The Clowning Workbook
This unique training book with video will be part of Bloomsbury Methuen’s series of Theatre Arts Workbooks, and will be a practical guide to clown training appropriate for students of acting in general.
The Clowning Workbook will focus in detail on the real classroom and rehearsal needs of training actors in their encounter with clowning. Drawing on the author’s extensive experience of teaching clowning within a number of conservatoire and academic institutions, the material will attend to the presentation and reception of clowning work by those whose primary concern is general actor training and its uses within such a context. To my knowledge, there does not as yet exist any book which addresses the subject in this particular way. This book will use particular and specific workshop contexts where clowning is introduced and applied within the contexts of, for example: voice studies, movement work, classical acting, and so on.
Clowning and actor training
Clowning has today found a regular place within the syllabuses of many drama departments and actor training courses across the UK and USA in particular. Indeed, ever since Jacques Lecoq introduced clowning into the programme of studies at his school in the early 1960s, clowning has been one of the most popular areas of study with students. With such a widespread and continuing interest in learning more about clowning in a practical way, the number of books available on the subject, although growing, is relatively small.
The Clowning Workbook will primarily be aimed at students and teachers who are interested in the potential of clown training within the broader curriculum of actor training. The existing texts on clown training are generally aimed at those already wanting to specialize in the performance mode of clowning, or else present the subject within the confines of methods drawing on Lecoq’s approach. This new book intends to be, on the one hand, a resource tailored to the specific needs and requirements of actor training and, on the other hand, an approach not confined to a Lecoq-based method, thus opening up the potential for training in clowning to be applied across a wider range of actor training syllabuses than is often the case at present.
The introduction will include a brief summary of how clowning has been of interest to actor trainers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, from Copeau, Meyerhold, Chekhov, to the specialist Lecoq and Gaulier, whose influence has since permeated drama school training internationally. What might the characteristics of clowning be which lead to this appeal for actors and those who teach them? In which way is a clown an actor? And in which ways might a clown be distinct from an actor?
Chapter One: clowning, playing and the presence of the actor
The fundamentals of clowning begin with a practical way of being in front of an audience: as an object of laughter. Without recourse to character, role or narrative context, the clown meets the spectator seemingly naked. How does this aid the actor to be on stage? What lessons does the clown mode of performance have for the actor, even before s/he has considered a role?
We begin with introducing participants to the fundamentals of clowning, learning to feel and enjoy our own ridiculousness. Converting our habitual fear of ridicule into the pleasure of laughing at ourselves, we can use it to make others laugh and experience the freedom of the clown. From a clowning perspective, everything is ridiculous: our bodies, our movements, our ideas, our emotions, our words, our relationships, the universe.
This chapter presents exercises aimed at familiarizing the student with how this perspective entails the turning of failure into success, fear into laughter, suffering into joy. We don’t need to change ourselves, just look at everything from another perspective.
Chapter Three: improvisation and text
Much of the author’s work over recent years as a teacher of clowning has been concerned with the ‘paradox of the actor’ as evidenced in clowning. Contemporary clowning has generally emphasized the strongly personal, the effect on the individual engaged in clowning, the way in which failing in front of an audience appears to reveal the performer as vulnerable, open, truthful. This undoubted aspect of clowning has often had the effect, however, of accentuating the problem, or question, of ‘how do I reproduce, or perform again, what I discovered in the workshop or rehearsal?’ If clowning is held to be primarily ‘in the moment’, then how can the performer produce this at will? What will happen to the apparent ‘authenticity’?
This chapter will present a series of exercises which have been developed in the author’s pedagogy over the last decade, which are designed to address head-on this problem. This work involves separating out the relationship with the audience (a conversation held in the here-and-now) from the intended action, or script which the clown-performer must carry out. It may well be that the extreme case of the clown, a figure which can appear to have no ‘script’, holds important lessons and clarifications for all actors when faced with the knotty issue of how to reproduce the ‘truth’.
In line with the Bloomsbury Methuen’s series of workbooks, video recordings of workshops will accompany the text. The recording of videos is happening before finishing the first draft of the text. Each chapter will be accompanied by at least one video. This will be accessed either online or in a DVD supplied with the text. The videos will contain footage of the author demonstrating with groups of students some of the key exercises.
Workshop participants will be selected according to the focus of each chapter. We have already filmed, for example, with the MA Voice Studies at RCSSD. The next stage will involve students from the BA in European Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford College.
