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,

[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)