Monday, December 12, 2011

Memories of Freehold: "What Splitting My Pants Taught Me About Being Human or Lessons from Personal Clown with George" by Cathleen O’Malley

At the time I registered for George Lewis’s Lecoq-based “Personal Clown” class (Spring 2003) I was, frankly, a little wary of clowns. My opinion of the form was unfortunately tainted by the unoriginal, often-fearsome, pop culture representations of clowns, scary or worse--dilapidated sad sacks with frizzy scarlet hair and a forced attitude of mirth that provoked in me (as for many people, I suspect) a major case of the willies, if not the urge to violence. I had not yet encountered the work of Jacques Lecoq, nor George as teacher, but a combination of the intriguing class description and the awed testimonials from former students convinced me to take the plunge and risk having my mind blown.

During the first week of class, we were given the task of assembling a costume. Intrigued by the vague notion that clowning was somehow related to “failure”, my first attempt resulted in an unsightly head-to-toe ensemble of ratty men’s long johns, pre-stained with indelible grime and sweat and salvaged from the discount rack at the Capitol Hill Value Village. “No, no no!” George rolled his eyes and turned me away with a dramatic flourish of his hands. “What are you WEARING? What is that--men’s underwear? And all the same color--totally wrong!”

I arrived at the next class decked in stripes and jaunty black polyester ankle pants, gloves and (I wince)...a beret. This was my attempt at a “Euro” look, sort of cutesy and androgynous, with a dash of...Parisian street performer? In spite of my efforts, the result was lame and I knew it from the moment I crossed the threshold. George was similarly unimpressed. On that count, it was fortunate that the costume did not last long.

The performance I had prepared (now long wiped from my memory by subsequent events) had tanked, and I was exposed, stock-still and grasping desperately for a new “bit” as my classmates gazed back at me blankly. I deployed the best of my moves--a super-controlled, yogi-like headstand, with my legs rising flat as a board. No response. A freestyle hip hop combination--not a chuckle. Having run out of ideas, my performance quickly devolved into a halting montage of yoga asanas, fake tap dancing, gazelle leaps and rhythm gymnastics across the space, all in an attempt to elicit a reaction from the audience. They remained stone faced. In a burst of desperation, I plunged into a full split--and it was then that the seams gave way.

For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of studying clown with George (or anyone)--a bit of context. One of the most standard clown exercises is deceptively simple and exceeding provocative. Each instructor has their own approach, but the basic task is this: “Enter. Make the audience laugh.”

While in sketch comedy, a character enters a constructed world and interacts with it (to comic effect), a clown enters an empty space, in which she creates a world with and for the audience.

Getting to that point takes some goading. We all have--as I discovered painfully over the course of Personal Clown and beyond--tricks and habits that we employ towards our basic human desire for love and approval. The role of the clown instructor--like a semi-sadistic Ring Master--is to poke holes in these pretensions, towards the end of revealing the authentic character underneath--open, vulnerable, whole and complete in her imperfections.

Rrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip. Silence. A breeze. A sinking realization.

“Excuse me miss,” George’s eyes were sparkling “Is there something the matter?”

“Uh.” Clown class had happened to fall at the tail end (no pun intended) of laundry week and, me-at-22 was frantically combing my memory to unsure if I had dressed myself that morning with something recognizable as underwear.

“Weren’t you in the middle of a dance routine?”

“Uh, um.” I am slowly inching my way back towards the tall black flats marking the entrance to the space, and thus, safety.

“Are you holding something behind your back? What’s wrong, miss? Is there a problem?”

The class was in complete uproar and George wasn’t letting me off the hook. An unfortunate blush boiling and spreading up from my neck, I set about the task of recreating my fake tap, gazelle-leaping, yoga asana, rhythm gymnastic routine, all the while clutching the flapping fabric at my back end, two pant legs separated cleanly from top to bottom, held together only by the front zipper, waste band and my desperate efforts. One-handed dance moves were the only available option for the pathetic little clown on the stage. Careful, labored spins eventually gave way to a sort of gawky virtuosity as the laughter of the audience loosened my breath and I began to play. When I finally made my exit to enthusiastic applause, I paused for a moment backstage, quivering and stunned.

“That,” George’s voice rang out, “is called a Gift from God.”

In the empty space of the ring, we learned, the clown emerges though authentic response to the audience, the environment and the circumstances that arise. Thus, every accident is an opportunity; every failure, a springboard for creation. Personal Clown taught that it is our uniqueness and, most poignantly, our failings and flaws that most delight the audience, if we are willing to bring them to the stage--and it is through the red-nosed clown, the smallest mask, that our humanity shines. A lesson to live by, onstage and off!

Cathleen went on to study Lecoq-based Physical Theatre at the London International School of Performing Arts. She now lives and works in Bethlehem, PA, where she is the Education Director and an Ensemble Member of Touchstone Theatre.

George Lewis will be teaching Intermediate Clown at Freehold this Winter Quarter.

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