Tuesday 30 September 2008

The Phenomenology of Clown

This is the transcript of a paper given at the conference
as part of In/Scissions, a Festival of Emergent Arts,
at Central School of Speech and Drama, London, 20th September 2008.


I am a research fellow at CSSD, funded for three years by the AHRC to research the contemporary clown. I would like to take this opportunity to present some of the principle findings so far, one year into this project.

My research begins by asking an age-old question in a new context. The age-old question concerns how an actor is to be convincing. This has vexed and provoked actor training since at least Stanislavsky, and has of course been around for far longer. The new context is that of clown training and performance.

The overarching question, then, is: “How is a clown (or actor) convincing?”

The distinction I make between clown and actor is purely rhetorical. My underlying assumption is that they are the same. All clowns are actors. All actors are clowns.

By the end of this year I have arrived at a vision (or rather, a feeling) of clown that is highly personal, in the sense that it depends on seeing (or rather, on feeling) things at a personal level. This “what clown feels like” is what, in retrospect, I have spent the last year searching for. We might call this “the phenomenology of clown”.

What does it feel like to clown? What does it depend on? A loss of ego? An acceptance of failure? High self-esteem? Contradictory behaviour? A sense of difference? Feeling like when you fall in love? This is what we could call “being clown”, and is what I have also attempted to demonstrate in my new solo performance, “from jontxu…to be”. In this performance I set myself the task of simply being with the chair, rather than looking to improvise actions that might follow clown rules. My focus was thus on feeling what it’s like to be clown. I found that it is entirely possible to entertain an audience in this manner, at least for ten minutes.


The last 50 years have seen a distinct change in the fortunes of clowning. The standard history of this period goes something like this: “clowning had degenerated into a sterile and formulaic state, within the equally decadent form of circus. Then, in the early 1960s, Jacques Lecoq, by introducing clown into his teaching, brought it under the protection of contemporary theatre, where it has since lived happily ever after, as an art form.”

This fairy-tale has never really convinced me. But my scepticism is not so much aimed at claiming a place in history for the clowning of the 1950s and before (although I could do so), but instead at releasing us from the obligation to subscribe to this new orthodoxy. My feeling, over many years of teaching clown, is that this orthodoxy has not arisen from a rigorous assessment of clown, in other words a solid, trans-historical and trans-cultural definition, but is instead a coagulation of concepts, prejudices and ideologies that in their own cultural and historical moment certainly made sense, but that half a century on fail to convince and therefore are acting as obstacles to making clown for our own times.

Simon Murray, in his book on Lecoq, comments on the student interest in clown:

(Lecoq) ascribes this interest as being deeply rooted in a quest for liberation from the 'social masks' we all wear... ... for Lecoq and Gaulier it has at its heart a subversive and radical dimension which chimed with the spirit of 1968.

Unfortunately, we are no longer in May 68.

Donald McManus calls for a definition despite the problems:

The very diversity of clown, however. makes a comprehensive definition a complicated matter. In fact, it has proven so difficult that most scholars and historians in the field have balked at trying to define clown at all, and confined themselves to describing character traits, or points of similarity from tradition to tradition. But the persistence of clown as a recognizable figure in virtually all traditions, suggests that some essential clown quality must exist and be worth exploring.

So, let us embark on the path: to cross-examine our inherited teaching and performing techniques with rigour, and without fear jettison them if needs be; and to construct a solid definition and therefore practice, of clown and clown teaching that can serve our own context.

Perhaps I am only being contrary here for the sake of it, but then of course that is the nature of clown! Indigenous clowns in North America are often termed contraries, and one of their tasks is to do everything backwards. When there’s a drought, swim, when it’s cold, go naked. Rubbing you up the wrong way is always going to be part of what I do.

Many definitions of clown are possible, and I am usually quite happy to switch between them as needs arise, but recently I have been particularly enamoured of McManus’s clear thinking on the matter:

Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears.

If Freud had been into clowning he might have called this the “contradiction drive”, and it is a very neat concept indeed, as from it we can easily derive many of the manifestations that we commonly identify as clowning.

Contradiction of the context or environment can manifest as either a failure to understand or an unwillingness to obey the social rules of behaviour, and will clash with the behaviour of those who succeed in being good citizens. This contradiction can operate at several different levels. On one level you can contradict normal social behaviour, in the real world. On another level you may contradict normal social behaviour, within the fictional world of a performance. And on a third level you may contradict the rules of a genre of performance, thus stepping out of the fiction itself. All of these levels may be combined or stand alone.

