Thursday 7 December 2023

How to survive as a clown

 How to survive as a clown. This is what I've been doing all my adult life and I'm still doing it.


I have spent my whole adult life (40+ years) exploring what clowning is, how it works, how to do it, how to learn it, what it means and what it is for. 

I started performing by accident, and felt it had to be my vocation, without knowing why. 

Then I started studying it, in order to understand how and the why what I was doing was clowning. 

I started teaching it when I was a student, in order to try and work out how to do it better. 

I started researching its history, in order to understand why many of the things I had been told about clowning were wrong, and didn’t work. 

Today, I am still dedicated to exploring this paradoxical and ubiquitous artform which is so often denigrated as low yet so often has pretensions to wisdom. As one of my students recently suggested, clowns are anthropologists, we study humans.


My projects include:

-          Collaborate practical research with other clown performers and teachers worldwide

-          Large-scale performances aimed at the widest range of audiences

-          Solo clown acts

-          Directing, mentoring and tutoring clown artists

-          Teaching worldwide, in universities, drama schools, and all kinds of communities

-          Writing books about clowns and clowning, their history and variety across cultures


As I grew up and continue to live in a society and culture where everything is monetised, all this exploratory behaviour has come at a cost. 

Sometimes I get paid to do it (teaching, mostly, and sometimes performing). Sometimes I don’t (research, most writing, some performing). On rare occasions, I’ve been paid to think about clowns and clowning (a three-year research fellowship at Central School of Speech and Drama). 

At other times, the research happens under cover of teaching, which for me is always exploratory and asking the question ‘how do we do this thing called clowning?’ and never ‘ok, this is how you do it’. Many times, the cover is blown and the institution prefers to employ someone who will do the latter. But sometimes, I get lucky. 

There have been times when money is tight, but then there is always the street. And again the same question: ‘how to do this thing called clowning … in the street?’ 

Sometimes, people and places are so kind as to offer their resources at little cost. The first instinct when someone gives you something cheap is to offer them more in return. And then the collaborations and the explorations blossom even more. But sometimes, people think that artists are a good source of hire income, whilst simultaneously expecting them to offer their experience cheaply, in the name of accessibility.   

Maybe we can’t instantly transform our monetised societies into kinder places where everyone can get on with doing what they are good at in peace and with the security of having their basic needs met. Maybe we can’t suddenly make clowning sacred instead of precarious. But we can keep looking for better ways.

Friday 14 October 2022

What are my intentions when I teach clown?

In a recent workshop I was saying that knowing your intention on stage changes how you impact an audience. Your intention might be to grab attention. To make laugh. Or to create a relationship between clowns.

Then someone asked me what my intentions were. So here are some of my answers:


To simplify clowning and understand how we can get there when we want to

To celebrate laughter and also to allow ourselves not to laugh, inviting us to find a kinder relationship with laughter

To explore how to play our feelings, our interactions with each other in real time

To explore both our honest feelings and responses, and also the fun we can have with faking, pretending and lying – and how the real and the fake play off each other

To honour and to give ourselves places to put our fakeness, our negative judgements, our blockages, our resistances, our failures, our shame

To explore the interaction between what we plan (our scripts: projecting into the future, wondering if people will respond how we want them to) and what actually happens (the performance event: the unpredictable live responses between spectators and performers)



To open the gate to all forms of clowning regardless of ethnicity, culture, identity, family or personality

To challenge the dominant ideology in clowning that excludes and gatekeeps

To dispel mystification in how we speak and think about clown

To acknowledge the power structure already in the workshop between teacher and students

To acknowledge my privilege as a white cis het older male

To be an ally of minoritised identities in the workshop and beyond, using my power and privilege to challenge oppressive behaviour

To explore and share how clowning can reflect on, challenge, play with, or even dismantle our oppressive power structures of capitalism and patriarchy.

To acknowledge clown history and when it has been complicit in oppression

(Thanks to everyone who participated in the recent workshops in North America in Asheville, Savannah, New York and Vancouver, who inspired me to explore further and ask more questions)

Wednesday 1 June 2022

What do clown teachers say and what do they do? and are they the same?

In a recent Clown Studies Course, I asked the question: What do clown teachers say and what do they do? (are they the same?) Here is a response by Fritz Alblas, which says just about all the things I (hope) I don’t say or do. 

They say that clowning will turn you into a better, more loving person, that it will make you more popular in any crowd, that you will be able to connect in deeper ways than non-clown-humans will ever be able to do, it will teach you to connect without words (very important, very incredible), it will teach you to be in and enjoy 'the present moment' much more, that you have found the key to happiness whenever you need it: just put on the nose and it will wash you clean from all dark thoughts and bad feelings, like drugs but cheaper, or hardly cheaper because you will have to depend on the teachers not to loose this secret power of the nose, because somehow you keep unlearning it without being spoon fed by them, but as long as you do, all of this is in your reach, and it's also like meditation or yoga, but better, much better. From now on everyone will find you hilarious for just showing your real self, as long as you share the real stuff it will always be funny, but don't push it. We love you when you're failing, but do do the exercise. They say that everyone can do it if only they are willing to do enough of their workshops. Also there's no real need to think or do research by yourself because the teacher has done all that for you, it's included in the price. And anyway clowns don't think, they just do and everything they do is naturally right because it comes from a childlike place of innocence. The kind of naivety with which you should also blindly trust everything they say. A clown is also obliged to reinforce the binary, or else they're being morally bad 'gender betrayers'. Also, never believe the other teachers, they got it all completely wrong. They are the teacher, they naturally don't have to be any of these things by themselves, by means of their superior status, they're just there to tell the student how to perform, act, feel, think and live. 

