The latest in an ever evolving state
A Brief Essay On Clown
If anyone tells you “This is the definition of clown!” or tries to definitively designate what a clown is, feel free to go directly into subversive mode and find exceptions that diminish and challenge the statement. So often I hear or read “a clown must fail” or “a clown must be funny”, or “a clown must speak truth to power” or the absolute worst “clown is for children”! What other artistic endeavour is so fettered by such limiting restrictions as to their nature and/or usefulness?
As a conversation starting point I would offer up this:
Clown: An expression in response to a combination of intellectual and sensory stimuli with a consideration of beauty of form and expression of emotion. While often engaging in the absurd, the bizarre, the humorous, the existential, the mundane, the sacred, the blasphemous, and the extreme, clowning should always be a skillful artistic expression/conversation that has the ability to access the entirety of the human experience for content.
When one is seeking to understand what a clown is, the Jungian perspective might suggest that it is part of the internal archetypal landscape within these sacks of mostly water we call a human being, and refers to one’s clown or internal trickster or saboteur. Personally, I would say that my clown is the overriding psyche through which I endeavour to express myself creatively. In other words it is the nature of how I explore and express myself artistically whether it be through writing, performance, or music. There are no limitations with regard to genre, form, style, or subject matter. It may not always have an obvious or traditional clunic appearance or sound but it engages the abandonment and delight I require to effectively source and express myself artistically. To be clear, I also perform as a clown named Smoot with red nose, full make-up and speaking in a form of gibberish. However, that creative impulse that I source as Smoot is the same one I use for writing, creating, playing music, drawing, or just for walking in the woods with my canine friend Gordanach seeking new inspiration. If you talk or act a little differently or playfully when speaking to a pet or baby then you are quite possibly accessing your own clown persona.
With Regards to Teaching
Humans are incredible. While we all possess human universality through our DNA, we are each supremely unique through our almost infinite DNA and environmental combinations. Even identical twins differ from each other. This work celebrates this universality and individuality as the student prances through their masks and colours on the way to discover their clown in its creative universe.
There is a wonderful specific exercise in the Pochinko-based Clown Through Mask workshop (Baby Clown) called Looking for a Feeling. However, if I were to sum up the entirety of Baby Clown I would say it is all about Looking for a Feeling. This work distinguishes itself through a very nurturing approach oriented to the individual student to intuitively discover their personal clown, one that is unique to them. All the mask making and wearing, colour work, and movement exercises are done in an environment where judgement (both of self and of others) and editing are discouraged. Abandonment and unfettered exploration are encouraged, all executed in an atmosphere of compassion, support, and respect.
There is an all-encompassing instruction I give on the first day of class that is a quote from the wonderful comedy juggling acrobatic troupe The Flaming Idiots; “Do what you want, don’t hurt anybody”. This of course includes hurt caused physically or emotionally and “anybody” includes yourself.
It could be described as an inside-out form of creative exploration. The masks and colours are treated like personal character files including their qualities and stories. The 7 colours of the visible light spectrum and 6 directions are each internalized through impulse oriented physicalization and visualization exercises. For example, in an external paradigm, the colour red may bring up images of passion or anger, green may mean abundance or fertility. But in this work we go internally to find out who and what the individual is when they are the green or red character and individual variations on this are infinite. In thinking about directions, North may bring up feelings of mystery and East may mean new beginnings. However, through an internal paradigm each individual discovers their own version of the character North or East. With the directions we go even further to find an innocent (child) version as well as an experienced (adult) version.
In this school of thought there are currently up to 38 Clown Rules and more General Principles and Underlying Philosophies. As a teacher I must follow them all myself while revealing them to the students through the process of Baby Clown. My personal belief is that we all possess them already, embedded intuitively within our psyches. They are human qualities or awarenesses. However, through socialization and genetics, specific rules can either become suppressed (“think about it before you do something stupid”) or just difficult to access. A nurturing “safe” space is created for the courageous risk-taking required to find those original impulses, those impulses that come well before “thinking” kicks in.
The intellect, along with judgement of self and others, is discouraged at first, while the idea that everyone is at their own unique place on their own unique journey is constantly reinforced. Supporting each other without interfering, having fun, being honest, and caring enough not to care about outcome or success are all the persistent underpinnings of the introductory work.
As a bartender in the ‘80s in Toronto I learned a very important principle. I learned it from the best bartender I’ve ever known. He is also an amazing bass player and fine artist. He could carry on three or four widely varying conversations about things like particle physics, literature, and the socio/political zeitgeist, while serving 30+ customers at the bar and making drinks for another 80+ customers in the restaurant. He used the principle of Freedom Through Structure. He had the bar so prepped and set up (structured) for perfect execution, specifically suited to him, that he was free to engage the room in an entertaining, efficient, and meaningful way.
This experience was also the beginning of the study of The Magic Space, alternatively known as The Fantastic Space, which is the intersection of the clown’s personal space and that of the audience’s collective space. This is where both the metaphoric and actual conversation takes place and if properly established and maintained, anything can happen. While the student is fleshing out their creative playground through the masks and colour work they are also, through very specific exercises and practices, exploring the process of creating and maintaining The Magic Space, of Making Contact and Keeping the Conversation Going.
All of these principles and rules continue to be adhered to as the levels of training get more evolved from the wide open exploration of Baby Clown. Depending on the student’s reasons for doing the work we begin to add elements like dramaturgy, editing, story elements, and reality tracking. In other words, the intellect is gradually invited back in to help guide the artistic efforts towards the desired destination while being firmly rooted in the individual’s unique creative playground. This continues into my directing, coaching, and creation workshops for professional projects.
At all stages of this process Pochinko encouraged us to practise what he called Cynical Benevolence. This is to say be as cynical as you want about the effectiveness or value of any exercise or practice, but let your benevolence rule in a sincere effort to explore as best you can. Then you will have wholeheartedly tried it before rejecting or accepting that element of the practice. In this way your journey will have been perfect.
Bullet Points of My Approach
- Have fun
- Be honest
- Follow the impulse
- Make contact
- Keep the conversation going
- A clown can do anything
- Freedom through structure
- Practice the art of not knowing
- Everyone is at their own place on their own journey
- Care enough not to care
- Exploration is going somewhere you haven’t been
- Support without interfering
- Constructive subversion
- Delight in all aspects of humanity.
- Cynical benevolence
I have primarily taught this work beginning with Baby Clown but there are many shorter workshops that I have taught while adhering to the same criteria. Institutions that I have worked at include 19 years as a sessional instructor in both the French and English theatre programs at Laurentian University, The Yale School of Drama, Tel Aviv University, California State University, University of Colorado, University of New Mexico, Michigan Tech, University of Calgary, Guelph University, Bishops University, University of Winnipeg, Equity Showcase, The SPACE, and The Humber College Comedy program among others. Colleagues and students have carried the influence of this work even further afield to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, across the United States, Canada and beyond.