The Joy of Teaching Clown… and the paradoxes.

By Ira Seidenstein

August 4, 2023

Teaching Clown is a wonderful experience.

It’s a field in which paradoxes abound.

As in Ballet, a great ballet dancer may or may not be an ideal teacher and may or may not be a good choreographer. Many great Ballet teachers were not choreographers. Many wonderful Ballet teachers had limited or short careers as dancers. Such truisms apply also to the teaching of Clown. But Clown is a totally different ‘discipline’.

Clown as a discipline and profession is an open field with no qualified international controlling administrative body. Fortunately!!! Anyone can teach Clown and anyone can do clown exercises or clown training. Anyone. And that is a good thing. A wonderful thing.

It is a well known adage that one cannot teach someone to be or to become a Clown. Yet someone who is inclined or desires to become a Clown can learn many of the techniques associated with clown such as: dance, mime, juggling, magic, gags, comedy, singing, or music etc. Those are all skills that involve techniques which are part of those art forms.

One can also learn from books. There are books from veteran clowns mostly of the party and events type entertainment clowns and in those few books what we could call ‘olde school’ there are heaps of tricks and gags with their instructions. On paper they don’t seem like much. And even when one begins to try and practice they don’t always come alive. But take any old act and memorize and play with it and you just might discover your ‘clown within’.

One can even learn clowning, that is, how to clown. Clowning as a verb is an action to entertain and communicate in performance. It generally implies to bring joy or to provoke laughter in an audience.

However, there are very different audiences who desire or even need all types of different clowns.

Some clowns are culturally specific as in Indigenous and Folk Cultures. Their clowning may involve the local language or it may involve cultural specific references.

In the profession of clowning even a circus clown’s act and style may not translate in a theatre and vice versa. A Clown Doctor that performs primarily within an intimate room for those in need. Whereas the same qualified and experienced performer may not function well or their techniques and character may not function in an outdoor arena or plaza. And vice versa. A burlesque clown may not function well on screen as in Television or Film. A clown who performs for private functions and events may not be the right style to perform as one of Shakespeare’s abundance of clowns as within a play in a theatre.

On the other hand a single clown or a team of clowns could possibly do well in all of those environments provided the clowns adjust or create material and sensibilities suited to each different situation.

The core problem around clown teaching has to do with most teachers defining what a clown is or isn’t, and corralling every student into said codification of a dogmatic nature.

The field of Clown is a ‘broad church’:) (as the saying goes). It is an open field. The French we love because their Culture discerns the subtle differences between their hundreds of regional cheeses and wines. However, that same attitude applied to Clown has long been known to be artistically chauvinistic.

If a teacher of clown prefers Buster Keaton over Charlie Chaplin – that is the teacher’s personal prerogative. No problem. Until the said teacher dogmatically tries to convince each of their students to believe dogmatically in the teacher’s personal preference. The same problem then repeats itself ad infinitum through their school’s teaching staff (if they want to keep their job); and through the derivative schools and their teachers, and so on through the generations of teachers and schools. The root of that problem is the ‘physical theatre’ schools originating in and from Paris which offer a short period of so-called ‘clown training’. Naturally, some students can move beyond the dogmatic approach that they must kowtow i.e. submit to.

I knew Hugh Jackman’s Acting teacher, Lisle Jones. When I last met with Lisle when he was in his 80s I asked him what it was like to teach Hugh. Lisle replied: “Oh I can’t say that I taught him anything. He was just the most wonderful student. He would have been just as good if he had gone to a daycare centre.”

In the paradoxical world of ‘teaching’ clown it is really about each participant making their own discoveries. One of my theatre teachers who taught me mime and commedia, was the Italian-American Carlo Mazzone-Clementi. He called his ‘method’ by a nickname “the art of discovery”. Of course his teaching was directly related to Clown and he had a deep passion for the American silent and early film comedians who were all actually clowns. Most had been Vaudeville clowns which had a focus on slapstick. The first day we ten students of theatre met with Carlo he spoke for less than an hour as we all sat on the floor in a circle. One point he mentioned was that even though our course was only 10 weeks he said it is actually “a ten YEAR school!!”. He explained that the 10 weeks was for the American situation where people insisted on getting a signed ‘graduate’ certificate. He said we would get that and that he would sign. I had zero interest in any certificate. Decades later I now explain that much of our world has an abundance of “certified” people in many fields who are not actually “qualified”.

