Tuesday 20 October 2009

Clown Training: Transcript of a Talk

Central’s AHRC Creative Fellows

Recipients of AHRC funding present their ongoing research on clowning and acting, telematic theatre, and the life and death of objects and puppets

Creative Fellows:
Jon Davison (JD), clowning and acting
Julian Maynard Smith (JMS), telematic theatre
Nenagh Watson (NW), the life and death of objects and puppets

Prof Andy Lavender (AL), Dean of Research, Central School of Speech & Drama

This event was held at Central School of Speech & Drama on 7 October, 2009

Andy Lavender: Thank you for coming this evening. I’m very pleased to introduce Nenagh Watson. Jon Davison, Julian Maynard Smith. Nenagh, Jon and Julian are all Creative Fellows at the school and they’re all here as a consequence of the Arts and Humanities Research Council grants and creative fellowship scheme. The scheme is for practicing artists to connect in quite a embedded way with an academic institution in order to have time and space to explore and develop their own artistic practice, to be more experimental than might ordinarily be possible or to look at slight re-routings of ones work, and then to feed back into the culture of the institution. So it’s hugely fruitful for us to have Jon, Julian and Nenagh with us. I should say, at the risk of embarrassing any of them, that the scheme is very, very competitive and last year, where we won two of the awards, I think there were 58 applicants and only six awards given.

I’m going to introduce them as it were en masse and then ask them to present for about 15 minutes. We’ll take some initial questions in relation to each presentation and then open up for discussion.

Jon Davison is in the third year of his fellowship with us exploring clowning in relation to acting. Nenagh, as you’ll have gathered, is exploring object animation and puppetry, so Jon’s exploring clowning and acting up to a point, and connections between the two. Jon’s training includes workshops and courses with Philippe Gaulier, Complicite, Franki Anderson, John Lee, Moshe Cohen and Fool Time Circus School in Bristol. Not so long ago he completed an MA in Drama Practices and Research at the University of Kent, so he comes to us already with a sort of practice research profile.

In 1993 Jon co-founded Companyia d’Idiotes with Clara Cenoz in Barcelona and Jon has been based in the city pretty consistently since then. Consequently a lot of Jon’s clown practice and teaching has been in Barcelona: he devised and performed Clown Klezmer with Clara Cenoz at the Street Theatre Festival in Madrid as part of the International Clown Festival (later presented in London) and devised and performed work for the Mercat de les Flors in Barcelona and the Esparaguerra International Mime Festival and the festival of humorous visual art in Barcelona and other locations.

Jon is a member of the World Parliament of Clowns and has taught for many years, principally at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona and the Col.legi del Teatre. He’s also a musician, playing accordion with two or three groups ranging from sort of folk and world music, through to Jewish and Gypsy music. In a shared past several years ago, Jon and I busked together at one point!


So I’m very glad to welcome the three of them; three people with very interesting practices that have international scope and a lot of experimentation to them. They’re here with us to test and explore and extend that practice. I think Jon is starting as I think Jon has been with us a couple of years.

Jon Davison: Thank you Andy. Well, clowning is traditionally thought to be a very informal kind of performance practice. I’m going to endeavour to be rather formal in my presentation but being a clown and prone to accidents and failure, please forgive me if I don’t manage it. Hence two laptops, a whole range of audio visual things to deal with, and a glass of water near the laptop. So here we go!

I dare say clown performance, or rather clown training as a preparation for performance, is the subject of my research, and clown performance is both familiar and rather unfamiliar at the same time: familiar in the sense that it’s played a role in just about every culture and every historical period in some form or another (I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet who has enough knowledge of every culture in every historical moment to say with absolute certainty); unfamiliar in that it’s seldom been the subject of serious research, at least academic research, or even practice-based. There’s something about clowning that says, we don’t need to think about it. Now I have various thoughts on why that should be so, but that would be a very long talk. I just want to point that up.

