Saturday 9 October 2010

Clown Training Today: an historical survey

(This is the text of the final paper of my 3-year Fellowship at CSSD, given at the TaPRA Conference at the University of Glamorgan on 9/9/2010, and again at the Collisions Festival at CSSD on 8/10/2010).

The use of clowning in actor training has become increasingly established over the last half century. Its position seems relatively consolidated, although very little serious analysis of its methods has been carried out. What has been written is almost exclusively coloured by an acceptance of post-Lecoquian assumptions about how clown works. I argue that it is time to take a far broader view, one which recovers clowning history pre-1960. In this paper I will examine how two seemingly diverse cultural events - the Clown Congress in the Soviet Union in 1959 and the founding of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in France in 1956 - mark the beginning of a common process which was to strip clowning of the power of the grotesque by creating a style of Clown Realism, in a move that mirrors the rise of Naturalism in legitimate theatre a century previously. I aim thus to deconstruct our present-day assumptions about what clown is, which have fractured into “art-clown” and “anti-clown”. My conclusions will offer guidance for a renovation of clown training.

The move towards Clown Realism since the late 1950s split clowning down the middle. On the one hand we have an infantilised, safe children’s entertainment, with hardly any social status. Clowns in this category earn a living, but are held to be unfunny by large sections of sociey. (Incidentally, this risk-free, safe clowning has had the effect of shifting the clown’s danger and riskiness to be projected onto a dark version of the children’s clown, the evil clown, feeding the fashion for coulrophobia, or fear of clowns.) On the other hand we have the art clown, whose pretence to the status of artist stands in direct opposition to the status-less infantilised clown. This bid for seriousness has gone so far that some claim: "It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh" (Simon 2009: 31). The divide is sharply expressed by Eli Simon’s haughty comparison: "these Bozo-type clowns... are not the soulful clowns you will likely develop using this book" (2009: 4).

So what is responsible for this situation where clowns are deemed not funny, either by society or by themselves? Why, how and when did clowns become tamed and lose their power?

In 1959 in the Soviet Union, it was this question, “why are clowns no longer funny?” that led to the First National Conference on Clown Craft, known popularly as the Congress of Clowns, “to consider the low level of comedy at the circus” (Schechter 1998: 15).

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. (Schechter 1998: 5)

Circus historian Yuri Dimitriev held up as a model the most important Russian clown in Tsarist times, Durov, complaining: “What you do now is trivial by comparison” (Schechter 1998: 15).
The clowns protested that it would be impossible to emulate Durov today: “Who will be the subject of our parody? The government is marvellous” (Schechter 1998: 15-6).

The result of the congress was that “clowns mocked low-level bureaucracy, as well as idlers and incompetent doctors, with state approval” (Schechter 1998: 20). In other words, although clowns were given back some of their historical rights to parody, their targets were strictly limited by the Party.

This shift was not only about safe targets for parody, however. It was accompanied by a stylistic overthrowing of the old regime, the grotesque. Its most enthusiastic ambassador was Oleg Popov:

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 (Popov 1970: 91).

Popov urged a break with the past:

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 (Popov 1970: 93).

Albert Fratellini

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 (Popov 1970: 81).

Oleg Popov

But this new clown was already under attack. Popov’s 1955 visit to the West led Bernard de Fallois, prefacing Tristan Rémy’s Les Clowns, to find the new realism lacking:

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 (Rémy 1945: XVI).


Meanwhile, Jacques Lecoq was founding his school, in 1956, and 4 years later finding that clown was the most popular area of study with his students, reaching a peak at the end of the decade:

He ascribes this interest as being deeply rooted in a quest for liberation from the 'social masks' we all wear... it has at its heart a subversive and radical dimension which chimed with the spirit of 1968 (Murray 2003: 79).

As with most of Lecoq’s ideas, Jacques Copeau had got there first. Curiously, it was to the Fratellinis that Copeau turned to inspire his students. 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. (McManus 2003: 31)

Copeau’s idealised concept of clowning has survived to this day, which is odd given he himself was brought down to earth when he saw their rehearsal and performance techniques were not based on some kind of innocent playfulness, but on set routines.