Back to Carlo and what some may consider incorrectly my ‘first day at clown school’. Hardly so. JUST before beginning at Carlo’s school then called The Dell’arte School of Mime and Comedy, I had been learning one-to-one in Sarasota, Florida – with a real circus Clown who had been an acrobat and trapeze flyer first. Coincidentally I had met a fellow that was going to attend the Dell’arte School located on the other side of the country i.e. in California. My Clown teacher Danny Chapman soon put me into five drastically different situations as a clown. Trial by fire times 5. After each performance I wrote my buddy a letter. Due to a collusion of circumstances I decided on a whim to call the Dell’arte School and paid a deposit to attend.

My buddy arrived at Carlo’s house a few days before the school started. I didn’t know that.

During the first meet and greet with Carlo and us 10 students sitting with him in a circle, after he spoke for a while he asked if anyone had done any clowning. A few people had. One fantastic fellow had even performed 3 years as a mime touring in schools. As I had only done a few times I said nothing because it was just a few times. After a few spoke briefly, Carlo asked again. Someone else told of their ventures, very briefly. Carlo asked a third time. No one else raised their hand.

Finally Carlo said, “Ira I understand that you have done some clowning”. I said yes but just a few times. Carlo asked “Ah ha, can you tell us what happened the first time”? I began to tell. That took a while because … sometimes I’m a natural story teller. When I was done with the first time. …. Carlo got me to talk for about an hour. Telling each tale of woe and wonder. Most of the time Carlo had his eyes closed or looked up at the ceiling, smiling and often nodding as in agreement with my hidden meanings. Meaning that the meanings were even hidden from me at that moment. Years later I understood that I was living proof of Carlo’s idea that one must ‘discover’.

Carlo knew to ask me about my first 5 experiences as a clown because my buddy, as a guest in Carlo’s home had told Carlo about me and my letters about those preliminary clown experiences.

In that vein a ‘graduate’ of a clown course is not necessarily or likely to be or to become a clown. Yet all the graduates are “certified”. We who taught acting, theatre, performance saw that most graduates of even bonafide conservatory style theatre or acting courses (both of which I much prefer as a base for becoming clown) – most or many of the graduates quit the profession of acting or performance within 5 years. The old song is correct “there’s no business like show business”.

Whereas the former Soviet system for training Clowns was within their great circus schools which were 4 years full-time of extremely hard discipline. By the end each graduate had or was part of a high level professional circus and or clown act. I hired an older Russian clown teacher to teach my students for one week. He, Peter, was also a Ballet and a Tap Dancing teacher. He had been an Eccentric Dancer whose specialty was comedy and tap dancing. He came with two assistants who had been professional Soviet circus clowns for over 20 years. Peter had been their teacher. The three people explained to me that the process in the Soviet system was that a Clown would finish the 4 years and would have about 3 main acts. And the featured act was intended to be good enough to last 25 years. Similarly, Cirque du Soleil’s basic artistic business format was that each show was to last a minimum of 10 years.

Now I’m going to close this Part 1 of The Joy of Teaching Clown… and the paradoxes.

I would like to point out two ideas.

a) I view Clown and its issues, problems, paradoxes along with a few of my other favorite performing fields of Shakespeare; Commedia dell’Arte; Physical Theatre. There are similar problems and paradoxes in each of those fields. But as Clown is my foremost passion I am most often using that as a sounding board

b) Clown (and by association the other 3 fields just mentioned) is a metaphor for problems and paradoxes in Society generally and Education specifically. My Doctorate is in Education. As the Educator John Taylor Gatto explains most people in the last several decades are receiving Schooling but not Education. Schooling is a process of socialization. It is my claim that most ‘clown schools’ which are more often than not actually what I call “survey courses” for so-called ‘physical theatre’. As mentioned earlier the clown component is usually brief about 1 or 2 months and very part-time (VERY!!!). The schooling i.e. corralling occurs by enforcing the learner to learn first and foremost to please the teacher. Gatto explains in great detail over several videoed or recorded talks on youtube that there is a distinct pathway through history as to how education changed into schooling to the detriment of most individuals and as we see now playing out to the detriment of society at large.

More anon… Today’s draft of Part 1 is August 3, 2023

Teaching. Teaching Clown. Teaching Clowning. Teaching About Clown. Clowning About Teaching. Learning. Education.

Below are 2 videos the first is an exceptional talk by John Taylor Gatto.

The 2nd video is short and as I have posted on fb perhaps 100 examples that “Dance IS Physical Theatre”. These three performances and performers exemplify my point of view that most so-called ‘physical theatre’ training is – Schooling and socialization or worse; and is certainly not physical theatre training at all when we observe these three Indigenous artists.

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Ira Seidenstein