No. 46 – Clown School
How hard could it be?
Welcome to the latest issue of Feed the Monster, a monthly art practice journal for people who miss getting letters in the mail.
Anyone who knows me will understand that what I did last weekend is not merely outside my comfort zone. It’s… well… it’s not even visible from my comfort zone.
I went to Clown School.
I went because the teacher Britt Small, co-founder and artistic producer of Atomic Vaudeville, is someone I admire. I don’t know her very well, but I’ve seen enough of what she does to be impressed. It’s not just that she’s a powerhouse director, producer, performer, and teacher. In the words of Hank Pine, friend and collaborator of Small’s and himself an unnaturally talented Renaissance man:
I think one of the best things about Britt is that she’s a director in all aspects of her life.
She’s a curator and inspirer and director, and she has a singular vision. But she’s very willing to do whatever it takes to foster everyone else’s vision around her and make them a fully realized artist.
And that’s a rare, beautiful thing.
I also went because I read about Clown School a couple years back in a Yam Magazine article about Small by David Lennam, which prompted me to write about her in the September 2019 issue of Feed the Monster. In that article, Lennam writes:
For Small, clown work is a lot more serious than a pie in the face. It's timing, rhythm, and an almost mathematical devotion to finding those places where you stop the action to create the opportunity for comedy.
"One of the first exercises you do as a clown is be yourself," she says. "It's one of the hardest things to do."
Clown training, she explains, means being coached to do less and less, contrary to the all-action-all-the-time cliché. Being interested instead of interesting is key—interested in the audience, how they're responding to that.
"That's how you keep your presence very much alive in the room, as opposed to feeling like people are watching you. You see clowns; they're always clocking the audience (looking at them, measuring their response)."
Reading this, I had the sinking feeling that I needed Clown School. I’d been sporadically getting up to sing with my husband David P. Smith for almost twenty years, and it had never gotten any easier. “Being interested instead of interesting” sounded like something I needed to learn: to have the courage and willingness to be open to the people in the audience rather than fearing how they might perceive me or my voice.
I don’t know if I really thought I’d ever do it, but somehow David and I came to be enrolled in Clown School. I’ve never done anything remotely theatrical, and even pre-pandemic happily spent my days alone working from home or in my studio. I have a handful of close friends and am not particularly gregarious. Being open to people I don’t know isn’t, uh, my thing. I knew this was a crazy-ass thing for me to do, but it was so crazy, it just might work.
I actually am a clown—just not one who clowns for strangers. Would I be able to make it past my fear of the audience?
I’m normally very nervous leading up to a singing gig. Leading up to Clown School, I didn’t feel much, which I attributed to having no idea what I was in for. In retrospect, I suspect that I was actually petrified, turned to stone from fear in the face of the oncoming tsunami. And I rode that tsunami all weekend.
Much of my memory of Clown School is blurred—I think I may have been floating outside my body the entire time. It took place over three days: Friday night from 6:00 – 9:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 2:00 – 6:00 pm. Clown School has a maximum of 12 participants, and everyone is double-vaccinated.
Each session started with the group standing in a circle, playing games and doing exercises meant to warm us up, help us remember each other’s names, and prime us for maximum connection with others. Some of the participants had been to Clown School more than once, and some were complete newbies like myself and David.
The first thing we played was Reverse Charades. One person leaves the room, and the others decide on an action—for example, cutting a jack-o’-lantern, chopping down a tree, or picking your nose. The person who’d left re-enters the room and tries to ascertain the action by making movements and gestures while the audience indicates how “hot” or “cold” they are with sounds of encouragement or discouragement—no words. It forces you to pay attention to your audience—you must engage with them if you hope to get anywhere. It’s not easy, to say the very least.
Next was the dreaded “Present Yourself”. At least, I dreaded it. You enter the room and simply stand before everyone there. You look from person to person, making eye contact. You stay present, if you can. I thought of Marina Abramovic and her 3-month long performance piece The Artist is Present—what it must have been like to look into people’s eyes six days a week for three months. I anticipated that I’d be made uncomfortable by what I’d feel from everyone I was locking eyes with, and I was right. Some people were very open. Some were intense. And some were themselves embarrassed by the situation, creating a feedback loop of discomfort between the two of us. As I continued to look from person to person, I didn’t look forward to “connecting” again with the uncomfortable ones.
