The Clowning Project
Does this word make you think of circus performers with bright red noses and painted-on smiles? Or horror movie villains terrorizing young children? In this workshop we will look at another definition of the clown: the stupidest version of you, your inner child, the thing that your friends make fun of behind your back. The clown is that part of you that fails again and again (tripping on the banana peel, getting hit in the face with the cream pie) but will come back the next day with a beautiful, irrational faith that things will turn out different.
The first event in the Clowning Project was The Clowning Workshop, led by Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn. Nathalie led a workshop using clown games and silliness derived from the work of Jacques Lecoq and other contemporary clown teachers and theorists.
Much of contemporary theatre clown training, and all of the formal training I’ve had as a student of clown, comes directly from the work of Jacques Lecoq. Lecoq was a French theatre-maker and theorist who formulated a new philosophy of clown through his work with his students and in the context of a larger program of physical theatre. His book, The Moving Body, explains how he and his students came to this idea of what clown can mean in modern theatre and the modern world, and looks at the contradictions in the form that I’ve also noticed in my relatively short time studying clowning.
Lecoq describes how when he and his students were first exploring the idea of the clown, they did an exercise in which everyone sat in a circle and tried to make each other laugh. They were playing the clown; trying to impress each other with smart comic ideas or impersonating the image of a clown that they had in their heads. But regardless of how much they tried, how many different comic strategies or tools they used “each one more fanciful than the one before,” the actors could not make each other laugh. And then finally, “when they realized what a failure it was,” the actors stopped working to get a laugh and went back to their seats, “frustrated, confused and embarrassed.” That pathetic, honest state of failure was then what actually made the audience laugh, “not at the characters that they had been trying to show us, but at the person underneath, stripped bare for all to see.”5 For Lecoq, that moment of failure is where the real clown lives, and it is then that the actors are being their own clowns, instead of playing an image of a clown.
My own experience with clowning has been very similar to what Lecoq describes in The Moving Body. I had been introduced to some clown training in small spurts, through a week-long workshop on clown and physical comedy with Mick Barnfather in London and my work on a few different clown-influenced theatrical productions, but my biggest and most in-depth exposure to this work was through Chris Bayes’s four-week clown class in June 2015. Chris is the head of physical acting training at the Yale School of Drama and runs a clown training course each summer in New York to help actors “rediscover [their] playful spirit” through clown, as Chris put it in his email announcement of the 2015 summer workshops. Chris and the class are extremely well- regarded in the theater community; everyone I asked about clown assured me that his classroom would be the best place to jump into the work.
I had some trouble with it, though. Again and again in Chris’s workshop, I would come out on stage as my clown with great excitement and conviction that I was going to get it right this time. I was going to make them laugh! And I would be met by blank stares and silence, with the occasional forced laugh thrown in out of pity. Before studying with Chris, I had known Lecoq only through my teachers and their paraphrasing of his central ideas, but when I actually read The Moving Body I recognized my own experience with clown in Lecoq’s writing. Lecoq describes this initial moment of confrontation between the clown and the audience almost exactly as I felt it: “When the actor comes on stage wearing a small red nose, his face is in a state of openness, entirely without defense. He thinks he will be sympathetically welcomed by the audience (the world), and he is surprised to be greeted by silence when he was convinced that he is a very important person.”6
The fact that Lecoq equates the audience to the world in this description is very apt and revealing of what this experience is like for the actor. It’s a moment of performance but it feels personal, and it’s easy to start thinking about your failure as a clown in front of an audience as indicative of your failure in the outside world. You aren’t playing a character. You can’t blame it on the writing. This is you, at your most vulnerable, and people don’t like it. As Chris would put it, “the clown is like a skinless grape: completely vulnerable to the world.”7
I was always very quick to assume that these moments of failure in class represented a larger problem with me as a person in the world. My sense of self and carefully cultivated confidence or strength would immediately evaporate. As my conviction in my own abilities quickly ran out, I’d realize my own failure, and then I would cry. A lot. And as soon as I started crying, I would lose all the control I had over myself or over the need to impress, and then everyone would start laughing hysterically. There was something free, shameless, vulnerable and very funny about the slobbering, wet, snotty mess that I became after I gave up in those clown exercises.
Chris saw this tendency in me and told me that I needed to be crying each time I came on stage for a clown exercise. But then that was a frustratingly impossible task in itself (which is presumably why Chris gave it to me) because I would get mad at myself for not being able to start crying when I was waiting “offstage” before my entrance. And that frustration would then erupt again on stage after I’d spent some time trying to do the task correctly. I would still get a good response from the audience, but also still get it only after a torturous period of failure.
