I strongly recommend watching these videos before reading the post
Clown Keynote Part One
Clown Keynote Part Two
Clown Keynote Q&A
This post comments on the work presented in the Collisions Festival 2014. It is part of the documentation of the Poetics of the Clown – Principles of Practice and Misfitness – PaR/Ph.D in progress at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.
Collisions is the name of a festival held at RCSSD annually where the PhD candidates who are doing PaR have the opportunity to show how practice motivates, informs and inspires their research. As part of my third year researching the Poetics of the Clown, I decided to present what I am calling the Clown Keynote. The presentation was recorded both days (on the 29th and 30th September 2014). I divided the recording of the presentation into three parts, each with specific links to YouTube. The first one is circa 12 minutes long – what I’m calling Just Clown – where the clown show works as an introduction for the Keynote. The second part is the Keynote in itself and lasts about 38 minutes. It is the critical and theoretical contextualization of my thesis. The third part is a selection of what happened after both presentations in a Q&A format. We (myself with Emma, the editor) selected images of the audience on the first day to show their response to a clown work demonstration.
Click on the link below for Collisions 2014 – Programme
Clown Keynote – Part One – Just Clowning Through
Clown and keynote are two words that don’t recognize each other. Keynote, similar to Power Point, has a connotation of academic presentation and the concept of a lecture or conference embedded in it. Thus, keynote here would stand for the ‘serious’ part of this presentation, where I would show how theory informs my research. The clown would represent the playfulness side of the research. The idea was to show the paradox of the researcher and the clown in an academic environment. My intention was to sum up 33 months of research in a one-hour presentation. It was a way of using my practical work to demonstrate a theoretical point.
The first part of this performance was conceived as a ‘clown show’, where Gorgonio, my clown would present the three principles of practice, which will be scrutinized later, during the actual keynote. Gorgonio would be responsible for preparing the mood of the audience for the second part of the show – the ‘serious’ keynote. He was responsible to introduce the idea of misfitness not with words but through action. My intention was to investigate the Misfit Object as a clown’s principle of practice. The starting point was the idea that, for a clown, the most ordinary object can present itself with functionalities other than its more prosaic ones. Nevertheless, what was found was that this concept of Misfit Object or the what-else-for of the object, had to be expanded into the Misfit Relationship with Objects. It also became apparent that the principle of Misfit Object is composed of various subcategories of codification: the object as sound source (musical instruments), the object as puppet, the object as an animated object (different to the puppet) and so forth. The object in itself, with all its material characteristics (weight, height, shape, colour, etc.) was to be treated as another ‘being’ in the room. The identity of the object was to be defined by the actions of the clown. The interaction between the clown and the toilet discloses other symbolic and significant functions of the object. Leo Sykes directed this first section of the presentation.
The concept of Misfit Object derives from the Heideggerean idea of the primordial functionality of the object (present-to-hand, ready-to-hand, what-for) and the concept of ‘discloser through failure’. An object has a ‘what-for’, a primordial functionality (a hammer is for hammering, a toilet is for taking a shit). When things are functioning efficiently and according to their intended use, his premise is that they become transparent. We don’t notice that we are hammering as long as we don’t hit our thumb. It is all part of a context. The hammer, the nail, the wood and the thumb of the one who hammers are part of the same context. So my question is: How do clowns use objects in order to show the what-else for of an object? What is the what-else-for of the toilet? What else than its primordial functionality can I use the toilet for? What kind of logic guides the clown towards an (ab)use of ‘equipmental’ norms, in Heidegger’s sense – i.e., using the ‘for-what’ of equipment inappropriately?
