Wednesday 25 September 2013

How to be a clown

by Jon Davison

This is a transcript of a paper given at the TaPRA Conference 2013, Glasgow.

In my paper of three years ago entitled ‘Clown Training Today’, assessing contemporary clowning’s attempt to impose its Lecoquian model on older traditions of clowning, I concluded with the following thoughts:

“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?”

In this paper I report on some specific developments in clown training since then, describing possible ways forward for clown training in a post-Lecoquian world. My aim will be to describe in sufficient detail some of the ways that clown knowledge may be transmitted. In doing so, I would first like to outline three broad models of training.

Firstly, the apprentice/craft model, which has mainly been associated with clowns working either before or outside of the Lecoq/Gaulier approach, including ‘traditional’ circus, many ‘self-taught’ street clowns, and, arguably, all clowns pre-1960. This model privileges learning ‘on the job’, transmitting tried and tested, or codified, material which can be directly used in performance (gags, entrées, lazzi, routines, bits, prop-manipulation, audience-gathering techniques, etc.).

However, such a categorisation, where an ideology of how to approach clown training  matches up with a historical period or a particular perceived style of clowning, seems suspiciously neat and tidy. The apprentice model is in fact not limited to ‘material’ but also includes performing ‘techniques’ and strategies of stage presence. Andrew Davis, in his recent study of American burlesque comedy of the 1920s and 30s reports, for example, the comedian Harry Conley:

“I use psychology on the audience to make them laugh [...] It’s as though I am a child, a naughty boy, and the audience is put in the naughty-children frame of mind. [...] Fanny Brice used that technique as Baby Snooks.” (Davis, Andrew (2011) Baggy Pants Comedy New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

Such an approach is not a million miles away from elements of contemporary clown discourses which privilege innocence, as in clown teacher Eric de Bont’s answer to the question What is your focus in teaching “clown”?:

“to be a child again, with the innocence and freedom that we once enjoyed and that today’s society we live in has reduced to the farthest corners of our mind (in answer to the question: What is your focus in teaching “clown”? )

“The innocence of the clown is one of a child” (a review by Jass H Jilley of La Bufon S.O.S.ial clown Workshop in Bacalar Quintana Roo 3/4/2013 )

“the innocence of the clown-doctors” (Blair Hayashi: Dr. Duddley D. Diligent, Jest for Joy Clown Doctors, )

The second training model I want to mention is the conservatoire/workshop model, which has come to the fore over the last half century in clowning, and is dominated by the Lecoq/Gaulier approach which assumes clowns are ‘personal’ or ‘inner’ and must be ‘found’.

This assumption that we each have a clown ‘inside us’, matches up with that standard Lecoquian ‘given’, that we each have ‘quelque chose à dire’. This model privileges exercises in the classroom over already existing performable material.

But again, the neatness of categorising contemporary clown as ‘inner clown’ (with the assumption that this is a binary opposite of ‘traditional’=’outer’) is by no means watertight. According to David Wiles’ study (1987) Shakespeare’s Clown (Cambridge: CUP), at a certain point around the last three decades of the sixteenth century, the idea that each civilised city-dweller of London might harbour a rough, anarchic, ignorant ‘clown’ (the recent coining of the term ‘clown’ refers here to the person who is ‘not a gentleman’) inside was quite acceptable. Many of those Londoners were, of course, immigrants, former rural residents come to the city, or only one generation away:

“The majority of Tarlton’s London audience must have been visitors or first generation immigrants. Tarlton tapped spectators’ anxieties about the rustic boor latent within themselves.” (Wiles 1987: 23)

But soon, according to Wiles, this idea would wane, the idea of the duality of clown/gentleman losing relevance in a consolidated urban culture.
But as the cultural climate in London moved on, this privileged position of the clown would soon be challenged:

“[Tarlton’s] comedy cut across barriers of class, proving acceptable both at court and in the tavern, because most people could accept the proposition that beneath every exterior there lurks a coarse anarchic peasant. By the end of the century, this proposition was less acceptable. Court, theatres, Protestantism and many sometime immigrants had achieved permanence. There was less concern with original sin, more with the innate character of gentility, and with the power of education to change the man. Inversionary anarchy, both at court and in the playhouse, was perceived as a threat to social order. For such reasons as these, stage clowns in the 1590s and 1600s confronted new conditions and adopted new working methods.“ (Wiles 1987: 23)

So already we can see that notions of clowns as inner or outer are rather prone to historical, political and cultural flux.

