“It is a rare and unique individual who commits himself to a life of clowning. Ira is such a person. He is also one of the most naturally funny people I have ever met. He approaches his craft with a reverence for, and deep understanding of the tradition to which he belongs and which he continues with his own work. But what is beautiful about his performances, as far as I am concerned, is that there is always a hint of danger brewing just under the surface. This is the energy of the ‘contrary’ eager to expose any pretense in our selves and, like an incorrigible Zen master, slap us back into reality.”
David Pearce – Codirector of Intuitive Way
Clowns – What Are They?
Clowns appear in many guises and situations. For example, who was the “class clown” that you remember from school days? Is there a ‘clown’ in your family? Do you remember the first ‘real’ clown you ever saw? Most likely that first clown was at a birthday party, or circus, or at a street festival. If you are from a non-Anglo culture you may have grown up with clowns completely integrated into cultural rituals. There are many types of corporate or commercial clowns that appear in any paid situation from corporate events to hospitals to cross-borders clown. Clowns as entertainers appear in burlesque, cabaret, plays such as those written by Shakespeare, Moliere, Beckett, and many other great writers. Clowns of course appear in circus and there is hardly any circus without clowns. Clowns are well placed within musicals, operas, ballets and contemporary dance. The clown can appear fully covered with no skin showing or the clown can appear naked. There is no limit to how a clown can behave nor what a clown can do. It is the most open performing art.
How to Train As A Clown
This section will have a few parts that apply to either or both professionals and novice clowns.
As mentioned earlier there is a whole range of clowns but the general categories would include: circus; theatre; street festivals; hospitals; socially challenged areas, including war zones; birthday parties; and other forms of entertainment, including corporate events and cruise ships.
Each of those areas naturally has specific demands. What I will address primarily are the general ideas of how one trains as a clown to get started or to improve as a professional. Additionally I have devised a clear, linear and adaptable method for clowns to train daily similar to the way a dancer, musician or artist practices or trains.
First let’s look at the idea of clown schools and clown workshops.
This is difficult territory because ‘clown’ like many areas of acting and performance already has some ‘cult-like’ tendencies. For example in a cult one assumes that ones way is best. In terms of clown schools people rarely research to find out what is really available in terms of schools. Additionally people rarely ask then what is the actual curriculum and the actual amount of time one spends on the floor – working – each day. Further, there is a word-of-mouth tendency to accept the status quo and the ‘trend’ without any logical questioning.
However one of the biggest errors that the learner (professional and novice alike) occurs when they ask what REALLY has worked to make certain clowns successful and stop when they hear “oh they went to such-and-such school” or “oh they trained with so-and-so” without asking further… “what did the person/clown do BEFORE and AFTER they studied at such-and-such or with so-and-so”.
So asking where a person trained is the most superficial question and really does not provide the truth.
The truth is more complex, layered and has everything to do with who the person/clown’s parents were, how the person/clown trained as a youth, what their education and upbringing was like. Further, if we look at one of the most known schools – you will see that although it is very famous – the head teacher is in fact abusive to the majority of students. If you don’t know who this is, you can write to me and I will tell you directly. I have in fact supported people who ask me about going to this person’s ‘school’… to go. But that is simply and openly to say ‘satisfy your curiosity’ but only do a one-week workshop. Save your money and your time.
The abuse and the reports afterwards by a few select people is ‘it was good for me’. Yet if you look at their work either as an actor, clown or clown teacher it is obvious the only thing that was ‘good’ is that their ego got inflated perhaps by being a ‘survivor’.
So one has to ask what REALLY works. So out of a long list of wonderful clowns, with most coming from completely different schools and backgrounds what is the common thread in their success. For this one must ask a number of other questions all of which have to do with what the individual clown did BEFORE they went to a particular school or training or particular teacher. In most cases you will see that the individuals had already some commitment to physical training as a youth or they had some particular circumstances in their own family or schooling that really helped them to succeed.
The traditional clowns learned by learning a routine with the senior, veteran partner(s). After doing what was required and then performing in front of audiences, gradually their character would begin to emerge. For the last 40 years there has been a tendency in certain schools to impose a character on an actor or student of clown. Whereas in truth as the traditional circus clown masters knew, the character will emerge naturally and organically over time. One of my main theatre teachers, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi (1920-2000) told us that ones character actually took 10 to 15 years to emerge. During that process one may portray one character or 100 but the character that most significant clowns are known for took… 10 to 15 years to emerge.
