Observations on Dark Clown from the practical research work of director writer performer Peta Lily
Based on a talk presented at the LAUGHTER AND TRANSGRESSION SYMPOSIUM at Bath Spa University on the 13th May 2011
(this was an informal Symposium and the paper is written in an oral delivery style)
What does she mean, Dark Clown? What does she mean Enforced Performance? All will be revealed.
Firstly ‘normal clown’.
Historically there have been many kinds of clown, but today most people know and study the Le Coq/Gaulier theatre clown who wears or doesn’t wear the small red mask. This clown is not exclusively so, but tends towards the innocent and the naive. It has no past and next to no memory. As in: 'Wow what a nice shiny red button! bzzt crang ow! (shake of head, double take)
Say, what a nice shiny red button! bzzt crang ow! (shake of head, double take) Gosh look at that nice shiny red button. I wonder what it does?......bzzt crang ow! (shake of head, double take).' And we laugh. And we say ‘look at that idiot, s/he’s so stupid!’
Dark Clown provokes a different quality of laughter.
Dark Clown is where the audience laugh
but at the same time they ask themselves,
‘should I really be laughing at this?!’
It’s a laughter with a different feeling in your chest and your gut.
A laughter that at its height, makes you squirm
and can include the red cheeks of shame and projectile tears.
After a while researching the Dark Clown I began to think how strange it is - that when the Red Nose Clown trips and falls it gives us pleasure. We want him to trip and fall again, and trip and fall again, for our pleasure, until we are bored….and then we want
to trip and fall - or do something else for our pleasure.
And we feel totally okay about this. (1)
But with the Dark Clown, when the audience laughs
they feel implicated.
To explain my use of the term: Dark Clown. It was a phrase I plucked out of the air to make a distinction from the regular clown work I was teaching. (2)
Inspirations for the Dark Clown?
Back in the early 1980’s I went to the ICA in London one night to see a production of Pip Simmon’s ‘An Die Musik’ (the title comes from a beautiful German Lieder by Shubert). The piece was set in a prison camp, where the prisoners - musicians and entertainers - are being forced to perform for their captors.
But what really was unforgettable was one scene: a man very tall and gangly with a shaved head came forward danced strenuously, desperately looking right at us while simultaneously hitting himself on the head with a metal tea tray. He was singing Hava Nigila, dancing grotesquely and hitting himself on the head repeatedly. It was hilarious and awful, at the same time.
I started to add a session on Dark Clown to my Clown workshops. People seemed intrigued and excited by it. We explored extremity. I would ask the performer: could you make us afraid, could you make us afraid that you might hurt yourself, kill yourself, eat yourself?
I also explored a kind of cynical clown who has the attitude of contempt, where the performer says or thinks: ‘I knew you’d like that. I knew you’d laugh at that. Is that all it takes?’
And I also explored the idea of existential horror - the horror of being alive. Body Horror - the horror of having body parts.
‘Hand! I have a.. Hand! Why?! Hands?!’
Another source of inspiration was Lumiere & Son’s show Circus Lumiere. In one scene,
a big clown uses an electric cattle prod to administer shocks
to a small clown – to make us laugh.
The more we laugh the more they feel compelled
to give and take the shocks. And to turn the dial higher.
In the workshops I became more and more compelled by the idea
of the dark clown having to make the audience laugh…
so I began to add in the scenario of a torture camp:
imagine - people are back there being tortured
and then a bell rings they are
thrust out onto a brightly lit stage to perform for their captors.
This has become for me the most compelling application or flavour of the Dark Clown work I’ve been researching - the scenario of Enforced Performance.
This was something real that happened in the concentration camps.
Enforced acts of humiliation and confession no doubt happened in Argentinean torture prisons & other places.
Human-trafficked prostitutes have to pretend to be happy or other things for their captors and clients
and memorably, we saw the staged photo stunts as forcibly performed by the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
Now this is different because it’s elective, but not so long ago, I glimpsed on television a show called ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.
They showed tight close-ups of people being struck off the show. The humiliation, anger and desolation on their faces was being offered up to us
So I want to say here that in both workshops and performance
I always set up the Dark Clown work very carefully. (3)
The intention is not to ridicule suffering or those enduring suffering, but
to offer the watcher the experience of laughing - and feeling troubled by that laughter.