Thirdly, I would like to identify a model of clown training in potential construction, centred on the academy, which so far brings together reflective analysis and a version of the conservatoire workshop model. We are, at this moment, engaged in this model. Our own analyses are inevitably already conditioned by this new ‘self-reflexivity’ in clowning and other popular performance forms.

I have already hinted at the leakiness of some binaries of clown discourses, such as material/personal, outer/inner, etc. My own teaching practice, as developed at the Barcelona Clown School, attempts to open up these leaks as far as possible, guided by a watchful academic eye.

I would now like to take you through an example of how this leakiness might be productive. This involves ways in which we can teach devising for clown performance, and so involves both the preparation of ‘material’ (our supposed Model no. 1) and the delivery of that material in live performance (supposedly our Model no. 2). My own work in this area has been driven in part by the practical need to redress the imbalance created by the ‘personal clown’ Lecoq/Gaulier approach in its privileging of presence over material. Put simply, most clown students spend a lot of time ‘finding’ clown, and next to no time on creating work which can stand up in front of general audiences. When they do attempt to create, they find their options limited. They can either rely on ‘improvisation’ (too risky a route for most) or resort to elements of non-clown theatre such as narrative, characters, and the creation of fictional worlds [Spymonkey, Nola Rae, Gardi Hutter] (bizarrely so, since clowns tend to work against these kinds of constructs). In a few (famous) cases [Polunin], they resort to appeals to metaphysical or transcendental significance as a way to shore up weakly constructed material.

The devising clown performance I am referring to forms part of an intensive clown training course of 250 hours classroom time at ECB. Before introducing devising, we have already work for a considerable time on playfulness, the dynamics and pleasure of the flop and stupidity, the relationship between clown and audience, all solid Gaulierian stuff. This is supplemented by work on the dynamics of emotions in clowning and the beginnings of clowning with text. Also, the rudiments of the structure of comedy appropriate to, although not exclusive to, clowning, such as: the rule of three, correct/incorrect behaviour, problem solving, etc. In addition, analysis of the work of both historic and contemporary clowns is undertaken constantly.

The key point comes when a student faces the issue of how to bring together the tasks of reproduction of devised material and the in-the-moment and vulnerable-before-an-audience clowning.

One method of devising where this confluence can be particularly evident is in working from an individual student’s own non-clown performance skills. I would like to briefly describe the method and one recent example. 

1. Students make lists of skills they have. These include performing arts techniques, daily skills and skills they lack.
2. We (student, teacher and other students) choose one performing skill we are curious to see. (Later we will work on the non-skills, either creating separate material, or combining them with the high skills.)

In one recent example I will use to illustrate, the student had experience as a dancer from an early age, trained in classical, contemporary, folk and popular forms.

3. The student performs their skill for the class. They are encouraged to show their maximum ability, to show off in fact. A skill presented in this way often has the effect on an audience that we feel that we are seeing something special, in other words something we are not capable of. This marks the activity out as a ‘skill’, perhaps a virtuoso one.

In our dance example, the student showed a mixture of traditional ballet and semi-improvised street dance moves.

We are perhaps more accustomed to associate clowning with lack of skill. However, as I hope to demonstrate, one way to more easily attain clown ‘effects’ is to work from virtuosity.

4. Immediate feedback. The class answers the questions ‘which bits most impressed or appealed to you most and you wanted to see again?’ These may not be what the performer themself likes or values most, nor the most skilled things.

In our example, we preferred some ballet steps which were clearly recognisable and beyond our capabilities; and the most ‘grotesque’ full body moves from other styles. We ask the student to perform these bits again.

As a clown, one must focus on the audience response, to the extent that if they like something, one will do it again in order to achieve the same success.

