One scene from 'An Die Musik' had a huge impact on me. A prisoner eyeballs us, the audience, as he desperately and grotesquely dances, all the while hitting himself over the head with a metal tea tray - once horrific and hilarious. The intense nature of the rapport between performer and audience at that moment compelled me. And so did the unsettling quality of the laughter, we laughed, while at the same time thinking 'I shouldn’t be laughing at this’.
I was teaching clown regularly and I began asking students on day 2: ‘would you like to explore something? I am working on something and I am calling it Dark Clown.’ I plucked this name out of the air out of convenience. I sometimes meet people who seem to think there is a tradition of Dark Clown* but so far in my research (mind you I am not an academic) I have found no reference to it, other than a Korean Rock Band bearing that name.
I explored extremity: can you do something really extreme physically? Can you try to eat yourself? Can you be horrified that there are holes in your body?
I explored contempt: when the audience laughs can you look at them with tired contempt and the thought ‘I knew you’d laugh at that’ or ‘oh, so you are laughing at that, I suppose I have to do it again.’ We imagined this jaded performer who has seem it all and is unsurprisable – I noticed that this seemed to work best when there was some compulsion to perform. The performer is stuck in some nightmarish reality, some absurd world where they must come on and do this.
I explored outsiders. I made a devised piece in Brighton ‘Something From Nothing’, where a group of ‘homeless’ take over the theatre. I used to give the instruction: ‘This is about us, the 'Pack' versus the them of the audience. You’d rather be punched in the face by one of your group than achieve the audience’s approval.’
(The work is distinct from Bouffon because Bouffon plays satire and the Dark Clown has not the luxury of this option. I will say more about that in a future post.)
Gradually I began to realise that the compulsion to perform was important and I developed a key exercise – the lineup and the stamping dance forward…basically a shooting gallery where, if the stakes were insufficiently high, someone would need to be shot. Hyper vigilance was key. I say: ‘Sometimes they intend to punish James, and they do it by shooting Jessica (the person next to him). Sometimes they intend to shoot John but they miss and shoot Alan.’ I find it ironic and strangely satisfying that this often creates awareness of the other performers more quickly and efficiently and quickly than in the Red Nose work!
I also have a document listing differences between Clown and Dark Clown - perhaps for a future post.
People would ask me: ‘Could you do a show in Dark Clown?’ and I would reply: ‘I don’t know it’s very dark, perhaps a scene in a show…’ Then Mime Lab in Hong Kong asked me to do a show in Dark Clown style and I created devised piece 'Hamlet or Die'. (Prisoners in a torture regime are forced to perform Hamlet). I got to practice applying my knowledge of rhythm management for laughter provocation, so much so that a moment I had imagined provoking an exhalation of horror, instead produced the ‘ha ha ha’ of shock (shock being the darker form of the clown key ingredient: surprise).
I began an advanced meditation programme roughly around 2002 – 2006. I stopped teaching the work for a while, thinking it too dark. Luckily a few years back an actor I met asked: ‘Say, do you ever do your Dark Clown workshops?’ And I started again.
And I’ve not looked back – people find it compelling and liberating, so they tell me.
I remember a conversation with friend and colleague Peter Jordan, Commedia dell'Arte expert. He made a link between laughter and sobbing and I have found that useful in the work. I find the work cathartic. While Red Nose clown lets us visit wonder, silliness, bossiness, fussiness, craziness, the Dark Clown lets us visit shame, guilt, pain, dread, horror.
My friend John-Paul Zaccarrini (a circus performer) has retrained as a therapist and now practices something he calls Circo-Analysis. He interviewed me as part of his work and had me tracing the roots of this work back to childhood, watching my brother being beaten by my bully of a father. And living under that parent’s regime of capricious force. As a child/young adult information about the Holocaust affected me greatly and when I was older, torture regimes continued to horrify me. I guess the Dark Clown work has been a part of my coming to grips with the horror of the world. There is a practice in Tibet of contemplating horrors. As Rust Cohle says in 'True Detective’: 'And I will not look away’.
(I looked for references to Samuel Beckett and I see 'clown' and 'dark comedy', but no reference to 'Dark Clown'. Others mention the Russian company 'Derevo'. I only saw one Derevo show, 'Harlekin', and that was just a few years ago. I explain this not to claim ownership of the term 'Dark Clown', or to proclaim a single 'right' form of dark flavoured clowning, only to distinguish the body of exercises and concepts I specifically developed and use which is what I mean when I use the term Dark Clown and teach it. The work was inspired by the moment I describe at the top of this post, and further inspiration added by the Clown scene in Circus Lumiere's wonderful 'Circus Lumiere', although long before that, seeds were sown by the 1969 film 'They Shoot Horses Don't They' about Marathon dancing in America in the 1930's ).