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Clowning post-lots-of-things

As we return to being with each other in person, doing things like we did two years ago seems absurd. The world has moved, we have all changed. Old ways of understanding clowning seem even more out of date than before (and a lot of them were already decades past their best, dating from the early 1960s).

Online clowning during lockdown responded to urgent circumstances, when many of us were eager to find ways of being together and not alone. The online space did that intensely. Following that needy period, the online classes have become an option, convenient for many who cannot attend an in-person class, whether that's because of location or time or money. 

So let's ask ‘how do we do this now?’. Our unique new historical circumstances (post-BLM, post-Covid, in the midst of war) are the foundation for understanding our artform. Let’s innovate, respond and look to the future rather than rehashing tired ideas about ‘the clown’ as if it were a thing that exists in isolation to the world all around us. After all, clowning is nothing more nor less than a part of the society we live in here and now. It neither holds great universal truths nor is it irrelevant or disconnected to what ever real-life priorities press down upon us.

One way we can imagine this is to "flip the teaching".

Rather than students trying to work out what the teacher is wanting (or trying) to teach, how about if teachers wondered what the student already knows? 

This might help erase the belief that teachers have some kind of knowledge that they are here to impart to students. Those phrases that begin, “The clown … etc etc etc” in particular produce this kind of student/teacher relationship, since such pronouncements assume that “the clown” is a “thing” that exists in its own right, like some kind of “pure artform”. And if it exists then it would be discoverable, right? And some very clever people will have discovered it, and then be worth paying money to if you’re not clever enough to discover it. Then the teacher seems like a master/guru. “Masters” can get away with selling this product for a long time past its useful sell-by date. They can even sell it to other cultures, who will likely already have their own knowledge and practices, but still buy into the “power of knowledge”, as long as it’s got a red nose attached to it or labelled “masterclass”. 

But what if this “the clown” was just a silly mirage? What if clowns were just different ways people have of making fun of, mocking and disrupting their own beliefs and norms? (of course, that last sentence is full of its own assumptions about what clowns theoretically are!) In that case, we would all already know how to clown before setting foot in any masterclass. We wouldn’t need to be “stripped bare” and learn “neutral mask” as some kind of baptism prior to being re-educated in the correct way. We would just bring our own clownishness to the party and maybe have someone with some empathy and awareness facilitate a cultivation of what we already know. Or maybe we wouldn’t even need the “facilitator” at all. We could just come together and agree to clown. No money involved. Amateur. Because we want to.  The end of clown workshops as we know them. 

Then maybe we would have all manner of clowns made visible. Not just reproductions which are identifiable as having studied with teacher X or Y. these clowns would have begun their learning in their own families, peer groups, cultures, relationships (intimate ones, work ones, school ones). They would be diverse and different to each other. A new kind of “personal clown”? Perhaps, but not that theoretical personal clown based on the teaching method of vulnerability enforced by the teacher playing a “boss clown” (whether the latter is done cruelly or playfully is irrelevant, the structure is the same). Perhaps these new clowns would be “hyper-personal”. They would certainly be celebratory, confident a freely choosing to clown, rather than being doomed by ideas of failure, marginalisation and powerlessness.

Sunday 4 April 2021

Clowns are not always good

For many years I’ve protested about the suffocating ideologies of wholeness and goodness and claims to truth in the world of clowning. The words and practices of clown teachers, their students and even unknowledgeable journalists and promoters who regurgitate tales of clowns being universally and homogenously uplifting, sacred or progressive, have always rung false in my experience. My initial rebellion came from knowing that, in my early years of learning clowning, being told to find truth or inner clowns, or freedom, or whatever, was not only utterly useless as a teaching and learning technique, but positively obstructive to learning and understanding. Giving students abstract instructions or formulas that they cannot even begin to try, let alone achieve, sucks strength and hope from them. That’s if it doesn’t create cult members of them. 

So when, over the past year, our global conditions and concerns have forced us to face up to many uncomfortable things, and clowns and clowning too came under the spotlight, I very much welcomed that. Here was a chance to challenge the specious universalism in clowning, for example, and to look for ways to work, teach, learn and create, that acknowledge that clowns and clowning, and even the concept itself, is not universal, and does not erase cultural, historical, ethnic, gender and other differences. My excitement - to challenge our lazy conformism to one ideology of clowning which is, by now, over half a century old and most likely highly inapplicable to today’s world, which has changed radically since the early 1960s (the date of the origin of most of our ideas today about clowns) - this excitement has increased over the last year as I‘ve seen many others ask themselves questions about what we have been doing and about how our practices have often become elitist and isolated in privilege. 

