Tuesday 29 December 2020

We, Cowboys - by charlie.translate

'Cinema to Fiction' - Go West (1925) 
by charlie.translate
Clown Studies Course July-September 2020
London Clown School

Monday 28 December 2020

Women Clowns in Early Cinema - by Giedrė Degutytė

[This project is published together with the comments by Jon Davison, at the request of the author, Giedrė Degutytė.]

Wednesday 8 July 2020

The personal clown and vulnerability: is it an ideology of privilege?

I have researched and written for some time about the ideologies of the ‘personal clown’ dominant in Western clown training and performance. Those debates may have seemed pretty niche to some. But the times we live in right now call upon us urgently to re-examine the stark lack of diversity in the field of clowning.  The following are some beginning thoughts on how a re-evaluation of clown pedagogies might serve some useful purpose in this endeavour. They have begun to take shape in the context of many conversations and encounters with a wide range of people in the worlds of clowning that I have had the privilege of engaging with. 

The pedagogy of the personal clown has been overly dominant in clown training for more than half a century, since Jacques Lecoq first claimed to have ‘discovered the teaching method’ of the flop (attempting, but failing to make us laugh, the student becomes funny when they acknowledge their failure). That ‘flop practice’ was theorised by Lecoq himself as being evidence that demonstrated that clowns are always personal, individualised, and founded upon the sharing of that individual’s vulnerability in public. 

The problem is that non-privileged identities are always vulnerable to attack in the outside world, away from the studio. Always already denigrated and ridiculed and marginalised. So the invitation to share your vulnerability in the studio, in the supposedly safe space (let’s assume it is safe, even though it’s likely it won’t be ‘as safe’ for someone who isn’t as privileged as the majority of workshop participants) isn’t balanced out by the knowledge that one will afterwards return to the outside world as a place of safety. Because that real world likely won’t be experienced as safe if you’re a woman, black, gay, trans, disabled, or poor. 

The theory, that the sharing of one’s vulnerability in a supportive group leads to a healing process, the returning to wholeness of the individual previously wounded by trauma (Gestalt hot-seating in group therapy emerged in the same years as Lecoq’s clown pedagogy at the beginning of the 1960s),[1] [2] [3] fails to apply when there is no safe place to ‘return’ to in that real world. Because the trauma is systemic. It cannot be healed on an individual level. 

The notion of the personal clown has far-reaching consequences not just within the workshop environment. It also determines the nature of clown performance: how it is created and what gets presented in public. Lecoq’s attachment to the idea of ‘quelque chose a dire’ assumes that meaning emerges from each individual (body), since each individual is to be understand as unique and with a ‘story’ (‘something to say’) embedded in that body. The theory goes that, if one attends to one’s ‘self’, that story will manifest and it will be ‘authentic’.  This privileging of the auto-emergence of authenticity was always intended to claim the high ground over the older notions of drawing on repertoire or tradition.[4] [5] And so, for many decades, clown performers have been overly herded into creating performances according to this axiom. If valid, this theory of clown dramaturgy would by now have produced a huge range of clown performances reflecting diverse identities. Patently, that hasn’t happened. 

Conclusion: the clown as personal is available only to privileged identities. If we want to move on to equity, diversity and inclusion, we need new theories, new pedagogies and new clowns. That doesn’t mean returning to so-called ‘traditional clowning’, but it very probably does mean clowns and clowning that reflect the lived experiences not just of individuals, but of a variety of communities and identities.

[1] “Esalen, in a sense, put Perls and his therapy ‘on the map.’ People now commonly uttered Perlsisms, paying lip service to the importance of ‘doing your own thing,’ ‘being here now,’ and getting rid of their ‘topdogs’ in the ‘hot seat.’ The hot seat, peculiar to Gestalt Therapy, is a sort of therapeutic electric chair in which the patient submits to the therapist's often confrontative direction.” (Janov, Arthur (2005) ‘Gestalt Therapy: Being Here Now, Keeping Unfinished Business Unfinished’ in Primal Therapy, http://primaltherapy.com/GrandDelusions/GD12.htm#_ftn60

[2] “[Perls] launched what he called his ‘circus’, where he gave demonstrations of Gestalt Therapy in front of a hundred people or more upon a stage that he had rigged. These demonstrations gave rise to his well-known ‘hot seat’” (Shepard, Martin (1975) Fritz (New York: Saturday Review Press), p.165)

[3] “by becoming aware of how ridiculous he is, he can emerge into an identity that is no longer ridiculous, but is relatively free. This is the whole secret behind Fritz's hot seat. He would show people how they made fools of themselves”. (Shepard, Martin (1975) Fritz (New York: Saturday Review Press), p.214) 

[4] “the circus clown [...] has little to offer theatre” (Jacques Lecoq in Murray, Simon (2003), Jacques Lecoq (London: Routledge), p.70) 

[5] “The reference to circus, which is bound to surface as soon as clowns are mentioned, remains marginal, in my view. As a child, I saw the Fratellini brothers, Grock, the Cairoli trio, Portos and Carletos, all at the Medrano circus in Montmartre, but we were not after this kind of clown at the school. Apart from the comic register, we took no external models, either formal or stylistic, and the students themselves had no knowledge of the clowns I have mentioned. They thus embarked on their research in complete freedom and it was Pierre Byland, a student at the school before he returned to teach here, who first introduced the famous red nose, the smallest mask in the world, which would help people to expose their naivety and their fragility.” (Lecoq, Jacques (2000) The Moving Body: teaching creative theatre (London: Methuen Drama), p.154)

Friday 8 May 2020

Clown training goes online

With the help of a grant from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, I am exploring new and innovative online possibilities in clown teaching, by testing online options for clown teaching at London Clown School. Somewhat fortuitously, I came into our current situation having had some experience in the design and delivery of online teaching materials for clowning with the first Clown Studies Course (History, Theory and Analysis) in January of this year.  

