An alphabetised list of Key Phrases for Dark Clown practice (as part of the 'Clown & Dark Clown Course' and the 'Level 2 Dark Clown Course').
Having chosen to arrange this list alphabetically makes this post a bit of a deconstructed Scavenger Hunt - but it all flows together in the room. The Clown & Dark Clown course progresses in a way that is fun and enlivening. There are practical tasks and exercises for each principle and we get there step by step - these principles and techniques become understood and assimilated experientially. The Level 2 Dark Clown Course builds on ground gained and gives more opportunity to play with the Dark Clown Scenarios e.g. this one.
A believable verisimilitude of pain and distress
Verisimilitude means a likeness, or a portrayal.
If the clown player looks like they are enjoying their pain, the audience cannot experience the Troubled Laughter which is one of the defining characteristics of the Dark Clown. In order to Implicate the Audience (see below), the Dark Clown player needs to create / present ‘a believable verisimilitude of pain and distress’ (using rhythm, timbre, energy and imagination; using a set of given imaginary circumstances).
Clown/ Red Nose Clown
There are many different types of Clown, for the purposes of teaching on the Clown & Dark Clown course, I use ‘Red Nose Clown’ as a handy distinction from Dark Clown. (I use Red Nose to refer mostly to the Lecoq-lineage of clown regardless of whether a player uses a painted or rubber nose or different coloured nose or no nose at all in their clowning).
This is a collection of principles and techniques (rhythm, phrasing, musicality, timbre, clocks, beats, contrast, repetition, call backs, nudges, alternation, acceleration/deceleration, escalation (snowballing), spatial embroidery, micropauses etc) that can then be applied to generate laughter. In order to have Troubled Laughter, we need first to have the ability to reliably provoke/create laughter. Comedy Craft plus audience awareness (and calibration) is then applied to generate laughter in Dark contexts.
As part of Comedy Craft, I emphasise that laughter is a physiological phenomenon – I speak of priming* (priming as you prime a motor – see below) the ‘laughing gear’.
Carlo Boso, Commedia dell’Arte Teacher and director of TAG Teatro di Venezia (in a London workshop circa 1990):
‘It’s easy to make people laugh, all you need to do is to control people’s breathing and their heart rate.’ (nowadays I prefer to say ‘affect’ rather than control).
Cost / Palpable cost
In a Red Nose Clown exercise, we love to see the Clown thinking and reacting - for example, when another clown in the scene/exercise is being praised. We love the micro expressions, the tiny momentary reactions or 'tells'* of humanity which the ‘Sad Normals’ (see below) take considerable pains to mask or suppress. In Dark Clown I call this the Cost. The psychological Cost - the visible processing of thoughts and emotions of humanity in extremis.
In class I may well call out as an instruction: ‘we want to see the cost’. With the Red Nose Clowns, we love to see their humanity, their emotions. We specially enjoy seeing this in the eyes: the micro-expressions of pride, affront, surprise, confusion, disappointment or other thought processes. Also in tiny head turns or spontaneous micro gestures, or the breath.
In Dark Clown work, the audience gets to see how the Dark Clown player responds to a command or predicament where they must make a terrible choice, how they look when they are wrestling with themselves in the moment before they must jettison they dignity, or betray a fellow ‘prisoner’, and how they look when (within the scene) they must live with what they just did for the rest of their lives.
Dark Clown as distinct from Philippe Gaulier’s Bouffon work
Bouffon plays Satire – Dark Clown does not have the luxury to play satire.
Historically (it is said) the outcast had a day of the year to enter the church or village and mock those who had privilege. The Dark Clown does not have the luxury to mock. The Dark Clown is concerned with how to survive the next 30 seconds.
Dark Side Play
Once players (course participants) are clear on the aims and parameters of the work – and then on the given predicament (for the exercise or scenario) – with its context and stakes, the play can begin. At this point we are looking for physical and verbal motifs, as well as the player being strategic with rhythms and vocal timbre / breath, space (where possible). Dark Side Play works the Comedy Craft with the Marginalised Emotions in a Dark context.