5. Further questioning. We ask ‘what is the expected attitude, state of being or emotion of such a performer?’ This may be obvious or not. The more restricted the skill, the easier it is to identify the attitude: flamenco dance/pride, ballet dance/light, juggler/focus on objects, magician/confident or dominant, and so on.

We agreed that the performer exhibited what we interpreted as ‘seriousness’, confidence and a certain amount of pride, with focus on a point in space. This we perceive as ‘correct’, or ‘expected’.

The concept and practice of ’correctness’ is key to understanding how clowning functions, and, together with ‘incorrectness’, forms the backbone of much clown devising.

6. We then ask ‘what is the opposite of this attitude?’ There are many potential opposites, so we will try them all to find which one gives the most result.

We suggest: frivolity, smiling, focusing on the audience. The student shows the skill with these ’incorrect’ attitudes.

Some of these appear immediately to us to be not just wrong, but funny. Wrongness in itself can never be simply equated to funny. The best way to discover what works is of course to try it. And what works for one performer will not necessarily be a good idea for another.

7. We then look at what happens when the performer uses two opposing attitudes, one correct, one incorrect. This kind of binarism works well for clowns, perhaps because it involves strong contrast, another of our comedy structures. It is also a means to improvise, and in my own improvisation work I have leant heavily on this method. Ruth Zaporah suggests that freedom is best found within the format of having two opposing options, as in her exercise ‘Back to Front’:

“The participants only have a few choices, yet within these choices lie vast possibilities of experience.”(Zaporah, Ruth (1995) Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, p.86)

Having two options gives one endless freedom, one can keep choosing to do the same or its opposite. And the limited number of options removes the need to search for decisions. It is a kind of pure improvisation where content is a non-issue. Again, non-content material seems appropriate for clowns.

In our example, some switches from silly frivolity to composed seriousness make us laugh. However, the student exhibits such an extreme, to us, seriousness, that his silliness cannot attain such an intensity. This will now lead us to search somewhere rather different in order to begin to construct the basis of a clown dance number with this particular student.

8. We next look to apply four basic structures that are commonly found not just in clowning but in other forms of humour too. These are:
-          Contrast
-          Rule of three
-          Problem/solution
-          Wrongness

We have already touched on contrast and wrongness in the context of performer attitude. But as we were dissatisfied with the results, we ask the question again, in a more general way:
‘what would be most wrong/incorrect for this dancer? What, in general, would be most incorrect, for example, in a ballet class?’ the student himself has easy access to several answers by recalling what things would have got him chucked out of a class during his training:  laughing, chatting, smoking, eating, drinking...

9. We ask him to dance and also perform some of these incorrect actions, and decide that we like him dancing ballet while smoking, eating and drinking. Indeed, these choices also allow him to push his seriousness to an extreme and act as the contrast with the wrong behaviours, such that we dispense with the need for a ‘wrong attitude’ from now on.

10. I now work one-to-one with the student on devising his piece. We search for maximum contrast and find that this mostly works best when the dance and wrong behaviours are performed simultaneously. For example, a series of assemblés while drinking from a can of beer; a kind of changement while nibbling a biscuit; finishing with a double tour en l'air to the knee while smoking.

With several bits of action now working we begin to order them. We decide that the beginning of the number must establish the correctness and the frame of reference, also demonstrating the virtuosic skill. We choose a musical accompaniment which reflects this, the Dance of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. We use 8 bars of the music to establish the skill, the first 4 bars being almost ‘pure’ skill, the second 4 bars introducing some ‘wrong’ moves, where body movements and arm movement are isolated and separated from each other. Here we have an example of how to preserve a performance skill whilst also clowning. It does not involve trashing the skill at all.

These isolations we then order according the rule of three. The rule of three can be understood in many ways, for example here we establish the sequence parade in circle, then move arms horizontal to vertical. This happens twice, and the third time the arm movements are also ‘extra-wrong’ as they do not come from classical ballet. The whole sequence thus follows the pattern: expected, expected, surprise.

