Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dublin’s Clown Choir, or How I Found a Voice

Fragments of “Holy Night” are still echoing in my head. Such amazing voices. The Community Clown Choir Hallelujah! performed a Clown Nativity on the main stage of Draíocht Theatre in Dublin on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th November, after a year of workshops and rehearsals with director Veronica Coburn and musical directors Louise Foxe, Tom Lane and John White. I was part of it. It was exhilarating, terrifying, hilarious, moving, stressful, surprising, educational, exhausting and unforgettable. 

“Are you sociable? Do you like to sing? Do you like to laugh? Are you the type of person who is open to trying new things? If so, then WE WANT YOU!” This is how Draíocht Theatre advertised this project that brought together an incredibly diverse bunch of people. “You don’t have to be a good singer to join Hallelujah! You don’t have to be a performer to join Hallelujah! You just have to be interested and willing…”

About 60 people turned up. Including a sports student still in her teens, a few pensioners, a special needs teacher, a midwife, an IT specialist, an actor or two, a puppeteer, a chemist, a civil servant, a seamstress, a gardener, an events organizer, an accountant, a broadcaster and a builder — from Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Argentina, to quote just a few examples. A sprinkle of professional performers among a majority who were new to the stage. It was wonderful to meet and befriend such an eclectic array of people. In life, we are usually surrounded by people who are like us — similar job, similar background, similar means, and even similar looks. It’s a rare and special thing to break the barrier and encounter diversity. This experience has brought us close together, however different we all were. We shared so much — laughter and tears, fun, strain, and plain wonder.

Clown Veronica Coburn, who is also involved in Dublin Youth Theatre, was the co-founder of physical theatre company Barabbas with Raymond Keane and now works mainly as a director and a clown facilitator. This Clown Choir was her brain-child, and she dedicated her year-long residency in Draíocht Theatre to setting it up. The unusual choir she envisioned was to be open to participants of all ages and abilities, from all walks of life. The only thing they’d have in common would be a red nose – and the desire to commit to this crazy venture, for better and for worse. There were ups and downs, moments of doubt and frustration, but the magic never ceased. From February to November 2013, even heavily pregnant, painfully ill or stuck in a wheelchair, the members of our motley crew came back to Blanchardstown’s theatre from all over County Dublin and even County Wicklow every Monday night for 3 hours of fun and hard work. And it was worth it.

In the beginning, Veronica explained a bit more about her vision of clown. In general, clowns have a bad reputation. People think they just do silly things, but there is more to it than that. They mirror our own silliness. Being ridiculous, apart from making people laugh, is so human and so beautiful. A clown can be very profound. Historically, the original clowns embodied the ordinary man and woman to give them a social and political importance. That’s the sort of clowning that Veronica promotes. In more ways than one, we were going to be the voice of the community.

So we got down to practicing. Through a range of games and exercises, Veronica taught us how to engage with the audience via eye contact (a challenge for many of us), how to reconnect with our inner innocence and follow our impulses (oh, the joys of playing keepie-uppie with 60 clowns), how to accept and enjoy ourselves as we are, sharing how we feel at every step with a look, because that is the essence of clown. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not just therapeutic or cathartic, it’s the ultimate art form. I will never forget seeing everyone in turn walk forward and declare “I’m fantastic”. “Don’t act. Don't show us a cartoon picture of how you feel. Just be”, Veronica advised. And how hard this seemingly simple task proved to be! But as soon as Veronica gave out red noses, we started to see true clowns appear. It’s amazing how this tiny mask reveals the clown underneath.

