Clowning in Pennsylvania2020-03-02
I was at a clowning workshop in rural Pennsylvania last weekend. A mix of acting, improv, and straight-up making a fool out of yourselves, it really was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I've had in my life. “Discover the world through play, just like children do...” Normal and reasonable are overrated. Be silly and incongruent! Humor arises when there is tension and when things go wrong. Be vulnerable and honest. Clowning is all about big emotions you go through with your audience.
Many of the exercises we did had us listen and react rather than plan and act (and let's be real, I really struggle to not plan). But really, fabricating plans in advance is so much duller (both to you and often enough to your audience) than following the spur of the moment! Relinquishing control and allowing some emotions can be hard, and being silly and illogical sometimes even moreso.
But let's see how it all actually happened...
It is early Saturday morning, we are driving in a car in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. Annabelle and I had grabbed some Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast. We joke that we still have no idea what we were getting ourselves into—but it's the truth, as it was Naomi who had planned all this... The hall that we are driving towards is part of a “nonprofit 501c 3 organization where more than 40 adults with developmental disabilities live and work on a 432 acre estate as part of a life-sharing community.” Indeed the estate is quite pretty and only at the very end do we reach “Rose Hall,” a big open space with tiny adjacent rooms whose decoration makes the fact that it doubles as a church for the residents obvious.
Some people are already there, including our two instructors. The more senior one is Vivian, an old, experienced clown and the founder of the organization that organizes these workshops, Nose to Nose—a clown who spends most of his time in Europe. The second person, no less senior, at least in age, is Angie, a former student of his that is involved with that organization in North America. A few participants are around already and we quickly realize that we are the youngest members of this circle by far. Bit by bit all people trickle in until we are 11 people in total, sitting in a circle of chairs in the big hall.
We introduce ourselves and it quickly becomes apparent that we have quite some varied backgrounds in our group: some members have had a number of experiences clowning, others are fulfilling an I've-always-wanted-to-do-this dream—and of course then, there's us, the naively smiling newbies who have no idea what they're doing here. The group, for some reason, even apart from us is oddly academic: doctors, both medical and real Ph.D.s (don't @ me), grad students, artists, workers who are writing a dissertation “on the side”... It's quite the mix! (Fun fact: gender-wise there's only one male participant... poor Greg!)
Unfortunately, one of the first things Vivian and Angie have to let us know is that the water is out in the building today. “If it's yellow, let it mellow,” and for everything else there is a bucket of water in the restrooms. What a start!
Don't be interesting, be interested
The very first “exercise” is introduced with the old wise idea “don't be interesting, be interested”: we are to look around us, find an object in the room that interests us, walk towards it, take a close look, and then repeat. So far, so good, but in the second half we get a new instruction: make some sound with your voice when you look at the object. Any sound. But use your voice! No whistling or any of those cop-outs. That turns out to be quite the challenge, but once you hear everyone else making a fool of themselves, it does get a bit easier. Indeed, talking about the exercise after, it is clear that we all felt more awkward for the second half—is it just not “normal” and “defensible” to do something like that!
The reason that we were to use our voice is that it is the easiest way to show emotions—and that, Vivian says, is what clowning is all about (little do we know that we will get many definitions of clowning over the next two days): clowns are hyper-emotional beings! They need to show how they feel and make the audience feel with them, moreso than any other profession maybe (at this point it becomes clear to me that I am in for a lot of trouble).
For the next exercise, we are locking eyes with a designated partner and walking across the room individually, never losing eye contact. First we move slowly, but in the second half, we try to hide behind other people, still never breaking the eye contact voluntarily. It's a funny question: if someone breaks your contact, who is really hidden? The exercise however is not just fun but also highlights an issue that Vivian will address throughout the entire day: breathing.
If you're concentrated, you're likely to hold your breath, or at least breathe rather shallowly, but when you are performning on stage, that can be quite painful to your audience! “Your audience,” Vivian says, “breathes in the same way as you—and they're not even aware of it! So anything you do to breathe normally is going to be a great relief to your audience...”