My main focus has begun with adapting the syllabus from the former weekly ‘Devising for Clown Performance’ classes, which I have offered in London for a number of years. Through experimental sessions with interested performers, teachers, and students I began by testing some possibilities and limitations of online study in the area of creating clown performance. This area of clown training, with a large component of creation which occurs previous to the live performance, seems like it might lend itself more easily to online education. As a result, I am now at the stage of running a number of six-week series of classes.

The next phase will be to test the teaching of those aspects of live clown performance which normally assume or demand the physical presence of performers and spectators in the same space, which presents greater obstacles in translating to online media.

This process, at the moment, looks to respond to urgent current circumstances, but then will come questions in addressing the unknown of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in in the near future. We don’t know how much demand for online learning will be sustained. Perhaps it will maintain itself at the current level, perhaps it will increase, or perhaps it will drop off if circumstances change. Current responses to my own initial plans from both professionals and students suggest that especially those with difficult access to performer and arts training will continue to engage online after lockdown.

I hope that these innovations may have some useful impact on teachers and students in my field and play some role in the development of clown teaching and performance globally, which has always been of prime importance to me. 

So, instead of asking, ‘when will we return to like it was before with live audiences and workshops?’ we can ask ‘how do we do this now?’ (whether we return or not). Our unique new historical circumstances may lay the foundation for an exciting new way of understanding our artform. My hope is to be able to develop, innovate, and support the world network of clowns and clowning for the future.

Monday 13 April 2020

Are prescriptions for clowning ridiculous in the age of coronavirus lockdown?

Recently, on a widely used clown forum, a question posed by the daily newspaper Le Monde was discussed in reference to our own specific artform:

‘Will we ever be close up together again watching a show?” What do you think?

My own answer was this:
I do not know. But I would rather ask the question: what is most important for clowning? A live audience present together in the same place? Or being in the here-and-now moment (but online)? Because both are not possible at the same time right now. And if both things are not possible, then maybe both things are not essential for clowning to happen. Otherwise, clowning would not be possible.

The original question is entirely comprehensible. But it feels to me that it runs the risk of pointless speculation, driven by an attachment to certain ways of doing things. Those ways of doing things are not available to us at the moment, so any clinging on to them will be likely just to generate anxiety. Attachment leads to suffering. Also, asking this question suggests that this, unavailable, way of clowning is the only way we can imagine it: with a bunch of people all close together in one place watching the performers who are also right there in that place in front of us.

If we can only imagine clowning under these conditions, then we are left with nothing. No clowning.

But what if we were to assume that these conditions were not necessary? What if we assume, instead, that clowning was possible under any conditions? Then we’d only need to find out how that clowning looked under these current conditions, right?

This question takes us right to the heart of the problem of prescriptions versus descriptions of clowns and clowning. Over the several decades since the 1960s when clown workshops have come to prominence in our artform, clown teachers and their students have played a large role in defining the narrative of what clowns are supposed to be, what they are for, and how we are supposed to understand them. Clown teachers generally love to make prescriptive statements, that begin: “the clown always/never ….” Whereas previous eras were more prone to descriptive statements, that began: “clowns do x, y, z …”

Within that world of clown teachers, there are many elements of this narrative which go pretty much unquestioned by most people. Strangely, given the supposedly free-thinking nature of clowns, not much self-critical thinking goes on about our own thinking about ourselves. This, despite the fact that previous historical periods had very different ideas about what clowns are, or should be. The historical specificity of contemporary ideas about clowns has gone fairly unnoticed. Until our historical circumstances suddenly change radically, and put those orthodox ideas under huge strain.

The question above seems to ask about only one condition, that of ‘liveness’. But implicit in that question are two of those tenets of contemporary clowning:

1.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same space, allowing for unmediated responses.
2.      Clowning happens only when performers and spectators see, hear, and sense each other in the same moment, allowing for immediate responses.

Now, the options for ‘being in the same space’ are severely restricted. But ‘being in the same moment’ is amply available through online technology. (Let’s not even mention that whole golden age of clowning, the silent movies, which willingly gave up on performers being in the same place and time as their audiences.)

If we insist on having both conditions then, okay, let’s give up clowning. Personally, I prefer to continue, for the moment exploring the online options of the remaining condition. Or to give up insisting on conditions for clowning. To give up on prescriptions for clowning, which now are not only tedious (they have been for a while), but plainly ridiculously untrue.

I mean, if we can’t even adapt to this, what would we do if, one day, the conditions for being in the same moment were also removed (internet lockdown)?!