Thursday 26 September 2019

How did this come about? Part 2

I’ve been meaning to get around to updating my story for a while now. Seems like 14 years have passed since I last attempted to make sense of the path I have travelled! Ah well, maybe it’s a good time to assess those years? Because, right now, things don’t make a lot of sense.

Shortly after writing up that last account, in Barcelona in 2005, I embarked on a new phase, prompted by a desire for a more stable pattern of work, which I hoped I would discover by returning to Britain, where I imagined teaching contracts would last more than the stipulated one-year maximum available in the Spanish system. The problem being, that in Catalonia, pretty much all the staff teaching performance or acting were (and probably still are) from the same generation. That generation sharpened their craft in the late years of the dictatorship, and belong to a heritage of cultural resistance that chimed with Catalanist national identity. As the law stated that a public institution must employ half its staff on permanent contracts, with the other half on one-year contracts, almost all the for-life posts were held by those who would all retire around the same time, being of similar age. I didn’t want to wait around another 20 years for my chance. However, forewarned by friends back in Britain that times had changed and in order to get a teaching job I’d now need a postgraduate qualification, I got myself a place on the MA in Drama by Practice-as-Research at Kent university. The one-year course proved ideal. I managed to maintain my residency in Barcelona while popping over for the required lectures: just one a week for 6 weeks or so, funding my trip with busking on Brick Lane each Sunday during the market, which back then was a joyous and chaotic affair, just before the grip of gentrification bleached the life out of the area. I was housed as a guest at an also slightly chaotic community of 17 people on the corner of Bethnal Green Road, a haven of relative peace which had survived since its initial founding back in the 80s as a Quaker initiative, now sadly dissolved under the pressure of grotesquely raised rents across much of East London, which has seen the disappearance not only of affordable housing, but of affordable spaces for artists to work in. The rets of my MA course was like a mini-PhD, under the marvellous supervision of Olly Double, stand-up comedian and expert on comedy past and present. It was an absolute joy to dedicate that year to researching how clowns have historically used prosthetics and amputations to make their work, and it culminated in a one-man show with a dozen or so recreated examples. I still make good use of my three-legged act and the extending arms, and would love to revisit the floating head illusion one day, too.

By chance, whilst in London during that period, I noticed my old lecturer in theatre from Nottingham, Simon Shepherd, was giving an open talk at Queen Mary University. To be honest, the topic didn’t draw me, but I was curious enough to go along and have a chat with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of decades. That brief post-talk conversation laid the ground for the next step: I would be applying for one of the new ‘Creative Fellowships’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, designed to support the re-entry of artists into the academy. And it would be hosted at Simon’s current place of work Central School of Speech and Drama. Having been accepted as the school’s very first Creative Fellow, I embarked on a three-year salaried period of investigation, exploring the current state of clown training in the wider context of actor training. It felt like the plan might be working out: I had a job, a full-time one. I immediately spent my first month’s salary on all the books I hadn’t been able to buy over the last several years. (Still haven’t read them all.) I became a permanent member of the Bethnal Green community, whilst continuing to share my time between London and Barcelona. My split life seemed to fuse. Central seemed to resemble the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, my previous pace of work. Both were dedicated to training actors. Yet a culture shock awaited me…

Monday 23 September 2019

Clown wordlists / keywords

There are many clown teachers. There are many methods. They do not agree.  Here is a quick way to get an idea of my approach:

Words I use: funny, laughter, do, action, task, object, clown, clowns, clown-like, clown-ish, gag, number, act, exercise, pretend, simple, fake, real, why, feel, emotion, think, human, surprise, impact, intrude, disrupt, contradict, shame, love, audience, script, wrong, stupid, look, friend, plan, experiment, science, attention, drama, dynamics, mechanics, conversation, skill, repertoire, fear, ridiculous, conditioning, cultivate, aware, speak, humble, shit, …

Words I don’t use: spontaneous, authentic, sacred, self, inner, mask, truth, the clown, improvisation, play, game, high stakes, universal, difficult, wisdom, transform, art, collaborate, physical, spiritual, problem, status, ensemble, dark, tragic, contemporary, traditional, rule, creative, imagination, fiction, message, personal, mime, my clown, your clown, vulnerability, …

Thursday 19 September 2019

Clown Universals?