Throughout the year, each session would just fly by. Our choral directors Louise, Tom and John even managed to get something quite melodious out of our colourful choir of mixed talent — a few gifted singers among many just belting flat notes blissfully, with no sense of music whatsoever, while the rest scraped by, doing their best. Ever since my first singing lesson with a sadistic opera singer who happened to be my mother-in-law, pitching my voice has always been a challenge; but after a few months with the Clown Choir, I was singing happily all day long — in the car, in the loo, when trying to put my daughter to sleep. The Clown Choir was soon to start its performance programme. We sang “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin during a flashmob in Blanchardstown shopping centre on April Fool’s Day. Then a longer list of songs at the launch of the Ark’s season of circus workshops on 3d July; at the Dublin Harvest Festival near Jervis on 14th September; and off Grafton Street for Culture Night on 20th September — not excepting our rendering of “The M50 Symphony”, composed by Debra Salem, in the foyer of Draíocht Theatre on 6th July.

After a break over the summer, we resumed work in September with the aim of preparing a one hour-long show for Draíocht’s main stage. By then, I had to choose between much-needed pregnancy yoga and the Clown Choir, but this was just too exciting to miss. Two months of exhilarating rehearsals with our warm, positive and funny clown master ensued. We explored the idea of Christmas in various ways — song, text, home-made costumes and improvs. Veronica clearly had something in mind, even if we had no idea what, apart from the fact that it would be a nativity play. A clown nativity. It slowly took shape. Too slowly. At times, like before each performance, we’d worry that we would never be ready in time. During the last few nights before the show, the Clown Choir saw a different Veronica emerge: the Director. Serious, efficient and straight-to-the-point, she organized her anarchic 60-strong troupe with authority. A herculean task. I was majorly impressed, and inspired. Ordering chaos definitely appeals…

The whole adventure was full of blatant flops, big emotions and moments of true grace. Not to mention the laughs. I often cried from laughing so much. I saw a true clown emerge from every person who stepped up. My own clown is elusive, but I’ve seen it at times and will continue chasing it. I get so much from clowning. Not just ideas for a possible show (I’d like to be a clown when I grow up), but even just how to be a better mum, a better friend and girlfriend, a better me. I want to reconnect with the sincere, spontaneous, optimistic and playful creature buried inside me, because it gives meaning to all the shit in my life, and it makes me whole.

In the changing room before the Clown Nativity show.
(Photo by Maureen Penrose.)

Apart from a few appearances in school plays or as an extra in a couple of films decades ago, Hallelujah's Clown Nativity was my first experience on a real stage. A dream come true. I loved it even more than I thought I would. The camaraderie in the wings. The excitement of spying on people entering the auditorium through a peephole. The trepidation before stepping out into the spotlights to face the audience. The joy and relief after the last bow, head buzzing, leaving me to want more. I am hooked.

The show devised by Veronica Coburn was entirely built from material that emerged during improvisational work at rehearsals: personal stories, clownish inventions, unintended touches of ridicule and grace. I was thrilled that she would take input from each of us. And I think it was pure genius on Veronica’s part to keep the auditions for each role in the final Nativity play; as a result, the audience was able to enjoy the hilarious line-up of hopeful Marys, Josephs, Animals (including a Giraffe, a Camel and a Dragon as well as disorderly Sheep and Cows), Shepherds and Wise Men, Stars, Angels and… Sundries, not to mention the incredible Baby Jesus performed by Flavia, and Sandra's unshakable Elvis auditioning for every part. Cuts had to be made in order to stick to one hour as announced, but there was just so much brilliant stuff to choose from. I have to admit I regret the loss of Frances’s fire announcement in sign language “translated” by Anne, of Susan’s Punk Madonna, of George’s ingenuous striptease, and more. But the show Veronica managed to whip up from our sometimes pitiful attempts at clowning and singing was a success. A full house each night, laughter and emotion in the audience, a standing ovation at the end. And the key is that everyone had fun on stage. I know I did. I gained so much from this experience. Confidence. Inspiration. Friends. And at long last, I gained a voice.

I owe a big thank you to Veronica Coburn for this amazing opportunity; to all the participants of the Clown Choir for their solidarity and support; to my family for tolerating my long absences; to Fingal County Council and the Arts Council for funding the project; and to Emer McGowan for opening the doors of Draíocht Theatre to us. And it's not over! Get in touch with Emer, director of Draíocht, or find us on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the Clown Choir in 2014.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Peace and Clown


I’ve just come back from 2 days learning about Clowning and Peace Building at the training symposium organised by Smashing Times theatre company in Carrick-on-Shannon, and I feel so happy. Admittedly the kind of weather we were having in Ireland will do that to you, but this little adventure was the cherry on top.

