Last week I had a holiday and spent my time at the City Lit doing a five-day course on clowning taught by Gerry Flanagan. Like me you probably think of clowns having big shoes, custard pies and cars that fall apart. You’ll be disappointed to hear that the course involved none of that and you should be thinking more of people like Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd, but without as much slapstick or as many stunts as they managed. They’re ordinary people who remain relentlessly optimistic when everything they do inevitably goes horribly wrong.
It was a fantastic week. Lots of fun and very difficult, not least each morning’s warm-up which had us all hobbling around with aching limbs by the second day. The focus of the course was about being aware of what’s happening on stage and how the audience perceives it. What’s interesting to watch? What’s funny (anyone trying hard to be funny came across as excruciatingly laboured and unfunny)? How do you keep the audience’s attention focused on the person they’re supposed to be looking at? How do you inolve the audience? Forgetting the whole clowning aspect, it was very useful in terms of general stagecraft, simple awareness of your fellow actors and what’s happening around you.
Some of the exercises were things I’d done as warm-ups in other classes. For example, playing “grandmother’s footsteps.” (One person stands at the end of the room with their back to the rest of the players, who are at the other end, and whose aim is to touch the “grandmother.” But the grandmother can turn around and if she sees anyone moving when she turns, those people must go back to where they started.) I know I played this when I was younger and it’s nice to have an excuse to play silly games now, even when we’re supposed to be too grown-up. The difference on this course was that we spent quite a bit of time afterwards working out what made the audience (half of the class sitting, watching) laugh, what they liked or what they found boring. The game was interesting when the rhythms changed; it was funny when people looked shocked if they were caught; it got more tense if someone had crept slowly all the way to the grandmother and they had more to lose if rumbled. All these were things to remember and apply to more “actorly” pieces.
Some of the simplest exercises were the most horribly difficult. Put two people on stage, and each must try to attract the audience’s attention. The audience points at who they’re looking at so the performers can tell what’s working. This was very difficult, even for the more extrovert among us. You can do something loud/funny/shocking to get attention, but even the best ideas will only captivate the audience for so long before the audience gets bored and you have to come up with something else.
The next stage of the same exercise was even harder: This time neither person on stage wants attention. Trying to not get the audience’s attention is like trying not to think of something. You can stand still doing nothing and your slight discomfort will be hilarious. You can point at the other person and your desperation will be interesting. Lie flat on the floor and your slightest movement will draw eyeballs to you. The next stage was for one person to attract attention while the other had to help them get it. This was also near-impossible, with one person frantically and futilely trying to throw this untangible “attention” stuff at the other.
The closest we came to conventional clowns was when we wore red noses. This reminded me most of work I’ve done wearing masks — they somehow make you feel slightly hidden from the audience and less like yourself. Despite the comedy touch of red noses one of the most tragic and sensitive scenes of the week was from two people wearing them. A woman was sitting on a chair in the centre of the stage and a man had to convince the woman to leave it long enough that he could sit down. Most people had been very funny in their attempts to get the chair but this chap eventually just gave up, sitting on the floor, no idea what to do (which was interesting in its honesty). But soon he was silently, calmly, very, very, very slowly pleading with the woman in the chair to let him try it. “Just for a minute.” The process was so calm and drawn out that it was fascinating. Gradually she felt she had no option but to let him try the chair because it obviously meant so much to him. When she eventually stood there was a long frozen moment in which you could see that while she felt she had to give up the chair she also knew that she wouldn’t get it back. Somehow she had no choice, and it was a silently tragic moment during which the audience were completely absorbed.
I’d recommend the course to any acting students who want to get more comfortable on stage, particularly in working with other people and sharing the spotlight. The only thing that probably wasn’t relevant to most conventional acting, aside from the comedy noses, was the interaction with the audience. Most plays require that the actors pretend the audience isn’t there, that the open face of the stage is an imaginary “fourth wall.” But one of the golden rules of the week was that you should look at, “clock,” the audience whenever anything happened, particularly if it happened to you. You enter the stage? Clock. You see the other performer? Clock. The other performer runs towards you? Clock. You run from them? Keep quickly clocking the audience as you run. It takes a while to get used to, and Gerry must have tired of shouting “Look to us!” many times in every exercise to get a response. But it’s amazing when it works — a simple turn of the head can turn a humorous situation into something laugh-out-loud funny.