Clowning is in the heart business, not only does it help heighten our immune system it can also make the heart stronger, plus the clown can touch our hearts too. A clown is to be your heart on stage, whether that be the stage of life or a theatre.
Sometimes we go through experiences that feel too large or significant for words to fully capture, and that is where art, our hearts, and clowning becomes useful; we go to humour, symbols, and imagery to tell our stories. Isn't that wonderful?
When I first set out to put together the Clown & Melodrama workshop back in late 2019, it was born out of curiosity and desire to express my despair and to find a playful way to transform that heartbreak into physical comedy. My questions were: what's the most fun way to create clown performances from these identifiable life moments and personal struggles, and secondly could these clown performances inspire laughter, hope, and healing in others?
In devising the workshop, I decided to review my time as a student at the Jacques Lecoq school, combining principles (or provocations) from subjects we learned like melodrama, tragic chorus, and clown. I wanted to understand how best to take an audience on a pathos-fuelled journey, via tears and laughter. I remembered the work we did in the first year exploring music and the counter mask where we moved the opposite way, or against the rhythm of a musical composition. As students writhing around to the music, we'd find an absurdity – a kind of sense in the nonsense.
So, I mused why not apply this similar counter mask idea to create a clown logic that reverses the audience's expectations and that could potentially tug at the heart too. I found that we can take a very serious subject like the separation of a couple and observe how the clown subverts this situation by playing against it, by using an opposite expected rhythm.
The improvisation plays out like this: The clown arrives home from a long day of work and hustling to find their spouse (played by an actor in realism) furiously packing and stuffing their personal belongings into a suitcase. The most obvious reaction is for the clown to play sadness or rage. This would be the boring choice and as the audience yes, we'd feel pity for the clown but would we be transformed, is this going to tickle our funny bone and make us love the clown? My guess is - not really.
But what if the clown were to walk in, pause and observe their spouse packing, suddenly change their rhythm by excitedly grabbing their dusty suitcase, snorkel gear, and beach towel under the notion that they were together going on a romantic getaway. To add insult to injury, we then hear a knock at the door and the clown's spouse greets a stranger with a passionate embrace and kiss. The clown, stunned and wide-eyed now chooses an unexpected rhythm hurriedly walks up to the stranger shakes their hand, and offers them a generous tip, mistakenly believing the new lover is the cab driver that will drive them to the airport.
It is 200% more fun and surprising for the clown, your scene partner, and the audience when we get to play against the obvious and alternate the expected rhythms. Here we can access vulnerable states, paradoxes, and reversal of order which benefits the clown enter into a playful tragic realm. It removes all sentimentality so it is the audience who does the work of feeling (the gooey heart stuff) and this can hopefully lead to transformation.
What is the transformation? In this scenario it is about us, the audience, connecting to the fool's misunderstanding. Around the world, we're all fractured and socially disconnected. In clowning and clown training we can engage laughter and play in direct action towards social justice, to alleviate pain and suffering, and to remind us of our humanity. The clown's role in theatre or social contexts has become clearer to me over time; they're the guiding light of hope. They're the eternal dreamer showing us the way that with every human disaster there's an opportunity to create a space for connection, to experience empathy.
The Clown and Melodrama workshop aims to access a playful dimension to our human tragedies. Day one of the workshop is focused on the journey of the emotions and opening the clown's heart first because before we can begin to perform 'heart surgery' on others to some degree we must be prepared to access our vulnerable states and stories first. Day two of the workshop is then dedicated to improvisation and games around how the clown can stay optimistic despite a terrible situation, as well as devising clown creations.
It's easy to be playful and laugh when we are feeling good, but it is when the world seems bleak that we need to laugh the most in our lives. Our laughter then echoes in the chambers of our hearts, filling the empty spaces with pure joy and fun.
“There are three masks: the one we think we are, the one we really are, and the one we have in common.” — JACQUES LECOQ
The most significant source that has nourished and inspired my pedagogic practice is the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq.
As actors and creators, we strive for a language to create performance that moves, stirs and provokes. This language should be articulate, poetic and give voice to concepts that are out of this world imaginative in their execution. Surprisingly, some of these concepts we may not at first regard as dramatic, theatrical or hilarious, because these concepts, behaviours and images are all around us and we’re somewhat used to them.
For example, the poetry of people in a waiting room or the actions that make up our morning or night-time rituals. The ideas that surround space, rhythm and time. The most fundamental learning of the Lecoq pedagogy is to first open our eyes and to observe. By poetic, Lecoq meant those things that cannot be defined, that are beyond words, which bring us together.