Small paid close attention and intuitively guided each person through it. I kept reflexively looking down, causing her to remind me to “stay with us”. In fact I found myself looking down a lot, at least during the first two days. These aren’t situations you can think your way out of, which is what I suspect I was instinctively trying to do. A couple of people became emotional while they presented themselves, alerting me to the fact that I’d been on guard while doing it or I likely would have been similarly moved. Who can say?
Next there were exercises and challenges to do with exploring different emotions and changing them on a dime, and these required emoting and performing in front of the audience. More than once I asked to go first—not only to get it over with, but also so that watching others perform wouldn’t make me fear being inadequate when my turn came. Riding that tsunami.
And then came time for us to become clowns.
In order to find your inner clown, Small leads you through a series of visualizations that help you come up with a sound and a movement. That’s all that’s required. Once you have something you feel good about, you take it to her and she helps you develop it.
Next you go to a table of face paints and make your face, without looking. Then you go to Small’s tickle trunk and find an outfit. Quickly. This all happens quickly.
After finding a clown outfit, each person stomps around practicing their sound and movement, expressing themselves, sometimes crashing into each other or interacting with each other, causing me to have thoughts of, “Oh God, theatre people.” This designation began in high school: the drama people, the theatre people. A group I wasn’t part of; a group my friends and I rolled our eyes at. And here I was amongst them, in clown costume, waving my arms around and singing “LA LA LA LA LA” at full volume, fighting for space and adding my voice to the cacophony.
My, how the Judgy-Judgersons have fallen.
On day two we did “clown turns” in pairs. One clown comes out first with their sound and movement, then the second one appears with their sound and movement and the two interact and play off each other. David and I paired up for this, but I swear I have no memory of what the hell transpired on that studio floor apart from exaggerated outrage on my part at some behaviour of his. The rest is lost to me. I only remember feeling a bit panicked, as well as unsure whether or not I was “doing it right”.
At the end of Saturday—day two—Small mentioned that we’d be doing solo clown turns on Sunday, and this caused me no small amount of anxiety. I thought I was home free after having done two days of Clown School and that nothing could throw me at that point, but no. I was thrown.
Saturday night I woke up in the middle of the night and ruminated on what must be wrong with me. It’s not news to me that I tend to be wary with people—I can have an instantaneous comfortable connection with a person, but I can as easily take 20 years to let someone in. Clown School had me laying awake worrying that I had a fatal flaw preventing me from “presenting myself” with ease, and that other people had a more normal ability to connect with others than I did. Clown School had gotten into my head. I was ready for it to be over at that point. I’d had enough.
But that didn’t last. I went to Clown School for day three, and although my anxiety levels were high on arrival, everything unfolded better than I could have expected. When will I ever learn? I was still riding the tsunami and had no time to resist what was happening. THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
And so… I went on.
In my own words, which will surely be inadequate, clowning is primarily about being in the moment, and staying open to and in touch with the audience. It’s not so much about entertaining—though it certainly will be precisely that if executed well—as it is about reading the room and responding to both inner and outer cues in real time. Taking advantage of any opportunities presented; leaning in to any mishaps and making them work for you. Though I’d been scared senseless to do my solo “clown turn”, once in the middle of it I started to click in. I started to instinctively play with timing and rhythm, and by the time it was over I felt I was just getting started.
If I’d done Clown School twenty years ago when I was making my first tentative attempts at singing onstage, I’m sure it would have helped immeasurably—it would likely have changed my life. As it may have anyway, though to what end at this point I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. I would never normally say or even think this, but I feel proud of myself for having done it.
(Ew, I said it.)
I found Small to be an incredible teacher and facilitator. She explained and described the history and lineage of the clown traditions we were working with, which I can’t begin to try to repeat here. She’s infinitely chill, while being 100% engaged. If I could have looked into her eyes alone when I “presented myself”, I would have done so gladly. She’s obviously so sincerely and completely absorbed in the proceedings, not to mention delighted by them, that it’s infectious. There’s no competition, no judgement, no shame, no “better” or “worse”—except in your own mind. Always with the persnickety mind.
After finishing the three days I thought, “Now that I’ve done Clown School, I can do anything!” But I had that thought after giving birth, too. After that insanity, I was convinced nothing else in my life could possibly challenge me. I could surely do ANYTHING.
But you forget. You’re definitely changed and you’ve done something incredible, but you forget.
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