So the potential impact of clown research is rather wide, taking place in a field of activity that has the power to reach many but remains relatively unexplored. I think the position of clown as performance, at least in the West, if we can still use that term (I think it’s applicable in contemporary clowning), appears consolidated. Analytical reflection is rather thin on the ground so the danger is that the field is left open to assumptions, lazy ideological thinking, fashions, and outdated ways of seeing things, all of which are all over the clown world over the past 50 years. When I talk about ‘contemporary clown’, it’s a neat and tidy way to think of it in terms of the last half century for various reasons, one of which is the figure of Jacques Lecoq, the actor trainer, if I may call him that, who in the early 1960s introduced clowning into the programme of studies at his school in Paris. Since that date, he and those who have followed him have established a particular pattern, or I would say orthodoxy, of clown training and hence performance. So that’s what I’m talking about.

Of course there are other strands that are particularly interesting and less well known in the West (again that term comes up) that were happening at the same time as Lecoq in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, but again that’s a whole big area that I’m not going to deal with now. In short, there have been a whole lot of new practices happening from the 1960s, but the 1960s were 50 years ago. What has been happening that’s really new? Sometimes when I look at contemporary clowning and contemporary clown teaching it seems like we are still in May 1968.

I’ve divided my three years up into self-contained packages, trying to reduce the whole big subject of what clown training is into something manageable. For my first year I looked at ‘presence’, a very simple thing to look at, you can do that just in a year. The question was – How is a clown to be convincing? This is really the age old question of actor training – how is the performer/an actor/a clown to be convincing? – and it’s one that I think is at the root of all serious actor training methods or attempts to train the actor, certainly it’s there explicitly since Stanislavski, and way before probably.

A short aside: I’m afraid I use the words ‘actor’ and ‘clown’ interchangeably. It’s a bit naughty, I shouldn’t really do it, but it helps us blur some of the distinctions that have been drawn up between clowns and actors. Clown particularly has been favoured as a method for training actors, but as one little piece of the training if you like, so clown could be a little sub-set of acting for me. Let’s just say they are the same thing for now.

Back to the question: how is an actor, or clown, to be convincing? I wanted to look at that from three different angles. The first year would be: How is that presence established, how does one as a performer convince an audience that it’s real, that it’s convincing, what exactly is that question? This is the thing that comes up time and again, but I want to look at it in terms of clowning, because that’s my field. Now that led me within the first year of the research to question a whole lot of assumptions. Contemporary clowning has very much focussed on one notion, which I’m keen to preserve, and that’s failure, the notion that by failing, assuming one’s failure, one convinces an audience that… what? That’s the question! Be convincing of what? That it’s real? That it’s authentic? What is it that performers do that we need to convince the audience of? Like I’m trying to convince you now, trying to hold your attention, what is that? Is there something behind it? These are the questions I’m looking at. How does a clown do that? Principally by failing, admitting it, and thus attaining extra points for being more honest. That’s a very rough definition of failure and success, and that’s something that’s quite familiar with those who have engaged in clown training over the past 50 years particularly.

We’ve extended that a little bit perhaps over the first year, but while looking at how a clown can be convincing I wasn’t so happy with some of the other assumptions of this orthodox thinking, if you like the post-Lecoqian orthodox thinking in clowning, concepts such as clown as mask, clown as play, clown as improvisation, or even clown as theatre or clown as physical theatre. I was very happy to jettison all of these concepts, or at least put them to one side as not really being those mechanisms that make clowning happen. That’s a rather strange thing to be saying in a drama school these days: ‘Let’s not use games, let’s not use play, it doesn’t work, it’s nothing to do with theatre.’ I’m stating the case rather extremely but that’s what I’ve done over the first year in order to see what’s left. Can we have clown as clown? What is it? How can we describe what it feels like to be present as a clown? What is it? What is the phenomenology of the clown? And once we have an idea of what it is, how can we get there? How can we train people?