Each chapter will focus upon a particular area of interest to actor training, providing written and video material relevant to that area. It is envisaged that the process of compiling the content for the book will be as follows:
An initial outline of suitable exercises for each chapter
Videos made of the application of these exercises to specific groups of students chosen for their interest and engagement with each area of interest.
Final text to be edited and written in line with the demands of each practical workshop as videoed.
This approach, of workshop first, text second, follows the author’s own experience of bringing clowning into the particular contexts of voice, movement, acting, text, etc. The pressures and demands of each context are what elicit the nuances and reflective practices which adapt to the students’ needs. Thus, by following this path of practice-into-text, it is hoped that the final book, with its accompanying videos, may best reflect that practice and therefore best enable students and teachers to take advantage of what clowning has to offer drama training in general.
Chapter Two: the dynamics of the clown/audience relationship
How does the particular way of operating as a clown determine the relationship between performer and audience? The particular need for clowns to attend to audience response teaches valuable lessons about how an actor may connect to audiences. This chapter explores the internalized, embodied experience of the actor when engaged in the ‘conversation’ between the clown and spectators, one that is strongly driven by the laughter-response. How does this dynamic determine the performer’s choices, their relationship to other actors, to narrative, or fictional elements of theatre?
If the clown’s performance mode, or role, is habitually defined by its standing outside the frame of the play or ‘performance proper’, how does the clown performer actually embody this state? This chapter provides exercises for assimilating these lessons, drawn from both the outside (the conventions of the clown) and the inside (the subjective felt experience of the performer as clown).
Chapter Four: movement
Clowns’ behavior tends towards that which is immediate, instinctual, driven by sensations and feelings where the pleasure principle dominates over self-control and willpower. Clowns are generally identified with the lower bodily functions, the grotesque and the instinctual. This is of great aid when one comes to cultivate a connection with impulses as the basis for action.
This chapter presents exercises designed to explore the particular way in which the clown state, one of self-ridicule, impacts on movement. How does a performer, connected to the pleasure of finding oneself ridiculous, move and act on the world?
Chapter Six: clown theatre
How does clowning work as drama? How do clowns create dramatic conflict? What are the similarities and differences involved in how we understand the motivations, objectives and character traits of clown roles in comparison with non-clown roles? What is the cast, the set of roles which clowns may take on? Are clowns uniquely ‘personal’ to each performer or are they ‘conventional’? Or both? This chapter will use classic clown numbers from the so-called Golden Age of clowning (1890-1945) which saw European clowns develop complex mini-dramas as duos and trios, and whose texts were collected by the clown historian Tristan Rémy. These texts, apparently simplistic, yet often puzzlingly problematic to stage, are an ideal starting point on the journey to understand the inherently theatrical nature of clowning.
Chapter Five: voice
Most likely due to clowns’ associations with the ‘low’, the non-intellectual, it has often been assumed that clowns do not, or cannot speak. Voice and speech, however, are not entirely synonymous with the intellect. And in any case, there have been numerous speaking clowns throughout the form’s history.
What does clowning offer to the student focused on voice studies? Given that clowns habitually use language with limited intellectual content, the connection between physical impulses and voice, word and speech, tends to be closer than with non-clown actors. This chapter explores exercises in clowning aimed at addressing common concerns in voice training.
Chapter Seven: clowns in theatre, from Shakespeare to Beckett
This chapter will look at the very specific concerns facing the actor when called upon to play clown roles within a theatrical context. This subject covers a number of very distinct problems, but it is useful to consider some of the common issues together as well.
Given that the very term ‘clown’ dates from a coining only a few decades preceding Shakespeare’s career, there is much not only for the acting student to learn from specialised training in clowning, but also for those focused on clowning to learn from how the particularities of clowning as a distinct mode of performance may have functioned during this period. Emphasis will be on roles most likely played by Will Kemp, corresponding to the concept of the role as a semi-stand-alone figure in relation to plot, narrative or other actors. Some pointers will be offered, nonetheless, on how to begin an approach to the later Shakespearean roles attributed to Robert Armin, which find themselves more embedded within the fictional world of the plays.
Although clown roles have been an ongoing presence in the history of the theatre, from dedicated protagonist in pantomime and popular entertainment to light-relief in melodrama and beyond, it was arguably the twentieth century which saw a new fascination with what clowns might bring to the theatre. The works of Beckett and Ionesco in particular drew heavily on clown traditions. This chapter will look at how a deeper understanding of how clowning functions might aid in the actor’s approach to clown-inspired roles in contemporary theatre.