Training Actors, Clowns, Directors – What works, how and when?

By Ira Seidenstein

November 24, 2010

Tough love. How to address the Emperor’s New Clothes in the training of Actors, Clowns, Directors? Dario Fo attempted this in his book “Tricks of the Trade”. There he had a chapter “A Master With Whom I  Disagree”. Here I am assuming that you know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes and even understand it as a metaphor or will look it up in a library or via google. 

The gist is that things are not always what they seem. The story goes something like this: An emperor asks for the finest tailor in the empire. The emperor wants a new set of royal robes/clothes.  In this case the tailor has told the emperor that this is the finest thinest silk in the world. So thin in fact, there is nothing. The day comes to walk before the masses in his new clothes. The emperor walks before the public. The public knows only to agree with each other and they say how wonderful the clothes are even though there is nothing there.

When it comes to the training of actors, clowns, directors too often, not always, but, too often….. even so called famous trainings are not worth the time, effort, and money one invests.

To understand what really works and for who and under what circumstances one has to ask a few layers of questions. For example, and a very fine example, Bill Irwin who is a wonderful clown and actor who won Best Actor at the recent Tony Awards for Broadway shows. Bill is a good fellow and also very talented, skilled, intelligent and creative. Even if someone went through the same training as Bill had is hardly a guarantee to end up with what Bill has achieved. Bill did actually train to be a clown. He trained  at The Ringling Clown College that had existed for several decades. However Bill has several other VERY important influences besides having trained at RCC. Prior to that Bill studied acting and theatre for four years at two universities with his ‘master teacher’ Herbert Blau. Blau was the key director who imported the avant-garde plays from Europe. Blau started a small ensemble for his diligent students. The company was Kraken and in that small ensemble of devotees was also Julie Taymor. But to understand Bill’s training a little bit further one must understand that at university he also met a phenomenal dancer named Kimi Okada. They began a friendship that evolved to be a personal relationship and also a professional relationship that continues today. But Bill also has another layer supporting his gifts and that layer is his experience with two other top clown/actor/directors namely founder of Pickle Family Circus, Larry Pisoni, and Geoff Hoyle. Along with them were co-founder of Pickle – Peggy Snider and the Pickle ensemble. In that ensemble and as a trio of clowns there was a fervent, deep research and period of development of techniques and material that helped establish a foundation for Bill along with Blau and Okada’s influences combined with his own gifts and ambition. Then most likely Bill’s family influence including his father’s discipline and intellect as a scientist all help to create more accurate base for Bill’s ‘training’ as a clown, actor, director. 

What I am reflecting also is the firm knowledge that Pierre Bourdieu explains as habitus – or the three key layers that influence the success of every individual. Habitus is the embodied experience from ones childhood environment, family, and education. 
Slava Polunin also a truly great clown, actor, director from St. Petersburg. At a national circus conference a few years ago, at a forum discussing clown, one young circus artist insisted that Slava had no training as a clown. Not true. First of all Slava had an education and at a tertiary level he trained as an engineer. Engineering, architecture and other fields are just as valid for ways of organizing thoughts and creative manifestation as are formal performing arts education. In fact, engineering and architecture may be better. Like all fine clowns, Polunin and Irwin already had a both strong inclinations and desires to be clowns. Polunin, has, so I have heard, one of the world’s largest private collections of clown videos. So, yes, he did actually train as a clown. He studied films of clowns. He also began to make etudes (studies) in mime. Very short comic mime pieces that required no training other than ones self-discipline to create a clear, logical, choreographed sequence that was also short. Like Irwin, Polunin also had two other key colleagues with whom he could learn. So as a trio they could follow their inclinations and investigate the world of clowning. Additionally, like Irwin, Polunin had a female life partner who also is superbly talented, skilled, intelligent and ambitious.  I have seen Polunin’s wife perform in Slava’s Snowshow and she is great!!!! Transcendental. And I have seen Okada perform with Irwin at Project Artaud in San Francisco (long ago). She too could best be described as transcendental. 

So if one is not Irwin nor Polunin how does one train as a clown or as a clown-actor-director?

to be continued…
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Ira Seidenstein