Beyond The Norm in Clown Training

By Ira Seidenstein

May 31, 2013

Beyond the Norm in Clown Training by Ira Seidenstein, PhD

This is a brief article on the subject of Clown Training. The point of the article is to open discussion about topics that seem to lack discourse in the field of Clown Training. There are a lot of assumptions. Here I am simply providing a counter-point of view to some of those key assumptions.

The general tendency in clown training seems to be to play games. It is already a paradox that one is teaching others to play or teaching how to play games. One can teach the rules but how does one teach the leeway and the way to overstep the rules? How does one teach another person to stretch the boundaries of a game by restricting those people? How does one teach the most open, expansive, artform that is nearly beyond definition by restricting the discoveries of the actor/student to the pre-packaged definition? 
The world of clown teaching is expansive yet it is not so varied. There is an idea in clowning for the actor/student to be an authentic, unique character. Yet when this uniqueness begins to reveal itself often the clown is pulled back, restricted, and not necessarily given permission and not necessarily allowed to take permission of their own definition. It is interesting too how many clown teachers were hardly ever clowns.
One phenomena in clown teaching is the Russian school, another is the French school, then there is the teaching of circus clown, and increasingly there is teaching specialization in clown. The specializing is defined by terms such as clown doctors, theatre clown, improvisation, or clown mask, as some examples. There is a tendency in clown teaching of denial of those who came before i.e. the elders, the masters, the veteran clowns. There is a tendency to deny all that a person brings with them before they attempt to clown. Paradoxically when someone completes a clown training they seem to feel morally obligated to only mention the most recent training. This shows that some clown teachers have somehow been dogmatic or have convinced the participants to deny their own past developments either in terms of physical training, artistic training or in intellectual development. This tends to cause a cult-like behavior where by the actor/student is constantly trying to please papa or mama i.e. the clown teacher.  To put it more simply, it seems, that quite a few clown teachers are subtly taking seniority over the naive paying customer – the actor/clown. The actor/clown gives up their seniority in the first place by believing publicity and not asking in-depth questions about the publicized proposed authority of the the clown teacher. It is a market place and each clown teacher is peddling their wares. The field is so out of kilter that one can see visually in the showings of the most famous clown teachers that the actor/clowns body is restricted to be a vertical bean pole standing still. Invariably in most clown workshops short or long – the program starts either with children’s games, theatre games or getting the actor/clown to enter the space and stand still and do nothing. So a mixed neurological signaling starts most workshops a) this is all about play and b) you play the way the teacher likes i.e. where they have total psychological control over the actor/clowns body. Additionally clown teaching for various reasons is prone to dogma and convincing the actor/student that the teacher is all knowing or even wise. Even in courses where there is supposed to be ‘training of the body’ what really takes place is that the body learns to not take risks as the teacher will not approve.
I would question what was the teacher like as a 10th grader in high school. I would ask what was the teacher like as a child or adolescent when it came to play, to games, to sports, to study, to social interaction. It seems that there is indeed something rotten in the state of clown teaching and it is particularly prone to the ’emperor’s new clothes’.
In the clown world and to some degree, in some circles it has been taboo to criticize the methods or style of teaching found in the French school(s) of clown training. These are actually the only  most known schools namely those of Lecoq and derivatives or cloned schools. There is some continuum in attitude and fallacies the original school and the derivative schools. It was a student,Pierre Byland, who showed up one day with a red nose to do one presentation. As Lecoq reports the tale, “the clown arrived” at his school. There were other student inputs into the development of the Lecoq training and that is a complement to Lecoq that at times he accepted input, change, influence. Although Lecoq manages to deny or not mention his great muse Carlo Mazzone-Clementi who was side by side with Lecoq for three years when they were attempting to rediscover ‘commedia dell’arte. He also neglects to mention his great muse, colleague and friend who journeyed the influence of art in Lecoq’s method. That artist was the sculptor Gerard Koch. Note that Ringling Brothers Clown College began unofficially in 1967, begun by my teacher Danny Chapman. Bill Irwin graduated from the Ringling Clown College after he studied acting and theatre with Herbert Blau. Officially it began 1968 with a full staff and masterminded by Bill Ballantine. The International Juggling Association was started by a clown “Happy Daze” – Art Jennings, Sr about 1947 and had an influence on clowning in the USA. About that time Lotte Goslar began touring her Pantomime Circus extensively in the USA and that was distinctly a clown theatre show. Clowns International started about this time as well.
Another student who had been a trained dancer explained to Lecoq that his school needed the technique of Moshe Feldenkrais. The Feldenkrais method actually is one of the key elements of the Lecoq program. However, the most significant key secret of those who actually managed to have a career after Lecoq’s programming is that generally those who succeeded almost invariably were trained elsewhere, often with a B.A. in classical acting and movement for theatre – before attending the school. This is still true with many of the derivative schools as well, that the students success is actually dependent on their previous training usually in a formal B.A. program. The social theorist Pierre Bourdieu lays out illusion in his general theory of education. He explains that art and education are continually subject to illusio, misrecognition, symbolic violence and that yesterday’s new method becomes an unbendable orthodoxy that creates illusion to maintain power and control. Intended or not this is the result that Lecoq and Gaulier have become the dominant players in clown training and their dominance is based on illusion. They are also far from the best methods. It is the emperor’s new clothes of clown training. Both Lecoq and Gaulier and most of their derivative schools and teachers deny the existence and wisdom and value of the great clowns not only of international renown such as Chaplin, Keaton, Lucille Ball, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen etc but also when they set up shop in another country it is as if no clowns existed before Lecoq and Gaulier. For example in the UK, in the Lecoq/Gaulier based schools when it comes to clowning where in the curriculum does the teacher acknowledge: Max Miller, Max Wall, The Goons, Spike Milligan, The Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Carry On films, Dad’s Army, Norman Wisdom, Rowan Atkinson, The Young Ones, Absolutely Fabulous, or Peter Sellers? Naturally with Peter Sellers the Lecoq clan will say the usual “what about Geoffrey Rush”  who portrayed Peter Sellers in the biographic film. Rush was a student of Lecoq, formidable training with the Englishman Alan Edwards.  Yes but Rush wasn’t Peter Sellers. There is a rather large difference. And when it comes to clown it is authenticity that is often important. Peter Sellers was completely 100% authentic. Geoffrey Rush is a very fine actor who was taught acting  and mime  by Alan Edwards an important Englishman who was an influential force in  the actor training in Australia. Rush being the famous person he is acknowledged both Edwards and Lecoq at their eulogies. It is the Lecoq clan as a general example that continues to add illusio and misrecognition, for example, Rush’s case they will only say ‘he trained at Lecoq’s’ rather than ‘he trained at Lecoq’s and with Alan Edwards’.In Australia the clown teachers generally have little knowledge about the actual great Australian clowns – from Harry van der Sluice/Roy “Mo” Rene, George Wallace, George Wallace, Jr, Gary Grant, Doug Ashton, Barry Humphries, Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, Nancye Hayes, Reg Livermore, John Saffron, Graham Kennedy, The Auntie Jack Show, Mary Coustas, Nick Gianapoulous, or the incredible Chris Lilley and Pauly Fenech. Or the brilliant team of the STC Review including Mandy Bishop. For some examples. And now we see New Zealanders; Flight of the Concorde, and the great Taika Waitiki.