As I say I’m happy with the failure dynamics, but a lot less with some of the others. I think my impression is that they were again going back to May ’68. They were very suitable then, but they’re not so much now in the 21st Century. I know that’s very polemical with a lot of clown practitioners, but that’s why I’m here! My conclusion, in a way, is let’s gets rid of all this ideological baggage and let’s end up with what clown is.

I did salvage a little bit of play, we did find that it was useful to use. Roger Caillois, who wrote about games and play, had four categories of play, one of which was ‘vertiginous’ play, which is that kind of activity that produces vertigo if you like, which in turn produces a de-censoring of the self, a loss of focus – for example, spinning, or jumping for a long time. We used chasing, but we tried to eliminate the rules so we were no longer playing rule-based games. We were using activities that could be termed ‘play’, very primitive play, in order to generate some kind of presence, which was not clowning but which was similar to clowning, a presence that could then get us into a suitable state in order to then clown. Again, it’s trying to use something as a function of something else. It’s quite difficult. It’s very tempting, I think, for practitioners and teachers to go, ‘Oh, ok, if clowning is a mask – for example, the red nose is the smallest mask in the world – then we can work with that and then we are doing clowning.’ But maybe we’re not. Maybe we are then working with the red nose, which historically and trans-culturally is not a necessary condition of clowning. It’s a very culturally limited symbol.

What I’m getting at is – How do we do something for itself? And how do we train performers in that? I think contemporary dance, or even contemporary circus, has been several steps ahead of us in the sense that they’ve tried to look at their own art form on its own terms. And that’s where I basically ended up at the end of the first year.

I would like to show you a little bit of video which gives you an idea of vertiginous play might look like. This is a bit of edited video of some workshops in Barcelona in the first year:

Video plays

Ok, that’s how we might get into a state for clowning, but what would we do with that state, once we’re in that state?

I shall speed through year two. In the second year, basically what we did was look at what it’s like to do clown, what do clowns do – and again that’s challenging the orthodox contemporary clown view that your material comes out of your being, so your authenticity will generate your material – the actor as author. Again I wanted to challenge that assumption and see if we could look at the clown authorship away from the devising physical process, and we found that we could. We came up with a little encyclopaedia of clown, because there’s about 50 ways you can write clown material or analyse it. We’ve used that this year to generate a little demonstration piece to show how that works; the sources have been anything from clown autobiographies to watching other people’s shows. I’ve watched an awful lot of shows this year, good, bad and indifferent, and I’ve tried to fill what I perceive to be a hole in the contemporary clown training method, which prepares students for feeling clownish and then leaves them with nothing to do. So that’s been our reasoning this year.

Year three is going to be an attempt to put all that together in front of real, rather limited audiences. We have a number of projects on the go that will put the material out with higher production values and to a wider range of audiences to see if we’ve got it right, to see if this adjusted (I wouldn’t say completely new) form of clown training is going to do the job, which in the end is to produce performance that will convince.

AL: We’ll pause before we move on to take two or three questions. I have a question to kick off with, which is to ask about failure in relation to acting and if part of this project deliberately blurs a distinction between clown and actor. I can understand that failure might be completely crucial to characterising what clowns are and what they do. Does that apply to acting as well or is that distinctive unto clown?

JD: That’s an interesting question. In the first year, I taught on several of the MA courses here at Central as well as workshops in other institutions. In the actor training and coaching MA, for example, there’s an exercise in clowning where you have to cross the stage. You take one step every time you get a laugh, you can only move when you get a laugh, then you translate what you are doing into a rather more complex kind of scene, with this if you like, but every bit of action needs a laugh before you can move on.

Then we tried to apply that, but without getting the laugh, and we found we could. There was a mysterious way you could have the same process but leave aside looking for the laugh, which seemed to eliminate that reliance on failure that seemed to preserve a sense of complicity with the audience and that the audience were kind of writing this work, at least its timing, or its breathing because the laugh is also very related to patterns of breathing. I think we had some success there, but I think the theory behind it and why it worked, does escape me because we kind of eliminated failure, there’s a version of thinking a clown exercise but about doing it for something with more serious purposes. So yes and no.