But, please, in our search for more progressive ways to clown and to teach and understand clowning, let’s not dismantle one set of lazy of thinking and then install yet another bit of binary thinking! Because, no! clowns have not always been anti-authoritarian, progressive forces for good. Even if we would like them to be that now. Clowns and clowning have also served reactionary, abusive, discriminatory and harmful forces throughout history and across cultures. Pick a topic for further research from many: blackface, ethnic comic types, famous clowns under the Nazis, erasure of women clowns from historical record, clowns as villains under Stalinism, appropriation of First Nation practices in Canada, neo-colonial export of Western pedagogy and aesthetics, populist right-wing leaders, and a host of clown representations which have been misogynous, racist, ableist or homophobic.

And it’s no use trying to claim that these are not examples of ‘real clowning’. We don’t need to exclude others and privilege ourselves in order to remain critical. If we are to really self-examine, then we must constantly remind ourselves that an artistic or pedagogical practice cannot in itself be ‘good’ or ‘progressive’. It is the use we make of it, the amount of thinking and reflection we can bring to it, that determines the ethics and politics of what we choose to do.  Please let’s not fool ourselves into assuming that, just because we work with clowning, we are ‘good people’.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

We, Cowboys - by charlie.translate

'Cinema to Fiction' - Go West (1925) 
by charlie.translate
Clown Studies Course July-September 2020
London Clown School

Monday 28 December 2020

Women Clowns in Early Cinema - by Giedrė Degutytė

[This project is published together with the comments by Jon Davison, at the request of the author, Giedrė Degutytė.]

Wednesday 8 July 2020

The personal clown and vulnerability: is it an ideology of privilege?

I have researched and written for some time about the ideologies of the ‘personal clown’ dominant in Western clown training and performance. Those debates may have seemed pretty niche to some. But the times we live in right now call upon us urgently to re-examine the stark lack of diversity in the field of clowning.  The following are some beginning thoughts on how a re-evaluation of clown pedagogies might serve some useful purpose in this endeavour. They have begun to take shape in the context of many conversations and encounters with a wide range of people in the worlds of clowning that I have had the privilege of engaging with. 

The pedagogy of the personal clown has been overly dominant in clown training for more than half a century, since Jacques Lecoq first claimed to have ‘discovered the teaching method’ of the flop (attempting, but failing to make us laugh, the student becomes funny when they acknowledge their failure). That ‘flop practice’ was theorised by Lecoq himself as being evidence that demonstrated that clowns are always personal, individualised, and founded upon the sharing of that individual’s vulnerability in public. 

The problem is that non-privileged identities are always vulnerable to attack in the outside world, away from the studio. Always already denigrated and ridiculed and marginalised. So the invitation to share your vulnerability in the studio, in the supposedly safe space (let’s assume it is safe, even though it’s likely it won’t be ‘as safe’ for someone who isn’t as privileged as the majority of workshop participants) isn’t balanced out by the knowledge that one will afterwards return to the outside world as a place of safety. Because that real world likely won’t be experienced as safe if you’re a woman, black, gay, trans, disabled, or poor. 

The theory, that the sharing of one’s vulnerability in a supportive group leads to a healing process, the returning to wholeness of the individual previously wounded by trauma (Gestalt hot-seating in group therapy emerged in the same years as Lecoq’s clown pedagogy at the beginning of the 1960s),[1] [2] [3] fails to apply when there is no safe place to ‘return’ to in that real world. Because the trauma is systemic. It cannot be healed on an individual level. 

The notion of the personal clown has far-reaching consequences not just within the workshop environment. It also determines the nature of clown performance: how it is created and what gets presented in public. Lecoq’s attachment to the idea of ‘quelque chose a dire’ assumes that meaning emerges from each individual (body), since each individual is to be understand as unique and with a ‘story’ (‘something to say’) embedded in that body. The theory goes that, if one attends to one’s ‘self’, that story will manifest and it will be ‘authentic’.  This privileging of the auto-emergence of authenticity was always intended to claim the high ground over the older notions of drawing on repertoire or tradition.[4] [5] And so, for many decades, clown performers have been overly herded into creating performances according to this axiom. If valid, this theory of clown dramaturgy would by now have produced a huge range of clown performances reflecting diverse identities. Patently, that hasn’t happened. 

Conclusion: the clown as personal is available only to privileged identities. If we want to move on to equity, diversity and inclusion, we need new theories, new pedagogies and new clowns. That doesn’t mean returning to so-called ‘traditional clowning’, but it very probably does mean clowns and clowning that reflect the lived experiences not just of individuals, but of a variety of communities and identities.

