The video was made on invitation from Holly Stoppit and Robyn Hambrook's Clown Workouts initiative. It in clouds a little warm up for you and then a bit of rough puppet play with a random object. Enjoy!
If you want a little moment of clown refreshment, go here to see a short (twelve and a half minute tutorial on breath and emotion.
The video was made on invitation from Holly Stoppit and Robyn Hambrook's Clown Workouts initiative. It in clouds a little warm up for you and then a bit of rough puppet play with a random object. Enjoy!
As part of my Drama School teaching, it is my great joy to be tasked with creating clown pieces.
Just before the quarantine started, I was working on a student production: Clowns perform John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. It's a theatre laboratory course so our brief includes deconstructing and responding to the original text.
The group were all on board with including a feminist point of view. They had recently created a scene to deal with the role of women in their previous module's production of Threepenny Opera.
John Ford actually writes well for women - the female characters here are spirited, feisty and wry, even so, the idea of the clowns coming out saying 'We have a problem with the title!' was in the forefront of my mind.
I developed a process for approaching classical texts to be played by clowns.
In previous years, we worked with The Revengers Tragedy. One year we used a #DarkClown concept: the audience entered to find themselves in a 'rehabilitation centre for clowns'. The concept was: sweet clowns are punished by being forced to present a vicious and violent play, so that they can better fit into society. Towards the end of the show, there was an alarm and an announcement - the clowns had failed at their task and had to depart as their identifying number was called. I had given this direction: 'You are leaving to your death. The prop you are holding now will be the instrument of your death.'
One character left with a haunted face, holding a cucumber before him ...
Another year, a different production/concept for TRT, an organisation of clowns were attempting to understand the 'sad normals' (regular people). The production was divided into chapters: The Clowns try to understand Power. The Clowns try to understand Flawed Humanity. The Clowns try to understand Grief. The Clowns try to understand The Plot ... etc.
I am always inspired by the underdog and for me clowning is a way to present neglected points of view. With The Revengers Tragedy, we included Vindice's dead girlfriend Gloriana as a cast role. After the scene where Vindice dresses the corpse of his dead beloved - Gloriana - in order to to trick and punish the Duke, poor Gloriana, decked in a necklace of 'Magic Tree' car deodorisers (remember the room for the sin of Sloth in the film SEVEN?) broken-heartedly mourns to Vindice: 'You used me!' This was all the more poignant by being played with wonderful sensitivity and vulnerability by a very tall male student.
Clown Dramaturgical Process
An early step is to check out what skills your group has - appoint a monitor and circulate a list. A skill can help inspire a scene. The act of making the list puts that elements in the group imagination. It's also a concrete invitation into clown thinking e.g. 'when can we fit acrobatics into this classical text?' One student was thirsty to use her mime skills which led to the idea of a play with in the play scene between relatively minor characters Philotis and Bergetto being played in a half-and -half costume - check out RuPaul's Drag Race Season 7 Ep 10.
A key step in the devising adaptation is the Clown Council. We make a circle of chairs. Everyone takes a seat and enters clown state. I tell them that this is a meeting of the Clown Council and they are instructed to stand up when they feel the urge to speak about the themes of the play. I act as scribe to capture what the clowns say.
Later, back in 'sad normal' state, we discuss and find common ground / significant connections.
I encouraged students to put forward their favourite moments from the play, nurturing the emotional connection of clown through their enthusiasms for and reactions to the material.
Processes I used on earlier years included using Arnold MIndell's World Cafe process and the Marketplace Lazy Susan (more information to come).
Looking to the underrepresented led to the idea for extra scenes for Putana and Hippolita, and the acknowledgement of the point of view of the embryo produced from the love affair between Annabella and Giovanni. Good to bear in mind that a clowns don't discriminate between animate and inanimate the way 'sad normals' do. Annabella's heart is brought onstage in Act Five, skewered on Giovanni's knife. In our production, on clown volunteered to play the heart.
Taking things literally is another useful vein. A quick instance from one of the The Revenger's Tragedy productions - one clown played Vengeance and came on every time Vengeance was mentioned (once mistakenly coming on at the mention of Virtue) and when Vindice raised his sword and said: 'now nine years' vengeance crowd into a minute!' (3.5.124), Vengeance came on and stopped the show as he counted 'one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi ...' Yup, all the way to 'sixty!'
