Everything I know about clowning, I learned from Modern Family. I’m still cracking up over the episode where Cam breaks out his Fizbo act for Luke’s birthday party. I always thought that all clowns looked like and do the same things – dramatic face paint, oversized shoes, colorful handkerchiefs that they are constantly whipping out of random body cavities. So when I showed up for a clowning workshop at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance last Wednesday, I was fully prepared to throw on a red nose, squeeze into an overcrowded car and start making animal balloons.
But as it turns out, that’s not really what clowning is about. At all. “Clowning isn’t just about wearing a lot of make-up and a red nose,” said Emmanuelle Delpeche who gave the workshop. “The type of clowning I do is a type of physical theater.”
“For me, clowning is a practice of lingering in moments of ambiguity, of persistently trying even after grand failures,” said Cap and Bells Publicity Director Becca Fallon ’14, who also attended the workshop.
In my case, these moments of ambiguity lingered for a pretty long time – in fact, for pretty much the whole class. The workshop began (as all workshops of any discipline) with the name game. We stood in a circle as each person said his or her name with an accompanying gesture. The next person would then copy this gesture and the next person would copy that person and so on.
Once everyone’s name had been ut- tered roughly 15,812 times, we moved on to a new game. In this game, the person who is “it” stands in the middle of the circle and points at other play- ers, yelling out commands. Within a few seconds, players have to assume the appropriate pose – be it “elephant,” “kamikaze,” “schwarma” or my personal favorite – “Cajun chef.” Whoever messes up and doesn’t get into position quickly enough loses and has to stand in the center. “To win, you have to have the element of surprise,” Delpeche said.
After finishing up a particularly exhausting round of this game (it’s pretty hard to go from a Cajun chef to an elephant to a flagpole at the drop of a hat), we paired off to play an improvisation game. One partner starts by acting out a concrete action – like chopping wood or playing the piano. The other joins in, and the action slowly transforms into something more abstract. Each person mirrors and plays off the other, until both players look like complete lunatics – flailing their arms in huge circles, writhing on the floor, or starting a twerk train on a nearby wall (okay, that didn’t actually happen, but it could). Eventually, in some weird, organic way, the two players come to agree on another concrete action to do together. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is.
“Clowning is about saying, ‘Yes, and…?’” explained Delpeche. “You just keep saying yes to the other person, and the scene goes on from there.” So when the opportunity to lie down on the floor and take a quick nap presented itself, I said yes. Playing dead is always a great way to infuse some action into a scene while getting some shut-eye.
I kept thinking that maybe these exercises were just warm-ups, and that we’d finally get to the clowning … until Delpeche announced that the workshop was over. Even after an hour of clowning around, I still hadn’t wrapped my head around what clowning was. So I stuck around to ask a few questions.
According to Delpeche, clowning is characterized by a goofy, non-sarcastic brand of humor. “Clowning is not ironic,” she said. “The clown has to believe everything in the scene.” A clown can’t shrug off a joke that flops by pretending to be ironic.
“I think that the vulnerability that clowning encourages is vitally important in a community that expects concrete answers and sure success,” Fallon said. This willing- ness to try new things is one reason that Delpeche prefers to work with amateur actors and not professionals. “Amateurs are funnier, freer and less inhibited,” Delpeche said. “They don’t have this set idea of how a scene is supposed to be.”
While Cam’s character in Modern Family has a script and a set of pre- planned jokes up his sleeve, true clown- ing is spontaneous. “In clowning, the action is happening now,” Delpeche said. “In regular theater, you’re telling a story that happened some time ago.” Clowns have to be comfortable improvising and interacting with the audience, figuring out what works and what doesn’t as they go.
I also learned that there are several types of clowning. There’s the circus clown, the European clown and the charming Charlie Chaplain clown, each characterized by its unique brand of physical comedy.
Delpeche specializes in European clowning – a technique that is surprisingly applied to classical works – even Shakespeare. She teaches clowning at a number of theater schools in New York and Philadelphia, including the prestigious Pig Iron Theater company – a self-proclaimed “dance-clown-theatre ensemble” that performs interdisciplinary and avante garde works.
Delpeche acknowledges that people who aren’t familiar with clowning often misunderstand the subject of her work. “Clowning in the U.S. has certain … associations,” she said. Americans tend to associate clowns with either Ronald McDonald or that demon-possessed doll in Poltergeist. We’re usually too creeped out to truly appreciate their comic timing or physical talent (fun fact: fear of clowns is called Coulrophobia).
American clowns even have trouble taking themselves seriously. As Delpeche puts it, “When you’re working with Americans, there comes a point where you’ve just gotta take off the nose.”