I’ve always loved to hop into a car and drive. To me, it spells freedom and holidays. And I haven’t travelled around Ireland enough for my liking, so it was exciting to skip work and head West on a Friday morning to discover more of my adopted country and take my clown studies a step further. The 2 hours to myself to think and daydream while I drove were an added bonus ­­– a luxury I never get in normal life, what with my perpetually late book translations and my 4 year-old whirlwind of a child. So the day started well, even if it started at 7 am. Empty roads. Blue sky. Warm sunshine. I was belting at the top of my lungs with the window open whilst whizzing though the cow smells of Meath and the beautiful lakes of Westmeath. I was listening to the uplifting music of the amazing African band of street musicians Staff Benda Bilili when I drove through Longford and saw two little girls walking side by side towards their village school, one white, one black, wearing the same blue uniform. “This is Ireland today”, I thought and drove on, happily drumming on the steering wheel with my fingers.

I found the Dock theatre in Carrick-on-Shannon easily enough. Some friendly-looking people were sitting on the sunny steps outside, but much-needed coffee was awaiting inside. I eagerly pressed and turned different knobs and handles on the coffee thermos, but failed to discover how to operate the thing. Why do such ridiculous things only ever seem to happen to me? I had to ask someone for help. He wasn’t amused. Well, I guess I need to work on my clown some more, even if I have a natural disposition.

The first workshop I attended was “The Mask of Four Temperaments” facilitated by Raymond Keane, a renowned clown and the co-founder of physical theatre company Barabbas. Raymond looks like a graceful and cheeky mixture of Andy Warhol and Samuel Beckett, who happens to be one of his idols. “I will fuck with you”, he warned us at the start of the workshop, “you might need therapy after this!” But he was actually a very gentle teacher, positive and funny. I was curious about masks, wondering how you can perform when you don’t know or control what your face looks like. Raymond told me that masks may magically influence you in some way… Interestingly, when we praised the performance of the first participant who had tried one on, Paul, he said, “Oh, it was the mask.”

But let’s go back to the beginning. Raymond had us play a few games to loosen up – a confusing clapping and finger-clicking routine, and a name game he called “penguins” that, amazingly, I won twice, thus proving I was the stupidest person in the room: When you think too much, you fail. Then Raymond had us explore 4 different temperaments with the corresponding voices and postures, represented by 4 masks:

• Choleric
A mood or personality associated with the colour red, the blood in your body, the fire element, the forward movement and the future. This is the temperament of doers, kings and queens, dictators but also positive leaders like Nelson Mandela, for example. It is linked to anger and to action. We had to go about the room while impersonating that mood and saying “This way, follow me” to each other with authority. Oddly enough, I felt like a fireman trying to show the way to safety. Then we all stopped and closed our eyes while Raymond chose someone to wear the mask. Paul’s performance was interesting. Loud, energetic. He had to play a warlord leading the rest of us into battle, knowing that only very few of us would survive. Then we each got to hold and examine the mask. It did look and feel enchanted, somehow.

• Sanguine
A mood that is associated with the colour yellow, the skin, the air element, the upward movement and the present. We experimented with all these notions saying “Wow! Wow” to everything and everyone. Hilarious. Susan Coughlan, an excellent clowning teacher from Nose to Nose, once aptly suggested the name “the Oops Lady” for my clown, but I was now starting to think that I was also pretty much a “Wow Lady”. I really liked working on that temperament, even though I soon felt it had limitations. Mary later impersonated a very funny sanguine character with the yellow mask on.