Another process consists is the theme ideas cloud: I pair students up randomly and assigning each pair a theme. I ask them to put their clown brains and hearts to this task - to think of metaphors and clown-logic ideas, and songs for possible inclusion.
Making Metaphors concrete: working on this year's text: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, one student, working on the theme of Vows came up with the idea of a ring. Vows are binding. Two Clowns conjoin themselves by wearing a rubber ring in various unwieldy ways, hampering their joy and freedom. Another pair of clowns had the idea of costuming themselves as halves of a pantomime horse. The clown playing Annabella would have worn a bridle. One clown was fascinated by the mention of Parmesan cheese in the text (which is set in Parma) - this would have been inserted as a choric running motif. Another clown was perplexed by the mention of melons in the play - the event where Putana's eyes are put out could have included a clown sitting quietly onstage using a kitchen utensil to make melon balls, while the clown playing Putana screamed.
Costume as dramaturgy. If there is an overriding concept - e.g. Clown correctional centre, there will be a base costume (or base colour palette) indicating the prison costume or the prison atmosphere. Elaborate bits such as period ruffs would be permitted/supplied by the authorities and clown props (balloon, wooden saw) could work their way in to make a poignant contrast. For 'Tis Pity, I held conversations with each student regarding what their clown might be wearing. A Jacobean crinoline would be worn by one clown, mime apparel, cowboy gear and a rabbit headdress (one clown took inspiration from Vasques' line 'let my hot hare have law.')
The combined metaphors, prop, improvs, running gag ideas birthed a coherent (according to clown logic) approach and the whole would have come together something like this:
'Tis Pity She's a Horse
The clowns found a script in the back of a Ford Fiesta.
They were really impressed that,
while singlehanded-ly revolutionising the automotive industry (yay horsepower),
had somehow also found the time to also write a play
(and make some fine Western movies, too, apparently).
The clowns felt that their presentation of ''Tis Pity She's a Horse' (sic) would be a great opportunity to show that clowns can do high-brow material.
Well some of them. A couple of them just welcomed an opportunity to dress as cowboys.
Or as Death (from The Seventh Seal).
Under the 'leadership' of a Peter Quince-like Company Manager,
this famous tale of incestuous love would have begun
with a smooth, lively rendering of Sly and the Family Stone's 'It's a Family Affair'.
The suitors would have competed in a Derby for the hand of Annabella.
Soranzo would have disqualified Grimaldi for unspecified reasons and
Bergetto's horse would have been shot, and sadly not responded to any of the normal methods of resuscitation.
Hippolita would have made a splendid entrance with
terrifying black-bin-bag wings and spoken of her betrayal with Valkyrie-like rage.
There was going to be a Punishment Rabbit (don't ask), and a Public Service Announcement
about how the stork arrives when he sees True Love.
There would have been a special appearance by the newly conceived
Clown of Shame, with an Oedipus-inspired monologue:
Whose tale more shameful than mine,
whose lot more dire?
My motheraunt and uncledad
Did beget me, commingled in one bed.
The fruit of sibling loins;
Monstrous progeny made in equal parts
of sublimest love and darkest sin.
Ah me! ah woe! oh misery!
And my life short and brutish in the dark
To be murdered unclean and unborn
by my uncledad’s blade.
Was ever nephewson afflicted thus!
Annbella, Putana and Hippolita would have risen up from their various deaths to
address their dead beloveds (using text from Oscar Wilde’s Salome):
Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit ... There was a bitter taste on thy lips.
It would have been edgy, elevated and stupid - with touches of pathos and just a little feminist rage.
Due to COVID-19, the production only exists now in the imagination.
But the imagination is a wonderful place.
This image ‘What’s Inside’ is the work of French artist Lolie Darko (https://inspiringcity.com/2017/03/29/meet-lolie-darko-the-french-street-artist-bringing-her-sad-party-to-london-for-her-first-solo-show/) Again, not an official poster, just a source of inspiration for our process (as this rehearsal process was truncated by the virus quarantine).
Clown State is a beautiful thing.
One of the things the Clown teacher is looking for is to keep 'trainee idiots' in the Now.
Much of the clown teacher's side-coaching and heckling is done with the intention to interrupt the student who is intent on planning ahead and to call them back into the moment, into communion with the audience.
When the trainee clown is planning ahead they are unable to sense the audience or their fellow performer, or even their own inner intuition.