AL: Jeopardy in the moment.

JD: Yes, I think if you’re not clowning, there’s a sense as an actor that you’re on the edge of a precipice that brings presence to your performing. So that’s why that happens.

AL: Any other questions to Jon?

Audience Member 1: Jon, do clowns have a different relationship to objects than other performers?

JD: There, you see, the same question – clowns are not performers! I think they have the same relationship as other good performers but not the same relationship as other not-so-good performers. Of course there are other not-so-good clowns, which we won’t talk about… I could talk about the relationship of clowns to objects. I think that is a real relationship. There’s a sense in which clowning is real, it’s here and now: this laptop is not a laptop which represents a laptop from the 18th Century; this is not a glass, it’s a plastic glass and if I’m going to break it, and my hand crush it, it will behave as it will behave since it is very material. Clowning is very material, so we do have that relationship with objects. When we come to using complex props, that creates a problem for prop designers and makers because we’re always saying, ‘I want this!’ then, ‘It doesn’t behave like I thought it would behave so shall I change the prop or shall I change my material?’ So there is a lack of fiction in clowning, which translates into a real relationship with objects and I think that one can permit oneself to a higher level of a fictional world as another performer, which one cannot in clowning, and that applies not just to objects but to character and to time and to light and to space. Clowns are just here in this space, with this light.

AL: Thank you. I’m going to move on so we can leave a little time at the end for anything that might cut across two or three of the fellowships, so I’m going to hand over now to Nenagh Watson.


AL: We have five minutes or so, and I’m inclined to see whether there are any questions that pertain more broadly or perhaps concern the previous presentations as well?

Audience Member 6: This might be a really naive question, but to what extent can you think about the clown as an object manipulator of his or her own body?

JD: Very much so. It comes back to this thing of presence, which it is impossible to attain and you will fail inevitably to be authentic. It’s an impossibility, from a clown point of view. Everything is ridiculous as a failure: my own emotions, my own thoughts, my own movement, my own body… So you kind of separate yourself, you don’t identify with yourself, you know you’re playing away from yourself all the time, so there’s a sense in which all these things – your feelings your thoughts, your body, your life – are in sense an object being manipulated.

AL: I’d like to ask just one more question that I’ll put perhaps to Jon and Nenagh that comes out of what you said, Julian. You talked about creating a combined narrative space so one can appreciate the challenges of making the technology work and the challenges of the performers. Dramaturgically I think you’re interested in a sort of story telling, or at least creating a narrative experience, and I wonder whether that’s another theme that runs through all three presentations, the idea of presence and immediacy and some kind of instability and intimacy in the moment. But on the other hand, I wonder if, you’re also attempting to create things that work through sequence, things that work through our understanding of narrative and through story, which is a different paradigm perhaps than the paradigm of presence.

JD: In the case of clown I think that’s something I’m keen to look at in the last year of my research: what narrative, or if it’s not narrative, what structure is appropriate for clown, beyond what has traditionally been the case, where a premise-driven idea is given in about 20 minutes, or 22 in the case of American sitcoms. How do you make a piece that is full length – if you like, an-hour-and-a-quarter – in clowning without being boring? Something which challenges and is up there with the greats of theatre authorship. The Shakespeare of clowning. How can you do that? I’ve never seen it. There are lots of issue shows around, and some of them are excellent, but they’re not Shakespeare.

AL: The Holy Grail.

JMS: But why do you feel that need? Buster Keaton was fine with 20 minutes.

JD: Yes, absolutely, you see, you can’t sit through a whole Buster Keaton. I suppose because it’s been tried and hasn’t quite worked. I suppose it’s commercial as well.


AL: Well I think it’s time for a glass of wine before you jump on a train. I’d like to thank Jon, Julian and Nenagh. I’m glad that we’ve introduced them to you and we’ll find opportunities later this year and subsequently to share this work as it develops and moves into showings and public manifestations. And of course those of you who are studying here might also see them in class.


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