It is not that Lecoq and derivatives are not contributing forces in what I call The Clown Movement – TCM, but,  it is rather that there are much greater and much better possibilities for clown training, education, and emergence of authenticity than are provided by the Lecoq and derivatives syndrome. Speaking of ‘syndrome’ sometimes on this topic I’m reminded of the Stockholm Syndrome that occurs when someone is held hostage physically and psychologically in such a way that the victim becomes emotionally attracted to their captor. 
In reality the so-called training or even liberating of the body at Lecoq’s is derived from the method of Moshe Feldenkrais. For many years this method was taught by Monika Pagneaux. She and the Feldenkrais Technique then became and key inside school. However, in both schools where she taught it was a good cop/bad cop situation. So while Pagneaux was nurturing all students Lecoq and staff were psychologically manipulating students and at least one member has been psychologically abusive. This is well known but ‘no one’ in the clown community will admit or discuss that he has psychologically abused – as is continually reported – the majority of his students.
So some of the key points regarding the norm in clown teaching so far:a) many teachers (even famous ones) were never clowns and are often not good teachers
b) actors/customers do not actually investigate the background of the teachers
c) those who succeed usually have had a formal B.A. in theatre studies
d) there has been an appropriation of the legacy of actual clowns
e) a denial of local (national) clowns of note and accomplishment by teachers of clownAnother thing that students brought to Lecoq was during the 1968 Paris student uprising when the Lecoq students demanded time to also teach themselves. This became Auto-Cours or self-study. Each week the students would present a short performance and Lecoq and his staff would critique the pieces. Ironically this fine tool – self-study – was also how the students gave up their seniority and this has become one of the ways that the Lecoq based schools and teachers continue to maintain psychological control over the students will. Specifically it is the liminal space of a) way of feedback and b) the ambiguity in the initial directions. Since the initial directions, theme, and restrictions are ambiguous the students are subject to the whims and rhythm of the teachers. In many cases going through the curriculum of the Lecoq method what actually occurs is that the actor/students have learned a series of exercises. So rather than having been clowns or mimes or mask performers or commedia performers for example, the majority of teachers in the Lecoq (and Gaulier) have often limited experience as performers in the various genres not to mention limited experience onstage as an actor. 