Much of Clown work is encouraging 'not doing' - and that is not to say that nothing ever happens! When the clown student stops thinking ahead of themselves, then they become open to the accident of the moment, to the inspiration of the moment, to the impulse of the moment, then magic will unfold.
I have often said that 'Timing is awareness'. One of my current clown students, when asked 'what is Timing?' said: 'It is an energetic connection to emotion'.
Someone recently sent me this short film about the Clown Reinhard Horskotte. In the film, 'He says: 'When you wait, something happens.'
The wonderful cabaret artist Paul Martin has been on a couple of my courses - one day he contacted me to say he had coined a clown mantra for himself: 'Accept everything. Expect nothing.' I love it. (By the way, anyone wanting to study cabaret or learn how to become an MC - I recommend Paul Martin highly.)
Wait. Be open. It will arrive.*
*A postscript (3 August 2020). Might we imagine that a proper immersion into Clown State opens the clown performer up to The Field of Possibility. Imagine that inspiration, that the imaginal is everywhere, hanging in the air, awaiting a place to visit. Imagine too, that this Field includes the audience (their eyes and ears, their 'laughing gear': their lungs and hearts) ... might the clown practitioner open to both creating and absorbing a shared field ... then the next impulse comes with and for the audience. If this is too much to believe, I moot that it is something worth imagining might be so. (The 4 minute mile was not imagined possible until someone ran it.)
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.
John H. Towsen, author of 'Clowns', has a physical comedy blog, full of great reading and video resources (almost an encyclopedia). He is currently preparing to launch two new posts, “Women Clowns: Part One (then) and Part Two (now)”
• The first post will be written by Towsen and will be about women in clowning up to the time of the 'Clowns' book (1976)
• The second post will be a gallery of prominent contemporary women clowns, with text written by the performers.
I am a not a traditional Clown, but my performance work is definitely clown-informed. (Dot was a short-lived creation, made after training with Philippe Gaulier). As Three Women Mime (Britain's first all-women mime troupe 1980-83), we widened the then traditional 'everyman' mime and mixed clown with mime, and with design elements, sometimes speech and object play. As a solo theatremaker (1983 onwards), in Hiroshima Mon Amour (no relation to Marguerite Duras), I played a Piaf impersonator – a clown with a clumsy manner and a big heart. Invocation (not depicted below but mentioned elsewhere in this blog) includes a clown take on the Hero’s Journey, Topless (centre) owed a debt to clown as well as the 'Stand-up Theatre' genre of Colin Watkeys and Claire Dowie and in Chastity Belt, clowning is mixed in with spoken word, song and gently wry satire.
John Towsen has kindly invited me to write a brief description of my work for inclusion in his blog.
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.
Booker T and the M.G.’s had a song called Time is Tight. Music brings flow and releases stress (well except for music that is designed to make you anxious/tormented). I find the track on YouTube and play it. The track is actually mellow - and energizing to listen to. Music has charms to soothe the savage breast. (or ‘Musick’ as the originator of the phrase wrote it – see below*)
I dislike the phrase ‘crunch time’ but we are there.
It’s my own fault – I love shows happening in real time and in a contained space. I love an ensemble. Eight characters on stage on view every second.
A devised show is, in part ‘written’ with stage blocking. Eight characters on stage, how to focus the action so as to make the situation clear, the reactions clear, the sequence of actions clear. How to set up and show cause and effect.
Working with not native English speakers (and me, regretfully, not having more than 24 words of Cantonese), means a lot of time can tick by while explanations and translations are made and confusions are created and cleared up.
On first blocking of the start of here show there were so many questions and unknowns.
What is the play of these individuals / this group like? What characteristics unfold from each clown performer? Devising a show like this, the ‘casting’ can come during, rather than before rehearsal. Character is a function of plot. I had some hunches on day one but detailing of characters and plot have developed in stuttering fits and starts.
It is a pressurized time but - allowing myself to take the time here to reflect – it is a satisfying moment when conventions slowly clarify themselves.
One character, later in the show, becomes the one who carries the heart of the piece. (Um, quite literally in one scene). In the prologue she is simply cute. But in later scenes she is kind, compassionate, caring, and, further on, even speaks to the audience directly in the name of fairness: ‘He deserves the right to a fair trial.’ In true clown fashion she (the character) then regrets she ever said it because the other ‘idiots’ kick off a mad and heartless trial which, like the one in Duck Soup, is full of non-sequiteurs and driven not by justice but by rhythm. A syncopated timing which needs to be both nuanced and…tight.