Having just returned from teaching a five-day workshop in Canada, where there are many clown teachers and methods but one rather dominant one, I wonder whether we should stop talking about 'The Clown'?
As the process of writing thie Clowning Workbook advances, sometimes apace, sometimes snail-like, the thoughts refine and the questions expand and a larger picture starts to come into view: what is the practical output of training and how deeply does it reflect our assumptions about what those outputs should mean?
Clown Universals?
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for them, well, looking to see if there are any, testing the ones I’ve found a lot of people subscribe to, but it always happens that as soon as you think there might be something we can agree on, up crops a clown example that contradicts what looks like a universal principle. I still think it’s worth searching for principles, though, underlying structures that we can use to understand how clown/clowns/clowning happens. But those underlying structures are always going to be determined by each person’s own starting point, your own assumptions about the world and what is important, your own search for meaning generally, I suppose. So there will be many different versions depending on your own cultural background (clowns differ greatly across cultures in how they manifest), your own philosophical standpoint (whether that’s explicit or not) and what you believe in. Personally, I try and keep my principles simple, and they are always up for revision. At the moment, what I find most useful is to work with an assumption that clowns are figures which offer themselves as laughter-objects. So a clown is someone we are invited to laugh at, simply. Of course, those who believe clowns don’t have to be funny ill disagree with me, so I won’t be claiming to have defined all clowns/clowning/clown. The idea of the clown as object-of-laughter means that it is irrelevant whether this happens through means of reproduction of repertory or standard material/acts/gags, or by means of response in-the-moment to an audience, or by both means simultaneously (my preferred way). That’s why, for me, the article in this thread doesn’t help me at all, as it is looking for principles in the wrong place in my view. It is looking to define the clown through those aspects which seem to be immediate and in the present, but for me that leads down to a dead-end, one that I have got stuck in myself in the past. The way to get out of those dead-ends, I think, is to be brave and question whether the results are really good or not, or reliable, and not to rely on a belief that one has discovered the ‘truth’. Thinking that one has discovered the truth is, of course, very tempting, and seems to be prevalent in some clowning practice, perhaps due to the large impact that studying/experiencing clowning can have on a person at a subjective level, especially in the early encounters with it. This subjective experience might lead to placing quite a lot of stock in the feeling that the clown can be personally transformative, and therefore a path to knowledge and wisdom. Which it can be, but then again so can pretty much any human endeavour. So I would be suspicious of claims to sacredness or wisdom that set clowns/clown/clowning apart or above other human activities, and the idea of universality often accompanies the mindset of ‘wisdom’.

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Impact Report - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

Impact Report

1 What we achieved, compared with the original aims of the project:

The proposed project comprised a number of activities including rehearsal, performances and open workshops, all of which were carried out as planned. In rehearsal, a total of over 100 full days of artist employment were funded, shared between 5 core performers and 3 collaborating artists.  5 public performances were given, one per month, as planned, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. 5 open workshops were held, 3 at specialised performer training institutions (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Rose Bruford College and London Metropolitan University), one at a community arts centre (Kentish Town Community Centre) and one at Rosemary Branch Theatre.  Each workshop had at least a dual function: firstly, to further the process of the project’s research and development by involving participants directly in the questions and practice relevant to the participating artists at the time of the workshop; and secondly, to share ongoing findings, skills and approaches with participants such that the latter might reuse the experiences in their own artistic, personal, social and/or educational development. Each workshop took a unique focus, determined by the nature of the participating venue and users.

‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University shared with performing arts students the starting points that project artists had taken in the process of developing performance from training.

‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College invited students to create new links between training and performance.

‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre brought together resident and other artists at the theatre to experiment with some of the project findings and their impact on their own artistic development.

‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre used clowning and basic clown training in the context of social club events designed to bring neighbours of all ages together.

‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama invited staff and postgraduate students to ask practical questions about how clown training works within the wider context of performer training.

Rehearsals focused on the processes of bringing laughter-response clown training to the public stage. A total of 21 main exercises underwent this process of staging and were tested a number of times in the five public performances given.

The rehearsals also looked at how laughter-response training might bear upon non-clown, but related, forms such as circus and stand-up comedy, using the exercises to ‘filter’ these genres. These were also tested in the public performances.

The performances thus served as experimental opportunities to gauge the effect of such training on the quality of the dynamic relationships between performers and audiences.

Ongoing evaluation and monitoring of the project was carried out as proposed, using real-time online feedback through social media to gauge responses to work in progress.