We move on the mirroring exercises: one person moves and uses their voice to make sounds and all others try to copy them as closely as possible. Lots of exaggerated displays of emotion—quite fun actually! It only becomes tricky when the leader lowers their head so they can't see the group anymore... how can you copy someone if you can't look up to see them! Vivian uses the opportunity to impart yet another one-liner definition on us: the difference between acting and clowing is that a clown will look up from their act to look at the audience as if to ask “are you with me”—the fourth wall isn't all that serious and in fact, you better not think either is safe on either side of it!
After our first break, it is time for an exercise that Vivian describes: “Everything you need to know about clowning is in this exercise! When you are really advanced, you can do this for an hour and not get tired...” The exercise has us again mirror, this time in small groups of three, but now instead of mirroring closely, everyone has to mirror everyone! So if people inevitably introduce small changes, perhaps by lengthening movements, the routine slightly changes for all of us. A game of listening—and that concept of listening will be guiding us for the rest of this workshop.
Now, Vivian sets up a “stage”: seperated only by a little rope, with all of us sitting on our chairs right in front of it. In the groups of three, we are to perform a little “routine” to the others. Once you cross the rope, you are to commit to your emotions, improvise honestly and try to act out a thing as a group—but not following a “leader”, but really trying to get the same state of listening to each other as before. Imagine you are adventurers and you're looking for... something. It's not clear what we're looking for in the middle of the stage. It also doesn't matter. Groups fight their way onto the stage and towards the center very differently. Some pretend the rope has many locked doors that they have to get past to get onto the stage. Others see it as a river to cross. And on stage the real fun begins, one person does something, the others follow, a story emerges—but the story is not always clear to those that are acting it out. In fact, all groups said they had no idea what was going on, and yet the audience always did see an overarching narrative.
That fun effect shall become even clearer in the next exercise: now every single person will perform on this stage by themselves! There is now a piece of cloth in the middle, which we again are to walk towards. Then, as we touch the cloth, something is supposed to happen. Again, it's not clear what! And Vivian warns us intently not to cheat and prepare something! Really let yourself be taken by the moment, by your emotions, what are you thinking what are you feeling... and once you commit to doing something with this cloth, stick to it! See it through, see where it leads, really explore what is happening. And once you're done, leave the stage.
The first participant, Susan, walks up, picks up the cloth and slowly starts measuring it, feeling the fabric, looking like she's reminiscing... everything is quiet... there certainly is something in the air. When we ask her, she said she had no idea what she was doing—but we all saw emotions and a relation to the bedridden mother of hers that she is caring for and so many memories. It's easy to be cynical and dismissive of our overzealous imagination. But we really did feel something.
Eventually it was my turn. It sounds so silly. Even though Vivian warned us, I of course fabricate a routine before I go on stage. But the moment I kneel down, next to the cloth to pick it up... I have a different image in my head... it looks... like a mountain? And there's a cave in it! I push my head inside to see what's in there (which of course meant that as my face was hidden, my voice had to make up for that lost emotion)... only to find my head come out the other end, still no richer than it went in! Rage and annoyance fills me, and like a child I repeat the process, but still no treasure to be found! Angry I stand up, throw the cloth on the ground and stomp off stage. I actually don't remember what the routine I planned consisted of, but it certainly wasn't this. A very interesting sensation. Maybe improvising isn't so bad after all? Vivian has a nice bit of wisdom to offer: “The purpose of play is that it doesn't have a purpose! It's just about discovery of the world...” Between rooting for participants and agitatedly whispering things like “yes... yeeeeessss... it's gonna happen...”, he also gives some more advice: as a clown, you can pretend you're asleep, not just by acting it, but you can peek, even open your eyes and even say “I am now asleep”! “It's a bit strange, but... okay!”