Actually this scene is doing well, but overall, timing is not tight. Our (intended) 50 minute show was a sprawling one hour ten on our first (and only, so far) rough run-through.
Getting timing tight takes time. And time is tight.
But back to the satisfying moment – day before yesterday I went home and wrote on the computer. Samuel Beckett, presumably sat down to write Act Without Words. Yesterday we reworked the opening with the sweet clown being the conduit which allows the audience to be presented to each of the different characters one by one. The whole scene has gained focus – leading the audience like a red thread into the world on the play/piece. And proved a way to let the audience see the strangers-to-each-other clowns make their first meeting.
And it has made the moment they spot ‘Dead Bozo’ 100 percent more effective.
*The phrase was coined by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697:
‘Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.’
For all the posts so far on the creation of The Death of Fun click here.
There is a moment when you notice that the rough rope ladder* of your scenario has become a raft and find, in a beat** of relief, that it will float (mixed metaphor I know - I re-watched the film Cast Away last night).
My cast are also prop makers, film makers, costume makers. FB messages and emails ping back and forward out of rehearsal hours with questions about size and colour and fabric and with solutions being offered to problems. Together we are weaving a cartoon web.
On the second trawl through characters are gaining more detail. The cast has become a company - understanding the physical language of the piece, taking the initiative and making offers, working as a physical chorus.
Below is an image of the company 'tired but happy', mid-way through putting together the - um - Duck sequence. Why a Duck? My good friend Wikipedia reminds me that Richard Anobile wrote book of that name (featuring a foreword by Groucho) which focused on the minutiae of the Marx Brothers' routines. Also, that: 'The duck is a recurring reference throughout the Marxes' and especially Groucho's career. His signature walk was called "the duck walk" and on Groucho's television program You Bet Your Life a stuffed duck made up to resemble Groucho would drop from the ceiling to give contestants money if they said the day's secret word. Ducks are the only animals that perform lines in the song "Everyone Says I Love You" in the Marx Brothers' fourth film, Horse Feathers. Their fifth film was called Duck Soup.
I just rewatched the scene from the Marx Brothers' film The Cocoanuts where Chico persistently mishears viaduct as 'Why a Duck?' to which Groucho answers: 'I'm alright, how are you?' As Chico persists to ask the question, Groucho gives in, saying they are building a tunnel instead.
A viaduct is almost a rope bridge. We have a tunnel in the show. And, as it happens, we also have a life raft. As well as a number of ducks.
* Commedia dell'Arte Master Carlo Boso referred to the first draft of the scenario as a 'skeleton'. We have one of those in the show too.
** its a very brief beat as there is so much else to do to put the 'meat' (sorry) on that skeleton.
See here for other posts on the making of The Death of Fun.
And see the show's website which Patricia Woo (in the pink wig) has been creating.
I have spent a whole morning listening to sound effects: Beeps, Boings, Klaxons, Alerts, Sirens and Honks.
I look at my notes: 'Gun that fires the word bang'. I make a new note to explore this in tonight's rehearsal. Is it a bad thing to create from props? I doubt it is something that David Mamet would recommend. But I am sure many a Clown act or even other Circus discipline or Cabaret act has been created from an object or prop. The list also reads: Birthday Cake?, Squirty flower? - we need to include classic clown tropes. Which ones will serve us?
The Death of Fun is a Clown piece, for grown-ups - but it also needs to be a piece of Clown drama. Clown characters find themselves in a situation. A progression needs to be made - it needs to proceed beat by beat logically and end somewhere different from the start ... and feel satisfying - is that so hard?* I keep thinking of the lovely shows I saw by the wonderful Belgian clown company Okidok. They did it. Am I really caught between genres? Or is this a normal stage of writer/devisor process? The Okidok clowns exist in a clown world. I have Clowns in a prison (real world concept and location) - but we can cartoonify it. Or present it as if it exists in a Limbo parallel world as in 'Huis Clos'...
Having stepped of the cliff, this morning I feel like I am, like Wile E. Coyote, walking on thin air.
*I am joking, of course - it is indeed hard to lead an audience into a world and a story and take them on a fulfilling journey.
See previous posts about the making of The Death of Fun. Also here. And here.
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This blog covers my Clown, Dark Clown, Comedy, and Theatre Making practices.