Having just wound up the second year of this project by compiling An Encyclopaedia of Clown, where I had concentrated on how clown works at the level of gags and short pieces of action, I began to think about how larger forms and structures work. How can we make whole numbers and, beyond that, full-length shows, using the principles worked on over these last two years?
I started by asking myself what the primary, normal actions and behaviour with tables and chairs are. I had the idea that these two pieces of furniture would provide more than enough setting for a 90 minute show in the round. They can operate at the centre of a circular performing space, as they are three-dimensional, unlike sets, doors, sofas, and so on. They have a history of involvement in clowning, and are easily portable. And they allow us to do scenes with food and drink, which I suspected would be the theme of our performing work this year.
So we began by applying a simple spatial exercise to these pieces of furniture. Three performers are free to use the table and chairs in any normal way, but must maintain certain fixed distances from each other. Performer “A” is arm’s length from “B”, who in turn is a leg’s length from “C”. “A” and “C” have no specified relationship. I chose to work with groups of three, as I also had in mind that I wanted to explore fully the possibilities of clown trios.
I had used this exercise many times to teach a kind of clown status. There are many status exercises around, but they mostly base themselves on psychological concepts, demanding that the performer use their head in order to create status relationships. And so they generally create relationships based on a psychological understanding of character. In clown, we don’t need or want characters, we just want you. Fixed spatial relationships give you more than enough to play with and you don’t have to think about what and why you are doing whatever you are doing.
So that deals with the relationships. What about the actions themselves? We needed quite a bit of work for everyone to understand just what normal behaviour is! Unfortunately, much theatre and clown training encourages students to think that they must be creative. So using a chair as a machine gun rather than to sit on is regarded as more interesting. Keith Johnstone does a great demolition job on this twisted way of thinking in his seminal work, Impro, so I won’t go into it in detail here.
I tend to think in terms of three categories of actions: primary (normal use of objects, using them for what they were intended); secondary (logical other uses, that work but are not what they were intended for); and tertiary (fanciful uses, that may not be logical or possible even). In reality, the three areas blur into each other, but I wanted to get down on paper the basic examples in all three for chairs and tables, as follows.
Chair: sit on it, stand up from it, pick it up, move it, offer it, accept it, change places, lean on it
Table: sit at it, walk round it
Chair: stand on it, fall off it, pull it away, jump off it, fight with it, share it, leap over it, put feet up on it, sleep on it
Table: stand on it, leap on it, hide under it, lie on it, dance on it, block the door with it
Chair: tame a lion
Table: balance it on feet
Aside from direct actions with these objects, we can combine them with other objects. For example, normal objects to put on a chair might be: cushions, clothes, hats, newspaper. Secondary ones might be: plates, glasses, drawing pins.
One more thing: the objects themselves can be primary or secondary. That is, a chair can be made normally or not. Normal chairs are made of wood, metal, plastic, etc. Abnormal chairs would be made of paper, rubber, or bubble-wrap. Normal chairs support your weight when you sit in them. That’s what they are designed for. But abnormal ones might fall apart, or bend, or give you an electric shock.
As you can see, I’m not really interested in those tertiary uses. What is interesting for me is how you shift slightly from normal to surprising uses. And how it’s these secondary actions that are often funny.
Now we’ve clarified just what kind of actions we can call upon, it should be an easier job to devise something that works, avoiding the pitfalls of creativity or self-expression that plague so much contemporary clowning.