After lunch, we are dancing. In pairs of two, one person dances, then stops and as they stop, the other person starts dancing. A little dialogue develops. Then we do it, one pair at a time on stage for the others. My partner is an actual former ballet dancer—good thing there's no pretense of actual competition with my awkward self! Choice quotes here include: “You can be mean! It's called: grit!”, “She did invade my personal space [instructor interjection: good going!] so I invaded hers!”, “It's the first day and we have a death already!”, and a lot of interesting tension of all kinds.
Becoming a toothbrush
Next we are studying how “clowns become objects, how they identify as objects”: Vivian and Angie put a bunch of human-made objects into our circle of chairs: a watering can, tissues, a pillow, a fan, a frame, a clothes pin, an umbrella, and a net. In turn, everyone is to choose an object, not tell anyone what they chose, and then try to act that object out. Pretend they're the object. What do they move like? What do they feel like? What is their life like? Imagine, Vivian says, that you're a toothbrush: you might walk very stiffly and visibly disgusted when toothpaste is put on your face and you are shoved around in someone's mouth. Hopefully, all others can guess the object you acted out, you then take it to your seat and it's the next person's turn.
Everyone tackles the problem differently, but plenty fun situations ensue: “You had everything you need, words, physicality, emotion... and Kleenex!”, “Sir, do you like to be closed or open?”, “We're not the slaves of the roles we play: if you're a cushion... maybe you don't want to be sat on anymore!” Deep.
Afterwards, we form groups of three, two people interviewing the third's object and finding out more about their life. It's fun, but in retrospect, it was probably the most language-dominated exercise of the entire weekend.
For the final unit of the day, Vivian and Angie reveal the ultimate prop: the clown's nose. Every one of us gets one, but before we are allowed to put them on, the two of them list three rules. Rule 1: Don't touch the nose. Rule 2: Don't talk about the nose. Rule 3: Don't mention the word clown. These old rules, Vivian says, come from working with actual masks, but hold just as well for a clown's nose, the smallest mask of them all. And while the nose may not be required for clowning, it changes the way you breathe and feel, he says. “Something... happens.”
Equipped with noses and “costumes” composed of jackets, pants, and mostly hats and scarves, we prepare for the last exercise today: another performance in pairs. The first person is to come on stage, again, identifying as an object and tell us a little bit about their life. Then the second person comes on and is supposed to help the first person to act as that object as well as possible (something along the lines of “Oh, wow you're such a beautiful pan! What do you like frying best? Do you want me to get you some oil? Eat up!”). It takes us a few tries until we really understand the “rules.”
I go first, as person 2 for my person 1, a child's doll. I am acting as her best friend, the dishwasher. Anything to make the doll act out her doll-hood as well as possible. She sits on me and recounts moments of horror the child made her act out with the Ken doll... she had to eat his hair... and as the terrible memories come back to her, I offer her water, but—oh no!—it just comes out the bottom and we rush off stage. The next pair acts out a notebook that frees itself from its human masters. Angie says that it is okay to explore dark stories too, and that in fact that can make for a really nice opportunity for person 2 to come and lift you up. Emotions! Annabelle plays a witch's broom with memory loss that is fixed through a surgical intervention (placing a splinter back into the hole left in the broom). A wine bottle tells us that “as the night wears on some of [its] less expensive friends can drop by, too.” The best and most physical performance is probably that of the rotary beater that is dancing on stage as its person 2 (“A rotary beater? In this day and age?! You're the real thing!”) tries to use it to scramble eggs.
Preparing us for the next day, Vivian emphasizes how we will try to move away from language and into physical displays and emotions. The silence and the trust, the giving and the receiving, listening and cooperating, that really is where clowning lies...
Day 2: the water is back!
The water is back today, but we nevertheless start warming up by “dry showering”: making loud sounds (of course) and scrubbing our bodies as if we were washing ourselves. Then we move on the scrape the imaginary water off our bodies, tossing it in the direction of someone else who is to “receive” it, wildly overreacting at the torrent that hit them. Again, important clowning principle: small things need to result in stupid big reactions!