Dramaturgy and implication
There isn’t time on a Clown & Dark Clown course to deal with the subject of Dark Clown Dramaturgy. it will be a course that requires Level Two Dark Clown - but here’s a brief note:
Just as the Marx Brothers films need the breathing space of the lover’s plots, Dark Clown dramaturgies are allowed strategic moments of pathos and poetry. (In the context of teaching, I discourage moments of pathos and poetry because it deprives the student of learning the less-familiar Dark Clown craft. But when organising a dramaturgy for the audience, or in a longer-duration improvisation with an audience in mind, we can certainly go there for a beat or so. Wonderful if the pathos still keeps the audience on the hook, though – take a look at the Seal scenario in the Dark Clown Documentary or consider the dramaturgy for The Maids - i.e. the moment towards the end where one sister is reading the lines of her dying poisoned 'sister' while the audience looks on.)
For some exercises we imagine a prison scenario – the purpose of this is to Raise the Stakes* to help the release into the Marginalised Emotions. I may also mention Life or Death Stakes.
Extraordinary Physiological Response
With sufficient (imaginary, of course) pressure, logical thought stalls, emotion short-circuits and the player can find themselves releasing into a panicked amygdala response, allowing the audience the possibility to witness a spontaneously-released extraordinary physiological response (a pulsing brow vein, an involuntary twitch or flinch ... ). This is one of the compelling features of the Dark Clown work.
The EPR is in fact a motif. This is something you can see in Clown, comedy and Commedia work where the performer creates motifs (succinct, repeatable gestures, often combining sound and movement, and aimed to charm the audience or to be a laughter nudge for the audience.) The EPR is a motif of a different flavour, but still designed to create laughter, or prime the laughing gear for future potential laughter.
Hyper-vigilance (one could say it's a physiological state, but I list it as one of the Marginalised Emotions)
Hyper-vigilance is a natural result of fear. It’s when you are highly alert to any movement or sound, perceiving it as a potential source of threat. In Dark Clown work, this replaces the 'complicité' style of eye-contact and responsiveness of the Red Nose Clown. In an enforced performance scenario, the player will give ‘a believable verisimilitude of hyper-vigilance’.
Humanity in extremis
Dark Clown is in extremis or trying to survive. It is a more existential look at the human condition (yes some other kinds of Clown can go there too, but usually via moments of pathos).
The Dark Clown work I teach resonates with a life-long personal questions: Come torture or duress, what choices would I make? When given appalling choices (impossible choices), how does one feel as one continues to exist after whatever ghastly choice was made (under duress)? When oppression is so great that courage is punished by death (or worse) - what are the options? When exactly does one succumb to force? What does the word 'force' really mean?
High Stakes Predicament
Course participants are invited to imagine ghastly or highly constrained / oppressive circumstances in certain exercises and scenarios in order to help fuel release into Marginalised Emotions, using Dark Side Play (comedy craft) in a way that hopefully produces laughter-provoking text or sounds and motifs (including Extraordinary Physiological Responses). (See below for explanation of Stakes)
Implicating the Audience
I use the term Implicating the Audience to refer to the Dark Clown practice where the performer or ensemble manage to create the conditions whereby the audience feel that they are somehow 'on the hook'/at cause/somehow responsible/or that they just feel guilty watching/or that their comfort is in stark contrast to the player onstage portraying the suffering. Although all audiences know that they paid for their ticket and walked in to watch a composed performance, they can, via the suspension of disbelief, feel conflicted or shamed in their witnessing and even to a degree, culpable. While no one may actually think: 'Oh my, I must rush on stage and help these people', they feel compelled and conflicted that 'It is not me suffering over there.'
Allied to this is the Dark Clown concept of Troubled Laughter whereby the audience laughs and at some level feels troubled or shamed or conflicted in their laughter.
As with Enforced performance, or inside an Enforced scenario, the player/prisoner may have to make a choice. We will see the Cost and we will witness Marginalised Emotions, possibly some Extraordinary Physiological responses.
An Australian expression meaning mouth – but I mean it to refer to the heart, lungs and diaphragm (eyes and mouth/jaw are also important). Key principle: Carlo Boso Commedia dell’Arte Teacher - TAG Teatro di Venezia said (workshop, London circa 1986): ‘It’s easy to make people laugh, all you need to do is to control people’s breathing and their heart rate.’ Nowadays I prefer to say ‘affect’ rather than control.
We all show that moment when sitting next to your friend in the serious seminar when they nudge you in the arm or your ribs and they will probably do it again and again. Or substitute an eyebrow raise or mouth movement or just a head turn. And do remember, if your friend was funny, they'd do this at the perfect moments to keep you going or to bring back the game. In the context of Dark Clown work sound motifs or physical tics or surprising changes in breath can all be employed with the aim of keeping the audience laughing or keeping them ready to laugh. In my C-words blogpost I talk about Creating the Conditions for Comedy. When I am teaching I often say the phrase: Creating the Conditions for Laughter, and yes' it's related to 'Priming' see here below.
