Clown Intensive: finding the game and making the most of problems

It was a pleasure to return to clown training, and after some recapping (and games, love the games!) we got back into the serious business of clowning with a look at some basic slapstick: namely the slap, the punch, the stamp, and the hair pull, having a go at putting together a few of these into a simple ‘fight’ choreography before also having a go at some other classic useful moves, the jump up into arms (with straight or bent legs), the trip (look, look closer, look closer still!) and the banana skin ‘double-leg’ slip.

With a view to creating a routine for assessment, we then began to look at some methods and processes for generating and devising material, using the starting point of props – and how to make the most of the problems they can create. Wilf and I worked first of all with Georgia and her S-board, watching her go through some of the skills she has with it and using the following framework to give feedback:

  • What do we like/want to see more of?
  • What is the expected attitude or emotion (eg confidence, elegance) and what would happen if this were subverted?
  • Which parts are the most ridiculous, which make us laugh?
  • What expectation/s are set up at the outset – how can she fulfil them?
  • What ‘wrong’ things can she do with her prop, and what works for her clown?

Having gathered some material from this, we then looked at sorting it into a running order or rough narrative, but then looked at the importance of being to deviate from this into ‘play’, of listening and responding to the audience and what they themselves were responding to (if it gets a laugh – do it again!)

By the beginning of the intensive, Hannah and Morwen and I were the only ones not to have begun to develop a solo skill-based piece so worked together with the invitation to choose from some of the set routines we had looked at previously, such as the three-hander ‘penny gag’ or ‘antique chair’ . Lured by the possibilities of a plastic bow and arrows, Morwen and I opted to try a shoot-the-apple-off-the-head ‘danger duo’ while Hannah and Morwen began from the starting point of ‘two clowns who both want to sit on the same chair’.

Performing in clown was an opportunity to put into practice the techniques we’ve learned over the past few months, particularly the breath out, the importance of keeping things simple, and sharing emotions with the audience. What was equally enjoyable however was the chance to do some directing as the ‘outside eye’. I felt like I learned a lot just listening to Karen and Dafe’s suggestions and watching the difference they made: how to escalate, how to make the most of a problem and how to use clown logic to solve it, recognising a game but also knowing when to let it go, how to maximise the ridiculousness of an action or situation. The ‘phantom hands’ and ‘mystery party noises from behind the screen’ in Hannah and Morwen’s piece had me genuinely crying with laughter.

Despite my best intentions I had only pulled together a costume that day, but with a fez and robe the character of ‘The Great Magnifico’ felt like a good fit – a pompous high-status clown exasperated with Morwen’s ditsy ‘beautiful assistant’ clown,  who proves to be utterly incompetent at the task in hand (Dafe’s tutorial on the many ways to misfire an arrow – not as easy as you’d think – was extremely helpful). A routine emerged culminating in a total role reversal as the Great Magnifico ends up on the receiving end of the arrows instead.

The two-day intensive ended on the final afternoon with a ‘work-in-progress’ informal showing of all the pieces to a small audience of friends and family. It was gratifying and unexpected to see the variety of what the group had managed to create, from such simple starting points – and left me actually sort of looking forward to the graduation show!

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