Toilet to let
The toilet is a symbol of contempory times. A toilet is a sanitation fixture used primarily for the disposal of human urine and feces. Toilet is a complex piece of machinery that mediates between us and the ‘brute fact’ about our body – and it brings to mind all the scatological images that humour approaches, what Simon Critchley (2002) calls the ‘gap between our souls and arseholes’. The toilet bowl is a piece of equipment we have to learn how to use as one of the steps of growing up and fitting into society, culture and civilisation. Every animal defecates but only humans use a toilet to do so. In spite of the fact that, throughout history, many similar facilities were used for our human private physiological needs, the white ceramic basin is not even two centuries old. The toilet for a clown it is deeply meaningful. Many clown theorists and clown teachers (Lecoq and post-Lecoquians) make a relationship between the failure of the clown (flop) and the image of being in the shit. A clown and a toilet, what a duet! The toilet is an object that is present in our daily lives, at least in Western so-called civilization. It is an object that we all have a very private relationship with. I wanted to highlight the way in which the toilet is symbolic of the relationship that we have with the world and our own bodies, and how the former mediates the latter. A Brazilian poet (João Cabral de Mello Neto) says that writing poetry is like going to the toilet to take a shit. Writing poetry would be an act of intimacy and privacy comparable to the act of defecating. Gorgonio’s duty was to present to the audience “three principle of practice and one logic” – the actual title of the presentation. The misfitness of the object, the body and the relationship were to be probed in public. The Poetics of the Clown is now to be tested with the toilet, in front of an audience.
A clown in the room
At this point in my research I had to ask some help from Gorgonio, my clown. The what-else-for is better worked when some kind of clown’s logic is guiding the action. The system of rehearsal was divided in three sessions: a) one hour warm up and research of clown material with toilet b) two hours with Leo, showing material and working on improvisation c) two hours of fixing material. Fixing here has a double sense; one is mending, lapidating, putting together and the other one is repeating an action up to the point where the action is known by the body. It is the expanded idea of ‘knowing it by heart’. Here it is necessary to ‘know it by body’.
My proposal was to work with an object in order to reveal its misfitness. I was to explore its potential as fully as possible. The methods used for creating clown material were based in the improvisation of physical actions taking into consideration the toilet not just as an object but as a stage partner. It was a partner in the sense that its presence inspired my actions, which at this point became reactions to its presence. Here the phenomenon to be analyzed is not the misfit object in itself but the object in a specific context. The context of creating material for a clown performance changed the status of an ordinary toilet to a stage partner.
When I first started to work with the toilet, I didn’t have a story, a plot or a dramaturgical line to guide me. The idea was to use the toilet to help me pull the trigger that would detonate my clown creativity. I wanted to show the clown’s principles of practice I was working on, but they should appear throughout the conception of the show without much theoretical interference. I had the impression that, if I could reach my ‘clown-state-of-being’ (through Gorgonio) the principles would necessarily be there, meaning the being-a-clown-in-the-world provokes the doing. I have being involved in my research almost as my ‘own-private-guinea-pig’. I have stated before that the clown is seen here as a ‘pragmatic doer’ and that the doing is what defines the being. For the sake of the focus of my research, I had to invert the hypothesis. In order to create ‘clown material’ I had to invite the clown to the rehearsal room.
The Great Pretender
It is very controversial to talk about a ‘clown’s truth’ if we take into consideration that the clown is a ‘pretender’. The clown is pretender in the sense that that there is always a person embodying the manifestation of the clown. Gorgonio is a fictional character playing ‘for real’, which means, he is Marcelo in a performative state of being. In conceiving this presentation, Gorgonio was the one ‘writing the clown score’ or, in other words, doing clown things in a clown-like manner, which eventually led to an embodiment of the reactions to the score. This clown score would be the base of the routine to be presented. Any improvisation that happens should fit in the context of this clown score. The audiences, and the interaction with the audience, were part of the elements that could motivate spontaneity and improvisation. Therefore, the clown score would help to keep the clown on the clown’s logic track, or serve as a controlled zone of turbulence where the clown could always go back.
Singing the Great Pretender in the beginning of the scene was a way of playing with the concept that clowns have to be authentically spontaneous. Louise Peacock (2009) says: “The concept of performing truthfully is common in clowning … [and there is] the need for the clown to be entirely present in the moment” (Peacock 2009:107). The presence of the clown and its relation to truth is questionable. My clown challenges these concepts of truth and spontaneity assuming, from the outset that he is a great pretender. The idea of a ‘clown score’ already indicates some sort of structure, of something preconceived, of lack of spontaneity. Framing a sequence of actions does not necessarily ‘kills’ the clown. In Gorgonio’s case, the opposite happens. When Gorgonio has a score to play with means that he also has a score to challenge, change or disrupt. Or a save base to go back to, if everything goes wrong.
