Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Great Clown Debate, ACAPTA Conference

The following is a transcript of Alan Clay's presentation on the Clown Training Panel at the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Conference in Geelong last month.

It’s great to be here today, to talk about clown training. I’m a Kiwi who went to a clown school in Sweden in 1977, then worked through Europe, New Zealand and Australia, and for the past 12 years I have been based in Sydney, where I have been running Playspace Studio.

I’ve adopted a strategy in the past few years of promoting discussion on clown, because I don’t think here in Australia we really appreciate the art form and the central place that the art form has in our culture.

One of the strategies I have adopted is publishing Angels Can Fly, a 536 page book, with colour pictures, and stories from 20 clowns from around the world, including some here in the room an on the panel.

As well as a whole lot of practical exercises that we can use in workshops and individually, because this is often one of the hard things about clown, how do we learn it?

I wanted to start off by reading one of the anecdotes that I’ve written in the book:

“As I write this anecdote this book is about to go to the printer, so that I can have some prerelease copies at the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Conference in April 2005, where I am speaking on a panel on the Pedagogy of Clown.

“This panel has arisen because Australia’s first BA in Circus, the fledgling National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne, steadfastly refuses to give clown enough space in the curriculum for the training. In this context I think it is important to put on record the historical place of clown in Australian circus.

“Tradition, like structure, is something I tend to react against, and this has informed the experimental nature of my work, however, we have to acknowledge that any artistic exploration grows out of a tradition, which is composed of the pursuit of countless artistic careers, year, after year, after year.

“For some years I have been talking with Mark St Leon about writing a history of clown in Australia. Mark comes from an old Australian circus family and he has documented many oral histories from circus families in Australia, and these manuscripts can be researched in most of the state reference libraries in Australia.

“Without much success, in terms of finding funding for the history project, and shocked at the lack of documentation of this early Australian work, I publish this book so current exploration is not lost, and I include the following historical footnote to this work.

“The following is an excerpt from Mark St Leon's book, The Circus in Australia, and notes the early Commedia Dell'arte and the Shakespearian influences on Australian clown.

"The art of clowning was introduced into the Australian circus with the first amphitheatre in 1851. Far from playing a secondary role by entertaining the audience during program changes, as is the case today (in the traditional circus), old-time circus clowns actively took part to 'dress' the performances of other members of the troupe.”

So clown is central in Australian circus tradition, and this tradition has carried through to today, with groups like Circus Oz, whose latest show is filled with a wonderful range of clown, from traditional clown through to modern clown.

As a result of this central role of clown however, we take it for granted. It’s always there so is overlooked. We are a larrikin culture, we are all clowns.

The talent scouts for Cirque du Soleil write to me and ask, “What is it about the vibrancy of Australian clown?” But we don’t know this.

Clown has been going through a sort of emancipation in recent years, which has come about because clown escaped from the circus and found theatres and the street.

It is worth mentioning that clown is an art form, a very old art form which far pre-dates circus, and occurs as far as I have been able to tell in every culture on the planet throughout history.

Why did it need to escape from the circus? Physical circus performers are often afraid of clown… It’s too emotional, too chaotic, too out of control, and certainly not real work like handstands. So it gets pigeon holed and taken for granted.

Throughout history clown has been learnt largely through a mixture of apprenticeship and self exploration. You learnt from your betters and you tried stuff out.

If clown has been taught at all, it has been taught through routines. Which is a bit like the way we teach dance… do like me and in time you will learn and understand.

Now days we are more encouraging the students exploration of the tools – the body, emotions, spontaneity, the unknown, rapport, games and taboos etc.

It is worth pointing out that clown is an art form, and as such it needs advocates, trainers and resources, just like any art form, and we need to push the boundaries.

Some of us will argue today that the ad hoc apprenticeship system is still the best for today, that clown is too individual an art form, with so many facets, that it shouldn’t be institutionalised in a training institution. But schools like the Moscow Circus School, Lecoq and Dell’Arte have surely shown the value of resourcing clown training.

It will be interesting to see if the views of the panelists on this is related to weather they were trained, or apprenticed, themselves. I was trained and I teach clown, so it never occurs to me that you can’t teach it. And yet this is the view that is often put by clowns who have learnt largely though self exploration.

Clowns will always learn through self exploration, training will not restrict this, it will give it more resources and a supportive structure, so that the art form can flourish.

All around the world clown is experiencing a renascence, it is an art form for the times, we need it, and it would be a shame if Australia, with such a strong leadership role in Circus Theatre, and such a strong tradition of clown in circus, did not play a leading role in evolving the training required to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Personally I would like to see some sort of push come from this panel to lobby the government, just like we did to get NICA, a push to set up a tertiary level clown training, or to develop the courses that are already there and resource them appropriately.


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