As I often say when giving the introduction to Dark Clown work, I was not brought to the work by a moral concern. In my thinking, artists and creatives (i.e. read all of humanity) are driven by impulses which compel us. I used to love Iris Murdoch's novels - she would write from within the mind of a character. We are with them as they walk to the other character's door, as they inwardly debate, declare their intentions and detail their reasoning and evidencing and then the door opens and they say and do something utterly else.
So a compulsion of a flavour - a flavour of being, a flavour of laughter - compelled me to try to recreate the conditions whereby I , and others, might share that flavour. Obeying the flow.
And as the work developed and progressed I found that the exercises provided a way for us to see the moments of humanity of people making impossible choices under stress, for example, of people in the moment just after when, out of fear and force, they betrayed another person or surrendered a level of their own dignity. And that seemed to me to have some human value.
Some course participants have reported to me that they feel their energy and imagination opening up; their performances deepening, after they have challenged themselves with the Dark Clown work. More permission to be. More emotional freedom, more understanding of the human condition - more flow. I have just listened to a TED talk on Compassion, where it compassion is described as 'curiosity without assumptions'. When we can look at difficult things without fear or judging - I think it's useful.
(again, when things are shut off we lose flow).
I often given this basic one-line intro to the Dark Clown work: 'it's when you laugh, but at the same time think - should I really be laughing at this?' We are happy to watch the Red Nose clown be hit or be afraid, and with the Dark Clown its suffering prompts the reflex of laughter, but in a more loaded way.
Please note: I always clearly state with the DC work that 'it is not my intention to make fun of suffering or people who have or who are suffering, but to give the audience the opportunity to laugh, and feel troubled by their laughter.' (I feel that is theatre can make us self-reflect, then it is on point.)
John-Paul Zaccarini is a circus performer who has done a PhD applying psychotherapy to circus: 'Circo-therapy'. He works on the principle that opening up an artist to the deeper sources of their creative choices, can enrich both the performer and the work. As part of his research, John-Paul interviewed me some time ago, and kept asking where the roots of the work lay. After a while, I found myself talking, in true therapeutic mode(!) about a moment in my childhood when my three-year old self had retaliated against my older brother's meanness by telling on him. I watched in horror as my father chased my brother around the small bedroom with a wound-up stockwhip.
Once when devising Dark Clown show 'Hamlet or Die', I stepped in for a moment to cover the lines for a cast member who was late arriving to rehearsal. I had written the script, and as I say, was only stepping in just for a few moments simply to provide the lines so the rhythm of the scene could progress - that is to say, I was not at all emotionally invested in the part - when suddenly tears spurted from my eyes as I witnessed another character in the piece being threatened, due to 'my' character's inaction (the play is full of 'impossible choices'). An automatic reaction to the helpless witnessing of suffering of the other.
So the the arena of Dark Clown and its troubled laughter provokes us to question, but it also provides a further function. A function of release (return to flow) provided for those of us who have been helpless witnesses to suffering - to witness again the horror; to revisit, in a theatrical arena, all the powerlessness and guilt and shock and pity and regret and horror. Catharsis. I imagine and hope this same cathartic function can be extended to those of us unable to have any satisfactory feeling response - as we safely read articles in papers or on the internet - to the suffering of others (especially when our busy lives don't give us time and space to do so).
Some events in the world are so extreme; so appallingly absurd, that tears do not discharge enough. With Dark Clown, setting up the conditions to allow laughter (expert use rhythm and surprise), and using the 'dreamspace' of theatre, it is possible to create laughter opportunities in dark contexts which point up the absurdities of horror and release the pent up stance of bracing ourselves against the dark.
The reflex of 'recognition' (a laughter trigger) may help (at some level) to acknowledge a situation. And the vigorous activity of laughter can shake loose and dissipate the stuck and static energies of guilt and dread. Many people having done the Dark Clown work in a workshop with me return to taste the work again. They report to me how at the work helped unblock their feelings - to move beyond the frozen, reactive state of fear and shock ('It's too horrible to think about' 'this is awful!') to be able to look and feel and think about terrible events with a fuller sense of themselves and the world. And from that place to have the potential, as an artist, to put these things before an audience to so as to afford them the experience of being surprised into questioning themselves (or questioning human nature), and also to access this particularly vigorous physical release of laughter.
(A friend and colleague, Commedia dell'Arte expert Peter Jordan points out that the relationship between sobbing and laughter is at times closer than we think.)
Life is not polarised into happy and sad. There are many flavours to taste, and tasting them can provide a fuller experience of our humanity.