Clown Theory

How useful are the main theories about how clowning works and what it means? 

The circus clown died in the 50s. A victim of our distrust of the tyranny of tradition. Lecoq's contemporary personal clown, born of the 60s, sustained itself for half a century on our obsession with self. Now, in the 21st century, our inner self is no more, we are all public knowledge in a globalised, viralised world where anyone or anything can be clown - man, woman, child, cat, dog... No need to look inside. All it takes is the right framing.

Once one had to be born into the right family, the clown aristocracy whose preordained destiny one passed on. Later, one must make one's own choice, an existential act of liberty and self-definition. What does it take now, in the 21st century, to be clown?

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Science proves the personal clown does not exist

 

The scientific method, reliant upon experiments which fail and thereby produce new hypotheses, is a natural companion for clown research, where failure witnessed by others equals success.

 

My demonstration of a failed experiment clearly shows that my mother's claim that plants thrive on tea is a myth. On the other hand, my potted plant which failed to grow did raise a laugh, thus successfully repeating Jacques Lecoq's 1960s experiment with the flop, where he showed that we laugh when you admit you've failed. However, it did not corroborate Lecoq's interpretation of the data of his experiment: it proved impossible for me to convince my audience that my dead plant was funny because it had an inner clown self which was more authentic than its social masks.

 

This experiment thus marks the end of the myth of the personal clown. 

The self-deconstruction of clowning

Since Jacques Lecoq’s early experiments with clown teaching in the early 1960s, the discourse of the inner clown or the authentic self as clown, deemed to be revealed by the removal of social masks, has held a dominant place not only in the field of clown pedagogy but also increasingly as a means to articulate clown performance. I propose to take the basic mechanism of Lecoq’s clown teaching, the ‘flop’, and to use it in order to attempt to deconstruct the notion of the inner clown. By means of a solo clown performance, I aim to merge the conventions of the clown workshop with those of the public performance, under the guise of an explanation of my own methods of clown teaching, thus additionally problematising the role of the clown teacher. The performance is intended as a means of introducing clowning into what is ostensibly neither workshop nor show, where the conventions of clowning, based upon the presence or absence of laughter, are not established. Can such a surreptitious ploy succeed in producing clowning and, if so, does that clowning differ from that which we conventionally expect in workshop or show conditions? Can this confusing of the conventions produce new, unexpected and imponderable clowning phenomena, outside of the conventional contracts established between clown performer and audience, or clown students and teacher? I hope to show how the dominant discourse which seeks to interpret clowning-as-flop stumbles under the pressure of its own practice-as-flop, and suggest that this clowning does not reveal pre-existent selves, but instead produces, by dramaturgical means, a staged clown persona. The clown is thus an illusion, but no less pleasurable for being non-authentic. Might the greatest laughs be produced not in the staging of the illusion of authenticity, but in its very self-deconstruction?

The deconstruction of clowning

 

‘The Deconstruction of Clowning’ is a performance and discussion which took place on Thursday 3rd October at 7pm and Friday 4th October 2013 at 2pm and 6pm, at Central School of Speech and Drama, London. 

Clowns frequently claim to access authenticity by unmasking social conventions or exposing the workings of performance genres, thus presuming power within society as taboo-breakers and truth-tellers.

 

Contemporary clown’s version of this tale stresses the dynamics of the ‘flop’ as the gateway to such truth. The performer, admitting failure to convince the audience of his/her competence, seems thereby to reveal a reality behind the mask of convention. By owning one’s flops, one is identified with ‘truth’, since to make a mistake must, by definition, be unintentional (i.e. they escape manipulation).


However, the professionalisation of clowning indicates that this unintentionality is in fact willed, practised and skilled. The ‘flop’ is an ‘authenticity-effect’ which stages ‘reality’. Given that clowns habitually admit to conventions, how might one declare this particular ‘truth-trick’?

Would such a ‘deconstructed clowning’ still seem like clowning and give the same pleasure as that staging of the authentic which clowns presume to do?

 

This is a three-year PhD practice-as-research project at Central School of Speech and Drama (2012-15), looking at the gaps between clown theory and clown practice. In other words, the difference between what we like to say about clowning and what we actually do when we clown. 

It begins by examining some dominant practices in contemporary clowning, focusing on two performance strategies or techniques available to the clown performer today: the performer’s flop, or failure; and the audience’s laughter response. Both the flop and laughter are identified by some as necessary elements in defining the dynamics of clowning, although some clown practitioners dispute this.

 

I examine how both these principles hold privileged positions within my own performance work. Through the devising of performance pieces specifically founded on these ‘clown principles’ I aim to test the functioning of these principles and the limits of such an approach.

These strategies have been dominant in clown training over several decades, but arguably have been used far less in actual clown performance. In what way does failure ‘work’? When does failure fail?

 

The Deconstruction of Clowning - conception, devising, rehearsal, direction and performance.

 

The video clips below represent some key moments in the process of practice-as-research as I understand it. 

 

Rehearsals 02.10.13

 

 

Clown Truth: can clown performance be made out of clown training?