The clown score for this presentation can be summarized in a line of actions: clown sitting on the loo sings -> he acknowledges the audience -> looks and tries to reach the toilet paper -> kicks it to the side -> tries to reach 3 times (it does not work) -> rips the newspaper to clean himself -> makes a magic trick (the ripped newspaper is a whole page again) -> he has to stand up -> uses the page to cover his parts -> eats the newspaper -> time to give a paper (interaction with audience giving pieces of loo paper) -> collecting data -> consulting the Clown Oracle -> final action (toilet on the head). Part of this score was rehearsed again and again – the singing, the magic trick, kicking the loo roll and etc. Some of this score could only be performed with the presence of the audience – and that is what makes the score (something rigid and structural) flexible and fluid. The feedback from the audience (or the lack of it) makes the presence of the clown noticeable, effective or not. To be “entirely present in the moment” for Gorgonio means playing the score as precise as possible and enjoying the “real play” that happens with the audience.
The first part of this presentation was intended to ‘expose’, in a clown way, an intimate side of my research. This was a way of inviting the audience to come to the toilet with my clown. It was a way to show misfitness as the background of a clown performance. The metaphorical images created to this show were loaded with symbolisms and some signs. The Poetics of the Clown, or the principles of practice were being tested in front of an audience. The Misfit Object was present all times, inspiring the creation of the clown material and being used in a trangressive way e.g. eating the newspaper, the toilet bowl becoming a recipient for research data and consequently the Clown Oracle, etc. After eating the newspaper, Gorgonio feels the need of giving a paper – and distributes pieces of toilet paper to the audience. This was not just a word play but also an action with consequences. Mocking with academic concepts of ‘giving a paper’, which usually means holding a conference or presenting an article, in academic jargon, Gorgonio was also playing with the role of the researcher that Marcelo would play later. When the clown asks the audience to write down in one phrase what a clown is and collects the ‘precious thoughts’ in the toilet bowl there is a clear example of Misfit Relationship going on. In fact, the final scene of this sequence, when Gorgonio asks the Oracle the ‘fundamental question’, all the precious thoughts were inside the toilet, suggesting the idea that sometimes one has to dig in the shit to find precious insights. The answers given by the audience were collected after each presentation from inside the toilet. Below in italic bold, the transcription of some of the feedback, selected accordantly with the resonance with my approach, with brief comment on the data.
• A human being being human
Clown Through Mask (2013) by Sue Morrison suggests that if acting is wearing a mask, clowning is to get rid of all masks, leaving the “smallest mask”, the red nose. Angela de Castro (in Peacock 2009) e John Wright (2006) says that clowning is a state of being. But, what is not a state of being for a human being? Being human is a constant state of being. But sometimes the human being is less human than others. I am suggesting that the clown is a performer that develops proper skills for embodying misfitness; in doing that the clown reveals aspects of imperfections that were concealed in conformism.
• Someone who can make you laugh due to their comic skills
Definitely laughter is welcome in a clown performance. It means that here is someone there. Sometimes it even means that they got the joke. Laughter can be seen as the very final goal to the one who uses comic skills but it is not always determinant for the manifestation of the clown. The idea of identifying clown’s principles of practice has to do with the training of comic skills.
• The clown always tries his hardest
One of the characteristics of the Misfit Logic is that the clown has a different understanding of the world. I used the term insistentialist to define the clown before. The insistentialists are the opposite of the desistentialists –the ones that give up, desist. They insist in behavior, attitudes and ideas. They believe in their action –even if others think that it is a silly action. The concept of misfitness is related to the idea of rupture, of trespassing boarders of common behavior. Trying harder could be acceptable (or understandable) from the audience’s point of view. For the clown’s perspective it should not be a matter of trying harder but of insisting in resolving problems using his/her logic. They don’t accept failure as an impeditive to keep going. The solution for a simple problem can be very complicated. The solution for a very complicated problem can be very simple.
• A magic maker
I always make a relationship of magic and wisdom. If magic is the result of hard work, than it is magic what the clown does. But there is a kind of magical element – if magic is something that can’t be translated in words. I am talking about something different from magic tricks. Magic tricks, with props or not, can be trained and controllable. The kind of magic I’m talking about happens when there is some kind of complicity + synchronicity of what the artist is doing and the audience’s perception. It is a sort of communal flow of attention and concentration. In theatre and real live performances they are ephemeral intense moments that our senses record somewhere that engraves forever in our memories. Chaplin, in order to capture these kind of magical moments, had to shoot 64 times the same scene.
