In this clip I am showing what I am calling the top of the flops. It shows how an experienced clown can be in trouble when experimenting with techniques and methods of clowning. This was the last time I was on stage in this workshop. In the previous times I was just trying to let my clown flow. When I was up there I was trying to be my clown, to show the class what I considered to be a good way of clowning. Phil Burgers made many comments and suggested some stage directions that made me question my whole experience as a clown. Before this last attempt, I tried a couple of times to execute this same number unsuccessfully. But at least I had few laughs coming from fellow clowns sitting in the audience. In one of this attempts, Phil asked me to step down from the stage and asked me to repeat exactly the same phrase I said on stage but in a diferente context. He was trying to make a point that I was not clowning but acting. He was pointing out that the road towards emptiness and openness can’t be built on fake assumptions. When he asked me to say ‘can I have a cup of tea’ off stage, me and everybody else in the room noticed that the tone of my voice changed, my body posture changed my presence changed. He was trying to demonstrate that, just because I was in a clown workshop, doing an exercise where you are supposed to be funny, I should not change my way of being. He asked me to change my routine and also to take my clown shoes off. The clip here shows me trying to be myself. It is interesting to notice that even some of the movements and physical actions that were supposedly funny (at least people laughed when I presented for the first time) now became almost sad. I was anxious to show them, my peer clowns and Phil, that I was capable of showing some other qualities of the clown that was not just the idea of being funny. But I didn’t know at the time what other qualities a clown show could in that context. Phil was very generous, letting the students go onstage again and again in order to try something new.
How does shit happens? Once your are on stage and your clown material doesn’t work ( by which I mean the audience is not laughing or even engaging) you can feel it. You can almost smell it. Shit! It didn’t work! What do I do know?
Of course I had experienced this feeling before. I even had advice for my students and myself: when the moment of the flop happens or when you feel yourself in the shit, breath, swallow and show the audience that you acknowledge that that part of your act didn’t work and keep going. Sometimes the audience will laugh or respond to your act of swallowing. But here I was experiencing something different. Perhaps if I explain how one of Phil’s exercises works it might be easier to understand why the crack occurs and how shit happens.
The chair exercise-
This is an exercise that is at the base of Phil’s pedagogy. With an apparently simple structure the chair exercise is an exercise that trains the performer to ‘read’ the audience. This reading of the audience is fundamental for the kind of clown that Phil teaches. For the actual exercise the teacher asks one of the students to leave the room. Another student will go on stage, where there is already a chair, and create a tableau or a specific position of the body, either sitting down, standing up, using or not using the chair- but the chair must be there as a referential point/object. The goal of the game is for the student that is absent from the room to return and repeat this exact same tableau despite not having seen it. The only indication will be given by the audience (formed of clown students) by clapping. From this moment on this exercise is very similar to the cold/hot game. In this children’s game you hide something and a child has to find it. If the child gets close to the hidden object the others will say ‘it is getting hot’ if the child distances herself from the hidden object the others shout: it is cold. Here the same rules apply. If the clown doing the exercise gets close to the position (tableau) everybody claps. Silence, on the other hand, means that he/she is not repeating any elements of the tableau. The game finishes when the student finds the same position his peer suggested. When this happens we can hear a big round of applause.
This exercise is an interesting way of testing the complicity that the performer has to have with the audience. Phil says that the audience is ready to love the clown. The clown has to realise when he is being loved and react to it. The flop can happen if the clown does not listen to the audience or does not read their reactions accurately or even worse, when he tries to be funny. Trying to be funny already shows that you are not – you are just trying. The problem with the development of the chair exercise is when you are clowning you don’t get clear reactions from the audience all the time. It is not like the chair game where the the audience will clap to indicate the right position or tableau. In the real clown game the indications are much more subtle. The idea is to develop a sense of reading the audience where even the subtlest reaction is felt by the clown. Then there is a reaction. It is not acting, it is reacting. Phil says that we all know when we are being loved. We can sense it. When the audience shows their love the clown has to show his love back. How? By making them laugh and have a good time. I asked him if this is not acting.
The answer is still not clear. Trygve Walkenshaw, an actor trained at Gaulier’s and a student at this workshop, tried to help Phil in his answer saying that in acting the performer has a frame – a text, a context, a dramaturgy – in clowning there is no frame. If the frame exists the tendency is that the clown will break it. Both however agreed that the clown is a performer.. Therefore, even if the clown is not necessarily acting, he definitely is performing, or in other words, he is playing. What game does the clown play? Susana Alcantud said that ‘le jeu’ (play) is the principle that should guide training, both for actors and clowns. (Clip) Phil talks about ‘stupid impulses’ that should be the fuel that moves the clown. When I asked where these impulses come from, he thought for a second and pointed to his solar plexus – ‘from here’, indicating that clown impulses should be gut impulses or body impulses. Not from the head. Not a preconceived reaction. I am inclined to believe that there is always some kind of pretence in the clowns performance. The performer is not really stupid. He is open to respond and react to his ‘stupid’ impulses.
When asked about the clown as an agent for poetry to happen, Phil was categorical: ‘the poetry is already there! The clown just reveals it.’
I asked Phil if the clown could exist without an audience. He answered that there are ‘moments clown’ where we get caught up in clowning. Those moments can happen in public spaces – bus stops, tube stations, market places – or in moments of privacy or solitude. Those moments are not performances per se. They are moments where the clown mood takes over. It can happen to anyone.