The game of tension and release is one of the main components that underpins laughter. As is the game of contrast and surprise.
And another key factor in Comedy is the concept of truth plus pain.
In the red nose clown the game of tension and release has a bouncy flavour. He will scare and delight the audience with his clumsy attempts to ride a wobbly unicycle.
In Red Nose clown training, the teacher will threaten to send off a clown. ‘You’re appalling. Get off!’ The threat of being sent off is aimed to inject more energy into their performance….
Plus it gives them also the opportunity to acknowledge their failure, show us their feelings…
We love the clown most when he or she is in deepest in the shit… (4)
we enjoy seeing their humanity at that moment.
The Red Nose Clown in these moments sells its silliness, its disappointment, its bossiness, its enthusiasm.
Dark Clown sells its pain, its humiliation and its anguish.
In Dark Clown the stakes need to be high. People in workshops often find it hard to get the right degree of intensity - so I invented the shooting gallery exercise. (5)
First I teach a repetitive stamping dance that is slightly difficult to perform. The clowns must perform it together in perfect alignment. It’s a machine to create accidents and mistakes. If someone makes a mistake or is insufficiently invested in the situation (that they are performing under fear of pain and punishment), I ask the workshop participants who are seated, ‘if you had to shoot someone in this lineup who would you shoot?’
Now it’s an amazing (and slightly chilling) thing how quickly people get into this. ‘James is smiling, he’s not taking it seriously. Shoot James.’ ‘Alison looks bolshy. Shoot her in the leg. Shoot her in the knee!’ ‘Shoot the person next to her.’
A useful clowning principle is: ‘If they laughed once, they should laugh again’ (Philippe Gaulier). It’s the Clown’s job to create laughter for the audience. So, if the audience laugh when her arm goes funny, then it’s the performer’s job to produce the same exact sound/shape/rhythm to allow them to laugh again. Then a third time for the rule of three etc.
To accelerate the laughter (snowball it), we might even have to shoot her in the arm again. Or in the other arm.
And the performer must create a believable verisimilitude of pain and distress.
There is an important distinction to be made between Dark Clown and the Grotesque.
The Dark Clown performer must be open to showing the cost – delivering to the audience eyes containing a believable verisimilitude of horror, distress, pain, shame, guilt, humiliation or combinations thereof. It is this which keeps the audience implicated, keeps them on the hook. If the performer is somehow taking the pain lightly, or enjoying the shock effect they are having, if we are not seeing the ‘cost’ to them of performing some painful or humiliating action – then there may be a shock laugh but it will not be the troubled laughter this work aims at. The grotesque, I have found, may impact the audience, but falls short of implicating them.
The Red Nose Clown is like Wile E Coyote – run them over by a steam roller, they pop right back up…
The Dark Clown doesn’t re-inflate after a wounding – they get hurt, they suffer, they bleed and they die.
Red Nose is there for the audience, Dark Clown is there because of the audience.
Red Nose Clown is desperately trying to stay onstage.
Dark Clown is desperately trying to stay alive.
Like the Red Nose Clown the Dark Clown does live vividly in the moment - but in a different way
she is hyper alert because punishment or pain can come in anyway at any moment for any reason
and for no reason.
Dark Clown must face horrific uncertainty and impossible choices – psychological torture as well as physical and emotional – think of all the myriad moments when people sold out their relatives and neighbours under torture or under threat of torture – we, as the audience of Dark Clown, get to see that. In the case of the stamping dance - do I hop over or around or on my neighbour in the lineup who has fallen to the floor. Do I try to sing better than my fellow prisoner? Must I continue to dance while that person sobs?
All this – done correctly - creates laughter….
Part of this laughter comes from shock and absurdity
& the rest comes from a skillful and well-judged use of rhythm and breath…. People who play Dark Clown must finesse their ability to
play the game of tension and release
because the audience get tired more easily due to the quality of the laughter
and because the context is harsh.
Moments of silliness (and softer rhythms/textures) must be strategically interspersed to relax the audience.
The Dark Clown performer must also be able to access acting skills (specifically, the skills of concentration and imagination):
they must scream or cry in a way that is convincing of pain and terror
but which is also
so strategically rhythmic and musical that it provokes laughter.