Vivian emphasizes how important it is to always make a sound while moving—it makes you more visible—just like children do! We tilt our heads imagining them to be trees that the wind is shaking, vocalizing the whooshing and howling of breezes and storms. “Clowning is how to be stupid... but we don't say that.”
The next exercise is again to make sure we keep breathing, and to foster our appreciation for the absurd: we are to rotate our hips while holding a polite English conversation with people, moving around the hall. A lot of comedy, Vivian explains, really comes from being incoherent and incongruent like that.
We move on to a block of exercises that involves telling random stories in groups of three. First we are to all tell how we spent the morning before coming here—but all at the same time without breaking eye contact with your two partners. Then we are to do the same, but listen to individual words in our partners' stories and incorporate them into our own. Then a gesture that they are making. It's quite tricky to keep your story flowing while listening and watching the two others, but again, it is also a lot of fun to try!
Storyteller and mime
We stay with stories, but now work in pairs: one person tells a story, and the other is acting it out as they speak. Interesting dynamics emerge, but Vivian reminds us that it really is about telling a story physically, with your whole body, and not just with this stupid language stuff that we are trying to get away from here. To drive that point home, we switch roles: now the mime makes the story happen and the first person describes it as they see it! An interesting balance between the two emerges, where the storyteller's interpretation and images are driving the mime's acting and they themselves are introducing things that the storyteller picks up on. Listening. Receiving. A current theme.
We are going to have another performance, but before Vivian tells us what he and Angie expect to see: “So much of your education is teaching you how to do things well—here we're teaching you how to mess things up! Often i'll stop you and show you something that went wrong and tell you how to make it... go more wrong! Let's see how bad it can get!” In order for it to be clowning have to be at least two stories going on, he explains, one between the characters that you're playing, but also one between the actors that are struggling to play it out perfectly and instead create these funny mess-up moments. He promises: “I'm going to give you some trouble! Because we're interested in trouble!” The lesson really is not to hide the problems that arise in this performance—but to act them out and play with them!
One person mimes a ballerina but suddenly she falls in love with the poor storyteller! The two levels are blurred and our storyteller is now struggling to keep the performance going... Participants are now explicitly brewing conflict to mix these levels, Vivian reminds them to not just be mean, but also make sure that the partner sees the bunny ears they're making behind their head so they can play with it! Between choice quotes like “she clearly... clearly... clearly... clearly shaved her legs”, the mean clashing, and the big time emotions these performances are real fun to watch. I really am gaining a lot of respect for clowns and the things they display.
One person admits to discomfort after exiting the stage—but the courage to be honestly playful about it on stage really is the key to clowning, says Vivian. It is funny to see how people tackle this differently and struggle with different parts of it, but much like yesterday people judge themselves much harsher than the audience does. Once again vivian highlights the importance of vulnerability and accepting to not be in control, the essence of clowning: “The very fact that you don't feel comfortable, that there's all this judgment, actually makes us as an audience love you.” Tears are being shed. Vivian tells us about Jacques Lecoq, who liberated clowning from circus to what it is to him now: Once a student was told to be funny and tried all their clown tricks for 15 minutes to no avail, sat down sad and depressed on a chair and gave up—and that is what made the judging teacher laugh! The line between the kind of discomfort that you can play with and actual discomfort that is so hard you can't go on is important, though. Never push it too hard! When in doubt, eye contact with the audience signals that you're actually okay and still playing just fine.
Before we go to lunch, we do a “lighter” performance: in groups of three, develop three freeze-frame displays of a fairytale, one for the beginning, one for the middle, one for the end. Combined with one line of text each, we act them out. Lighthearted fun.
Over lunch, Vivian explains the difference between the bouffon and the clown: both are “from the earth” and they speak honest truths—but the bouffon doesn't care about the audience's feelings! If a clown on the other hand actually hurts their audience... something went wrong.