[1] “Esalen, in a sense, put Perls and his therapy ‘on the map.’ People now commonly uttered Perlsisms, paying lip service to the importance of ‘doing your own thing,’ ‘being here now,’ and getting rid of their ‘topdogs’ in the ‘hot seat.’ The hot seat, peculiar to Gestalt Therapy, is a sort of therapeutic electric chair in which the patient submits to the therapist's often confrontative direction.” (Janov, Arthur (2005) ‘Gestalt Therapy: Being Here Now, Keeping Unfinished Business Unfinished’ in Primal Therapy,

[2] “[Perls] launched what he called his ‘circus’, where he gave demonstrations of Gestalt Therapy in front of a hundred people or more upon a stage that he had rigged. These demonstrations gave rise to his well-known ‘hot seat’” (Shepard, Martin (1975) Fritz (New York: Saturday Review Press), p.165)

[3] “by becoming aware of how ridiculous he is, he can emerge into an identity that is no longer ridiculous, but is relatively free. This is the whole secret behind Fritz's hot seat. He would show people how they made fools of themselves”. (Shepard, Martin (1975) Fritz (New York: Saturday Review Press), p.214) 

[4] “the circus clown [...] has little to offer theatre” (Jacques Lecoq in Murray, Simon (2003), Jacques Lecoq (London: Routledge), p.70) 

[5] “The reference to circus, which is bound to surface as soon as clowns are mentioned, remains marginal, in my view. As a child, I saw the Fratellini brothers, Grock, the Cairoli trio, Portos and Carletos, all at the Medrano circus in Montmartre, but we were not after this kind of clown at the school. Apart from the comic register, we took no external models, either formal or stylistic, and the students themselves had no knowledge of the clowns I have mentioned. They thus embarked on their research in complete freedom and it was Pierre Byland, a student at the school before he returned to teach here, who first introduced the famous red nose, the smallest mask in the world, which would help people to expose their naivety and their fragility.” (Lecoq, Jacques (2000) The Moving Body: teaching creative theatre (London: Methuen Drama), p.154)

Friday 8 May 2020

Clown training goes online

With the help of a grant from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, I am exploring new and innovative online possibilities in clown teaching, by testing online options for clown teaching at London Clown School. Somewhat fortuitously, I came into our current situation having had some experience in the design and delivery of online teaching materials for clowning with the first Clown Studies Course (History, Theory and Analysis) in January of this year.  

My main focus has begun with adapting the syllabus from the former weekly ‘Devising for Clown Performance’ classes, which I have offered in London for a number of years. Through experimental sessions with interested performers, teachers, and students I began by testing some possibilities and limitations of online study in the area of creating clown performance. This area of clown training, with a large component of creation which occurs previous to the live performance, seems like it might lend itself more easily to online education. As a result, I am now at the stage of running a number of six-week series of classes.

The next phase will be to test the teaching of those aspects of live clown performance which normally assume or demand the physical presence of performers and spectators in the same space, which presents greater obstacles in translating to online media.

This process, at the moment, looks to respond to urgent current circumstances, but then will come questions in addressing the unknown of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in in the near future. We don’t know how much demand for online learning will be sustained. Perhaps it will maintain itself at the current level, perhaps it will increase, or perhaps it will drop off if circumstances change. Current responses to my own initial plans from both professionals and students suggest that especially those with difficult access to performer and arts training will continue to engage online after lockdown.

I hope that these innovations may have some useful impact on teachers and students in my field and play some role in the development of clown teaching and performance globally, which has always been of prime importance to me. 

So, instead of asking, ‘when will we return to like it was before with live audiences and workshops?’ we can ask ‘how do we do this now?’ (whether we return or not). Our unique new historical circumstances may lay the foundation for an exciting new way of understanding our artform. My hope is to be able to develop, innovate, and support the world network of clowns and clowning for the future.

Monday 13 April 2020

Are prescriptions for clowning ridiculous in the age of coronavirus lockdown?

Recently, on a widely used clown forum, a question posed by the daily newspaper Le Monde was discussed in reference to our own specific artform:

‘Will we ever be close up together again watching a show?” What do you think?

My own answer was this:
I do not know. But I would rather ask the question: what is most important for clowning? A live audience present together in the same place? Or being in the here-and-now moment (but online)? Because both are not possible at the same time right now. And if both things are not possible, then maybe both things are not essential for clowning to happen. Otherwise, clowning would not be possible.

The original question is entirely comprehensible. But it feels to me that it runs the risk of pointless speculation, driven by an attachment to certain ways of doing things. Those ways of doing things are not available to us at the moment, so any clinging on to them will be likely just to generate anxiety. Attachment leads to suffering. Also, asking this question suggests that this, unavailable, way of clowning is the only way we can imagine it: with a bunch of people all close together in one place watching the performers who are also right there in that place in front of us.

If we can only imagine clowning under these conditions, then we are left with nothing. No clowning.

But what if we were to assume that these conditions were not necessary? What if we assume, instead, that clowning was possible under any conditions? Then we’d only need to find out how that clowning looked under these current conditions, right?

This question takes us right to the heart of the problem of prescriptions versus descriptions of clowns and clowning. Over the several decades since the 1960s when clown workshops have come to prominence in our artform, clown teachers and their students have played a large role in defining the narrative of what clowns are supposed to be, what they are for, and how we are supposed to understand them. Clown teachers generally love to make prescriptive statements, that begin: “the clown always/never ….” Whereas previous eras were more prone to descriptive statements, that began: “clowns do x, y, z …”

Within that world of clown teachers, there are many elements of this narrative which go pretty much unquestioned by most people. Strangely, given the supposedly free-thinking nature of clowns, not much self-critical thinking goes on about our own thinking about ourselves. This, despite the fact that previous historical periods had very different ideas about what clowns are, or should be. The historical specificity of contemporary ideas about clowns has gone fairly unnoticed. Until our historical circumstances suddenly change radically, and put those orthodox ideas under huge strain.