(At the symposium in Bath there was a moment of audience participation here – call and response laughter, then sobbing, using rhythm and breath.)
The importance of rhythm.
Now, here’s a thing. You can create laughter over and above content - through rhythm and breath.
A good stand-up will say that you have to get your audience into the habit of laughter. For example: ‘Anyone in from Cardiff?’ ‘Yes’.
Call and response. I speak and you make a sound, ok? That’s how we’ll proceed.
But you see most people don’t know this. People will usually assume they laugh because of content
and this is where the ability to implicate comes in –
When you – or I - find that we have laughed at something shocking,
we question ourselves (those of us who are sane)
and we get to confront our own humanity.
I suggest that The Dark Clown is useful, because it provides an opportunity for audiences and performers to engage with some of the dark absurdities and obscenities of this world, when drama and sentiment can fall short of touching us.
Because - the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, these are horrors of such magnitude and incomprehensibility that we are
in danger of numbing out even as we try to contemplate them.
Watching that character singing Hava Nigila – doing anything he could to survive, I could both see and squirm at the ghastly subtraction of his dignity.
release the pent up energy of my own guilt through this vigorous form of laughter…..which at a physiological level shares something with the act of sobbing.
In the year 2000 I was asked to create a production in the style of Dark Clown – I created a piece in Hong Kong called Hamlet or Die – where prisoners in a torture regime are compelled to perform Hamlet for their captors.
I am going to give now a much abbreviated picture of the show
(which includes something of the set up
required for an Enforced Performance piece).
The audience, on their way into the auditorium, must walk past a small cell-like room where the controller is sitting on the loo smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper.
Inside the theatre blacks are stripped out. (The walls of the theatre in Hong Kong were white ceramic tiles - the building used to be a dairy).
Over the exit sign a large NO was scrawled and ‘barbed wire’ looped round the door. It’s important that there seems to be no escape. On the stage left wall, a large almost cartoon-like switch to deliver electric shocks.
A guard in Wellington boots holds a long piece of rubber tubing as truncheon.
When the audience is seated, the controller enters across the stage, up the central aisle and takes his place at a desk specially installed in the audience. He leans fwd and taps on the microphone and he says ‘bring on the clowns.’
The stage has a trap door which is opened. Screams emit. The guard beats the floor with his truncheon. Figures emerge onstage.
We witness a ‘warm –up’ consisting of punishing and pointless ‘races’.
At a certain point: a drum roll and a small red velvet drape drops….
An announcement :
'For your edification, the sad story of Hamlet - the prince who thought too much.
Don't think too much.
It can only end badly.'
incomprehension at the obscenity of this exercise
random acts of physical and mental cruelty are inflicted on the poor prisoners
who all throughout are aware of the heartlessness of the audience who continue watching everything that’s happening to them.
While the actor invested with the role of Hamlet is being beaten behind the little red drape for his resistance boof ahh boof ahh boof ahh!
the Controller takes a moment to come down onto the stage. He sings a cheesy sentimental pop song and gets someone in the audience to sing along into the mike. We applaud the volunteer, the controller takes a bow….
turns back towards the damaged and shivering prisoners and says ‘See, that’s what the people want, they want to be entertained!’
A Dark Clown show needs to be as funny as it is horrific. I planned the next moment to provoke a gasp of shock, but found the call and response habit was so well-installed that it elicited a burst of laughter.
The beaten Hamlet crawls onstage in agony to join the scene where Ophelia is returning her letters.
The stage-manager prisoner has had to step in for an irrevocably traumatised young Ophelia…
The prisoner playing Polonius sticks his head out from his ‘hiding’ place and angrily prompts Hamlet: ‘answer her, you have a speech here!’
The female stage manager kneels with the text over the supine Hamlet…
She strains to hear his response… their faces are close,
the moment is quite tender…
And Hamlet, with difficulty, raises his head –
And coughs blood up onto her face…
The Controller pats the mic
Act 4 Scene 7. Number 338, bring the bucket!
But Ophelia drowns by accident! (says the translator, prisoner number 338, looking frantically through the book, finger on the page)
Controller: 'This is theatre, nothing happens by accident. Drown the girl.'
338, horrified: 'I can’t.'
'Number 338, do you want to take the role?'
The guard pushes 338’s head in the bucket. Holds it there.