Yet in a workshop, I see no problem with a person trying a character of their choose (or mine for that matter) on day 1. However, on day 2 they may choose to try another and day 3 another and so on until something starts to gel for them. Once the so-called character is chosen, then I see that their self-imposed limitations and definitions of that ‘character’ are often directly inhibiting their real discoveries.
I have seen Slava’s Snowshow so-far four times in four countries. I have met him twice and once had a chance to speak at length with several of his actors. One of the actors had only been with the company and in the show one month. Before he had just finished a B.A. in acting in Russia (where they have superb training physically, vocally, and in classical Stanislavsky based acting as well intellectual rigor in theatre history and thorough study of plays). The process to come in to the show is to start. That means when the penguin-like green clowns with the big hat and big shoes enter the new clown follows them. But when suddenly 5 of the green clowns each walk a different way and the new clown doesn’t know who to follow, his or her character then starts to emerge. Eventually, they know the routine but in the free-form sections they have already emerged with their own creative instinct. This is further interesting because the penguin-like green clowns with big shoes and big hats all ‘look’ alike and dress alike and more or less have the same makeup and nose yet they are all distinct. They are like TweedleDum, TweedleDee, TweedleDummer, Dimmer, Dumbest and MostSeverelyDumb. Additionally in one of the Snowshow troupes there are four actor who alternate as Slava’s character in the banana yellow baby suit, none of whom is actually Slava.
Yet the show is still totally enthralling and magical. Yet, naturally some professional clowns and actors and clown directors will love to cut, slice and dice the work as if no one in the audience loved it. Professionals often need their head (mind) examined. They are cruel for no reason other than jealousy or cynicism.
Yet at the same time there is a phenomenon around ‘clown training’ whereby people have stopped asking deeper, more interesting, more engaging or more helpful questions. Really people are looking for a quick fix and are quite willing to pay for it even though the quick fix almost never works even in the so-called most famous school(s).
In Australia for example amongst the clowns who has actually seen the living legends, LIVE ON STAGE such as Barrie Humphries, Reg Livermore, Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, or Mary Coustas for example? Yes, I admit it, I would rank them as five amongst my top ten clowns in Australia.
What I am saying is that to understand where and how one can train as a clown it would be good to SEE some of those people I mentioned… LIVE … on stage i.e. with a real public and see how they have mastered clowning. Then one can ask, did they go to such and such a ‘school’ for clowning?
So, What Can One Do?
Occasionally I am asked are there any books on clowning that I can recommend? Well I can and I will. In a moment. But first it is important to note that in education, generally, it is very important that a teacher provide bibliographies so that the learner (professional or novice) can do their own first hand research. The first book i will recommend is not only THE masterwork on clown but provides one of the most complete bibliographies for further study of clown. Although the author actually qualifies it as a “Selected Bibliography”, it is in rather extensive and includes all of the classic great books such as on written in 1935 by Enid Wellsford for example. That book is Clowns by John Towsen and is available in most university libraries and often from other clowns. That book was published in 1976. There are several other good books published recently that add to Towsen’s legendary research but do not replace nor supersede it. I will tell you of those four books which are all the most recent and the only ones I can recommend. There are others and they are dross and sad contributions to the field. Besides Towsen’s book and the classics which I strongly recommend such as Wellsfords, here are the few I do recommend.
Really, if you are serious about clowning, you should learn to act and I mean in a classical, Stanislavskian, Method (Strasberg-Adler-Meisner-Garfein) way. At least read Stanislavsky’s books, they are golden words for any intelligent and diligent clown.
As a sideline to ‘clown’ books I certainly recommend any books or dvds of the work of Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone and Dorothy Heathcote!!! Hint hint hint.
A recent book, i.e. one that is excellent and one that I can recommend is From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond by Annette Lust. This is a grand book on the history of mime but that of course crosses over into clown.
Here are three ‘older’ books on clown that I also recommend as part of your clown canon for your library:
- Durov’s Pig by Joel Schechter.
- Acrobats of the Soul by Ron Jenkins
- Lazzi by Mel Gordon
All three of those books are excellent.
There is another book that most of the clowns of my generation read also that has 200 clown stunts. You would need to w-o-r-k to u-s-e this book but it is and was a great tool for many wonderful clowns. Clown Act Omnibus by Wes McVicar. This is really more of a commercial clowning book but filled with knowledge.
I also recommend reading auto/biograhies of the great clowns such as Lucille Ball, Grock, Charlie Rivel, Chaplin, Keaton, and 100s of others. One that should be part of your canon though is Steve Martin’s recent autobiography Born Standing Up. In a practical way it is one of the greatest clown books ever.