The question above seems to ask about only one condition, that of ‘liveness’. But implicit in that question are two of those tenets of contemporary clowning:

1.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same space, allowing for unmediated responses.
2.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same moment, allowing for immediate responses.

Now, the options for ‘being in the same space’ are severely restricted. But ‘being in the same moment’ is amply available through online technology. (Let’s not even mention that whole golden age of clowning, the silent movies, which willingly gave up on performers being in the same place and time as their audiences.)

If we insist on having both conditions then, okay, let’s give up clowning. Personally, I prefer to continue, for the moment exploring the online options of the remaining condition. Or to give up insisting on conditions for clowning. To give up on prescriptions for clowning, which now are not only tedious (they have been for a while), but plainly ridiculously untrue.

I mean, if we can’t even adapt to this, what would we do if, one day, the conditions for being in the same moment were also removed (internet lockdown)?!

Thursday 26 September 2019

How did this come about? Part 2

I’ve been meaning to get around to updating my story for a while now. Seems like 14 years have passed since I last attempted to make sense of the path I have travelled! Ah well, maybe it’s a good time to assess those years? Because, right now, things don’t make a lot of sense.

Shortly after writing up that last account, in Barcelona in 2005, I embarked on a new phase, prompted by a desire for a more stable pattern of work, which I hoped I would discover by returning to Britain, where I imagined teaching contracts would last more than the stipulated one-year maximum available in the Spanish system. The problem being, that in Catalonia, pretty much all the staff teaching performance or acting were (and probably still are) from the same generation. That generation sharpened their craft in the late years of the dictatorship, and belong to a heritage of cultural resistance that chimed with Catalanist national identity. As the law stated that a public institution must employ half its staff on permanent contracts, with the other half on one-year contracts, almost all the for-life posts were held by those who would all retire around the same time, being of similar age. I didn’t want to wait around another 20 years for my chance. However, forewarned by friends back in Britain that times had changed and in order to get a teaching job I’d now need a postgraduate qualification, I got myself a place on the MA in Drama by Practice-as-Research at Kent university. The one-year course proved ideal. I managed to maintain my residency in Barcelona while popping over for the required lectures: just one a week for 6 weeks or so, funding my trip with busking on Brick Lane each Sunday during the market, which back then was a joyous and chaotic affair, just before the grip of gentrification bleached the life out of the area. I was housed as a guest at an also slightly chaotic community of 17 people on the corner of Bethnal Green Road, a haven of relative peace which had survived since its initial founding back in the 80s as a Quaker initiative, now sadly dissolved under the pressure of grotesquely raised rents across much of East London, which has seen the disappearance not only of affordable housing, but of affordable spaces for artists to work in. The rets of my MA course was like a mini-PhD, under the marvellous supervision of Olly Double, stand-up comedian and expert on comedy past and present. It was an absolute joy to dedicate that year to researching how clowns have historically used prosthetics and amputations to make their work, and it culminated in a one-man show with a dozen or so recreated examples. I still make good use of my three-legged act and the extending arms, and would love to revisit the floating head illusion one day, too.

By chance, whilst in London during that period, I noticed my old lecturer in theatre from Nottingham, Simon Shepherd, was giving an open talk at Queen Mary University. To be honest, the topic didn’t draw me, but I was curious enough to go along and have a chat with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of decades. That brief post-talk conversation laid the ground for the next step: I would be applying for one of the new ‘Creative Fellowships’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, designed to support the re-entry of artists into the academy. And it would be hosted at Simon’s current place of work Central School of Speech and Drama. Having been accepted as the school’s very first Creative Fellow, I embarked on a three-year salaried period of investigation, exploring the current state of clown training in the wider context of actor training. It felt like the plan might be working out: I had a job, a full-time one. I immediately spent my first month’s salary on all the books I hadn’t been able to buy over the last several years. (Still haven’t read them all.) I became a permanent member of the Bethnal Green community, whilst continuing to share my time between London and Barcelona. My split life seemed to fuse. Central seemed to resemble the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, my previous pace of work. Both were dedicated to training actors. Yet a culture shock awaited me…

Monday 23 September 2019

Clown wordlists / keywords

There are many clown teachers. There are many methods. They do not agree.  Here is a quick way to get an idea of my approach:

Words I use: funny, laughter, do, action, task, object, clown, clowns, clown-like, clown-ish, gag, number, act, exercise, pretend, simple, fake, real, why, feel, emotion, think, human, surprise, impact, intrude, disrupt, contradict, shame, love, audience, script, wrong, stupid, look, friend, plan, experiment, science, attention, drama, dynamics, mechanics, conversation, skill, repertoire, fear, ridiculous, conditioning, cultivate, aware, speak, humble, shit, …

Words I don’t use: spontaneous, authentic, sacred, self, inner, mask, truth, the clown, improvisation, play, game, high stakes, universal, difficult, wisdom, transform, art, collaborate, physical, spiritual, problem, status, ensemble, dark, tragic, contemporary, traditional, rule, creative, imagination, fiction, message, personal, mime, my clown, your clown, vulnerability, …

Thursday 19 September 2019

Clown Universals?