Once upon a time humanity lived in direct and intimate contact with nature and with all of its phenomena, some of these were brutal and ferocious like earthquakes, fires and plagues. Humanity was able to deal with this profound state of fear - via adoration (the divine and sacred). Everything that existed on earth humanity believed to possess a soul – she adored rocks, trees, animals and she had a desire to represent them physically, to be able to enter into communication with them. So this representation of the divine, of the incomprehensible, humanity began to embody it, to attempt to understand it via materials such as clay, wood, and rock and then finally via themselves using their body. The need to take the divine from the invisible world to the visible and share her with a community and with an audience.
And so, the Lecoq pedagogy takes us from observing the world to observing the effect we produce on the world. Here enters the clown.
Clowns are like empty vessels that need to be filled, looked at. It’s like they absorb the world around them, and then by getting full with life it charges the body and spills over. The clown purges a desire to imitate life, which is different to parody. For instance they observe a priest giving a sermon and say ‘oh! that looks like fun, I’ll do / I can be that!’.
In clowning, observation of life and phenomena is fundamental. Just watch some of Jacques Tati’s films (which I did eventually after much persuasion from our teachers in Paris). They’re breathtakingly funny and deftly accurate. Try it, practice observing and laughing at stupid things and people. What takes your curiosity? Figure out how a pigeon walks.
What does it mean to truly observe something? It is a liberating feeling for the performer/creator when they realise just how far a tool like observation will take them. We observe things all day everyday unconsciously, but when we become conscious, we learn the value in dropping pre-conceived judgements, personal stories and attachments and purely observe the physical poetry of something.
My BIG question into this research is can we as clowns create a logic by observing and imitating a phenomenon. Where might this take us playfully, what would we say or become, what gestures, emotions and relationships emerge both for an audience or perhaps in a duo or trio.
There are moments in life when words are not enough, so we go to symbols and imagery to tell our stories by using gesture or a sound or colour to create le jeu – play. During a clowning & body workshop last year exploring this clown logic, a participant set a fantastic example. They were asked to observe something from the outside world and report back their findings in an improvisation. He had observed a person driving their car, during their first attempt this student represented a caricature / a character/ an opinion. When I probed further and asked them to present the truth and pushed this student to search physically for the essence of what they’d witnessed, it provoked laughter from the other workshop participants. Yay success! it was a person who was simply holding onto their steering wheel, bored, waiting. We laughed because we recognised that moment of humanity in ourselves and others.
The same was for another workshop participant, they had observed a puddle (it was a rainy day) and during their improvisation, they were trying to give us the narrative version layered with a story and their own reflection in it. But when they were simply the puddle, and searching for its truthful dynamic a poetic tragedy appeared before our eyes which we all shared a positively strong reaction to. We saw our very own reflection, and that is far more poetically satisfying for an audience than when an actor imposes their own psychology. It gives us room to breathe, to dream and to imagine, we the audience fill in the gaps. And why can’t a clown be a puddle? It’s so beautiful, and then tragic when someone steps in it.
The other element was searching for the voice of the clown; for example a participant had observed a pigeon, she had to organise her body in a certain way to find a truthful dynamic, the organs have to move inside and so the voice changes, the gaze changes. We see a ‘follie’, a madness that could be the start of a clown persona.
Finally, another student who had observed an umbrella. She pushed to find the quality, being specific to colour and material eg. plastic v steel. She found the body of the umbrella when it was closed and then she popped herself open, she found the ‘juste’ (precise) phrase ‘that’s a bit rough’. It provoked a lot of laughter. When you work hard from the body, the necessary text will arrive.
This exploration is about playing and using our imagination, imagining and playing the given circumstances in the universal poetic sense. Not having to use emotional recall and dig deep into our past painful memories. It’s not about getting into a psychological head space. It’s never sentimental. Here we’re working with the ‘truth’, the dynamic quality of a phenomena. Transposing or playing the truth can be far more satisfying than an idea, parody or a memory, at least in my experience it is and in the case above it was for the audience as well.
Irrespective of where you are in the world, through this playful transposition of the dynamics impressed in the body my wish is to witness a clown appear and a unique poetic world emerge, full of hope and disaster.
This is one of my all time fave quotes and moments in a film. It sums up for me the profound sentiment I have following a clown workshop; it’s a feeling of stupefaction and awe at each person’s capacity to share something usefool with the world.
The Fool: I am ignorant, but I read books. You won't believe it, everything is useful... this pebble for instance.