(Pause. She emerges gasping.)
338: ‘No, I do not wish to take the role…’
‘Act 5 Scene 2. The queen drinks poison.’
The guard grabs Number 269 and a bottle of toilet duck.
‘NO NO! Let me dance for you.
Let me do it! I’ll drown the girl.’
The controller returns to the stage:
‘So, how would YOU have it end? Who would you have poisoned, stabbed, drowned?
Think about it.... (points at head)
but don’t think too much…’ (wags finger)
If tragedy offers us pity and fear to heal and cleanse the emotions, perhaps Dark Clown brings horror, shame and shock - to fully encompass the pain of watching, unharmed, the suffering of others.
© PETA LiLY May 2011 with revisions and elaborations 17 February 2013
(1) The Red Nose Clown performer must fall so skilfully that no concern of injury enters the audience’s mind. If a clown is dealt a blow, or traps his/her finger, then they must rub the spot or shake the hand. The Red Nose Clown must have an inner predisposition to optimism and recovery and in each moment an opportunity to be ‘born’ again. Comedy is regenerative. Life goes on, unstoppably. It is also useful for the Clown to value the audience’s experience over their own – what I mean by that is - that their sadness or hurt must be delivered to the audience while it’s fresh (because it’s the clown’s job to show its humanity), but the performer clown must be prepared to jettison that emotion when the audience needs something else. The Clown is like a healthy child who drops their ice cream, cries, sees a donkey and is all laughter even as the teardrops sit fat upon their lashes. The Clown needs to be an expert at natural emotional release.
(2) Someone mentioned to me when I was preparing this talk in 2011, that Dark Clown is a term already in use with regard to Samuel Beckett’s characters. I am not a skilled academic researcher but so far, I can find no reference to that – if you know about other important usages of Dark Clown, please let me know. Many expect Dark Clown to be Scary Clown, Halloween Clown. There is also what I would call Bad Clown (as in ‘Bad Santa’) – I have not seen them live but the fascinating Australian Clowns Blotto and Whacko seem to be to be well-described this way. (One day I’d like to explore this style of clowning more). Other practitioners may teach or perform other things under the title of Dark Clown. That’s fine. I just want to point out that when I refer to the term here in this paper, I specifically refer to the body or practical research I have been involved in since the 1980’s.
(3) In a workshop, I always give a short talk that includes the inspirations for the work, the aims of the work and instructions on what to do in the case of someone becoming upset during the process. I explain upset may occur because a) performers sometimes become upset when shifting into certain emotional territory they have not yet exercised b) something personal might come up – which is pretty much the same as (a) and c) the material is dark – step one is to imaginatively understand the stakes of a life or death scenario sufficiently so that it can be played believably and skillfully. At this point in the process it may happen that there is no laughter – not until the performer adds to this the skills of openness, audience awareness, and laughter creation and control via rhythm, texture, inflection, vocal range, energy management and musicality.
A participant recently said, during a class ‘But it’s just horror!’ I replied: ‘Yes, horror, but with the skillful application of rhythm (and use of the ‘rules’ of repetition, contrast and suspension) so as to cause the kind of laughter where the audience laughs and at the same times questions themselves for laughing. That’s the aim.’
(4) Philippe Gaulier, Clown and theatre skills Master, said this, or something like it; ‘We love the clown the most when (s)he has a shit in the pants.’
(5) Please note that this is an exercise not a lazzi. And it’s not how the audience is encouraged or intended to respond in a performance situation.
The seated students participate verbally in the decision-making in the interests of understanding the unpredictable and terrifying nature of the ‘world’. The aim of the exercise is to raise the stakes for the performer so they can release into the emotional spectrum of the Dark Clown.
For me a key distinction is that I am not seeking the grotesque. That is why the Dark Clown performer must be open to showing the cost – delivering to the audience eyes containing a believable verisimilitude of horror, distress, pain, shame, guilt, humiliation or combinations thereof. It is this which keeps the audience implicated, keeps them on the hook. If the performer is somehow taking the pain lightly, or enjoying the shock effect they are having, if we are not seeing the ‘cost’ to them of performing the humiliating or punishing action – then there may be a shock laugh but it will not be the troubled laughter this work aims at. The grotesque, I have found, may impact the audience, but falls short of implicating them.