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)?!