• Melancholic
A mood that is associated with the colour blue, the bones, the earth element, the downward movement and the past. Somewhat surprisingly, the melancholic temperament was the one with which I felt the strongest connection. As I had a sore foot and an injured shoulder, I quite naturally stooped and limped about the room, moaning and mumbling “I can’t go on, I will go on” as instructed. I felt so convincing as a pathetic old lady that I thought I should be chosen to wear the blue mask. I was disappointed when Raymond chose Orla, but her performance left a trail of stricken faces and goose bumps around the room. I would never have managed that. Orla is a powerful actress. And her shocked audience was nearly as interesting as her while she was choking out “I can’t go on” with that blue mask on. I was fascinated by the string of faces in front of me: scared, moved, pitying, caring, horrified... They were all so different, so absorbed while they stared at her. Orla’s pathos ended up producing a clown moment that I may have been the only one to see.

• Phlegmatic
A mood that is associated with the colour green, the intestines and the glands, the water element, and again, the present. The phrase we had to practice for the phlegmatic temperament was “I like things just the way they are”. I loved working with that. An example of the phlegmatic persona is the healer, which for some reason I can easily relate to. Amanda made a very convincing (and funny) phlegmatic character.

Raymond explained that the 4 temperaments cohabit in each of us, even if one usually prevails. Interesting improvs to bring the four together include a group therapy, a dance class, a family reunion… He also highlighted how his students seem to get the physical aspect right instantly when they are wearing a mask, and remarked on the intelligence of our body when we stop thinking. Indeed as a clown, I seem to give my best when I improvise and force myself to do just that: Stop thinking.

At the end of the workshop, we all felt like staying for another 3 hours at the very least. It was a captivating taster session. Raymond tries to organise his week-long workshop “I a Clown” every year. I definitely want to go back for more…

Next we got a presentation by 2 members of voluntary aid organisation Clowns Without Borders. For some reason, I burst out laughing when I saw them in the hall. Some people just send out clown vibes even when they’re off stage and dressed in their civvies. And boy, aren’t these people amazing ­– even more so than I thought. We were all moved to tears when they mentioned a stunned Somalian mother whose traumatised child had just laughed for the first time in 2 years during one of their shows. I am determined to work with them one way or another, even if I’m not sure I’m strong enough to face such harrowing misery. One of the things I found the most striking among what they said was that they don’t take sides in a conflict. They just try to bring people together in countries affected by war or extreme poverty, and make them laugh. For me, that was a revelation.

The next day, I went to a workshop with the director of the Clown Choir I meet for weekly rehearsals in Draíocht Theatre, Veronica Coburn: “Clown Through Mask – A Tool for Expression” or “How to Say the Unsayable”. I was thrilled to get 3 whole hours to study clown further with Veronica. And it was interesting to see how new people reacted to her teaching. Playing Veronica’s style of keepie-uppie immediately brought smiles on every face, and I was reminded again how adults are starved of play.

Then we played “Un, deux, trois, soleil” (Sly Fox) with a red nose, focusing on trying to make funny shapes with our little group of allies every time we froze. Such joy in the room. Veronica commented that clowning is an aesthetic art, and went on to explain the notion of “one – innocence”. We each in turn had to snap in and out of it. I find the concept difficult to grasp, but I try to refrain from over-analysing. My interpretation of “one – innocence” is that joyful state of mind you’re in when you are ready for play, open and receptive, like a blank page. “Don’t show us a cartoon picture of how you feel”, said Veronica. “Just breathe and relax your jaw.” Oh, how difficult it is to do nothing, to just be!

There was an interesting little moment. Veronica teased Cliona, who’d asked a daring question after the show performed by Smashing Times in the theatre the night before, and everybody in the room started booing. That was the automatical response. People’s reflex is to smooth things over, to shut up the agitators ­­­­– but clowns are non-conformists by essence. I started clapping instead and everybody instantly switched to clapping, so Cliona finally got the acknowledgement she deserved in a roomful of clowns-to-be.