So, McManus’s definition of clown allows us to leave aside the question of whether clowns are political or not. Messing around with the rules in the real world might get you into jail, or at least into politics, in modern Europe, whereas disruptive fictional behaviour may achieve the same result in a totalitarian society.

It seems to me that this definition of clowning as contradiction may be both necessary and sufficient. So, any aspects of contemporary clowning that do not arise from this contradiction drive can safely be assigned to the dust-bin. At least temporarily while we check our facts.

Failure and Authenticity

The research workshops that form the central methodology of this project began by addressing contradiction of the environment as failure. We spent a term workshopping training exercises in failure and acceptance of failure. This is well-worn territory in clown circles. A clown enters, performs an action for the audience. There are two possible outcomes: either they laugh or they don’t laugh. If they laugh, that is a clown success, and I can continue with my next action, or repeat the first one, depending on what I want to do with my material. If on the other hand they don’t laugh, then this is a clown failure. There are two possible responses to a failure. I can accept it as a failure, or not. If I accept it, and the audience sees that I have accepted it, they will most probably laugh. In that case, I am in the same position as if my original action had made them laugh, and I can continue or repeat my action, in the full knowledge that my audience is with me. In other words, I have converted my failure into a success. However, if I had chosen not to accept my failure, but instead to soldier on, bravely resisting the stage death that is looming, forging on despite boring my audience to death, then my failure will remain a failure.

But there is a contradiction here! This manipulation of failure is a learnable technique. But many students, and I include myself here, have had the feeling that when they work with failure they are coming into contact with something deep and authentic in themselves. And they are not the only ones, for audiences often share this perception. Herein lies the origin of contemporary clown’s alliance with the ideology of authenticity. Contemporary clowning has often sought to ally itself with those practices and ideologies that claim to produce authenticity in performance or behaviour, as in this example of a description of workshops:

We prioritise authenticity in the learning process above the acquisition of external skills. We believe the expression of this inner authenticity is the ground for learning clowning.

Trying to succeed, sooner or later we must fail. We can accept this failure in full view of an audience, who will see everything as long as the performer lets them. This creates an effect, for the audience and for the performer, that something that is usually hidden is being revealed. This revelation convinces us that what we are witnessing is in a sense fuller, more authentic, or more real than what we normally come across. We might call this ‘presence’. So, when clowning, when we flop, when we fail, is this some kind of revelation of truth, beneath the veneer of our mask of pretence; or is it simply a theatrical truth-effect just like any other from melodrama to naturalism?

If we accept that this is a learnable technique, can we then say that there is something in this technique that remains hidden, or unrevealed, from the audience? Audiences will often believe that stand-up comedians are improvising, ‘making it up’, whereas the performer knows all too well that he is manipulating his technique in order to create this ‘spontaneity effect’.

But in clowning it is not enough simply to fail to be authentic. One must also try to succeed. There is a play between the desire to convince (succeed) and the failure to convince (the flop). It is this play between the two, often incarnated in two different clown types, the white-face and the auguste, that constitutes clowning, more than an identification with either of the two parts.

The sociologist Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, explicitly warns against accepting that the behaviour that discredits our social mask (which we could align with the behaviour that appears in clowning, or the failure to convince the audience) being judged as somehow more authentic than the social mask itself:

While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they embarrass…... For many sociological issues it may not even necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving. The crucial sociological consideration…….is merely that impressions fostered in everyday performances are subject to disruption. We will want to know what kind of impression of reality can shatter the fostered impression of reality, and what reality really is can be left to other students. We will want to ask, ‘What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?’ and this is not quite the same as asking, ‘What are the ways in which the given impression is false?’

Play, Pleasure and Improvisation

As well as the search for authenticity, the 60s and 70s saw clown’s association with other closely related fields: being in the moment, play, and improvisation

Stephen Nachmanovitch recalls that:

Since the 1960s, the psychological issue of being in the moment has become a conscious preoccupation for many people. It came to be seen as one of the keys to self-realization, and variants of it are on the lips of a thousand teachers and gurus.

Slmon Shepherd and Mick Wallls date play from the following decade:

Barker's thoughts on play, by contrast, fit into the (counter-) cultural context of western Europe in the 1970s. So, too Csikszentmihalyi's final chapter (1975), the 'politics of enjoyment', celebrates the value of 'non-instrumental' behaviour for creativity and pleasure. Indeed so much of the work on play seems to date from this decade.

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow (1990, 2007), in Improvisation in Drama,
State, without any justification, that “Clowning is one of the purest foams of improvisation”.

