, rather than with jokes.

He forgets them.

‘You understand? I begin. It’s OK. Then, little by little, I flounder. I tie myself in knots. I forget the punch line or say it too soon. The surprise effect is lost. I say I’m sorry I got it wrong. Everyone laughs. Unfortunately they don’t laugh at the joke. They laugh at my stupidity. (290)

And so, the encyclopaedia of jokes is the clown’s greatest prop. The idea that one can pluck a joke from a document and then make people laugh with it, is, frankly, funny!

Appendix 1:  jokes as doumentation

This observation might lead us even further, into the territory of jokes, comic material and indeed theatre in general. The pattern is: event, observe event, retell event/re-perform event. Until now I have taken the event to be the original clown performance; the observation being my own in the moment and then in notes plus watching the video afterwards and annotating it – or going to see a show then telling a friend about it - or, in Bouissac’s case, going to the circus several times until he has a detailed description for the purposes of semiotic analysis.

But we can also begin from a non-performance event. Let’s say, my mother-in-law said something to me last Tuesday... and so on. The observation is simply me remembering what happened. And the retelling becomes, you guessed it! a joke. ‘my mother-in-law.....[cite joke

The doorbell rang this morning. When I opened the door, there was my mother-in-law on the front step.
She said, 'Can I stay here for a few days?'  I said, 'Sure you can.' And shut the door in her face.

This is the standard staging of this kind of joke: a presumed event retold.

Of course, it is also the standard pattern for joke-stealing! Watch a comedian, write down the joke, tell it next night. And not just stand-ups. The Fratellinis tell of how their competitors would be lurking in the audience on first nights, paper in hand, ready to steal their new routines and reproduce them tomorrow, in the same bill as themselves, but earlier, thus sabotaging their act.

Of course, according to Brecht, this is also the nature of theatre: a retelling of an event, in such a way as to allow for new interpretations and meanings. Brecht’s image of the witness here [cite] also brings us back to the heart of documentation: the purpose of which is to ‘prove’ (in court) the truth or otherwise of a particular interpretation of the meaning of someone’s acts. In the case of the mother-in-law joke, what, we might ask, would be proved by this ‘document’? that all mothers-in-law are x, y, z..... of course!

This perspective on the nature of comedic material gets us away from obsessing over punchlines and how they work (incongruence, rhythm, timing etc.) such an ‘ontology’ of comic material fits the pattern even better in the case of the less structured or formulaic format of observational comedy. In this light, Jerry Seinfeld is the ‘witness’, and the case to be proved is that, well, isn’t the world a funny place?

Appendix 2: Lenny Bruce

Here is an example which confounds both the nature of performance documentation and the status of performance as proof in a court of law.

Bruce used courtroom transcripts, about the alleged obscenity of his act, in his act, telling the story of how a policeman would come to see his act and make notes on the rude things he said, to be reproduced in front of the judge as evidence in a case.

[This was Bruce’s penultimate stand-up performance of his life, soon after he was convicted, virtually banned from performing, and died of an overdose.]

Jon Davison is artistic director of the clown-circus-pantomime company, Stupididity, co-founder of the Escola de Clown de Barcelona, Visiting Lecturer at RCSSD, author of Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice, and Clown Training, a practical guide, both published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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