A performance/

demonstration/lecture

This performance emerged from a desire to confuse the conventions found in, on the one hand, clown performance and, on the other, clown workshops. The ‘contract’ between participants and teacher appears to differ so widely from the ‘contract’ between performer and audience, that what happens in one may never happen in the other.

 

I wanted to find a way to introduce, into a conventional performance setting, some frequently occurring elements of clowning workshops (principally, the famous ‘flop’), often witnessed and performed by those signed up to the workshop experience; elements which rarely, if ever, in my observation, find their way into public clown performance. 

In this performance/demonstration, by means of ostensibly explaining and presenting how I teach clowning, I aim also to problematise the orthodox notions about how we should interpret these manifestations of clowning. Since Lecoq in the early 1960s, the discourse of the inner clown or the authentic self/clown, revealed by the removal of social masks, has held sway. In this performance I hope to show how this discourse stumbles under the pressure of clowning itself, and suggest that clowning does not reveal pre-existent selves, but instead produces, by dramaturgical means, a staged clown persona. The clown is thus an illusion, but no less pleasurable for being non-authentic. Indeed, I hope to show how the greatest pleasures are to be had in this very realisation, that the spectator’s (and clown performer’s) feelings of being in the presence of ‘the clown’ is contradicted by the evidence, that there is no inner clown. In other words, the best joke is that it’s all theatrical.

Clown workshops and training have, since the 1960s, gained prominence over clown performance. Clown teachers command respect and power, aesthetic and financial, which very few clown performers can obtain. In the workshop, theories, orthodoxies and philosophies have been established, often making transcendent claims far beyond the limits of the possible. Clowning has developed claims to attain ‘truth’, in a manner that general actor training has done for some time.

 

But where is this ‘truth’ in clown performances? It is nowhere. Clown performers, although claiming art status, have failed to deliver. Why have all those ‘revelations of truth’ in the workshop not been transferred to the stage? Is it because they are false claims? Or because they can only be produced in the protected environment of the classroom?

 

Taking a key training concept in contemporary clowning - the ‘flop’, whereby the clown fails to make the audience laugh but, admitting defeat, makes them laugh – I attempt to employ a training exercise which I originally developed for teaching the flop, in order to make a clown performance, to test whether clown performance be made out of clown training. Or not.

 

(September 2014)

On the undecideability of spontaneity...

 

Transcript and video clips of opening 12 minutes of a presentation of my research, to MA students at CSSD in January 2013. 

 

Clip I: “The Joke”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I was going to start with a joke, but I won’t. But I’ll tell you what it was. I was going to say, ‘So, any questions?’ (very delayed audience laughter). But I thought it won’t be funny so I won’t use it. So, I was right. (aud. laughs) However, me telling you about the joke.. wasn’t that funny was it? No, but then, when I said, ‘it wasn’t funny, therefore I was right’, that was funny. You following me? I wasn’t going to start like this. So here was the joke, there was me telling you I wasn’t going to do it, here was me telling you – which you knew – it wasn’t that funny, then there’s me... oh, which you found funny... I can’t remember it now. Then ... etc. etc... you remember? Right. No. 

 

Clip II: “The Script”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


So, here’s another thing. Script. (I show them my printed notes) Script for today, page one of nineteen. We’re going ok, timewise. But I haven’ started it yet. Well, I have a script. Have I used the script yet? Do you know if I’ve used the script yet? You don’t know? Or you think I haven’t? We don’t know. You don’t know. It feels like a routine is going on, though. Yes, a routine is going on. I’ve told you, I didn’t plan to do it this way, do you believe me? No! No, why not? It’s too polished. Too polished? Thank you very much. The absolute truth is that I didn’t plan to do it this way. (Audience laughs) However, I haven’t yet started with the script. However, there is a script. I did prepare and the things I am doing now, although they are unique because they are being done now, I have done them before in some form or another. Not in that order... 

 

Clip III: “Spontaneity”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


So, now I have to remember again, where I was going. Ah yes, you did think it was a polished performance, you didn’t believe it was spontaneous. How would you know it was spontaneous, how would you recognise spontaneity if it was there in front of you? (Audience:) ‘By failure?’ 
By failure, but I failed and you still thought it was prepared. 
(Audience:) ‘The blush response.’ 
Have I blushed so far? 
(Audience) ‘No’... 
I have! But you didn’t see it. Because I turned this way. But yes, the blush, meaning an uncontrollable response which is not possible to produce at will. 
(Audience:) ‘Your breathing. You exhaled like this, and you inhaled sometimes like this. It showed to me that you had a kind of stress.’ 
Yes! I had a certain amount of stress. I am trying to present to you a combination of how I research, how it might be useful to you, how I perform because that’s part of what I do as a researcher. So I’m moving, it’s a hybrid between performing, lecturing, questions and answers, teaching... yes, like that (I breathe out tensely). Does that tell you it’s spontaneous or not? So, my ability to...because what you’re saying there is that this stress is perhaps something we want to eliminate from an actor’s training. But maybe it’s a marker of spontaneity? Interesting point. Ok, let’s go on to the script. 
(12’23”)