Dark Clown is a unique body of work - it's a chance to explore a vital and compelling performance style, a chance to explore the edges of laughter...and more.
It's a space to grow your confidence working in a wider emotional range, to learn comedy craft and/or to more deeply install comedy skills so that your other performance work can flourish.
It's place to open your flexibility as a performer, and give your imagination a workout.
It's place to finesse or grow audience skills - engaging, compelling and implicating your audiences while learning how to more reliably create laughter and other responses in your audiences.
A step-by step approach helps the participant really engage audiences and to develop expertise in the important comedic use of rhythm and comedy craft.
There is a rich range of reactions possible when witnessing the compelling Dark Clown work.
Carefully set up in an ethically held space - performers get a chance to invest imaginatively in high stakes, where energy and expressivity is released.
We are aiming for what I call 'Troubled Laughter' in the audience - laughter happens but it is not a laugh at. 'Troubled laughter' does not trivialise or dismiss the suffering. The performers (course participants) - aim to learn to implicate the audience. Done correctly, the audience laugh in a way that is either troubling or cathartic and often both at the same time.
Sometimes they veer between laughter and tears (and occasionally both at the same time).
The joy of connection is nurtured during the process.
Many return to repeat the course - describing it as 'challenging and rewarding in equal measure'.
These images by Robert Piwko Photography - highly recommended.
A productive session last night - making the piece stronger with some excisions and elisions.
Remove that, tighten this. Insert squirty pistol there.
One of the cast wrote on Facebook describing this rehearsal period as 'a process of creation and destruction'.
I drive them mad with my stipulation for precision. I drive myself mad with my own predilection for detail, multi focus and creating moments of chaos.
But things are getting defined. The 'patient' is doing well.
Fingers crossed for opening night on Thursday.
See other posts on this production here.
Look at the show website with more on the backstory and inspiration for the piece here.
Currently in Hong Kong, a few days before rehearsal begins on The Death of Fun, the production I will be devising with The Fringe Mime and Movement Laboratory.
I am continuing to compile notes and organise my thoughts towards the coming production, which will be (despite the title of this blog post) in the style of Clown, Dark Clown and the Absurd. This show is going to be an experiment, in the same way that the production of Hamlet or Die (produced 2000 for Mime Lab) was. Hamlet or Die was an experiment in whether one could make a full length show in Dark Clown style. The challenge with The Death of Fun, is to make a Clown show about Clowning - or, more specifically addressing some of the recent threats to the art / profession of clowning. You can google 'scary clown' to throw up a number of online articles on this subject.
How much of a threat is posed to Clowning by the phenomenon of the Scary Clown (pranksters, thugs and horror films) and by the fact that Coulraphobia (fear of Clowns is on the rise, or has become , as they say, a 'thing' - despite the words Greek roots, it is a neologism, circa 1980's). I have been reading and collecting these articles - and was pleased to read this rather wonderfully comprehensive and thoughtful Smithsonian article on the subject today.
This post is somewhat undisciplined (it has a split focus).
In part it may serve as the first of a series of posts making a rough log of the production process (we'll see whether time allows for both doing and reflection).
It's also an informal wondering brought on by working here in Hong Kong.
I read some (not yet all) of J Crump's book Chinese Theater in Days of Kublai Khan (Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies. I wanted to be more informed about Chinese clown heritage (one of the characters in The Death of Fun will be inspired by a comic Chinese performer). It struck me, reading through the scenarios in Crump's book, that there are some similarities between the comic aspects of Chinese Opera and Commedia dell' Arte. Both forms have a 'family' of well-defined / stock character types. Chinese Opera plots are more concerned with historical stories and myths, and seem more devoted to delivering a moral message than Commedia does. The Chou (likeable, foolish characters in Chinese Opera) are given some license to improvise and have comic exchanges using copious puns. I have seen a delicious video where a character meets his own double.* I think Barry Grantham gives, in one of his books, a script where Harlequin meets his twin.
Director William Sun creates works putting Chinese Opera and Commedia together
I'd love to find someone who has done the due research and writing on all the similarities and differences between these two forms. Googling for books or articles on the subject, I found that a director, William Sun, worked with the Shangai Theatre Academy to create a fusion of Chinese Opera and Commedia. You can see a youtube clip where he speaks about it here.
Western Clown and Chinese Clown
And to continued to be undisciplined / split focus - while thinking of similarities and differences - it's interesting that while the Western clown is most usually signified by a red nose, the defining characteristic of the Chinese clown's makeup is a small patch of white around the nose. In Chinese culture, apparently this represents either a mean or secretive nature or a quick wit.