2 What we learned, and how the project has helped us to develop:
Learning and development arose from all three of the main activities in the project: rehearsal, performances and open workshops.

Rehearsals: staging of training exercises was carried out in a variety of different ways - in bare form, with set-ups, with added narrative, or as filters for existing material. Work in rehearsals focused on:
1.      Adapting the exercise for stage, addressing how the information necessary to read the performance can be transmitted to a live audience without explaining the content as if it were an open workshop. This included staging means to set up the action and sometimes to add situational elements.
2.      Training in the execution of the exercises. This involved finding ways for performers to be autonomous without the need for the workshop teacher’s framing. Constant practice needed.

Through engagement with these testing methods for staging, a minimum set of requirements was developed for each of the 21 exercises. Also developed were staged versions with a maximum amount of added elements which still allowed for the clown dynamics of the exercise to drive the performance, without recourse to fictional layers of scripting. The forms which emerged thus drew their staged effects primarily from the clowning dynamics which the original exercises were designed to train, fulfilling the aims of the research which was to create clown performance derived from laughter response rather than from fictional characters, roles, narratives, sketches or variety acts.

Performances: each staged form was tested at least twice over the run of five public performances. These choices were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Focus, however, was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage.

It was found that some stagings/exercises proved more successful in public performance in terms of engagement of audience, laughter response, and ‘readability’ for spectators. Those stagings which were least successful were subjected to further research in rehearsals as well as open workshops before being re-presented in public.

Open workshops: over the course of the five open workshops, a variety of developments occurred.  
At ‘Practical Clowning Research’ at London Metropolitan University there emerged new, unexpected and more complex forms of a group of exercises focusing on the intrusion of clowning into other genres of performance.  

At ‘Clowning Experiments’ at Rose Bruford College, participants helped develop new ways to experiment with specific exercises which we had yet to find way of staging. There emerged several options for training concerned with the immediate visual and vocal impacts of clowning.

At ‘To Laugh or Not To Laugh? Artists' Day’ at Rosemary Branch Theatre, participants and project artists worked together to develop a range of responses to the specific architecture and space of the theatre from the starting point of clowns in response to laughter.

At ‘Community Arts Clowning’ at Kentish Town Community Centre, participants joined project artists in basic clown training exercises before trying simple stagings of them. The event tested the extent to which non-performers might engage with the training ad performance of laughter-response clowning, with considerable success. This potentially confirms the hypothesis that this form of clowning reflects some fundamental notions of how clowning works which are shared across ages, communities and cultural experiences.

At ‘Clowning Practice as Research’ at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, participants came up with a variety of preliminary conclusions about the divergence of laughter-response clowning from mainstream actor training methods (including orthodox clown training current in UK drama universities).

3 Longer term impact the project has had:

The development of new staging choices derived from laughter-response clown training has led to a number of impacts beyond the process itself.

From training to performance:
The tested stagings were presented in sequences which sketched out a bare skeleton of a structure for an hour’s performance. Although the focus was on the testing of each segment, rather than on the unity of the show as a whole at this stage, there emerged ways to create ‘bundles’ of stagings, which led performers and spectators from the simpler phases of the training on through ever more complex structures. Thus it was that sections of the performance presentations also began to work in a parallel path of ‘learning’. This pointed in the direction of a larger scale dramaturgy that would perhaps mirror the programme of training as it develops over the period of a training workshop or course. This long form can thereby act as the starting point for the building of a whole show, based upon the findings of this R&D project.

The varied and intensive nature of the open workshops, bringing project artists together with students, teachers and community and other artists, suggested future impacts which include:
-        - New approaches to be developed by non-project workshop participants in their own fields of performance, educational and community activity. These paths might draw upon the new links suggested by the project between training and performance, which may be applicable both to clowning and non-clowning work.
-         - Personal artistic development of project artists. Via the participation in the delivery of the open workshops, participating artists were able to evolve in their own practical knowledge and insights into facilitating workshops, opening up new avenues for individual artists’ future development as facilitators.

The project’s use of ongoing visual documentation by a professional photographer enabled a parallel research to be collaboratively developed into how clowning might be perceive, recognise or understood outside of the actual moments of performance. Visual images, still and moving, were regularly tested via social media to assess the impact of the clowning under exploration. The contribution of the professional photographer was thus extensive, via three main photo shoots covering rehearsals, performances and workshops. This served two main aims: firstly, to document the project; secondly, to explore visual images of clowning as a dynamic relationship between performer and spectator, researching means by which to communicate and chime with a contemporary audience who might be disposed to the experience of this new type of clown performance.

