Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Peace and Clown


Wow.

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 Dra√≠ocht 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.