Thursday, July 10, 2014

10 Responses to the Personal Clown Question: Why for Actors? By George Lewis

First off, let me be clear about a couple of things. The course is called Personal Clown because that is the name given to this approach by its originator, Jacques LeCoq, in Paris. It came from research he led with a group of his students into the question, "what makes funny?" In this research they used the red nose as a vehicle for their experiments.

And: this is LeCoq's approach but it is also very much oriented for actors. There may be professional aspiring clowns or mimes or dancers or circus artists in the class, but the focus is on acquiring tools you can use as an actor as well as entering fully and spontaneously into a new sense of the present - what I call "exploding the moment." So: no balloon animals, no crowding into a Volkswagon, no birthday parties.

It is serious work, and there is a real discipline to it and it is not easy. It requires: the willingness to be publicly vulnerable, raw, and uncomfortable, to live in a state of not knowing what to do next: the availability to discover what presents itself, and to jump into whatever that is to see where it will lead you. All in front of an audience. All shared with the public. This approach is not gradual: it occurs with a crash.

The feedback I have received from students over the years say that it has taken then into a different way of experiencing their lives and their theatrical work.

Here are some of the specific skills/results this work can bring:

1. Presentational skills: we as student/actors are accustomed to working intimately with our partners which can often be at the expense of the audiences' participation. As actors, we must not only be seen and heard, but also what happens within us and between us must be visible and audible to the audience. This applies not only to physicalization/vocalization of feelings but also to the clarity of gestures and physical actions. In his exaggerated world, the clown lives with and is in constant communication with the audience.

2. The clown lives in a perpetual state of discovery. As actors we so easily pass over moments and events, taking them for granted, not seeing the myriad possibilities they offer us. Working in clown heightens this awareness.

3. So much of the study of clown is based on an "outside in" approach to acting, as opposed to the more "inside out" or psychological Stanislavski approach. It deals with emotional truth in a very different way, but absolutely requires that the clown be truthful: we slap on a physical fact and then must fill it from the inside. As actors we need a vast "toolbox" of ways to crack open a character, a circumstance, a moment. All that concerns us is what works for us; there is no "method" - there is only our own "method".

4. It is very easy to live - and to act - in the extreme, to leap from extreme to extreme. The study of clown can teach us how to 'grow' a reaction, to modulate our emotional expressions, and thus to vary our performance.

5. The clown has his/her own logic that makes perfect sense to them but that may defy the audiences' sense of reasonable. As actors, we live in problems - the obstacle, the struggle. Part of our challenge is to find what Richard Brestov called "the uncommon response to the everyday circumstance." We cannot afford to be ordinary.

6. The clown plays with everything and everyone he/she encounters. Everything has the potential to be a 'partner'- a stick, the floor, a feather, another character. As actors, we need to learn that playfulness, whether we be acting in Othello or in The Odd Couple. We say that we 'play' an action, but so often we 'do' it or force it to occur without that underlying sense of freeness. There can be and needs to be a profound sense of fun in everything that we do onstage.

7. The clown is born in the moment of failure. Then he/she expands that moment and it takes him/her on a ride- he/she surfs it from moment to moment. With practice, the piece becomes one long ride, one extended moment. As every actor knows, playing comedy is hell: much easier to play is the dramatic. The study of clown delves into a sense of comedy that is rooted in its opposite, that transcends the 'clever' and descends into the belly where from laughter emerges as a primal response.

8. There is a dynamic to space, to the expansion or contraction of the distance between things and people. As such the touch can be seen as the ultimate proximity. If we are conscious of space in this way, we can play with it: clown can teach us that.

9. There is a heightened energy level or 'presence' to everything the clown documents. The clown has an extraordinary focus. We need these qualities.

10. In the study of personal clown we create for ourselves individually our own clown character. This character-based on our own traits - is both distinct and extreme in his/her physical and vocal comportment: it is not naturalistic though it is, as mentioned earlier, grounded in truth. In this exploration of character, we learn valuable tools about creating and living in characters that are physically and vocally different than we are in our everyday lives.

And there is more, so much more. Clown is role - taught as an important part of the curriculum at the major "Masters in Acting" theatre programs, both here and abroad. The study of clown brings us to the precipice of the unknown and then leaps off into it. For us as actors it teaches us to live more fully and with greater clarity in everything we do on stage.
George Lewis will be teaching Personal Clown and Advanced Clown at Freehold this summer.  For more information:

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