Having just returned from teaching a five-day workshop in Canada, where there are many clown teachers and methods but one rather dominant one, I wonder whether we should stop talking about 'The Clown'?
As the process of writing thie Clowning Workbook advances, sometimes apace, sometimes snail-like, the thoughts refine and the questions expand and a larger picture starts to come into view: what is the practical output of training and how deeply does it reflect our assumptions about what those outputs should mean?
Clown Universals?
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for them, well, looking to see if there are any, testing the ones I’ve found a lot of people subscribe to, but it always happens that as soon as you think there might be something we can agree on, up crops a clown example that contradicts what looks like a universal principle. I still think it’s worth searching for principles, though, underlying structures that we can use to understand how clown/clowns/clowning happens. But those underlying structures are always going to be determined by each person’s own starting point, your own assumptions about the world and what is important, your own search for meaning generally, I suppose. So there will be many different versions depending on your own cultural background (clowns differ greatly across cultures in how they manifest), your own philosophical standpoint (whether that’s explicit or not) and what you believe in. Personally, I try and keep my principles simple, and they are always up for revision. At the moment, what I find most useful is to work with an assumption that clowns are figures which offer themselves as laughter-objects. So a clown is someone we are invited to laugh at, simply. Of course, those who believe clowns don’t have to be funny ill disagree with me, so I won’t be claiming to have defined all clowns/clowning/clown. The idea of the clown as object-of-laughter means that it is irrelevant whether this happens through means of reproduction of repertory or standard material/acts/gags, or by means of response in-the-moment to an audience, or by both means simultaneously (my preferred way). That’s why, for me, the article in this thread doesn’t help me at all, as it is looking for principles in the wrong place in my view. It is looking to define the clown through those aspects which seem to be immediate and in the present, but for me that leads down to a dead-end, one that I have got stuck in myself in the past. The way to get out of those dead-ends, I think, is to be brave and question whether the results are really good or not, or reliable, and not to rely on a belief that one has discovered the ‘truth’. Thinking that one has discovered the truth is, of course, very tempting, and seems to be prevalent in some clowning practice, perhaps due to the large impact that studying/experiencing clowning can have on a person at a subjective level, especially in the early encounters with it. This subjective experience might lead to placing quite a lot of stock in the feeling that the clown can be personally transformative, and therefore a path to knowledge and wisdom. Which it can be, but then again so can pretty much any human endeavour. So I would be suspicious of claims to sacredness or wisdom that set clowns/clown/clowning apart or above other human activities, and the idea of universality often accompanies the mindset of ‘wisdom’.

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Impact Report - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Impact Report

1 What we achieved, compared with the original aims of the project:

The proposed project comprised a number of activities including rehearsal, performances and open workshops, all of which were carried out as planned. In rehearsal, a total of over 100 full days of artist employment were funded, shared between 5 core performers and 3 collaborating artists.  5 public performances were given, one per month, as planned, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. 5 open workshops were held, 3 at specialised performer training institutions (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Rose Bruford College and London Metropolitan University), one at a community arts centre (Kentish Town Community Centre) and one at Rosemary Branch Theatre.  Each workshop had at least a dual function: firstly, to further the process of the project’s research and development by involving participants directly in the questions and practice relevant to the participating artists at the time of the workshop; and secondly, to share ongoing findings, skills and approaches with participants such that the latter might reuse the experiences in their own artistic, personal, social and/or educational development. Each workshop took a unique focus, determined by the nature of the participating venue and users.

‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University shared with performing arts students the starting points that project artists had taken in the process of developing performance from training.

‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College invited students to create new links between training and performance.

‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre brought together resident and other artists at the theatre to experiment with some of the project findings and their impact on their own artistic development.

‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre used clowning and basic clown training in the context of social club events designed to bring neighbours of all ages together.

‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama invited staff and postgraduate students to ask practical questions about how clown training works within the wider context of performer training.

Rehearsals focused on the processes of bringing laughter-response clown training to the public stage. A total of 21 main exercises underwent this process of staging and were tested a number of times in the five public performances given.

The rehearsals also looked at how laughter-response training might bear upon non-clown, but related, forms such as circus and stand-up comedy, using the exercises to ‘filter’ these genres. These were also tested in the public performances.

The performances thus served as experimental opportunities to gauge the effect of such training on the quality of the dynamic relationships between performers and audiences.

Ongoing evaluation and monitoring of the project was carried out as proposed, using real-time online feedback through social media to gauge responses to work in progress.

2 What we learned, and how the project has helped us to develop:
Learning and development arose from all three of the main activities in the project: rehearsal, performances and open workshops.

Rehearsals: staging of training exercises was carried out in a variety of different ways - in bare form, with set-ups, with added narrative, or as filters for existing material. Work in rehearsals focused on:
1.      Adapting the exercise for stage, addressing how the information necessary to read the performance can be transmitted to a live audience without explaining the content as if it were an open workshop. This included staging means to set up the action and sometimes to add situational elements.
2.      Training in the execution of the exercises. This involved finding ways for performers to be autonomous without the need for the workshop teacher’s framing. Constant practice needed.