• A clown is an outsider looking in
The clown as an outsider is an archetypal characteristic of the clown. The outcast, the underdog, the misfit. But it is not just a matter of looking in – it is a matter of revealing – which takes me to the next piece of loo paper…
• A clown is someone who reflects the world in a different way
Reflecting reminds me of mirrors. There is a Portuguese (Latin) trinomial that is crucial for this research and practice: Espelho, espectador, espetáculo (mirror, spectator, spectacle). This indicates the essential dynamic of clowning as the art of interaction. The focus of this research is the clown as a performer who is not afraid of disclosing imperfection. It is a distorted mirror that reflects a distorted reality. The clown’s work is fundamentally based on the relationship with the audience. And how, why and if the audience identify themselves with what they see in the mirror.
The body of the clown – the place where clownery happens
The third principle of practice that was presented is called the Misfit Body. I am suggesting that the clown has the ability to use the body in a way that challenges the conventional way of using the body. This challenge happens when the clown uses his/her body to manifest the Misfit Logic. The Misfit Body highlights the bodily imperfections and at the same time reveals a different bodily attitude than the ones found in everyday life. One example of this concept can be seen in the sequence where Gorgonio pulls his trousers up. A conventional way of doing it would be: standing up and using both hands to do the job. Here, Gorgonio bites the newspaper to protect his nudity. He does that using his Misfit Logic – he thinks: if I stand up and grab my trousers the audience will see me naked. Thus, I have to use the newspaper to hide my pubic parts – he walks forward with his knees bended and than pull his trousers up. After few attempts, he manages to get hold of his trousers. The news paper functioned perfectly for his intent (to cover his nudity) and is still in his mouth. The Misfit Logic continues to guide his actions. He has the newspaper in his mouth, tastes it, and decides to eat it. My argument is that, in order to train the Misfit Body the performer has to transposes some boundaries of the conventional way of behaving. The Misfit Body is in reality a well-trained body – trained to do and perform misfit actions. The posture and the attitude Gorgonio had while pulling up his trousers were rehearsed and performed for more than a decade – the scene is an adaptation of one of the scenes of O Cano, a play that Gorgonio takes part in since 1998. Eating the newspaper had its consequences for the actor. In order to chew the page of the newspaper, I had to open my jaw so widely that I dislocated the back joint of my jaw.
What worked and what did not work.
These presentations fulfilled the objectives, which were to present my research and research process and the methodologies applied up to now. However, if I take under consideration the response of the audience for the clown show in the second day, I might consider it a flop. Similar to Collisions 2013, where day two was completely different from day one, this time my clown had a hard time in the second day. In 2013 on the first day, I was concerned about playing the clown score so precisely that Gorgonio became tense and rigid. That interfere a lot in the ‘presence of the clown’, once it was very difficult to be present and thinking about the research at the same time. There was a conflict going on – the researcher and the clown were fighting for ‘being there’, with the audience.
In 2014, I tried to avoid this paradoxical fight between two sides of the same person dividing the show in two clear sections. The Gorgonio could be the clown in the part and the researcher could take over for the second half of the presentation. But, in spite of the preparation and the rehearsals, there are always elements that one can’t control. On the first day (29th Sept), my PhD peers came (almost 20 of them) to watch to show and brought with them what I’m calling the ‘sympathetic laughter’ – that kind of laughter a previous relationship facilitates – a laughter that helps the clown show to flow. It was like an invisible contract was signed – they came to a clown show and they will laugh. This same audience got a bit bored by the middle of the second half of the proper keynote – they wanted more clown.
The number of the audience member got reduced by a third on the second presentation (30th Sept). Amongst the seven people present I had both supervisors and other members of the staff (or other people from the academic environment). It was much harder for Gorgonio to keep his clown presence. The lack of feedback made the first part of the second presentation cold and not funny. Nevertheless, the second half of this presentation was much more fluid and the ‘researcher’ felt much more comfortable delivering the philosophical information. Afterwards, in the Q&A part, the audience really showed their interest, questioning and arguing not just with me but also among them. A different contract was signed. A contract between a Misfit Clown and the academic world.