We continue in a similar way with 8 bars of dance while drinking, 8 bars eating and finishing with smoking as the ‘’wrongest’ of our behaviours, using the student’s highest level skill as a finale.

11. Finally, after so much structural thinking, we come back to the present moment. Does it work in front of an audience?

Taking care for the form of one’s material by no means excludes the usefulness, the necessity, of actually making the thing work in the moment.

Nor should we fall into the error of splitting clown performance completely down the middle. Yet one aspect of what I do in performance is the material, my plan, my script. Another aspect of my performance is how I engage in the here and now with the real audience I have. This conversation is necessarily made up as I go along, I must take the audience with me, they must be convinced of my clown-ness in every moment.

These two tasks have different focuses, but that doesn’t mean we should set them up as mutually exclusive binaries. How can I combine this seemingly spontaneous moment with my rigorously built material? There are some clown exercises which serve us both at the beginning and the end of a course of study. I like to use one, the step-laugh, as both an initiation into the dynamics of clown and as a re-training and final fine tuning of a number before we let it loose on the general public in a public show.

Step-laugh consists in taking one step to cross the space, only when and if the audience laughs. If there is silence for six seconds or so, you take a step back. The exercise is fascinating since it deals with the in-the-moment, whether something is funny in this moment or not determines whether the clown moves forwards or backwards. But it is this very point, that it focuses on the ‘moment’, which frees this exercise from the obligation to also create ‘material’. In the basic exercise, there is a kind of ‘script’, which is the step, the crossing of a space from A to B. This script can then be understood in terms of more complex steps in a script. By re-performing the worked out number with these rules, the student re-learns the importance of the moment-ness, whilst hitching their material to this dynamic. And it is this dynamic which guarantees that the number will indeed be a ‘clown’ number, and not any old kind of humour.

Again, I emphasise, none of this excludes the importance of the beloved individuality of the clowns spontaneity. In order to find the best ‘surprise’ in a sequence of three, for example, one would be well advised to push oneself to crazy limits. In order to bring richness to the contrast of emotions/attitudes, one would ideally commit oneself fully to the play of emotions and their ridiculous effect. There is no point using ‘anger’, for example, if anger expressed by you as a clown doesn’t make the audience laugh. Hence, many of the choices made in the devising process will depend on the particularities of the performer as a clown, as someone who makes us laugh with their own ridiculousness. But what is different to the more common approach is here that these ‘personal clown qualities’ cannot in themselves solely create a well-formed number. They need help.

Clowning is a richly anarchic and surprising artform. But avoidance of form only serves to place on a pedestal such qualities as the ‘personal’, ‘self-expression’, which only serve to drag us down into the murky waters of psychology and as vehicles of oft-repeated ‘messages’.

© Jon Davison September 2013

Monday 9 September 2013

The Deconstruction of Clowning

Clowns frequently claim to access authenticity by unmasking social conventions or exposing the workings of performance genres, thus presuming power within society as taboo-breakers and truth-tellers.

Contemporary clown’s version of this tale stresses the dynamics of the ‘flop’ as the gateway to such truth. The performer, admitting failure to convince the audience of his/her competence, seems thereby to reveal a reality behind the mask of convention. By owning one’s flops, one is identified with ‘truth’, since to make a mistake must, by definition, be unintentional (i.e. they escape manipulation).

However, the professionalisation of clowning indicates that this unintentionality is in fact willed, practised and skilled. The ‘flop’ is an ‘authenticity-effect’ which stages ‘reality’. Given that clowns habitually admit to conventions, how might one declare this particular ‘truth-trick’?

Would such a ‘deconstructed clowning’ still seem like clowning and give the same pleasure as that staging of the authentic which clowns presume to do?

‘The Deconstruction of Clowning’ is a performance and discussion which takes place on Thursday 3rd October at 7pm and Friday 4th October at 2pm and 6pm, at Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

Jon Davison has been a clown performer, teacher, director and writer for the last 30 years. He is co-Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona and a former AHRC-funded Creative Fellow at CSSD. He has performed at festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe. His first book, ‘Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice’ was published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan, for whom he is now preparing a ‘Clown Theory and Practice’ on clown training.

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