After lunch, everyone gets a bamboo stick (are we gonna beat each other up? Luckily, no). As another pair exercise, we are to keep our sticks in the air pushing with our index fingers: one stick between my left index finger and my partner's right and one between my right and their left. Now we close our eyes and start moving around the room. Feel the pressure on the stick, slight movements. We begin to dance, always keeping the sticks in the air (which of course, I fail at twice), not seeing what our partner is doing, but feeling it through the sticks.
Performance, or The nose Part II
We go back to the storyteller and the mime, now restricting the storyteller to only make non-language sounds and later at most repeat a single word like a mantra, giving a voice to the emotions that the mime is acting out. Converting the exercise into performance, we have the mime walk and perform on stage, while their voice is hidden behind the audience and vocalizing the portrayed emotions, first with sounds, then with a random sentence.
For the final segment we put on noses and costumes again, to perform, again in pairs, and again on fairytales. Once we found a partner, we are to agree on a fairytale but speak about it no more—if we only know part or know different versions, all the better! More confusion is more fun. “Are you scared? It could go all wrong... which would be delightful...” Vivian also encourages us to be childish in how we play: since for example, we will have to decide on the fly what scene is happening and who is playing who, there might be conflict! Maybe you think you are playing Cinderella, but what if I also want to play Cinderella? We could fight over it! The goal really is to get away from the “right” or “original” story and just focus on an interesting scene and the interesting dynamics: portray strong emotions. “Clowns are big in the empathy department!” Oof.
At this point, for the first time in these two days, I feel tired. Those who know me know that I need my peace and quiet after socializing and that, honestly, it usually takes far less time than almost two entire days of clowning for that exhaustion and irritation to become apparent. It really speaks to the positive, safe, challenging, but gentle nature of the group and our instructors—an observation that is shared by many participants as we will find out in the closing circle.
But for now, we finish the day with a more fun and light exercise: standing in a circle, one person tells and acts out a story, but speaking only in Gibberish, then the next person “translates” into English, while trying to act it out the same way. The person after acts and speaks in Gibberish again to continue the story and so on. We tell a fun story of a bird that dies (and then suddenly isn't quite dead after all!) over and over again, finally making it all the way to God to plea for revenge only to get eaten in soup...
I go to sleep that night, the instructors' voices still resounding in my head... it really is one of the most intense things I've ever not and I wonder if I ever felt so emotionally exhausted. I'm very glad I came, even though I wish I could just leave and not speak to anyone for days.
Day 3: Goodbyes
The final half-day begins just the right way: massaging our partners, neck, shoulders, and arms. It's almost a shame that we move on after 20 minutes to a trust-fall-like exercise. One person closes their eyes and leans back against a person that is holding them up. The “falling” person is to try and see just how far back they can go before they feel that the holder is communicating that they're done. Listening and Receiving. Told you, didn't I?
The exercise morphs into a dance between a human that is slowly moving through the room, eyes closed, and their “guardian angel” that through touch is to keep them from harm (i.e., the walls and other participants). In a second stage, guardian angels move between humans, so you never know who exactly is securing you right now—but it is very interesting to feel how differently different angels handle their task (and who is willing to fight back if you're a stubborn human!).
The exercise ends, it is time for “the clown's goodbye.” We are to again put on nose and costumes and this time act out anything at all. Any memory we have. Something we wish would've gone better. Something we could make worse!
The doll comes back and invites me to be her dish washer one last time. Someone reenacts the cloth scene. Someone makes their Cinderella scene very non-PG-13 (though she promises that that wasn't on purpose...). Someone is slaying a dragon (I think?). Someone presents bad puns and fights the “snake” on stage (i.e., the rope that defined the stage to begin with) to great applause. Someone sits down and thanks us for the memories before dancing off stage by themselves.
We gather for a group picture and then sit down in our last circle. People share very emotional things. Some things that came out of the workshop. Others things that happen in their lives. Many tears are shed. This group really has been an amazing place to be silly and free for all of us. A safe space to play. And as we leave, we are given one last definition: clowning is about being who you are and where you are. It's about letting go of protective layers we put on and just being true.