As Donald McManus points out,

He [Copeau] 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. (2003: 38)

Lecoq didn’t even bother to idealise circus clowns. For him they are already “limited”, in Simon Murray’s words, who states on Lecoq’s behalf: “the circus clown … has little to offer theatre” (Murray 2003: 79), though without elaborating on what those limitations are supposed to be.

Despite dismissing clowns, Lecoq retained the red nose, which has since become a symbol of clown itself. Red noses have a long history, but it was Albert Fratellini in the 1920s began the vogue for the outlandishly-sized prosthetic version that was copied the world over.

The irony is that the symbol of the most grotesque of all clowns was to become the symbol of the new, authentic contemporary clown. By using the red nose Lecoq neatly seemed to demonstrate that clown is mask. John Wright describes the process:

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.’ (Wright 2002: 80)

Helena Otaegui, a clown student in the International Clown Research Project directed by Jon Davison

The red nose is thus made to appear responsible for our perception of the performer’s flop, ignoring the fact that one can clown without a red nose.

An even more unfortunate consequence of this assumption that the red nose is necessary to clowning is that it is also sufficient. This results in actors in red noses who not only fail to be clowns but also fail to be actors, a fact that would be visible to all if they took the nose off. In this case, the nose does not reveal the performer’s flop in a clown way, but instead disguises his failure to convince as an actor. Fooled into believing we are watching a clown, the audience excuses poor acting.


Continuing along the path that leads from Popov’s “real, natural man” via Lecoq’s “liberation from social masks”, we arrive at clowning’s alliance with those practices and ideologies that claim to produce authenticity in performance or behaviour, as in this advertisement for workshops by “Nose to Nose”:

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 (Nose to Nose 2010).

But what is this link between clowning and authenticity?

Trying to succeed, sooner or later I must fail. If I accept this failure in full view of you, the audience, you laugh. This creates the 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 more authentic, more real or more true than what we normally come across (our “social masks”). We might call this ‘clown presence’.

Louise Peacock claims that “the concept of performing truthfully is common in clowning” (2009: 107). But the question is, is this a revelation of a “true truth”, or is it simply a theatrical “Authenticity Effect “?

Philippe Gaulier, the master of modern clown teaching, has a different answer:

Theatre equals the false, lies, fibs, spiel, invention, untruths, mystification, tall stories, deceit, treachery, imposture, simulation, falseness. Consequently, the kingdom of the apocryphal, of the inauthentic, and of the supposed, rejoices. It is the triumph of artifice, subterfuge, adornment, costumes, masks, buskins. This land is more joyful than that of the authentic, the true and the sincere (2006: 177).

The debate mirrors that of a century earlier between Naturalism and melodrama. Shepherd and Womack define the Naturalist ideology by its refusal to accept artifice:

Plot smacks too much of deceitful artifice, of hidden control… The good naturalist author doesn’t interfere by plotting: he just allows people to be people (1996: 283-4).

Naturalism’s pretence to create performance that does not pretend, but instead is somehow “true”, found its own kind of actor training:

The “Method” appears to offer a uniquely modern solution to the supposedly age-old problem of repeatedly making it real. But the notion that the problem here is a problem is fairly recent. It dates from a period which has learnt to think that in a person’s head social rules conflict with instinctual drives, where intellect represses desire… The Method, designed initially to solve a rhetorical problem – how to produce truth-effects on a stage – comes, in a culture inhabited by psychoanalysis, to be a method for liberating the truths of the person (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 286).

With this perspective, we can see Eli Simon’s recent The Art of Clowning, with its claims that “you will be deeply connected to truths rather than just gags" (2009: 6) as a kind of “Clown Method".

My worry is that it is this kind of clowning that Mark Evans is referring to when he observes Copeau’s concepts to be already 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. (2006: 117)


My main purpose in exploring the ideological shifts in clowning since the 1950s is to develop clown training and performing appropriate to our own historical moment. At the end of our exhaustive overhaul of a half century of contemporary clowning, what kind of clown training do we end up with?

At CSSD in London, where I am a Creative Fellow, and the Escola de Clown de Barcelona (ECB), of which I am a co-founder and Director of Studies, I have had the opportunity to apply new criteria to clown and actor training, as a consequence of my last three years of research.

