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Welcome to the New York Clown Theater Festival, which has been going on since September 6th, when Bob Berky presented “Architecture of Physical Comedy” at the Battle Ranch Annex in Brooklyn, and will end on the 28th with “Bouffon, The Anti-Clown” led by Eric Davis (aka Red Bastard) at the Players Theatre on MacDougal Street.
This very weekend (Sept 13th and 14th), attend “Dynamics of Clown Partnering” led by Jeff Raz at Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn. On the 21st, try “Discovering the Clown” led by Christopher Bayes at the Player’s Theatre.
On September 24th and 25th, “Ensemble Adventures in Clown” will be led by Dody DiSanto at Triskelion Arts. (Resulting performances can be seen on the 26th and 27th.)
Classes, however are limited to 15 or 20 students. Information at http://bricktheater.com/clownclass2008.htm.
In an article in the NY Times, April Dembrosky writes that
We’re not talking oversize shoes and rainbow wigs. There’s no water squirting flower, no animal-shaped balloons. Bozo is no idol here; think Puck, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball. This is clown theater. It’s a sophisticated approach to reflecting reality through comedy, workshop leaders say, cutting through the politics and politesse of life to reach the simple truths of our existence. And when the clown pulls the curtain back on all the layers of civilization, we can’t help laughing, not only at the clown before us but also at ourselves.
Apparently clowning is having a serious comeback in the US. Performance teachers, theories, lessons from Europe and South America abound. Clowning is sometimes a mandatory requirement, as at the Yale School of Drama, New York University, Juilliard, and other respected institutions.
Dody DiSanto, director of the Center for Movement Theater in Washington, says “Working on clown is in vogue right now with performing artists of all different walks. It’s a vehicle to freedom, it’s a way to soften and to find truth.”
But forget comedy class, writes Dembosky: this is more like philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis.
So through the end of September, five professional clowns are teaching workshops at the third annual New York Clown Festival in the city. Workshops vary from one to three days and cost $200.
The instructors’ approach is an unexpected lesson in soul-searching and self-discovery, geared to advanced clowns, performers of all types and members of the public looking to “spike their creative life.”
It’s been said that clowning is essentially psychoanalysis. So the first step in the training — just as in military training — is desocialization.
“You have to relearn to be deeply inappropriate,” says Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama. “The body isn’t built to sit and be quiet. It’s built to run and play and make a mess.”
So play is the root of clowning. But it gets more and more lost as we are taught by the adults in our lives to behave ouselves. Aspiring clowns need to delve back into childhood and relearn how to be loud, rude and emotionally raw; how to cry, ask vulgar questions and throw tantrums.
“You have to strip away lots of clever ideas and socializing impulses to get at something much more simple, much more naive,” says Bayes. “If we can find a way to shed some of that polite behavior, a different kind of sparkle starts to show up in the eye of the actor.”
As the polite veneer cracks, writes Dembosky, what remains is a vulnerable human being, exposed — not in a therapists office or a confessional — in front of an audience, inviting strangers to relate to that vulnerability.
Workshop leaders explain that people won’t laugh at a disingenuous or dishonest clown. As a result, more formal actors tend to have difficulty playing their actual selves.
“Instyead of playing a character, you’re shining a light on your own humanity,” says DiSanto. “It’s terrifying to expose yourself, but that’s what gets the laugh.”
It’s also said that clowning is religion.
Bob Berky is a Buddhist clown. He doesn’t like labels, though, and calls them “just words.” At his workshops on September 6th and 7th, the lessons of physical comedy came in philosophical statements about nonattachment, stillness and staying in the present.
“The essence of clowning is seeing what is,” he says. “In a lot of Eastern religious literature, even early Western religious literature, you find the ‘holy fool,’ the idiot who is more conscious of what’s going on than anyone else.”
He guided his students through an exercise involving two socks: one unfolded on the floor, the other scrunched into a ball eight feet away. Participants were asked to stand by the unfolded sock, quietly visualize the path to the scrunched one, then close their eyes and walk the distance between the socks and place a hand on the balled up one.
Two out of nine did it; the others veered off course, reaching for a sock that was actually a few feet in front of them, or several inches to the left, or right between their legs.
Afterward, Mr Berky addressed the class.
“How many of you really want to touch the sock?” he asked.
Several hands went up. “Now isn’t that pathetic?” he said.
The students had been too goal oriented, focused on succeeding, preoccupied with being perfect.
“A lot of comedy is based on the relationship between perfect and imperfect,” says Berky. He explained that walking past the sock or standing on top of it was funnier than touching it.
“Performance, more than anything, is watching for accidents.”
A participant, Lynn Berg, says he has been drawn to clowning classes lately in his life as an actor. “It’s a more open approach to performance… [clowning] is about celebrating mistakes. When you’re playing Shakespeare there’s an expectation of perfection, which is the opposite of what we’re doing here.”
He feels clowning is about connecting directly with the audience over the joy of being human, the recognition that we all are the same.
“It feels spiritual — in a laughing way.”
sole source: April Dembosky’s article in the NY Times on 9/12/08. www.nytimes.com
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