Sunday, 3 February 2013

On clowning around...

This is it.  The week I've been looking forward to the most this year.  Yes, call me silly, but I am really excited about clown training!

I've always had a fondness for clowns and physical comedy.  For as long as I can remember I've had an ongoing love affair with the great slapstick masters like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers.

Sheer genius.
Although I may show a serious exterior, deep down inside there's a part of me that longs to be ridiculous.  To be silly.  To be a clown!  So it was to my great delight when I discovered that, as part of the opera studio, I would be doing an intensive workshop of clown training.

We started with some warm-up games, and in true clown fashion the games were very physical and very silly.  We ran, wrestled, pushed, pulled, and giggled our way through the first morning.  And what did I learn from all this?  That whether I'm sitting on my bum pushing someone with my feet or leaning down and pushing them with my shoulders, I'm still a total weakling.

Now it was time to get into the real substance of being a clown: storytelling.  First we tried out a series of tableaux to create a narrative.  Then came the real challenge: using our bodies, at the director's whim we had to build a series of objects, such as rowboats that rowed and gates that opened.

And thrones that throned!
When a clown tells a story, he loves to exaggerate.  So we tried taking everyday actions, such as ironing and folding clothes, and making them first ridiculously humongous, then ridiculously tiny. 

Once we had sufficient practice acting alone, we were able to work with balloons as props, first trying to lift them as if they weighed a million pounds, then trying to catch them when they keep hopping away, then trying to push them away as they tried to kiss us.  Finally, we were able to put together scenes with music, using balloons and coloured cloths as props.  I won't say much of my scene, except that there was a desert and a camel, and I got to do a clown faint.

But of course you can't tell stories like a clown if you don't learn to really use your body to express yourself.  So in the immortal words of Olivia Newton-John...

Let's get physical!
As we found, the best way to learn to be expressive with your body is to take away your biggest acting crutch: your face.  So we covered our faces with expressionless white masks, got in front of the mirror, and practised showing emotions with our bodies.  At first it was pretty difficult.  You never realise how much you use your face until it's taken away from you!  But after a while we began to discover the unique and powerful body language we could use to communicate each emotion.

Now it was time to find our clown walk.  We walked around the room for ages, experimenting with different angles, positions and speeds - feet pointing outwards or inwards, chest and shoulders open and proud or closed and shy, knees angled in or out, chin jutting forward or buried into the neck... There were millions of possible combinations to experiment with!  Finally we each found a clown walk that we liked, and an emotion that seemed to go with it.  Personally, I favoured a variation on the cheerful Charlie Chaplin walk.

He is the master, after all.
Now it was time for us to discover which kind of clown we are.  There are three different types of clown.  First there's the White Clown.  He's the boss of everyone and he thinks he's very clever.  But, through some comic twist or other, he usually loses in the end.  Next there's the August.  He's the young and naive one, and like a child he expresses every emotion in the extreme.  While people think the August is a fool, he's often the one who makes things happen, and he usually wins the day.

Homer Simpson would probably be an August.
Finally there's the Go-Between.  He's like the mother of the group, always taking care of the others.  He tends to be melancholy and he's always in love.

I had no idea which clown I would be.  At first I thought I would be the White Clown, since I'm always trying to be clever and stay in control of things.  Then I thought about it more and considered that I might be an August.  People are always remarking that I have a youthful face (must be the chubby cheeks and the freckles).  And I do have a tendency to be naive...

As it turns out, I'm neither.  In an exercise to find "our" clown, we were each asked to put on a red nose and act out emotions as they were called to us.  Afterwards everyone would say which clown they thought you were, and we would try to reach some kind of consensus.  When my turn came, I acted out a few emotions, until someone said "miserable".  At the director's urging I became more and more intensely miserable, curling into myself and sobbing crocodile tears.  Everyone went quiet.  The vote was unanimous: I am a Go-Between.

Apparently I'm good at looking sad!
I don't think I was the only one surprised by my clown personality.  Many people changed as they put on the red nose.  Someone I might have pegged as a definite Go-Between - always maternal and caring - transformed into a child-like August before my eyes.  What was going on?  Was the red nose changing us, or was it revealing our true selves?  In fact, as the director explained, we each have all three clowns within us.  At different points in our lives, or even different times of the year, one of the clowns might just come out stronger.

After discovering our clown identities, it was time to choose a clown face and put on our clown makeup.  We had a selection of books to browse for pictures, and after much deliberation I chose my face and got to work.  I was pretty happy with the results...


Finally it was time to put together a show.  With little over 24 hours before the first performance, I was a little nervous as to whether we could get everything ready in time.  But we did it in the end!  We created a show of lieder, arias, pop songs and showtunes, all performed as clowns.

As we got ready for our third and final performance, the director gave us a little pep talk.  He reminded us to keep our clown personalities and "not let the singers take over".  Why would he say this?  What's wrong with letting the singer take over when you're singing?  Well, the singers in us might want to make everything controlled and pretty.  But the clowns wouldn't worry about that - they would just want to go for it and put on a show!

So what can an opera singer learn from a clown?  A helluva lot, as it turns out.  Clowns may seem like they're silly, but there's a lot more to them than that.  Clowns wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They make everything larger than life.  They don't just smile - they double over with laughter.  They don't just cry - they weep with their whole body.  They throw their entire self into every story they tell.  If I can learn to harness that kind of energy into my singing, my performances will surely pack a powerful punch.

Sometimes we feel like a White Clown, like we need to be in control of everything.  And just when we think things are going well and we're oh-so-clever, everything topples over in a messy heap.  Other times we may feel young and naive like the August, and every emotion we feel is magnified tenfold.  Or maybe we're a melancholy Go-Between, worrying about our friends or sighing with love.  We all have these clowns within us, and we all have things to learn from them. 

So although the shows have ended, and I've put away the costume and taken off the makeup, I'm still listening to my inner White Clown, my inner August, my inner Go-Between.  And I hope that from now on, whether in life or onstage, I will always feel - at least a little bit - like a clown.

All photos of the clown project courtesy of Emilie Lauwers

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