Art of observation in clowning
“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.
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Alicia Gonzalez is a clown living the beautifool life.