In most cases they know ‘exercises’ that like most theatre games do not actually work even though the experience of doing an exercise or game may be challenging or fun. Exercises are fun, energising, but, exercises are not training. What does work, or has worked, in reality has been the standard 3 or 4 year general university acting programs based on the work long established by Michel Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis had been a student of his uncle Jacques Copeau and an actor in his company. Saint-Denis created a university acting/theatre program combining the work of Stanislavsky and Copeau. 

To read about how an authentic journey of clown takes place I recommend the autobiographies of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal (700 Sundays), Lotte Goslar, and the 2012 documentary Woody Allen – the long  original version. The clown teaching world has yet to evolve to understand the teaching of the Russian school. Even those teachers who have participated in Slava’s Snow Show are not of the stature intellectually nor inclination of Slava Polunin himself who was trained as an engineer and is a fervent intellectual with a wide range of interests in art, theatre, social/politics and philosophical/spiritual matters. His main show, Snow Show, reflects all of his positive attributes whereas so much other clown in the world lacks depth. There are a number of women clowns – distinctly not of the French schools who have also a wide range of virtues not only in subject matter and genuine informed clown knowledge but also a highly developed individual aesthetics. Most of the ones I am thinking of rarely teach. Viveka Olofssen is one exception who does teach and is part of a long history of Scandinavian clowns. She trained at Marcel Marceau’s school in mime, as did the wonderful Nola Rae. 

Lotte Goslar taught a number of dancers the arts of clown and mime when they were hired into her long touring show Lotte Goslar’s Pantomime Circus of course she understood that once the body was trained as in proper dance training for example, then, one could begin to rapidly learn clown and mime. In truth, the greater clowns have all been athletically inclined, most since the cultural revolution of the 1960s were graduates of classical acting/theatre training. As Bill Irwin said to me recently “I’m so glad I trained as an actor.” His teacher was Herbert Blau. Since the 1986 I have recognized that the biggest gap in the training of clowns is that they increasingly lacked genuine training in classical acting and lack authentic physical training in any key discipline such as proper dance, acrobatics, martial arts or even elite sports training. The International School for Acting And Clown – I.S.A.A.C. is a fluid conceptual school of thought provides the key elements to close the gap for any person. It is not a building nor a set curriculum. I.S.A.A.C. rather teaches practical use of  universal principles of acting and clown in a most succinct way. This method allows any learner to use whatever they have in their background and this method also brings all of the work back to the innate wisdom of one’s body. …. to be continued.

This article is to be continued. You are welcome to write to me directly at
Also it is of note that many performers of various schools and trainings attend my workshops and mentorship – anyone is welcomed. Additionally as explained further in my book Clown Secret I did have some  training in the Lecoq methods at the Dell’arte School. Although I did all of the exercises and presentations with 100% commitment – I was a free spirit and did them my own way no matter what the feedback was. Prior I had trained in the Stanislavsky method and also significantly I had an apprenticeship with a clown who had been in the circus 55 years. He had also been the highest level aerial acrobat and had been Boss Clown in Ringling Brothers circus for a number of years. After Dell’arte I went on to train as a teacher of Iyengar Yoga, later completed my graduate degrees – an M.A. in Visual & Performing Arts (thesis “The Body of the Actor in the Space of the Theatre” a study in cell-to-cell communication), and a PhD in Education to establish a new paradigm for the education of theatre practitioners including directors, teachers, clowns, dancers.

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Ira Seidenstein