The syllabus at ECB has been refined to focus on the particular needs of the clown student. This has meant relegating to the background mask, improvisation, and theatre games.

Instead, pre-clown training consists of relatively rule-free activities, such as walking in the woods, jumping (with or without ropes), chasing, dancing and laughing. Such activities have virtually ousted all theatre-as-games from the curriculum, and are partly inspired by Roger Caillois’ category of vertiginous games

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 order, 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 (2001: 23-4).

Work on clown presence has multiplied, but has moved away from exercises that must be verbally explained beforehand to the student and then fed back on afterwards. Instead, the teacher leads, provokes, goads and tempts the student into a state where to clown is the most obvious way to behave.

Finally, thorough research into clown dramaturgy and how to teach “how clown works” from the outside in, as well as an inner process, allows us to pass on vital knowledge to students creating their own material based on far stronger foundations than mere improvisation, thus remedying the lack of devising tools that is a legacy of the Lecoq era. Clown students have for too long been in the untenable position of having to be their own authors but with nothing to say, as powerless as the children’s party clown who has no access to the grotesque.

In fact, the mechanics of clown writing are simple to learn: mistake, accident, wrongness, surprise, inappropriateness, contrariness, all are synonyms for what clowns do, within a framework of contrast, the rule of three and problem-solving. At CSSD writing students even work as teams of clown writers in the same way sitcoms are crafted.

Full-time courses at ECB also include research projects covering clown history, theory and cultural studies.

We can now make new clown performance that recognises our history without rejecting wholesale the clown revolution of the past half century. And with so much to keep us busy within our own field of clown, we no longer need stray into others’ territory, whether to define ourselves in terms of other genres - theatre, mask, circus or poetry - or to appropriate non-clowns such as Samuel Beckett to our cause. We can rest content with our own necessary and sufficient condition of clowning, as Gaulier has it: “A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime” (2006: 289).

Works cited

Caillois, Roger (2001) Man, Play and Games, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Evans, Mark (2006) Jacques Copeau, London: Routledge.

de Fallois, Bernard (2002) Preface to Rémy, Tristan (1945), Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset.

Gaulier, Philippe (2006) The Tormentor, Paris: Éditions Filmichko.

McManus, Donald (2003) No Kidding! Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater, Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Murray, Simon (2003) Jacques Lecoq, Routledge.

Nose to Nose (accessed 14/08/2010),

Peacock, Louise (2009) Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect.

Popov, Oleg (1970) Russian Clown, London: Macdonald.

Schechter, Joel (1998) The Congress of Clowns and Other Russian Circus Acts, AK Press.

Shepherd, Simon and Womack, Peter (1996) English Drama, a Social History, Oxford: Blackwell.

Simon, Eli (2009) The Art of Clowning, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wright, John (2002) “The Masks of Jacques Lecoq” in Franc Chamberlain and Ralph Yarrow (eds.) (2002) Jacques Lecoq and the British Theatre, Oxford: Routledge.

Wright, John (2006) Why Is That So Funny? London: Nick Herne Books.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

SCLOWNS present "The Spaghetti Horse"

“The Spaghetti Horse”
a new full-length clown-theatre show
Sunday 17th October 2010
Tickets £9 / £6
at Stratford Circus
Theatre Square, Stratford, London E15 1BX
Box Office: 0844 357 2625

A dramatic clown tale of a spaghetti-stealing panto horse, combining slapstick, live music, eccentric dance, circus and panto, which will both fulfil and challenge your expectations of clowning.

SCLOWNS draw on contemporary and traditional clowning - original yet familiar, subtle yet grotesque, anarchic yet formulaic, hilarious yet heart-rending, oafish buffoons yet refined artists.

conceived by Jon Davison
devised by SCLOWNS
directed by Jon Davison and Clara Cenoz
performed by Jon Davison, Danny Schlesinger, Elisa Gallo Rosso, Bienam Perez and Martin Kaspar
horse choreography by Barry Grantham
props and costume by Elisa Gallo Rosso, Keith Orton, Caroline Townsend and Mike Beele
co-produced by Stratford Circus, supported by Central School of Speech and Drama, the Escola de Clown de Barcelona and the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

More information:
tel. (+44) 07796 155 546