Imagine human expression were expressed as a line or continuum. Say that on one side we have the expression we might most often see in the Red Nose Clown, e.g. joy, silliness, loveliness, pride, bashfulness … near the centre of the line there may be grumpiness, crossness, even anger. But what about the other half of the line? Here we are heading for the expressions of the Dark Clown and what I call the Marginalised Emotions – such as: hyper-vigilance, fear, distress, shame, anguish, regret, guilt, humiliation, indignity, disbelief, grief, shock, absurdity, desolation, dread, despair, physical pain, horror, terror and existential dread. (Listed in no special or incremental order). N.B.: No 'emotional recall' is used in Dark Clown work. ('Emotional recall' is a technique used by some Stanislavsky teachers whereby the performer deliberately recalls an upsetting moments from their own life in order to summon emotion – we do not do this). The Dark Clown work relies on the natural human ability to pretend in a set of imaginary circumstances.
Priming the Laughing Gear
Enlivening your own agility with your own heart, lungs and diaphragm so as to be able to affect your audience’s Laughing Gear.
What does priming mean? (I use it to mean getting the ‘laughing gear’: i.e. heart, lungs and diaphragm nice and flexible/available; but this following definition refers to its everyday meaning of readying an engine)
- Fill the oil pan with a quality Break-In Oil.
- Prime the system by turning the oil pump with a power drill and Priming Tool, or with an external Engine Preluber.
- Rotate the crankshaft by hand, while priming the system. This ensures that oil gets around all the bearings and into all the internal oil passages.
*Raise the Stakes
Definition of 'raise the stakes' from the Collins English Dictionary:
a. to increase the amount of money or valuables hazarded in a gambling game. b. to increase the costs, risks, or considerations involved in taking an action or reaching a conclusion. the Libyan allegations raised the stakes in the propaganda war between Libya and the United States.
Ridiculous (a judicious use of the ridiculous)
Adding a skilful touch of the ridiculous to a ghastly situation is a useful technique to surprise the audience into Troubled Laughter. For example, in the Buzzer exercise (an image here), players employ clocks and beats and express the appropriate Marginalised Emotions (strategically, using comedy craft and with audience awareness). It’s helpful/an extra level of skill to add something ridiculous - e.g.: a feigned electric shock, presented believably, yet which causes the Dark Clown player to spin in a circle like a wind-up toy. Another example: in the setup for The Somali Pirates scenario, I give the players a back story where there is a small past niggle between the two hostages. They are instructed not to play this niggle, but to allow it to bleed into their reactions to the other within the larger predicament. This layering can produce compelling results – a portrayal of a genuine predicament of suffering, inflected with little micro-beats of flawed humanity – which, once released, can in turn release a further micro-beat (or sound/movement motif) of Marginalised Emotion - i.e. ‘Oh no, I was just selfish, in such an awful situation! I feel shame at my own behaviour.’
This is a playful teaching phrase to encourage the compassion of the clown performer – this is us in our normal life (in the supermarket, travelling to work etc).
‘A tell in the card game poker is a change in a player's behaviour or demeanour that is claimed by some to give clues to that player's assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player's tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. Sometimes a player may fake a tell, hoping to induce their opponents to make poor judgments in response to the false tell. More often, people try to avoid giving out a tell, by maintaining a ‘poker face’ regardless of how strong or weak their hand is.’ - Wikipedia
In the intro into the Dark Clown work proper, I usually tell the story of watching a scene in a show I saw in 1980 (mentioned here) where I first experienced what I later came to call Troubled Laughter. From my book-in-progress: “I laughed, while at the same time thinking 'I shouldn’t be laughing at this’. I laughed with a particular sensation in my ribs and lungs. I laughed with hot cheeks. That ‘shouldn’t’ wasn’t simply the transgression of naughtiness, it was something else. I felt awful and I was somehow glad to feel awful because what I was witnessing was a depiction of an appalling predicament. As much as it was ghastly, it was somehow a relief to sit there and make a noise, to find a noise being released out of me; to give expression to a conflicted response via this rhymical release of the breath, to physically and vocally resonate with the stage action.”
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