I realized, and Lecoq realizes in his book, that this painful process of getting to the clown is not sustainable for a performer who wants to continue with this work. We may be able to sit through that period of long, unfunny silence with the faith that something good will come after it in an acting class setting but the audience at a performance wants to be entertained right away. As Lecoq puts it,
The great difficulty consists in finding this dimension from the start, genuinely playing himself, and not ‘playing the clown.’ If he starts to make a performance out of his own personal silly side, the actor is lost. You cannot play at being a clown; you are one, when your deep nature surfaces in the first fears of childhood.8
But how is it possible to reach that “deep nature” of your clown “from the start” without reducing it down to a more simplistic label? How can I get myself to the openness and playfulness that I found in my crying without forcing it? How can I get better at being a clown without telling myself to be good at it? How does anyone “just have fun” on stage without any expectations?
The fact that this training was so difficult and contradictory for me was one of the reasons I wanted to continue looking at it. I wanted to use my thesis to explore why this seemingly fun thing was so difficult and emotionally upsetting for me. The moment of failure that Lecoq describes and that I experienced — the clown coming out to meet a silent audience — is at the root of all of the work in this thesis and in the show I’m creating. Every monologue in the play is in some way trying to understand what that failure means and why it’s important. How can we react to or use failure in a productive way, in clown and in our lives?
Ashley, for example, one of my classmates in Chris’s workshop, represents a potential darker response to clown failure. On one day near the end of our class, Ashley came on stage as her clown for an exercise and couldn’t find anything funny to do. She was struggling to find the game but everything she came up with wasn’t interesting; there was no joy in it and the whole room was clearly bored. We could see that she was just going to get more and more desperate, more and more frustrated, as people often did in the class when they could see that none of their ideas were getting any laughs. Her complete failure in confrontation with the audience wasn’t generative; it was just dull.
Right at that moment, Chris told Ashley to try a new exercise: point at different people in the audience and show them what their problem is. The energy in the room shifted immediately. Ashley was clearly having a lot of fun in ridiculing other people and in breaking the socially established rules, which had up till that point been that only Chris could make fun of other people in the class.
The game itself was thus breaking the rules. But within that the biggest transgression, and therefore the biggest excitement for Ashley, came when she made fun of something that she knew wasn’t supposed to be said out-loud, something that she knew could get dangerously close to hurting somebody. In my case, Chris had made fun of me for the first few days for wearing shirts that made my bra visible. Eventually, he stopped and laughed it off because I expressed in an exercise how uncomfortable that scrutiny made me feel. So when Ashley came around to say what my problem was, everyone knew that would be the first thing that would come to her mind. She looked at me, said “You know what your problem is?”, hesitated for a moment, and then lifted her shirt up and flashed her bra at the whole class. And that was the biggest laugh she got that day, because there were the most stakes attached to it; the class laughed because she could have not gotten away with it.
Chris rescued Ashley from that downward spiral of desperation, which I’d experienced so many times in clowning, by giving her a game that made fun of those around her. The pressure was off herself because she put the attention on specific audience members and their faults rather than her own. She got to be the representative of the world looking down on the audience instead of letting the audience/world’s scrutiny turn her into a slobbering mess like I did. That power reversal, in turn, let out an angry, mischievous side of her personality that she normally repressed in polite society. So she found a freedom through that process but she also took advantage of the fact that she had seen these people reveal their insecurities through their clown. She knew what would strike the strongest nerve.
The uneasy feeling that is usually sub-textual in clown training here came to the forefront. Are we justified in making fun of people’s deepest fears, in a way that can feel like bullying, in order to get to our own clown and a purer self? It brings us back to the comparison that is often made between clowns and kids. Chris told us again and again in clown to find our inner four-year-old. We’re trying to access that childish joy, curiosity and vulnerability to the world, but children are also spiteful. They are so vulnerable and so scared that they lash out at other people to get power.
This moment with Ashley was a particularly extreme expression of the possible pitfalls of clowning, especially for an actor’s psychology. Lecoq explains these problems as well:
The clown needs no conflict because he is in a permanent state of conflict, notably with himself. This phenomenon demands care and attention from the teacher so as to avoid pseudo-psychoanalytic interpretations of the difficult psychological process the actors have to undergo. The student must be prevented from becoming too caught up in playing their clown, since it is the dramatic territory which brings them into closest contact with their own selves. In fact the clown should never be hurtful for the actor. The audience does not directly make fun of him; they feel superior and laugh, which is quite different.9
Is this whole project the type of “pseudo-psychoanalytic interpretation” that Lecoq is warning against? Is there a productive way to go forward with these questions or will they just implode onto themselves in a self-indulgent puddle of feelings?
4 I.M. LOST! current script, INSTRUCTIONS, 82.
5 Jaques Lecoq, The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre (New York: Routledge, 1997), 153-154.
6 Lecoq, 155.
7 INSTRUCTIONS, 82.
8 Lecoq, 157.
9 Lecoq, 159.