The core of Veronica’s workshop was a colour exercise like no other: “the world of red”. Veronica talked us through relaxation and breathing exercises, then instructed us to envision a red light entering our body and colouring the world in red. After a while, we had to stand up and move in that red world, saying whatever we felt like saying, doing whatever we felt like doing. “There is no right or wrong, just do what feels right to you.” My red world was a peaceful, sizzling hot beach at sunset. When many people started shouting around me, I thought maybe I should come out of myself more, try to be louder and bolder. That’s what the French clowning master Philippe Gaulier forcefully advised when I attended one of his workshops in London last year. But then I decided to stay true to myself and just danced around the room, feeling elastic and relaxed, while mumbling a sort of mantra. Thinking, “I’m different. And I’m OK with that”. I had to incorporate the loud, angry people running around me into my vision, so I pictured my red beach crowded with naked people. Well, they had stripped naked – metaphorically speaking. A pool of red water appeared and I led the way, jumping in there first and swimming. I felt warm, liberated, erotic and free of pain. When Veronica nodded to indicate that we were sufficiently “hot”, or charged, we had to jot down quick notes about the experience and later read them out loud.

I got a glimpse of how mystical clowning can be. Because it’s about reconnecting with your true self. Veronica explained that the aim of that exercise is to get people to loose their resistance to what comes to them, and express it. “To clown, you must learn how to feel… in public.” Some people didn’t relate to this exercise. Most seemed to express anger and agression, which was slightly scary. But somebody gave me a hug while we were all gambolling around the room, and I loved it. That woman later explained that she felt annoyed by all the negativity and violence she sensed around her, and thought, “The world is beautiful, don’t spoil it! Why can’t you just enjoy it? Just be and let me be.” It was chaotic, it was strange, but I loved how everybody showed their secret self. “What you saw is the world of clown, Veronica concluded. It’s big. It’s beautiful.”

She called that feeling “one – experience” and had us drop in “one ­– innocence” and “one – experience” on a count of 5. Then for the last exercise, a clown student had to enter the stage in a state of “one ­– innocence” and get to the other end in “one – experience”, while connecting with the audience. I should add that different types of food were lined up on the stage: a chocolate roll, a bunch of bananas, a tomato, an onion, a packet of chocolate fingers and a tin of cat food. Who knows what we would have done with all that if only we'd had more time. (Be reassured, all the guinea pigs on stage managed to avoid eating the cat food, although there were some complaints. It was a narrow escape.) There is so much interesting stuff to do with food... My little girl knows that all too well. But she is the best clown I know.

Once again, we all wished we had more time to continue the work. But we were in for a treat. When we joined everyone downstairs in the theatre for a last feedback session, we didn’t know that Veronica was going to perform a short piece for us. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see your teacher perform... Veronica appeared on stage wearing a black burqa and a red nose. We were stunned. She looked at us and there were a few giggles here and there, but mostly shock and awe. Then she removed the veil that covered the lower half of her face, and child-like, sparkly-eyed Veronica briefly turned into a sad old lady. I was moved to tears. Then giggled when she quietly started to peel and eat a tangerine. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the burqa and the red nose seemed to go well together. Intermittently, the absurdity of the mix appeared to us and we’d laugh. It was powerful.

Now more than ever, I am determined to keep working on my clown. And I want to add a layer of commitment to it. One day I jumped out of a plane to support Amnesty International’s work for human rights, so it only seems logical that the next step should be to clown for peace… Clowning is poetic and political. To quote other participants of the symposium, it’s also mindblowing. So simple. Hilarious. Beautiful. These 2 days were all that. And inspiring.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sunday Tea and Pussy Riots

Last Sunday, I had tea with Roddy Doyle’s mother.

According to Mr Grumble, this is the sort of thing that you DON’T share. It’s plain name-dropping, and there’s hardly a bigger crime than that in my book. But I couldn’t resist such a catchy first sentence. Besides, I just want to make a point here.