* the clip is 'The True and the Fake Wu Dalang' - first he gives a clever story with lots of rhythmic repetition, introduces himself, then at about 2.56 he meets his twin. Check the demanding skill to play the whole thing crouched! Thanks to my friend Yang Wei Wei for her translation.
Yup, it's me. Circa 1994/1995 on a previous visit to Hong Kong when I attended (with great gratitude and humility - the work is so detailed and demanding) workshops with Cantonese Opera Performer Master Yung Kim Wah, culminating in the privilege to undergo the full costume experience - wig, makeup and then costume. It took hours. This is not a comic character, but the Female Warrior or General.
The Fringe Mime and Movement Laboratory are a small and enduring company of mime-trained practitioners based in Hong Kong, about to celebrate their 30 year anniversary.
Mime Lab, (as they are know for short) have mounted shows directed by the highly respected veteran mime /physical theatre practitioner David Glass, and also invited me to direct them a number of times.
In 2000, they were courageous enough to invite me to create a show for them in Dark Clown: Hamlet or Die. (Audiences were, in the main, shell-shocked: ‘Electrifying…It set a new benchmark for me’ ; ‘hilarious and disturbing’ ; ‘troubling and powerful ; ‘it was very good….ruined my Friday evening’ ; ‘full of power and commitment’ ; ‘wonderful and awful’ ; ‘I sang along with the prison guard and afterwards I felt so small’ ; ‘we felt so totally implicated and yet none of us got up to leave’ ; ‘horrifically, hilariously fascinating!’) It allowed my thinking and teaching of the body of work I was developing under the title of Dark Clown to develop to a new level.
Mime Lab have invited me back to direct a new piece. I knew I wanted to do something on the seeming rise of phobia about clowns. Also to deal with the hijacking of clowns by thugs. And the sorry fact that daily in satirical cartoons and Facebook posts the word 'clown' is bandied about as an insult. And it's unsettling to see some people in positions of responsibility adopting an air of bluster and rascality as a kind of misdirection - i.e the ex-Lord Mayor seems to want to give a message : 'I am harmless, forgivable'. To make a lame joke - it's giving clowns a bad name.
But of course, it's more complicated than that. Not all clowns are sweet - they unsettle, their have their roots in the tricksters of ancient times - deceivers, mischief-makers, creators of chaos (for example the Norse god, Loki).
Many have written on this subject, and spoken on it. You can check out the Clown Symposiums held by Bim Mason*.
Here is what I wrote a while ago as a short mission statement/preliminary vision' to myself: Coulraphobia (fear of clowns) is on the rise. Who is at risk? What is at risk? When is funny heartwarming and when is it threatening? Can you venture to the Uncanny Valley and survive? If horror movies make us fear clowns, then who do clowns fear? Thugs masquerade as clowns. McDonald’s ‘enslave’ a clown. Politicians are colonising nonsense. When chaos and unpredictability is everywhere – what happens to the clown? And what happens to the human heart? And if clowns were to rebel – would they resort to mischief or mayhem?
Grateful to Mime Lab and also grateful to fellow theatre practitioners and other valued friends who took time time today to reply to my request for feedback on copy towards advertising the show.
I knew 'Coulraphobia' would not work for the piece as show title in English or in Cantonese. Mime Lab delighted me with the title: The Death of Fun’ Chinese Title: 樂於嚇人 (translates as 'Pleasure to Scare You').
A journalist friend supplied finessing and a satisfying last line for the brief poster copy:
The Death of Fun
What would life be like without laughter?
The clowns of the world are worried.
No one is taking them seriously...
Horror meets humour - but the absurd has the last laugh.
A fellow theatre practitioner challenged the 'mission statement' above: '...too many big questions. They're all valid but they feel disconnected: is it about what the clowns fear? is it about them being annoyed that thugs, politicians and mcdonald's give them a bad name by masquarading as clowns? Who is going to the Uncanny Valley? Also some questions feel like they could relate to the show and others like they're a commentary on the outside world. How do the two fit together?
I can see that there are strands inspiring my original thinking e.g. Uncanny Valley and allusion to political events and corporate power which will serve better as driving the spirit of the piece (external context rather than overt content).
I am aiming to explore:
...a kind of ‘Huis Clos’ for Clowns – an assortment of clowns find themselves gathered together in an unspecified location. A mime clown, a Chaplin lookalike, a Cantonese Opera Clown, a scary masked clown, a traditional western circus clown. Are they here for a celebration, for an audition, for a funeral, for questioning? Or worse? They find themselves compelled to perform: acrobatics, plate spinning, balloon animals. What if they fail? Existential problem – Clowns are born to fail. And if Failure is not an option what is the appropriate punishment? Surgical removal of the Funny Bone?