This faith in the magical potential of clowning to connect us to a pure truth has its origin several decades earlier, however, with Jacques Copeau. In his forward to the Fratellini Brothers' autobiography, he wrote:

What I call your pure style is technical perfection and especially muscular perfection in the service of a spontaneous and sincere feeling. What I call the "gentleness” in everything you do is the smile of your unsullied natures.

Copeau’s concept of clowns as spontaneous, sincere and unsullied has survived to this day, which is frankly bizarre given he himself was quickly shocked out of his idealisation of clowns when he saw their rehearsal and performance techniques were not based on some kind of innocent playfulness, but on set routines.

But as McManus points out,

The Fratellinis were in any case brought to Paris from Russia specifically to appeal to a high-brow clientele. The management of the Medrano circus realized that the working class audience was abandoning the circus in favor of other newer entertainments, especially films and music hall. The Fratellini specifically geared themselves, therefore to an audience with intellectual and modernist tastes.

The literati of Paris would visit the Medrano Circus, imagining that were discovering a naive kind of theater that captured the spirit of their modernist ideals. The Fratellini themselves, however, targeted their performances to this elite audience.

He greatly admired their improvisational ability, for instance, but the form of improvisation that his school developed, and that is still used in theater training around the world, serves an entirely different purpose from clowning. Rather than recognizing that clowns like the Fratellini based their improvisation on an understanding of structure and character as well as an acute sensitivity to the audience's perceptions of these aspects, improvisation in theater pedagogy, as developed by Copeau and his disciples, focuses on “freeing” students from their intellectual selves.

Copeau’s successor, Lecoq, doesn’t even bother to idealize circus clowns. For him they are already “limited”, in Simon Murray’s words. Murray doesn’t elaborate on what those limitations are supposed to be, allowing himself thereby to sweep clown history neatly under the carpet while no one is looking, as in: “Like the circus clown, the pantomime mime has little to offer theatre.”

But things gets worse. In the rush towards clown as liberation, no one wants to be the baddie. You do not come across many courses offering to help you discover your inner cruelty, and how to make everyone else look foolish. (Which is strange, since “serious” actors often relish playing the villain.)

On the other hand, you will find Angela de Castro offering a clown workshop for teenagers entitled “Challenging Authority”.

Instead of the white face, the negative side of clowning has been taken up by the bouffon. The bouffon is indeed a kind of dark or negative clown, but still one that suited the leftist agenda of the 60s, aiming its negativity outwards at those in society who are foolish enough to imagine they are not themselves foolish. This neatly deflects any looking at one’s own negativity, whilst allowing a playground in which one can delight in dark humour.

There is one place that the white face does appear in contemporary European clowning, however, and that is in the role of the clown teacher, especially the one who follows the via negativa, in the tradition of Lecoq and Gaulier. Being limited to the classroom, though, these figures are rarely seen in public.

Early 20th clowning knew much better than we do today about the delicate balance between the white-face and auguste clowns as equal and opposite. In his introduction to Tristan Remy’s Les Clowns (1945), Bernard de Fallois says:

The beautiful dialogue between the white face and the auguste does not set at each others throats the superior and the inferior, the executioner and the victim, the exploiter and the exploited. The two partners are at the same level. They are two equal forces, two principles one as positive as the other. The white face is no more superior to the auguste than thought is to action, or serenity to emotion.

The white clown’s contemporary absence has left the auguste alone and inexplicable without her partner. Perhaps another era would have preferred to adopt the white face, an era that needing to identify itself with the controlling urge, the desire for power and the knowledge that allows one to fool the gullible. Richard Findlater, in his biography of Joe Grimaldi, quoting D. L. Murray, suggests that Regency England might have been such an age:

his whole conception of the Clown reflects that period of genteel blackguardism, pugilism and practical jokes. The ‘grimacing, filching, irresistible Clown’, his white face larded with red like a schoolboy’s that has been dipped in a surreptitious jam-pot, is a plebeian successor of the mohocks, a companion of Jerry Hawthorn and Corinthian Tom, whose recreations are breaking windows, tripping up old women and assaulting the constables.

The point is that it is clear that different cultural moments will want different clowns.

Red Noses

Lecoq’s other major manoeuvre, having extracted the auguste from the grip of the past, was to choose the red nose as the only visual element to remain. He could have chosen big feet, or red hair, or baggy costumes. But this wouldn’t have slotted into his theatre-as-mask agenda. By using the red nose he neatly seemed to prove that clown is mask.

John Wright: We see ‘Le Flop’ in the actor’s eyes and the little mask of the nose directs our attention to them. We want to look behind the nose to see who it is that looks so stupid and we find ourselves looking into the actor’s eyes. The red nose becomes ‘a tiny neutral mask for the clown.’

