Friday 18 December 2009

Clown Workshop at Shakespeare’s Globe, 16/12/09

The main purpose of this workshop was to teach basic clowning to the students on the MA in Shakespeare Studies. I was also interested to find out how clown works in the Globe, and how clown teaching works in this space. I wouldn’t address the very particular question of actual clown roles in Shakespeare, but instead explore what clown training can offer to the actor. The principal question is, what embodied knowledge and techniques can the clown-actor advantageously bring to the particular conditions of the Globe stage?

Clowning starts with some advantages in this space, as one of the keys to clowning is the immediate and here-and-now contact with the audience and the space. The clown is a master of direct address. Without this complicity, the clown is nothing, as her performance must take off without reliance on character or plot (though these may co-exist with the clown).

Initial clown training is geared towards finding this pleasure of being “naked” before the audience. Indeed, it is this very vulnerability that the audience will love you for. So how is this vulnerability to be achieved? By failing. We all fail constantly, but the clown admits it freely. Such candidness wins hearts and minds, and allows the clown to remain onstage despite failing continually. He has nothing to fear, he is indestructible. Of course, not all Shakespearean roles are clowns. But when the actor can build upon the shoulders of the presence that clowning brings, he will be as if fearless.

The Globe is an eminently easy space to work in. Its conditions naturally lend themselves to all of what I have just described. I have pretty much given up on most theatre spaces as being unworkable for clown, but this one is ideal. It has much in common with the circus, and also with the street. Actors and audience are in the same light, and the audience can be on all sides. So nearly everything I have previously said about the reality and honesty of the circular performing space can be said about the Globe. It does possess something of the fake-ness of theatre, though, that circus doesn’t have, due to its raised stage and the secretiveness of the tiring house. But I can live with that!

Reading up on some of the reports of actors who have worked at the Globe, I am struck their starting point is generally diametrically opposed to mine, as their initial feelings are that the Globe is a difficult space, and one to fear, as they can see the audience! However, their conclusions, having performed there, are much the same as mine. (Carson and Karim-Cooper 2008)

The Globe seems to be a relatively slow space. By this I mean the time taken for what the actor is doing to arrive to the audience is quite slow. About 3 seconds. I do think of it in terms of seconds, meaning that it feels I need to give that time to a gesture, or line, for it to be seen, understood, or ‘read’. Fixed points here feel comfortable lasting around 3 seconds. Other things that feel right here are playing with profile and face on positions. Before working in this space, one of my questions had been, ‘can we do the same things here as we see in most clown workshops in small classrooms where facial expression and understated action are convincing?’ In answer to this, I see that the same kind of subtlety is certainly possible, but that the understatement and facial expression doesn’t work. That’s a relief to me, as these are some aspects of contemporary clowning that I have grown to dislike. The Globe seems to erase the possibilities for low-key irony, hurray!

The usual range of basic clown exercise worked without problems on the Globe stage: playing for an audience who finds you ridiculous presented no real problems. I have one remaining doubt, however, which is the use of the red nose. At the time of the workshop, I felt that it didn’t really work in this space, that it even blocked our vision of the performer’s eyes. But looking at some of the video afterwards, I think it depends more on the other things I have mentioned. Also apparent is how colour and simplicity of costuming are vital here. It is a space of sombre colours, despite the decoration, and I think, as always, the brighter colours (yellow, red, pale blue) and simpler forms will work better here.

Works cited:
Carson, Christie and Karim-Cooper, Farah (2008) Shakespeare’s Globe, a Theatrical Experiment, CUP.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Clown Workshops: how do they work?

I have taught clown for nearly 20 years, and have always thought a lot about the best way to do it, looking for ever more effective clown exercises. Recently, however, I’ve begun to reflect on how people actually receive clowning knowledge, and just how divergent that process is from standard educational practices today.

I’ve never liked those hand-outs that tell the student exactly what they are going to learn, or what they have just supposedly learnt, with their aims and objectives all worked out beforehand. They remind me of watching the news on TV, being vaguely aware of some pre-packaged information gliding through my consciousness. In one ear and out the other.

Some recent clown teaching experiences threw some light on just why I feel like that. I realised that students are often fooled into believing that they have learned something, when perhaps they have not. This happens when the information or process is presented in a highly conscious and rational way, which enables the rational brain to understand, and thus thinks that the information has been learnt. But the brain has perhaps only understood the rational part: the aims, etc. In performance workshops, that commonly happens when the teacher explains the aim of the exercise before asking the students to do it, then gives feedback afterwards, and often gives the student the chance to repeat the exercise and, supposedly, improve. The end result is that everyone feels it’s been a jolly good class. But I would question whether anything lasting has been learned, at least in my field, clowning.

Another trick used to give the illusion of learning is to place these aims in a seemingly logical order. Surely it is better to learn to walk before you can run? But maybe not! A student recently commented to me that he wished he had learned a particular, very simple, element of clowning before having to present a performance in public, as it would have aided him in his performance. Maybe so. But I suggested that it might work the other way round. Perhaps learning a simple technique before realising its importance would be useless: perhaps it is better to think, “shit, I wish I’d known that before!” since this realisation would fix the experience in the memory, both consciously and in the body.