*Bim Mason’s Clown Power Symposium 2017
(you can also see Bim Mason’s Clown Power Symposium 2016 – where I spoke about my Dark Clown work
I was fortunate enough to meet Dave Pickering at a Devoted & Disgruntled event on the topic of Gender last year.
After developing my show Chastity Belt (2011-2013 and still touring), my thoughts were stimulated by wider questions of gender and associated issues. I got an opportunity to see Dave's show Mansplaining Masculinity which I found thrilling, informative and thought provoking.
Dave interviewed me the other week for his Getting Better Acquainted podcast and it's fresh up today.
He is such a warm, informed and generous interviewer and runs his podcasts like a conversation.
On twitter today, Dave (his twitter handle is @goosefat101) summed up what we covered as we spoke :
In @GBApodcast 288 @peta_lily talks movement, memory, memoir, dark clown, solo shows, bereavement and so much more.
And here now is the link to all of that on soundcloud.
Comedy = Truth + Pain*
Dark Clown helps Clown Doctors - who knew?
When I went to work with the Clown Doctors of the Theodora Foundation in January 2013, I had one of those 3am-in-the-morning experiences of waking bolt upright and worrying: why am I bringing a clown style based on troubled laughter to children suffering from illness and undergoing invasive and painful treatments?
I knew that the Clown Doctors themselves would benefit from the work because many actors, performers and clown practitioners have found that the Clown & Dark Clown workshop has helped; open their imaginations and understanding, stretch their emotional range and refresh their practice.
The workshops were received well and afterwards I received this message from one of the Clown Doctors in Belgium:
"Your workshop about the Dark Clown is alive and kicking with us. In hospital situations we have used it already. As we go to an older child, we say: ‘sorry for being to late, we are a lot too late, years too late’ and then we beg them to forgive us...
And then there was one boy who was upset that he couldn't eat before his operation and was all the time asking for food. So we became mad and demanded food, and wanted to eat everything in the room, and we captured his attention. He said suddenly...’but you cannot eat that!!’ “
I see this as evidence of the catharsis I feel the Dark Clown can provide. And of the value of including a darker spectrum of expression into one's clowning. Not wanting to simply 'cheer up' the patient, but joining them a little where their pain lies and allowing them to feel the same liberation we feel when watching the Red Nose Clown receive pain for our pleasure.
I recently received another message from a Clown Doctor who did a workshop with me in 2016:
“The Dark Clown work is definitely useful for hospital clowning. We need to have the courage to play a wide variety of emotion. Using aspects of the Dark Clown training, as we work, I can see the opportunity to empower children. We can reflect them back in clown play and so relate to / support them in their more difficult emotional expressions. Often children are constrained by parents who want their children to only be nice with the Hospital Clowns.” – Marieke Bohne, Clown Doctor
* This useful nugget comes from John Vorhaus’ book The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not.
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS - Dark Clown and Enforced Performance
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.
A special version of the the Clown and Dark Clown workshop was recently filmed towards a documentary (so far awaiting a title). This image of film-maker Robert Golden capturing the action is by Robert Piwko Photography. This documentary is being made possible by a small but extremely valuable grant from RADA and the CDD. The film is in post production now - there will be more news as it happens.
Thanks to the amazing participants - one of whom said:
‘We got through so much with no feel of rush and with very little pain…the seeing and being seen reminders throughout kept me more present than I have been in the past.
I felt very safe throughout the two days. I thought you gave a very helpful and reassuring amount of direction, which in turn made a more comfortable environment and therefore better work produced to be learnt from by clown and audience. I found a different kind of stillness within the world of the dark clown.
One thought I had was - Being fake happy is awfully depressing, but being fake sad is wonderfully fun.'
- Hatty Ashton, Performer
Bristol-based author and practitioner Bim Mason set up a Symposium this year.
You can hear him speak, and also listen to practitioners Holly Stoppit and Hilary Ramsden. In the audience were the very very talented Angela de Castro and Tweedy the Clown, also Maggie irving who has a fascinating and courageous Feminist Clown practice.
Bim sets up the theme, I speak for a bit then Holly speaks about Clown work applied to therapeutic situations and Hilary speaks about the Rebel Clown Army members of which take part in political action.
The video is not wonderfully synched, unfortunately, but the audio seems largely ok.
Go here: https://vimeo.com/143601205
And you can read about Bim's new book Provocation in Popular Culture here.
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Peta Lily is a performer, theatre maker, director, playwright, script doctor, teacher and Creative Mentor. She pioneers a unique body of practical research in Dark Clown. Her paper The Comedy of Terrors - Dark Clown & Enforced Performance was delivered at Bath Spa University. The work is cited in Clown - a reader in theatre practice by Jon Davison, Palgrave MacMillan.