Through engagement with these testing methods for staging, a minimum set of requirements was developed for each of the 21 exercises. Also developed were staged versions with a maximum amount of added elements which still allowed for the clown dynamics of the exercise to drive the performance, without recourse to fictional layers of scripting. The forms which emerged thus drew their staged effects primarily from the clowning dynamics which the original exercises were designed to train, fulfilling the aims of the research which was to create clown performance derived from laughter response rather than from fictional characters, roles, narratives, sketches or variety acts.

Performances: each staged form was tested at least twice over the run of five public performances. These choices were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Focus, however, was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage.

It was found that some stagings/exercises proved more successful in public performance in terms of engagement of audience, laughter response, and ‘readability’ for spectators. Those stagings which were least successful were subjected to further research in rehearsals as well as open workshops before being re-presented in public.

Open workshops: over the course of the five open workshops, a variety of developments occurred.  
At ‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University there emerged new, unexpected and more complex forms of a group of exercises focusing on the intrusion of clowning into other genres of performance.  

At ‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College, participants helped develop new ways to experiment with specific exercises which we had yet to find way of staging. There emerged several options for training concerned with the immediate visual and vocal impacts of clowning.

At ‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre, participants and project artists worked together to develop a range of responses to the specific architecture and space of the theatre from the starting point of clowns in response to laughter.

At ‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre, participants joined project artists in basic clown training exercises before trying simple stagings of them. The event tested the extent to which non-performers might engage with the training ad performance of laughter-response clowning, with considerable success. This potentially confirms the hypothesis that this form of clowning reflects some fundamental notions of how clowning works which are shared across ages, communities and cultural experiences.

At ‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, participants came up with a variety of preliminary conclusions about the divergence of laughter-response clowning from mainstream actor training methods (including orthodox clown training current in UK drama universities).

3 Longer term impact the project has had:

The development of new staging choices derived from laughter-response clown training has led to a number of impacts beyond the process itself.

From training to performance:
The tested stagings were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Although the focus was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage, there emerged ways to create ‘bundles’ of stagings, which led performers and spectators from the simpler phases of the training on through ever more complex structures. Thus it was that sections of the performance presentations also began to work in a parallel path of ‘learning’. This pointed in the direction of a larger scale dramaturgy that would perhaps mirror the programme of training as it develops over the period of a training workshop or course. This long form can thereby act as the starting point for the building of a whole show, based upon the findings of this R&D project.

The varied and intensive nature of the open workshops, bringing project artists together with students, teachers and community and other artists, suggested future impacts which include:
-        - New approaches to be developed by non-project workshop participants in their own fields of performance, educational and community activity. These paths might draw upon the new links suggested by the project between training and performance, which may be applicable both to clowning and non-clowning work.
-         - Personal artistic development of project artists. Via the participation in the delivery of the open workshops, participating artists were able to evolve in their own practical knowledge and insights into facilitating workshops, opening up new avenues for individual artists’ future development as facilitators.

The project’s use of ongoing visual documentation by a professional photographer enabled a parallel research to be collaboratively developed into how clowning might be perceive, recognise or understood outside of the actual moments of performance. Visual images, still and moving, were regularly tested via social media to assess the impact of the clowning under exploration. The contribution of the professional photographer was thus extensive, via three main photo shoots covering rehearsals, performances and workshops. This served two main aims: firstly, to document the project; secondly, to explore visual images of clowning as a dynamic relationship between performer and spectator, researching means by which to communicate and chime with a contemporary audience who might be disposed to the experience of this new type of clown performance.

In conclusion, this period of research and development has enabled us to move to a position where the creation of a complete show may be envisaged clearly as the next phase in our artistic development.

Monday 22 July 2019

Research workshops - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

As part of our Arts Council-funded R&D exploring new forms of clown performance, we're looking at how to bring some of the experimental outcomes of workshop training onto the public stage. In this session we will share some of our processes and engage in some practical research with those who wish to join us (or you can just observe). The focus will be on mixing modes of performance and how clowns might intrude into other genres.
The session will be led by Jon Davison and members of Citizens of Nowhere, who produce the monthly performance Friday Flop at 
Rosemary Branch
June 22nd: Clowning Experiments
at Rose Bruford College
This practical workshop will engage participants in our ongoing research into how to use traiing exercises as performance material. We will be inviting participants to experiment with specific exercises which we have yet to find way of staging. Hopefully, our joint roles as researchers and guinea pigs will merge!
We have particular questions about how to take advantage of some of the impactful outcomes form exercises such as:
- "Attention Seeking"
- "Instant Impact"
- "Make a Loud Noise when you have the opportunity"
Friday Flop invites you to join us for a day of practical workshops, discussions and experiments

Friday Flop is about clowning research into laughter response and using workshop training exercises to make theatre.

We have loads of questions – We guess you do, too - Maybe we can answer each other’s questions?