Gelsomina: Which one?
The Fool: Anyone. It is useful.
Gelsomina: What for?
The Fool: For... I don't know. If I knew I'd be the Almighty, who knows all. When you are born and when you die... Who knows? I don't know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if its useless, everything is useless. So are the stars!
- Excerpt from La Strada
As I get ready to run a morning weekend clown workshop I watch new students roll in donning their adulthood overcoats. When they arrive some hang back politely happy to make small talk sharing timid smiles, there’s the slightly perplexed face of ‘somebody who doesn’t know’, and others who are excited raring to go.
One of my greatest pleasures is observing the loosening of the presentable and acceptable version of adulthood into disarming playfulness within minutes as we engage in one of our first games called ‘Soul Train’. Music is a fabulous motivator; I’ve seen some jaw-dropping situations. There are particular songs that transform us even if it is for just a moment – they can make us strong, brave, sexy, completely savage, etc… and the best part is that it’s totally okay if that’s what we think we’re being at the time!
We play these types of games not to prepare you for an audition on The Voice or to demo what an accomplished professional dancer or singer you are, rather it’s to discover something about yourself and ultimately about your clown. It’s a real joy to watch a person’s willingness to crack open their bodies, voices and hearts and trumpet their unabashed creativity alongside a bunch of strangers elevating their stupidity to the next level.
It’s a reciprocal ride of generosity and tuning in to one another, what French acting instructor Jacques Lecoq coined during his pedagogic journey as ‘complicité’. There is a shared understanding and a real sense of connectedness in the room; everyone’s rooting for you and there’s a desire for one to succeed. Let’s face it adulting can be pretty combative and pressurizing sometimes; ‘get a job’, ‘stand up straight’, ‘eat with your mouth closed’, ‘love me!’ and so on, and clowning is one way to flip that on its head. It’s like a huge empathetic boost inviting us all to unleash our fun on and anarchic ways. A shared laugh is a shared feeling after all.
It is the end of the morning weekend workshop, as people say their goodbyes and thank yous it’s plain easy to see that some of us are reluctant to take our adulthood overcoats back home.
I’ve realized I teach others in order to learn myself. It is tricky to identify as a teacher, in fact, I am simply there to guide and shine the light in the direction where your clown wants to go. It’s a process of mutual discovery and I’m very fortunate because it is one of the finest ways to learn about the human condition, which I find usefool. I don’t know for what but it must be useful. Be honest. Be Stupid. Be interested. Play. Be vulnerable. Play. Play. Play.
My first introduction to clown and physical comedy was in New York with Virginia Scott. But it wasn’t until later on during my second year in Paris studying at Jacques Lecoq that I experienced the fundamental joy and benefits of this ancient playful art.
At the heart of the Jacques Lecoq pedagogy is Le Jeu, which is Play. I personally and artistically struggled with this principle for a long time. I resisted playing and in fact I’d forgotten how to play.
I remember we were coming to the end of our two years at school and I was dreading the idea of clowning. I thought ‘why on Earth would I need to learn to be ridiculous and put on a red nose? I am a serious actor, this does not apply to me!’. If truth be known my body sensed my own bulls**t; it was way smarter than my pea brain. It was as if my body instinctively perceived my ‘oh no here it comes, they are all going to finally see me’. Exposed, raw, vulnerable, the scared little Alicia wanted to run away, back to Sydney, fast.
But there was no use kicking and flailing because my body wanted to stay and play. Luckily it did. It took some muscle work, a trickle of tears and a torrent of laughter but soon enough I was parading my dreams, fears and fantasies on stage donning the red nose for my class to laugh with, or not. I was starting to get it; in the mindset of the clown I was finally playing.
Once I left school I began to understand how useful play and clowning is for me as a performer and as a person. Few people really know how to play and allow themselves the freedom to be ridiculous. Perhaps this is why I now love facilitating and running workshops in clowning, so I can inspire students to celebrate their ridiculousness and rediscover their sense of play. In class I have great responsibility to stay present, engaged and playful too. The beauty of teaching clown is that I am also asked to remain playful at all times, making cheeky observations, asking provocative questions and setting challenging tasks for each clown student, all in the name of fun!
What if we approached our lives, our relationships and our work with that sense of play, awe and child-like wonder? Walking into every situation would be tremendously joyful. We’d be amazed, take notice and be grateful for the most beautiful and banal things around us. We’d learn more and be forever refreshed as we look at life from the eyes of a four year old, giving in to the innocence inside you.
Alicia Gonzalez is a clown living the beautifool life.