So I went up to Belfast on my own for a whole weekend of training, back in January. I met Simon Thompson from the Limerick-based Orchard Theatre Company and learnt the basic principles of clowning. It was fascinating and hugely instructive. Yet the experience, in all, was quite traumatic. Imagine standing in front of a dozen strangers with the ambition to make them laugh – and no script.
Much scarier than the classic nightmare where you suddenly find yourself stark naked in front of everybody you know from school or from work. And even scarier than jumping out of a plane, albeit with a parachute, and that’s saying something – I know that from experience.
In short, they didn’t laugh.
'S'not fair!' I thought. The other ‘students’ all got laughs for their solo skits. Incidentally, they were all professional performers of one sort or another. So was it that they were good and I was crap? Or was it – the most likely explanation, I felt – that they were all ganging up on me? They all knew each other from before and wouldn’t let me be part of the in-crowd, I knew… My rampant paranoia was getting the better of me, and I feared that maybe I’d knocked on the wrong door and clowning wouldn’t provide the sort of therapy I needed.
Although I’d choose a good laugh over a good couch any day.
So I was shook-up and vexed – among other things. I suppose it’s not as painful as breaking your shoulder (been there too), but it was really tough. Not to mention Simon’s verdict: ‘It looks like your clown is childlike and vulnerable.’ (Which is exactly, needless to say, what I don’t want to be.) ‘You seem to need love even more than laughs.’
I felt like I’d seen a shrink and he’d turned on me. But it got me thinking. I started digging deeper. Without medical help, I’ll hastily add. I was bruised, but I was hooked. I decided to go and study with world-famous drama and clowning master Philippe Gaulier, who, as luck will have it, is teaching a workshop in London soon. London is close enough, and I’ve been taught to always get back on the horse after a fall.
I am petrified though, because that week-long enterprise sounds like serious stuff aimed at professionals and Gaulier is well-known for saying ‘This is shit’ when you suck, so I thought a little training in the meantime would help. Luckily a friend pointed out another workshop that would take place before the Gaulier one, and in Dublin this time. This is how I met Susan Coughlan and Piotr Bujak, who follow the approach of Nose to Nose. A wonderful, wonderful day. I left their 8 hour-long workshop at the Lantern Centre with shaky legs and an ecstatic grin on my face.
I’d met really interesting people. I only caught a glimpse of the other ‘students’, even though I chatted with most of them, because each of us were on our own personal journey, but these were moving and meaningful human encounters all the same. You get to know a lot about someone when they (metaphorically) strip naked in front of you. Such beautiful moments, such intriguing characters. ‘I loved being a human being’, one of them commented earnestly after an exercise involving trust and letting someone guide you while you kept your eyes shut.
The teachers were brilliant – hilarious, subtle and encouraging. I’d got lost on my way to the workshop in the morning, ringing the doorbell of sleepy strangers (I won’t go into how street numbers are organised in Ireland, because I might be the only one in this country who does not find it perfectly natural that number 17 is not next to numbers 18 and 19 in an ordinary Dublin street, but all the way over next to number 39), then, when I located the Lantern Centre at last, I was gently but firmly led to a yoga class by a smiley giant – I quite like yoga and smiley giants, but I sure am glad I eventually found what I was looking for. Very few clowning workshops are available in Ireland, Susan told me, and it’s a shame because it can be so beneficial. ‘Especially for Irish people’, she mysteriously added.
Albeit being a Frog, I certainly learnt a lot. But for me, the highlight of the day was the solos. I've done two improvisations in front of the class and they were a hit. Ahem, am still gloating. Everybody seemed to be laughing. It’s a huge deal for a shy little mouse like me. Especially after my first attempt was such a bitter flop. Once on stage, even though it was a makeshift stage, I felt like I had reached a state of grace where I wasn’t scared anymore, and I could stop analysing everything. My body and my instincts took over. My emotions were taking the lead instead of my rational mind. I felt a sort of communion with the spectators, who were helping me along, guiding me with their laughter. I had gotten them to like me because I was true, I was myself and I was everybody else as well, I was sharing universal miseries and turning them into something funny – for my sake and the public’s. Ah, the bliss of hearing the laughs. It felt magical, surreal. I was completely present and yet I wasn’t totally there. I was absolutely myself and yet I was transfigured. All of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense.
Oops, getting lyrical here. At home that night, an unconvinced Mr Grumble asked me what I’d done on stage to deserve such a success. I wish he’d been there. I wish you had been there. I’m not sure I would be able to explain properly, to recreate the sheer comedy of it with words. Hell, I’m not even sure I would be able to do it again. There is no recipe. Basically, I hid behind a blanket. And in the second bout, I dressed up and made a fake phone call. That’s the story line. The rest was… Was it magic? I simply went with the flow.
Piotr had just introduced a notion that was new to me: Grammelot (or Grommelot in French), aka gibberish or gobbledygook – the sort of made-up language that is sometimes used in comedy and that George Orwell might have called Clownspeak – and it opened a huge door for me. Until then, I’d been a silent clown. Because I like the beauty of silence, and because I was too shy to use my voice. But my clown was lacking a dimension, and when I added sound, I added the power of emotion.
(Thinking it would sound hilarious to English-speaking people, I had tried ranting in French in front of a stony-faced audience at my first workshop, and wisely concluded that using my mother-tongue wasn’t working for my clown. Not in Ireland anyway.)
So I went for inarticulate sounds. This allowed me to express myself without thinking too much. I regaled my public with an uncensored flow of squeaky and burbling sounds, and they seemed to get exactly what I meant. They were nodding and laughing and sharing my emotions.
At that stage I was wearing a red rain hat, a yellow robe tied to the front of my body like an apron and a flowery scarf hanging down my back like a cape on top of my normal chequered shirt, black leggings and big (I can’t help it if I’ve long feet) clownish shoes. My emotional level was pretty high and I was feeling quite self-conscious about my attire – but no more than I had when I’d left home with my normal gear on in the morning, unsure I’d found something appropriate and nice-looking to wear. Which is a big problem for somebody as coquettish as I am. Soon after I’d gotten out the door, I nearly turned back to go and change, at the risk of arriving late, until I realised that looking silly was actually the whole point of the day ahead. I used that in my improv.
Piotr interestingly pointed out that clowning is not really about the laughs you get, or about being liked. It’s about being yourself.
Being yourself. A worthy goal.
Life can get stifling when you always bottle up your emotions and do what is expected of you – or what you think is expected of you. Now I look at my 3 year-old Little Miss Sunshine and I can see how she is the perfect clown. I don’t want to be all about the rules and washing your hands and getting to school on time and tidying up the mess in the house. I realise that she is right when she climbs on the neighbour’s wall and dances on the table and stops after every step to admire a dandelion or a stone, and insists on wearing odd socks and a rug for a hat. The world would be a better place if more people were clowning around instead of acting all bland and stuck-up and accepting things the way they are.
This workshop has made me hopeful. At times I feel unsatisfied with my life and I want to change it. I have so many dreams. Impossible dreams, maybe. But clowning no longer seems impossible.
‘I can do this’, I thought giddily on my way home. ‘And maybe I will.’