A few weeks ago we finished Devising with the Red Nose Course which had 13 participants and ran for 8 weeks. The course focused on the exploration and development of one’s clown character, leading to the devising element at the end. The selection criteria was simple – the willingness to explore one’s physicality as well as the motivation to work collectively and approach clowning as a tool in the context of performance making (not as therapy/personal development opportunity).
The structure of the course was based on physical improvisation exercises which became more complex as the course progressed. These exercises formed a basic theatrical vocabulary which the group was able to share and use as a foundation during the devising weekend.
Being able to work with the same group for over 8 weeks for me, as a freelance facilitator, really is an invaluable luxury. It gives depth and allows time to build a supportive, yet honest, working environment, it enables the group to bond and take greater risks, it also lays a basis for a common devising language to be developed.
Building a shared theatrical language before the actual devising process is extremely important. If there isn’t an agreement about the fundamental stylistic choice it becomes difficult to put a piece which sticks together coherently. That’s why we dedicated half of the course to the fundamentals of devising – space, rhythm, movement, form – exploring how these aspects can be used as an inspiration when working with the red nose in the context of an ensemble.
I would like to share some my of thoughts with you. Let’s begin with The Red Nose.
The Red Nose is a complex and powerful tool because it belongs to the world of masks. Jacques Lecoq called it the smallest mask in the world. Like most theatre masks the red nose stretches the performer’s imagination, challenges and expands their physical boundaries by encouraging the performer to leave naturalistic acting in order to enter a poetic, surreal, grotesque and absurd dimension of play.
Playing with any theatre mask the performer is required to master a certain technique. Masks are spacial structures and demand a fully engaged physicality, clear articulation, stamina, spacial awareness and a good control over the performer’s body to be brought to life fully. Putting a mask on one’s face is not enough, the whole body must embody the mask. In a ‘masked’ play timing and space are always heightened, condensed, transposed – they are never mundane.
The red nose is not an exception to this. Even in idiocy there is structure and a set of rules (it’s important to remember that rules also exist to be broken). There’s a wide a range of techniques which help to access the full potential of the clown nose and the skills it cultivates. Unlike most other masks, however, the red nose itself does not imply a dramatic conflict, nor does it suggest a form – it is neutral, expressionless, blank, just a red spot. It is the performer who defines the red nose by ‘filling’ it with their individual resources (the body, emotions, personal rhythms, timing, reactions, etc.) – the combination of these create a comic persona/clown character through which one’s unique presence is revealed to the audience.
The red nose is a mask of extremes, raw emotion and impulse. Whilst it is most often associated with the performer’s ability to make the audience laugh, what is more important, I believe, is the performer’s the ability to play, convey a truthful emotion and connect with the audience, other performers and oneself without interruption. When fully embodied, the red nose is not about gags and giggles – it will take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster, it will surprise us by reflecting our humanity through many of its forms back to us.
Clowning is art form which fosters the performer’s responsiveness to others. When the red mask is placed in the context of an ensemble, the performer is able to explore and play with the status of their persona/character. Status is defined by the performers’ reactions to one another – like in real life, we mostly learn about ourselves and our place in the world through our interactions with people. Theatrical status is an important element in developing one’s clown character because it lays a certain structure and provides depth. This gives the performer limitless opportunities which can be turned into a game at any point.
In ensemble clowning the level of play becomes even more complex because not only does the performer have to connect to the audience, they also must maintain complicity between themselves.
I love Google’s definition of ‘complicity’:
The fact or condition of being involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.
It’s really spot on!
The ethics of working in an ensemble effectively is such: we must become the best partners in crime, not only we are accomplice in the experience we’re creating for the audience, we also must be at one another’s service at all times. Complicity is a kind of an organic synchronisation between the performers who play together. It’s the performers’ ability to communicate clearly and differentiate between tension and release, both dramatic and physical. It’s also the capacity to give and take, feel when it’s right to follow one’s impulse and stay in the limelight and when it’s time to step out and give the focus to someone else. To be complicit is to stay in touch with one’s vitality and be able to genuinely react to what the partner is offering. Complicity requires an enormous generosity, patience and resilience. Some performers have these qualities naturally and some others have to learn them.
The Importance of Honest Feedback
Any act of creativity always balances on the fine line between rejection and success, dismissal and finding its home. Such is the nature of a creative person’s life which does not come with any guarantees or concessions. As creatives we must have a certain level of resilience and be prepared to embrace the outcome that we/our work might not be liked by everyone. It’s perfectly fine!
In the context of actor training, the red nose is an excellent tool because it guides the performer into and through the realms of vulnerability – a matrix where non-defensiveness, emotional truth and aliveness can be encountered and brought to the surface. It is very important to highlight at this point that by ‘vulnerability’ I do not refer to any emotional state where the performer feels threatened/unsafe or where aspects of trauma or personal conflict are revisited or, worse, exacerbated (I’m a relentless advocate that this should exclusively be resolved in therapy with a guidance of a qualified professional – this will be a separate blog post). In the context of actor training/performance, vulnerability is a full emotional openness which might be uncomfortable at first, but is later embraced and turned into pleasure to perform.
An honest and constructive feedback is a very important part when facilitating the performer’s pathway to creative freedom and learning process. What I mean by ‘honest’ is not some form of an unnecessarily harsh, disrespectful, useless and arrogant criticism based on a personal opinion on the quality of someone else’s performance. It is important that when the feedback is given it is rooted in the objective aspects of our observation. How was the rhythm of the scene? Did the performer play with the space? Was the performer’s body engaged? Were the performers developing a game or dropping it inconsistency? Was there an emotional truth? Etc. Providing a constructive, yet honest, reflection informs the performer about what the audience/observers have experienced and whether the performer’s intention was communicated efficiently. Building a common theatrical language allows the ensemble to navigate this kind of objectivity because then the feedback remains within the context of a shared language – the parameters and objectives of an exercise remain clear and can be commented on accordingly.
Some facilitators/participants prefer applying ‘only positive feedback’ policy instead. I have always been rather sceptical of it. Whilst this approach has its function and place, I do believe it’s important that in the context of performance training it is used in moderation. Receiving positive feedback on a regular basis may feel really great, but it can also trap the group into a superficial and apologetic niceness which blocks the group’s progress and critical thinking, prevents risk taking and eliminates an opportunity to build resilience. This, overall, does more harm than good.
Giving and receiving honesty is profoundly intertwined with embracing our vulnerability. That is why constructive criticism is invaluable and should not be seen as a threat. Being able to navigate, reconcile with and eventually master one’s vulnerability by transforming it into a creative force is essential for any performer. When the actor allows themselves to not shy away and be fully seen (even when there’s a real or perceived judgement in place) a true bond between the performer and the audience is created – we have to trust the fact that, simply, it could not be otherwise. The performer’s ability to stay present and emotionally open is a gift which we give to the audience. When we are able to be at peace with ourselves, our vulnerability and discomfort, that’s when we really begin.
Photo: Aaron Davies
Thank you for reading!
Upcoming The Red Nose: Theatre Clown Course will take place 15 May – 19 June (6 weeks on Wednesdays, 6.30 – 9.00) at The Desperate Men studio in Bristol.