Questions like:
• How to reproduce on the stage the best shit you came up with while devising, training or rehearsing?
• How to keep the bad shit (fears, stress, habits) out of the way and just engage with audiences in the way you want?
• How can we turn exercises into performance? Bring your exercises!

Join us on Sunday 21st July between 11am and 5pm at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

Where we’ll spend the day exploring these questions through
• Workshops
• Discussions
• Experiments and yet to be imagined ways of sharing

The day is open to anyone who finds these questions interesting, whether you use clowning or not.
And it’s free of charge

Plus: if you learn nothing, you’ll get a full refund

Venue details: Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Road, London N1 3DT
Nearest stations: Essex Road, Haggerston

If you would like to participate, please let us know by emailing Jon Davison here: 

July 17th: Commuity Arts Clowning
at Kentish Town Community Centre
In collabortaion with NorthLDNCares, a talk, a workshop, a chnace ot have a go at clowning in the context of one of the many social club events organised by designed to bring neighours together, of all ages. 
Clowning is accessible to aoslutley anoyne. There are no limits in terms of age, physical ability, experience, education, etc. 
A chance to see if the clown trianing exercises we use profesisonally can also work for anyone who wnats to enjoy the pleasure of being silly in front of their friends and neighbours, or simply to be an audience for those who wish to!
Is clowning still a truly popular art?
We invite you to spend the afternoon with us engaging in experimental clown training practice as research.

We are in the midst of an Arts Council-funded R&D project investigating the relationship between performer training and live performance. Our main questions are around how to reproduce on public stages some of the biggest impact outcomes which occur in the training studio.

We have been working with performers, trainers, researchers and other practitioners with an interest in engaging with our ever-expanding list of questions, by participating in some of our ongoing experiments in transferring training to performance.

Some of our questions currently are:
- How can we navigate from the studio to the stage?
- How is training useful?
- What are we training to do?
- How can training exercises be redesigned for clown purposes?
- What are ‘clown choices’ in performance?
- How can we cause imbalance or uncertainty such that the unexpected might occur?
- How do we learn clown?

The session will take place in RR6 and is open to all RCSSD staff, students and alumni
If you’d like to know more, please contact Dr. Jon Davison
Clowning research today (22nd July 2019)

I am interested in the genealogy of training exercises and the way in which they transmit ideological assumptions through practice.

This interest began to be explicit in my research which re-examined clown training and the dominant orthodox notions of the personal clown, spontaneity, authenticity, etc. (AHRC-funded Creative Fellow, CSSD 2007-10). But such an enquiry had roots way back in my pedagogical practice development in the 1990s as I began to both shed the exercises which seemed not to serve clowning (ensemble) and at the same time design new exercises to elaborate on the results of such methods as Guy Dartnell’s Expressive Theatre, focusing on the response of the performer to stimuli and impulses.

Having side-lined the old outdated notions of authenticity and the inner self in clowning, as well as assumptions that clowning is driven by improvisation or play, I began to build what could take its place. The gap was filled by laughter-response conditioning, which has part of its roots in Gaulier, but is founded upon an assumption that clowning, like all performance, is produced by a series of material actions which are themselves understood by their organisation into sets of conventions. This materialist notion of clown practice, articulated in my PhD, then formed the theoretical basis for our current ongoing project, Friday Flop, which asks the question ‘How does clowning happen in a theatre?’ The methods used in this project are various attempts to stage clown training exercises which are driven by laughter response. Future phases of the project will look at broader issues of clown dramaturgy, considering how these disparate bits of clown theatre might be bundled together and eventually written as a whole performance. But, for now, we are still focusing on the bits in isolation.

The current phase of the project is a five-month period of Arts Council-funded R&D, now nearing its end. In this final month, a surprise happened. We had assumed that our ongoing development would continue simply to find new and better ways to stage the training. But suddenly we found that we wanted to go ‘back’, to some of the exercises discarded long ago. Exercises which trained and conditioned our behaviour in relation to the architecture of the theatre in which we work. The place where we work. This led us back to training which is interested in how humans move in a space and in relation to each other. And so we began to replay some of those exercises. I had to delve back into my notebooks from the 90s and re-read how I was trying to come to terms then with a legacy of training which felt inappropriate for what I wanted to explore. Now, today, that coming to terms with lineages of training regimes is distinct. In part, because some of my questions from that decade have been answered. Which seemed to lead me a rather naughty thought. What if we were to take some training exercises that were explicitly aimed at producing the opposite effect to clowning, and then ‘clown’ them in order to make them work for us? Which exercises would they be?

And that is what we will try and explore here today.

How do we ‘clown’ the performer exercises which were designed to induct us into the particular set of normative constraints founded upon the false assumptions that we are equal, fair and live in a democracy?

We are referring particularly to those exercises and training methods aimed at producing the ensemble.

By ‘to clown’ I mean the practice of bringing to bear of a critical approach founded upon clown theory. This approach is, of course, enacted by means of practice. In other words, it is Practice-as-Research. ‘To clown’, then, is a verb to describe a critical process. This critical process would question or subvert dominant cultural expectations about equality, fairness, and suggest a subversive reading of the practice of ‘ensemble’, producing a transgressive position and potentially useful training exercise for clowning.