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.
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.