In conclusion, this period of research and development has enabled us to move to a position where the creation of a complete show may be envisaged clearly as the next phase in our artistic development.

Monday 22 July 2019

Research workshops - Friday Flop Research and Development Project (March-July 2019)

As part of our Arts Council-funded R&D exploring new forms of clown performance, we're looking at how to bring some of the experimental outcomes of workshop training onto the public stage. In this session we will share some of our processes and engage in some practical research with those who wish to join us (or you can just observe). The focus will be on mixing modes of performance and how clowns might intrude into other genres.
The session will be led by Jon Davison and members of Citizens of Nowhere, who produce the monthly performance Friday Flop at 
Rosemary Branch
June 22nd: Clowning Experiments
at Rose Bruford College
This practical workshop will engage participants in our ongoing research into how to use traiing exercises as performance material. We will be inviting participants to experiment with specific exercises which we have yet to find way of staging. Hopefully, our joint roles as researchers and guinea pigs will merge!
We have particular questions about how to take advantage of some of the impactful outcomes form exercises such as:
- "Attention Seeking"
- "Instant Impact"
- "Make a Loud Noise when you have the opportunity"
Friday Flop invites you to join us for a day of practical workshops, discussions and experiments

Friday Flop is about clowning research into laughter response and using workshop training exercises to make theatre.

We have loads of questions – We guess you do, too - Maybe we can answer each other’s questions?

Questions like:
• How to reproduce on the stage the best shit you came up with while devising, training or rehearsing?
• How to keep the bad shit (fears, stress, habits) out of the way and just engage with audiences in the way you want?
• How can we turn exercises into performance? Bring your exercises!

Join us on Sunday 21st July between 11am and 5pm at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

Where we’ll spend the day exploring these questions through
• Workshops
• Discussions
• Experiments and yet to be imagined ways of sharing

The day is open to anyone who finds these questions interesting, whether you use clowning or not.
And it’s free of charge

Plus: if you learn nothing, you’ll get a full refund

Venue details: Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Road, London N1 3DT
Nearest stations: Essex Road, Haggerston

If you would like to participate, please let us know by emailing Jon Davison here: 

July 17th: Commuity Arts Clowning
at Kentish Town Community Centre
In collabortaion with NorthLDNCares, a talk, a workshop, a chnace ot have a go at clowning in the context of one of the many social club events organised by designed to bring neighours together, of all ages. 
Clowning is accessible to aoslutley anoyne. There are no limits in terms of age, physical ability, experience, education, etc. 
A chance to see if the clown trianing exercises we use profesisonally can also work for anyone who wnats to enjoy the pleasure of being silly in front of their friends and neighbours, or simply to be an audience for those who wish to!
Is clowning still a truly popular art?
We invite you to spend the afternoon with us engaging in experimental clown training practice as research.

We are in the midst of an Arts Council-funded R&D project investigating the relationship between performer training and live performance. Our main questions are around how to reproduce on public stages some of the biggest impact outcomes which occur in the training studio.

We have been working with performers, trainers, researchers and other practitioners with an interest in engaging with our ever-expanding list of questions, by participating in some of our ongoing experiments in transferring training to performance.

Some of our questions currently are:
- How can we navigate from the studio to the stage?
- How is training useful?
- What are we training to do?
- How can training exercises be redesigned for clown purposes?
- What are ‘clown choices’ in performance?
- How can we cause imbalance or uncertainty such that the unexpected might occur?
- How do we learn clown?

The session will take place in RR6 and is open to all RCSSD staff, students and alumni
If you’d like to know more, please contact Dr. Jon Davison
Clowning research today (22nd July 2019)

I am interested in the genealogy of training exercises and the way in which they transmit ideological assumptions through practice.

This interest began to be explicit in my research which re-examined clown training and the dominant orthodox notions of the personal clown, spontaneity, authenticity, etc. (AHRC-funded Creative Fellow, CSSD 2007-10). But such an enquiry had roots way back in my pedagogical practice development in the 1990s as I began to both shed the exercises which seemed not to serve clowning (ensemble) and at the same time design new exercises to elaborate on the results of such methods as Guy Dartnell’s Expressive Theatre, focusing on the response of the performer to stimuli and impulses.

