The first time I was told to 'Sing as if your life depended on it' - it was in a workshop situation, happily, not IRL -
and I gave it my best shot.
But I remember, at the moment of hearing the instruction, feeling dumbstruck and demotivated.
For most of us in the Western world, our lives are blessed to the degree that having to actually sing for one's life is something difficult to imagine.
High Stakes Predicaments and Marginalised Emotions
You are standing in a hole you were forced to dig. It is wartime and it is clear this is going to be your grave. War films I saw as a child had heroic behaviour. The clown can be courageous but the clown is mainly there to show human failure. In Dark Clown terms, failure is less of a personal failing/flaw but a result of circumstances being so strong and oppressive that we are forced to jettison our own values and dignity. Later in this post I will describe an exercise I call 'Selling Yourself Out to the Enemy'.
With the Red Nose Clown, we enter Clown State and the spontaneous play follows (having greased the wheels with exercises enlivening the body and derailing the control brain, of course).
With the Dark Clown, I set up predicaments for people to imagine themselves in - Predicaments with High Stakes, so as to help people release imaginatively into the Marginalised Emotions. On a the Clown & Dark Clown workshop, before we approach the Predicaments we prime the body; visit the Emotional Zones with voice and breath; and open up awareness of patterns of rhythmic play.
A Dark Clown Level Two Course Participant reflects
On an early Level Two Dark Clown course in Oldham 2012, I inaugurated a couple of what were at the time new exercises. One Course Participant from that course answered my recent* questionnaire* and wrote this:
'Dark Clown is an exhilarating opportunity to embody devastating emotions and to admit the inadmissible in a safe environment. Two experiences stand out for me – one I watched and one I performed. I wept with deep humiliation and guilt as I laughed, whilst watching an exercise where a workshop participant was being asked to recount what he was going to have for Christmas dinner to a child in famine-struck Ethiopia.
How could it be possible to experience two such contrasting experiences at once? How freeing it was to be able to admit to experiencing emotions that would be condemned by my upbringing?
The one I performed was the following: I was playing my cello in a concentration camp and not only my life depended on it, but so did that of all my fellow inmates. And a small detail - I did not have any instrument to play either. I relive this from time to time. I remember feeling authentic rage at the abuse of me, my instrument, my art and the co-sufferers for whom I was responsible. That experience shone a laser mirror into my soul - reflecting back a sheer and bitter bloodymindedness - of which I can now feel proud.’
Saving Private Ryan - the Steam Boat Willie Scene
There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan - I sat and transcribed it from the film (you're welcome!)
A German prisoner with a shovel standing in a hole is handed a cigarette by his American captor. He inhales, looks at the cigarette appreciatively.
German Prisoner: American? I like America - Steamboat Willie. Toot toot!
Steamboat Willie’s American …
More soldiers come with their guns at the ready. He stops smoking the cigarette he was given.
Ich bin gar nichts fertig. Es muss noch mehr tiefer geworden. (trans: I'm not ready. It's got to be much deeper.)
US Soldier: That’s what you think.
One soldier grabs the Prisoner.
German Prisoner: Nein (it’s a sob)
He jumps back in the grave and starts to dig vigorously.
... noch nichts fertig ...
He looks at gun and begs:
Resumes energetically digging.
I like America! Fancy Shmancy, go fly a kite, Cat got your tongue, cool beans! Betty Boop, what a dish!
Betty Gable, nice gams ... sings: "I say can you see, I say can you see, I say".
... Fuck Hitler ... FUCK HITLER!
'Selling Yourself Out to the Enemy' Scenario
Giving the example of this scene from Saving Private Ryan, I asked the group: can you think of a person or group whose values are in opposition to yours?
The Course Participant I quoted earlier threw her hand up. 'The Taliban! I'd like to do the Taliban!'
So she did. The improvisation went something like this:
I love your approach to justice! I agree with you. Women should be covered up, women should not speak - not like me, now, speaking to you. Gah! Speaking to herself, shouting: SHUT UP! See?! And women, women should be covered, Yes, Silent. Silent! SHUT UP!
And invisible! Yes!
She held her hands in front of her face, she desperately tried to hide her uncovered areas.
Speaking about herself: Gah! Disgusting! beating her own bare arms: Disgusting!
Western women are disgusting! Let me show you - Beyonce, yes? Skimpy leotard. Give me a machete, I'll show her! Take that, Beyonce!
She waved an imaginary blade about as if hacking at Beyonce. Gah! Take that! More hacking.
Singing: 'Single ladies' No! no singing. Death - death to western women ... Death to Beyonce!
She held her arms out pleadingly:
I can help you. Gahh, my arms sorry about my arms - I'll chop them off, look ... look ... look!
Death to women who speak! And think! Gah! Beyonce! Oprah, Mary Beard. More hacking. At the imaginary women, at her own arms.
'Who runs the world?' You! You the Taliban. I'll ... I'll grow a beard, yes! Let me join you, please. Please?
See here the many comedy craft games involved to make this Dark Clown scene work (aiming to generate laughter even while generating a believable portrait of desperation and fear): physical games, the games of repetition (of words, of movement motifs), the game of solution/new problem and the breath and emotions all employed with variety and calibration i.e.responding to the audience (reacting hopefully or anxiously to laughter or other audience reactions as if responding to the reactions of the enemy). All with the aim of generating the experience of Troubled Laughter for the workshop audience.
The talented comic performer Trixie Mattel said in an interview somewhere: 'Comedy is the intersection between specificity and exaggeration.'
The more vivid and specific the predicament is, the more the Dark Clown player can launch off into the Marginalised Emotions and flights of fancy caused - not by wonder (as for Red Nose Clown) - but through the imaginative investment in a high stakes predicament and the cathartic joy of employing and enjoying an agile vocal and physical play to depict extreme desperation, fear, alarm.
The Dark Clown performer needs a good predicament, and then to be able to Mine the Predicament - choosing things to say that make logical, emotional, dramaturgical sense; things that will keep the audience on the hook. To Mine the Predicament, the Dark Clown performer also needs to find agile changes in rhythm, timbre and emotion in relation to the audience's reactions, or in reacting to the previous thing they themselves did. Things can be extraordinary (in extremis, we do not cry or flinch in socially inflected ways), but the suffering must be believable - there can be no sense of the clown enjoying shocking us by appearing to relish the pain or enjoy the exaggeration for its own sake. As soon as the Dark Clown performer comments on or adopts a self-indulgent grotesquerie, the audience is let off the hook, and the laughter is no longer a Troubled Laughter - i.e. a laughter born of / or containing conflict.
* The questionnaire is for 'graduates' of the Clown & Dark Clown course and or the Level Two Dark Clown course. Any 'graduates' reading this I welcome your contributions! Write to me and I'll send you the questionnaire.