This is Ireland for you. You meet Bono in a shop in Dalkey and he says a casual "Hello". You go to Bewley's café theatre and Ulick O’Connor comes over to you for a friendly chat. You call the Abbey theatre to ask where you can buy the music of a play you liked and they get the sound designer to send you a home-made CD. You bump into the President and he stops to talk and pose for a photo. You drop two lines to Roddy Doyle on Facebook and he invites you for tea with his mum.

No wonder I’m still living in rainy Ireland after nearly 7 years. I love it — all this makes me feel like everything is possible. And it is: since I moved here, I’ve dared things like jumping out of a plane, giving birth to a baby, clowning around in front of an audience… and there is more to come I hope.

But to paraphrase Hamlet, there's something rotten in the kingdom of Eire. I’m ready to take my pink sunglasses off and have a good, square look at my adopted country. It took me a while.

I had just moved here when John Boorman’s film The Tiger’s Tail was released, in 2006. During the promotion of his film, the director had a go at Ireland, reading out a commentary he'd entitled “The good, the bad and the ugly in new Ireland” in which he listed “the conviviality of the pub and the binge drinking. The welcoming smile to the stranger and the rabid xenophobia. The affection for children and their sexual abuse. Poets and scholars and the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. The new prosperity and the vulgar flaunting of wealth. A blue-eyed black-haired Galway girl and a dyed blonde in an SUV with a phone glued to her ear. National neutrality and the raging gun and drug wars. The rule of law and the grotesque greed of lawyers. Stunning landscapes and the plague of ugly bungalows. The Craíc and the crack-up.”

When I read that at the time, I was shocked. I didn’t see Ireland that way. I thought Boorman was exaggerating, and I was mildly disturbed that a foreigner (and a Brit) living here would take the liberty to criticize his host country so harshly. When I read it now though, I think he has a point. Maybe I should watch the film again. But I really wasn't impressed the first time.

Most of the Irish people I meet seem to promote an embellished vision of their country. When I was chatting with a fellow school mum about our children’s teacher, who is French and very nice (or should I say "but"?), she remarked, “He’s been in Ireland a long time” as if that explained his niceness. And when a waitress in a pub proved to be incredibly unpleasant, a friend of mine asked, in shock: “Is she Irish?” If you're a foreigner, it's OK to be horrible. Expected even.

Most people here are indeed amazingly friendly, and that’s why a Parisian girl like me fell in love with Dublin. If you say "Hello" to someone on the street in Paris, they stare at you as if you've just escaped from the looney bin. Normal interaction over there is to push people out of your way. But the fantasy of the perfect Irish is getting on my nerves. A bit of constructive criticism would be welcome. Jeeze, every time I go so far as questioning something, I get: “Where are you from?”

Now that Ireland is in the throes of recession and that the banks have been bailed out with public money, the only thing the Irish will rebel against is the €100 household tax. I wish they would stop saying “Sorry” when somebody steps on their toes. It’s not that cute after all. It's meek. Even back in the day, the Republicans fighting for freedom were but a handful, and the majority wanted a status quo. Mr Grumble likes to point out that the reason why he is not Irish today, even though he has an Irish surname, is that his ancestors fought for this country – and subsequently had to flee. So what does it mean to be Irish? That you're nice? Too nice to rebel?

Until they were disbanded last March, the members of Occupy Dame Street could be counted on your fingers. Each good cause that has dragged me out of home in the past 7 years only mustered a few dozens of protesters. Where’s your fight gone, Ireland?

Now the Irish parliament is shyly debating whether or not to grant abortion when the mother’s health is at stake, a mere 45 years after the UK legalized it, shortly followed by Canada, the United States and the rest of Europe. While the French are joking that their government should grant French citizenship to the Pussy Riot group, now that Putin has given Russian citizenship to poor billionaire Gérard Depardieu who felt he had too much tax to pay in France, it looks like Ireland needs radical activists even more than France to get things to change.

I want a better world where Savita Halappanavar doesn’t have to die, where a woman’s body doesn’t belong to her husband or her God, but to herself, and where gay people can get married if they feel like it. I want food and shelter for everyone, fair trade, wind farms and electric cars. Oh, and a cup of tea, please.