Actors act and Clowns play
This statement has been occupying my mind for a while now.
I use a lot of volunteers in my show and mostly it works well, but I’ve discovered that the worst audience member to pick is an actor. This happened recently at a festival in France.
For my boxing show I need four adult volunteers: one man to fight, two men to hold the rope, and one woman to provide the punching sound effects via a sampler. My opponent has normal size gloves and I wear giant sized ones. In this particular show I managed to choose not one but two actors; I don’t think they knew each other.
I immediately sensed they were comfortable on stage, which is a good thing, but I felt that their confidence could mean they would start to act rather than play. The third man picked from the audience was huge and looked quite tough, so I wasn’t going to choose him to fight (I’m not stupid!) The woman wasn’t an option – it just doesn’t look right, and introduces ideas about gender roles and sexual politics. Plus, having a female control the sound effects balances the male egos and softens the aggression.
So I chose the slightly calmer of the two actors. The first indication that it wasn’t going to be easy was when I did the stand-off, the bit before the fight when the two boxers stare at each other barely an inch apart, and have dark thoughts about doing some serious damage. At this point I usually judge whether they have been drinking, if they are going to kill me, or wonder why did I write such a dangerous show!
On this occasion he looked hard into my eyes and then kissed me full on the mouth. It got a huge laugh from the audience, and I was put on the back-foot; the power had shifted, so I licked him from his chin all the way up his face. It was a good start. We started the fight and the first round went well, but then the second actor who was my opponent’s corner man, decided that he should take the gloves and fight me instead. So they swapped roles.
This was not good. The second guy was over-the-top, kept falling to the ground every time I hit him and acted the scene out, rather than just having a fight. Usually, with a regular volunteer, it’s a lot funnier, especially in the slow motion bit. The audience feels that the volunteer is one of them, and wills them on to win.
An actor has knowledge that makes it harder for them to be a member of the public, but I think that it goes further than this. Their training may hinder them from relinquishing control, the need to show their craft is just too strong. It’s challenging for me, as I have to give up my dominant position and follow rather than lead. This is can also be a good thing, but when it becomes too one-sided we lose the game. There’s no flow and the audience cares less about the winner.
When on stage, I see my role as a clown directing the action, manipulating the fun to get the best response from the volunteer, and to create the best scene for the show. For my Boxing show this usually means me losing the bout, but provoking the volunteer to really fight without either of us getting hurt. It is difficult to do, and is a big surprise for both volunteer and audience when I hit hard at the beginning, and the fight looks real.
The show deals with instinct, and my guess is that an actor’s instinct is to use technique and control rather than to let themselves go. There is a paradox here though, because some of my favourite clowns are great actors: Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis, Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Kaye, to name a few.
I recently did a short workshop with Ira Seindstein, and we chatted after his class in an ice cream parlour in Wellington, New Zealand where I live – well, it was too early for the pub and I like ice cream! I find that often the best stuff is discussed directly after a workshop when everyone goes out together. Everybody relaxes and people talk about their own practice and sometimes you get some real gems of information.
Ira mentioned a conversation he had with Bill Irwin, who said that the biggest problem he had with clown students is that they can’t act. This was puzzling for me. I’ve never wanted to be an actor or had any classical actor training. Do I act in my show? Yes I think so, but am I an actor? No. In the end, labels aren’t important, it’s action that counts, but what you call yourself does indicate what you aspire to.
I think my biggest concern is that I want to treat the audience to something that feels real, a shared game on stage; some funny business with a prop, a character or a scene, to my mind they must all seem genuine. This is the craft of actor and clown, but the clown doesn’t necessarily need to let go of who they are.
My guess is that a clown concentrates more on the audience, and does not have to loose themselves in a role. They know mostly who they are, and are more free to play the game or act, as they are not so bound up by character. This doesn’t mean they can’t play character – we just watch their clown give it a go.
Children are natural clowns, they definitely play unencumbered by technique. Again though, here is a problem: children don’t always need an audience, the clown does. When the child becomes old enough to be aware of the audience in their play, the innocence that so often gets talked about goes. To get what they want, some children realise that acting cute, distressed or happy may help.
As I see it, the clown needs the craft of the actor but must hold onto the delight of the child and not let technique overshadow their actions.
This video clip was shot last year at Glastonbury, I don’t know who posted it, but I’m glad they did because I think it supports my points. I was choosing my volunteers and had honestly no idea that the person I choose to box with was Dr Brown. We have met before and I would normally recognise him, but I chose what I thought was a man with a big beard, dark sunglasses and a woolly hat. It wasn’t until I took his glasses and hat off, his beard wouldn’t budge, that I realised it was him. He just played, didn’t act the part, he hit hard, was generous with the flow and we had a proper fight. I would never willingly pick a performer for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but a clown who loves to play makes a great volunteer.
Boxing Dr Brown at Glastonbury
Fraser July 2014