Although it is true that the red nose has some effect in clown training, it is not a necessary condition of clowning. I see no inherent connection between clown and mask. It is not necessary to use the red nose in order to clown. Using a red nose can be useful at times, though not for everyone. But clown can be reached without it. So the red nose is not identical to clown.

Curiously, other movements towards eliminating clown history were being made around the same time, but for seemingly quite different reasons. In the Soviet Union, the clown Oleg Popov had few good words for his predecessors. For Popov, the new art-clown excluded the old grotesque clown:

The ancient art of clowning, with its methods and its rules for constructing the entrée and with the working method of the red-haired comic, is dead, above all because the spectator wants to see a real, natural man. The appearance in the ring of degenerates, paralytics, rheumatics, idiots, madmen and maniacs (and it is precisely this which is the basis of the burlesque red-haired comic) does not rouse the interest of spectators

On the other hand, the new Soviet clown

looked for new, less extravagant means of expression … The spirit of clownery joined more and more harmoniously with that of the other acts which were trying to create a realistic appearance.

But who was it who actually wanted to see this real, natural man? The 1959 First National Conference on Clown Craft, known popularly as the Congress of Clowns, suggests the answer:

That year an assembly of circus clowns, critics and government officials had been convened by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, after he found the circus lacking in satire.

The result of the congress, coming only three years after the revelation of Stalin’s crimes by Krushchev, is that “clowns mocked low-level bureaucracy, as well as idlers and incompetent doctors, with state approval.” In other words, although clowns were given back some of their historical rights to parody, their targets were strictly limited by the Party. This choice of content fits neatly alongside Popov’s stylistic overthrowing of the grotesque.

Did this raise clowning to the level of art, as Popov pretended? In the preface to Tristan Rémy’s Les Clowns, Bernard de Fallois judges against:

At the occasion of one of the first shows in Paris by the Moscow Circus, the clown Popov explained in a press conference that clown comedy in the West expressed the class war. The white clown was capitalism and the auguste the proletariat. For him, the Soviet circus had put an end to this unpleasing opposition, such that laughter no longer came from malice and oppression. Now, it is true that Popov’s number, in the great tradition of Russian augustes de soirées – talking, whistling, joke telling clowns -, was without malice. He was even of a great kindness. But neither did he make us laugh. He had replaced the laugh with poetry. The clash, the emotion of the art of clown were absent. What Popov had not seen was that the duo of the white face and the auguste had never had the sense which he was ascribing to it.

Popov not only shadows Lecoq, but is as damning as Copeau on the Fratellinis:

Let us move on to the Fratellini. Wonderful artistes, they perform in the age-old manner of buffoons, a thick layer of make-up on their faces. They are perfect connoisseurs of human nature, sharp and intelligent. But they do not try to reflect anything in their performance except such faults as stupidity, clumsiness, absent-mindedness. As a result it is hardly surprising if the most common outcome of their conflicts is a slap in the face. And the spectator hears a positive deluge of slaps. Certainly I understand that the Fratellini are the guardians of an old circus tradition, a tradition respected down the centuries. But the times demand that this tradition should be broken and it is this that accounts for the appearance of the realistic clown.

Games and Rules

Let us turn now to playing and games. This is a more difficult area for me, as my career has not only embraced clown, but play and impro. Not only that, but games and play have acquired huge status in the theatre-training world. Many proclaim total faith in games as theatre.

For John (Wright), games are how we make dramatic action real. To discover the play is to discover the games at work in the play, the games that generated the play in the first place. Not an optional extra, an ice-breaker or a nod to ‘directorial process', games force us to be present in the rehearsal room here and now. In the theatre this is fundamental. The circumstances of the play, the ‘there and then' of the story, are in constant play with the 'here and now' of the actors' shifting relationship with the audience.

Finding the Game... The rules are: 1. Find the game. 2. Entertain each other with it. 3. Recognise when the game is over. 4. Find another game.

Clive Barker, in Theatre Games,

The elements of play… are also the seeds of drama because they are expressive forms of human personal and social behaviour, and because drama is itself a game or a play activity. The use of games is therefore not only a means of technical training and of exploring human behaviour and acting, but a springboard for exploring the nature of drama and theatre.

The problem is, there is no evidence to show that clowning can be understood through these kinds of games with rules. Roger Caillois points out that

Many games do not imply rules. No fixed or rigid rules exist playing with dolls, for playing soldiers, cops and robbers, horses, locomotives, and airplanes - games, in general, which presuppose free improvisation, and the chief attraction of which lies in the pleasure of playing a role, of acting as if one were someone or something else, a machine for example.

And James P. Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games, goes a good deal further:

There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for these rules, and so on.