So perhaps we learn better back-to-front. It certainly seems more appropriate to clown, but maybe it is equally effective in other fields. Who knows, clowning might have a serious contribution to make to education in general.

Research Workshops
I've been running these workshops for two years now, but it's only recently that I've become fully aware of what they really consist of. A normal workshop works like a class as we know it: there's a teacher and some students, and the teacher has knowledge the students don't have and communicates it to them. (I'm not going to bother to discuss that particular relationship right now, which some people find problematic, quite simply because I don't have a problem with it.)

These research workshops appear to be like classes: there is someone with greater knowledge, who takes the others through a series of exercises designed to learn how clown works. So what are the differences?

Firstly, in the research workshop I don't have the responsibility to teach anyone anything. Instead, we use the teaching relationship to investigate how the learning process works. So I will propose an exercise or other activity, the students will carry it out and I will be looking for answers to some of my questions, such as "what's the best activity to help us get into a good state for clowning?" or "what's the best way to learn a written clown scene?". I will ask students for their reflections on this, often letting them do the detailed thinking whilst I concern myself with over-arching issues and ways of drawing together all the discoveries. In this sense the relationship resembles that of the researcher in science with his research assistants. Then, when I feel I have some answers, I move the process on, whether all the students have actually experienced the discoveries for themselves or not.

Friday 11 December 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 10, 10/12/09

I began this last workshop of the term with what had always been my usual way: asking everyone for their thoughts since last time. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done that, I’m not quite sure why, perhaps I gave up due to a lack of response?

My next question was, ‘how should we proceed? What is the best way to work with the entrées?

Some requests were:
Perform the action-without-words version.
Learn all the steps first.
Don’t mess around with the basic action, the numbers are already good and we probably won’t improve on them to begin with.
Work in order: first learn the text (alone), second learn the actions (together), third perform it as a clown (your own clown), fourth find the relationships (together).

I’d go along with all of those.

Each clown in The Bottles has an objective which defines their role. Loyal wants the show to go well. Clown wants to show off his trick, and August wants the bottle. In this session we worked with just these three roles, so let’s leave the two counter-augusts aside for the moment.

All these objectives must be really clear to the audience, and if each clown can make us laugh just by embodying their objective, things will go fantastically. When working together, it’s the relationships which are important. One way to milk that more is to wind each other up! The conflicts happen because each role sticks to their own objective. Don’t give in! At the same time, you must leave each other space, setting up your companions so they can shine. It’s what is expressed so well in the French term ‘faire-valoir’, usually used to denominate the clown who makes the august look funny. But it applies equally to all kinds of clowns. This is real playing, in Gaulier’s sense. No role is deliberately out to sabotage another, but simply wants what he wants. I mentioned Meisner recently. And here we are again with some very simple, Meisner-ish instructions for the actor.

So what the audience witnesses in a good clown show is the performers themselves, and not their interpretations or ideas. We feel the performers, as people, and we laugh at their stupid desires, feeling and thoughts. In a bad show, we only see the performer’s ideas, their constructions that they want to show us, their own desire to show us their clever creativity, and we are very quickly bored.

In this session we worked on the first part of The Bottles, up until just before the entrance of the two counter-augusts. We did 8 different versions, rotating the roles, and began not only to get a grasp on the action, inevitably, but, more importantly, to glimpse the subtleties of the relationships. I strongly believe that these entrées are highly delicate and subtle pieces. But if you play them with characters, they descend into cheap imitations of clichés of clowns, that no-one wants to watch. They become parodies of clowns. But if you play them for real, they become delightful studies of human behaviour.

Thus we come to the end of the first term of the third year of the project. What lies ahead? I would like
- Serious rehearsing of the entrées and get them performed as much as possible.
- Settle on a Method of performing/rehearsing.
- Analyse the entrées to make them learnable.
- Revise other actor training, Meisner, etc.
- Continue to devise with tables and chairs.

In addition, there is new work to be started:
- Clown music: what is it?
- What can we learn from Commedia dell’arte scenarios?
- What long forms are appropriate to clown? Hollywood movies, Wagner, Mozart, Black and White Minstrels?

Works cited:
Meisner, Sandford (1987) On Acting, New York: Vintage Books.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.

Friday 4 December 2009

Clown Research Workshop, Year 3, No. 9, 3/12/09

One of the best numbers in Rémy’s collection is The Bottles, which is one of the 12 scenes that remain unpublished in English translation. In order to start work on this little masterpiece, I decided to dictate it directly to the performers, instead of writing out the full translation first. Would dictation work better than reading? I wanted to find the best way of transmitting this material, the best way of learning and assimilating it.

So I talked 5 clowns through the scene, translating from the French, into English, whilst someone else did the translating from my English into Spanish, as I didn’t think I could cope doing a double translation. We needed to do that twice before anyone really got the idea of how the number works, and so the conclusion is that it isn’t a very efficient method. For the next new number, I will try preparing an already-analysed version, where the principal real actions are highlighted, and grouped into sections so that the form can easily be grasped. For example, how many times does the august interrupt the clown before the latter first makes the bottle disappear? This would then be a script more appropriate for clowns than just the entire spoken words and stage directions all recorded without attention to structure.

The session in a sense was a dismal failure as a result, though it is now clear how (not) to proceed. A clear case of learning through failure!

Works cited:
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.