Having side-lined the old outdated notions of authenticity and the inner self in clowning, as well as assumptions that clowning is driven by improvisation or play, I began to build what could take its place. The gap was filled by laughter-response conditioning, which has part of its roots in Gaulier, but is founded upon an assumption that clowning, like all performance, is produced by a series of material actions which are themselves understood by their organisation into sets of conventions. This materialist notion of clown practice, articulated in my PhD, then formed the theoretical basis for our current ongoing project, Friday Flop, which asks the question ‘How does clowning happen in a theatre?’ The methods used in this project are various attempts to stage clown training exercises which are driven by laughter response. Future phases of the project will look at broader issues of clown dramaturgy, considering how these disparate bits of clown theatre might be bundled together and eventually written as a whole performance. But, for now, we are still focusing on the bits in isolation.

The current phase of the project is a five-month period of Arts Council-funded R&D, now nearing its end. In this final month, a surprise happened. We had assumed that our ongoing development would continue simply to find new and better ways to stage the training. But suddenly we found that we wanted to go ‘back’, to some of the exercises discarded long ago. Exercises which trained and conditioned our behaviour in relation to the architecture of the theatre in which we work. The place where we work. This led us back to training which is interested in how humans move in a space and in relation to each other. And so we began to replay some of those exercises. I had to delve back into my notebooks from the 90s and re-read how I was trying to come to terms then with a legacy of training which felt inappropriate for what I wanted to explore. Now, today, that coming to terms with lineages of training regimes is distinct. In part, because some of my questions from that decade have been answered. Which seemed to lead me a rather naughty thought. What if we were to take some training exercises that were explicitly aimed at producing the opposite effect to clowning, and then ‘clown’ them in order to make them work for us? Which exercises would they be?

And that is what we will try and explore here today.

How do we ‘clown’ the performer exercises which were designed to induct us into the particular set of normative constraints founded upon the false assumptions that we are equal, fair and live in a democracy?

We are referring particularly to those exercises and training methods aimed at producing the ensemble.

By ‘to clown’ I mean the practice of bringing to bear of a critical approach founded upon clown theory. This approach is, of course, enacted by means of practice. In other words, it is Practice-as-Research. ‘To clown’, then, is a verb to describe a critical process. This critical process would question or subvert dominant cultural expectations about equality, fairness, and suggest a subversive reading of the practice of ‘ensemble’, producing a transgressive position and potentially useful training exercise for clowning.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Was Chaplin a (good) clown? - circus clowns reply in 1929

I just came across this by chance. Some of the top circus clowns in France, in 1929, giving their opinion on Chaplin and whether he was a clown or not, soon after the release of his film ‘The Circus’.

Here some of the replies given in interviews at the Cirque Médrano, published in an article in the magazine Cinémonde (no. 17; 14th February 1929). (It seems like it's not just today that clowns are overly critical of each other.)

Porto: “I was disappointed. First, let me say that the Americans don’t understand circus… The clown doesn’t exist for them. Charlie did know the circus well. That’s undeniable. But he undoubtedly sought to please his compatriots. He conformed to their tastes. As Charlie Chaplin is an old circus artist, a music hall artist…. I thought Charlie would be more daring. Wasn’t he more of a clown in other films? I loved him in his role as bank teller. As he is a true clown, and I can see him in our place in the circus. he has the physical play like Footit had… He is a conjuror. He is an acrobat. You can see he was a clown, as he can play pantomime. “

Cairoli: “I don’t think he’s a clown. he knew the circus well, but I think he couldn’t do all that we do. In the cinema, it’s easier to make people laugh. If you do a bad take, you cut a few metres of film or you do it again. With us, you can’t erase a single gesture. You have to be at all times, unfailingly amusing. And that, I can tell you, is very difficult.”

Francois Fratellini: “Certainly, Charlie Chaplin is a clown. He was one a long time before becoming The Little Tramp in the cinema. I remember seeing him at the Olympia. He was with the Karno troupe then. He took all the slaps that weren’t intended for him, and retreated offstage, form where he bombarded his fellows with al kinds of objects. … I don’t like tis film. I found Charlie a lot funnier in other films. There was more fantasy. No doubt, he posses all the qualities which make a good clown. It’s just that his job is easier. His jokes in front of the camera don’t have to work first time. Despite that, Charlie is for me a good clown. But a clown I’d like to see in the middle of a real circus.”