Chris Johnston (2006), in The Improvisation Game, takes a balanced historical view:

there is arguably some comfortable leaning on the past. One consequence is a too-easy acceptance of those tenets established early but more recently losing their relevance. The Johnstone/Spolin axis was born from a desire to liberate performers via game disciplines into a spontaneity that was imaginatively liberating. Perhaps now it's time to move to a stage in which those now-liberated imaginations can dream a science that moves beyond game-dependency.

There are several problems with games. Firstly they are not theatre, and do not operate in the same way as performance. Secondly they are based on rules, and rules are what clowns do not like. Thirdly, they encourage accruement of more rules, the avoidance of risk, and safety consciousness.

But in spite of this, and in failing to win over most critics, the Copeau-Lecoq-Popov axis claims to have won the day in academia and actor training. John Wright claims:

Theatre as game and acting as play are the two most radical ideas to hit theatre-making over the last twenty years, and they're still rattling the doors and windows of our most august theatre institutions. Games aren't ‘icebreakers' or 'warm-ups' that you abandon when you decide to start work. The games are the work, particularly when you're making physical comedy. Games contain all the raw ingredients we need for creating material and evolving comedy of amazing richness and complexity. Games work because they give us restrictions. Rules, if you like. Not rules to live by, just rules to make things happen.

According to Mark Evans, Copeau’s concepts, including clowning, are already inside the gates, now entrenched in the actor’s training:

Talk to any student actor at an established drama school and they will tell you about the animal studies they have been doing, the neutral mask work which underpins their movement work, the group and ensemble exercises they do, and perhaps the classes they have had on commedia dell’arte or clowning. These exercises are the backbone of contemporary actor training, deeply informing much of the student actor’s development, shaping and building their psycho-physical technique … Copeau’s ideas have become part of the international language of occidental actor training.

The problem with rule-bound games is how they can easily attract more and more rules. These rules have nothing to do with how to play the game, and more to do with creating a network of social behavioural obligations between participants. A society, if you like. These are different rules to the ones that define the game. The latter are the basic rules which are needed to generate the particular action that occurs in each game. They are the rules that kids will state first when asked to describe a game: “If she hads a person when she is he the person she hads becomes he.”

As with our definition of clowning as contradiction, these rules are necessary and sufficient. But what is not necessary is what commonly happens when playing the game “queenie”, for example (the basic game consists of throwing a ball over your shoulder and then guessing who’s caught it),where players will attempt to create a democratic version thus: saying that the thrower has to wait before turning around, in order to give the receivers a chance; or even sometimes the thrower themselves, after having caught someone, says ‘oh, sorry, I turned round too quick, I saw you’! If we were to play it like this, we might as well pack up and go home, because nothing interesting is going to happen.

In the workshops, when we played without these safety nets, the clowning took off. But that is not the end of the story. There is another contradiction here! The urge to govern others, to control outcomes (your own and others’) remains present. Furthermore, I would even say that it is vital for clowning that it does remain. The gap between what we want others to do (‘don’t turn round yet!’) or what we would like to happen (‘I’m going to stand close and catch the ball quicker’), and what actually does happen (the thrower turns quickly and the ball hits me in the face as I’m very near) remains in full view. It is my very control urge that leads me into inevitable failure. And thus the clown appears. Our urge to control ourselves, others and the world, are as essential to the production of clowning as are our urges towards freedom.

So, can we salvage anything from game-playing? Can we play without rules? Roger Caillois identifies a category of playing he calls vertiginous games.

The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is .a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.

Various physical activities also provoke these sensations, such the tightrope, falling or being projected into space, rapid rotation, sliding, speeding, and acceleration of vertilinear movement, separately or in combination with gyrating movement. In parallel fashion, there is a vertigo of a moral orders a transport that suddenly seizes the individual. This vertigo is readily linked to the desire for disorder and destruction, a drive which is normally repressed.

In the third term, we developed four main training regimes based on vertiginous play: dancing, jumping, chasing and laughing. These, together with a handful of fundamental failure exercises, form the basis of the performance we offer entitled “Fusion of clown, clown, clown, and clown”.

Once we have removed unnecessary parasites from the body of the clown, what we should be left with is something that works for us today. If we are to look clearly at contemporary clown, I propose that we look at it on its own terms. We would do well to cease talk of masks, play, improvisation, authenticity or devising. If clown exists, then it must have its own rules, definitions and modes of existence. Today, contemporary dancers are able to talk about dance on its own terms, and not as a kind of theatre, or kind of pantomime, or add-on to music. Equally so in contemporary circus. Can we not do the same for clown?

© Jon Davison 2008