Sunday, November 28, 2010

Meetings With Remarkable Clowns

Introduction to Meetings With Remarkable Clowns
In 1979 I chose to leave the USA to see the European traditional one-ring circus clowns. I left for 3 weeks, but, have been gone since 1979. Amongst the clowns I met in the first instance in Europa were Alfred Pauwells and Charlie Rivels. By 1979 however I was just beginning to be discovered as a clown myself. I had already apprenticed Danny Chapman (former Boss Clown of one Ringling Circus Units when Lou Jacobs was Boss of the other). I had already started training as an actor, and had trained at Dell' arte school with its Founder Carlo and his staff. I had already created my own shows at The Eureka Theater of San Francisco (that theatre later commissioned Tony Kushner's Angels in America). And I had also completed two tours with Kit n Kaboodle an American clown troupe at that time.  So in 1979 within a few weeks three offers were made to me: 1) Ringling Clown College had offered me a full-scholarship that in my case actually included pay; 2) Circus Vargas offered me a contract as a clown and to learn the classic "Frog in the Barrel" act since I was a contortionist; 3) Bill Irwin asked me to be his partner for his first NYC show. Hard to believe but I turned all three down as I felt I wanted to see and study the old masters in Europa and to see where that led me. I had just worked out a little street act, really just bits of partner acro/juggling/clown with Bernadette Sabbath a friend who was also en route to Europa.

That paragraph is condensed version of a long and interesting story of my process 1975-1979.

I had met a few remarkable clowns prior to 1979. My father was one. He was known as a 'clown' since he knew a lot about clowning, and was a prankster, and he new a lot of jokes. In the joke department he loved to beat the TV comedians to the punchlines. He also knew many clowns who he somehow met when they came to Pittsburgh. By the time I was five I was adept at pratfalls and some physical clowning. At that age my 'heroes' were The Three Stooges and Hoppalong Cassidy. When I came home from school each day from the age of 5 to 8 I watched a half hour of The Three Stooges on TV. At the age of 8 I had to begin Hebrew school after regular primary school. About the age of 10, The Three Stooges were performing live in Pittsburgh at the Holiday House night club and hotel. My father knew them somehow and arranged for us to meet them at the Holiday House reception. We arrived on schedule. My father phoned from the lobby and they came down, all three with Curly Joe as the third member. This was about 1962 or so. They had a quick hello to my father and introduced themselves to me and then 'it began'. Yes... for about five minutes The Three Stooges improvised right there for me and my father. I was stunned. Speechless. Mesmerized. Then they said goodbye and carried on as they returned to their room.

Like so many other actors and clowns of my generation we saw a huge array of the finest clowns every week on television. Many, like myself, saw every week - Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, The Three Stooges, Jackie Gleason, and Phil Silvers to mention a few. There were a large number of others plus the guests on these TV shows, plus soon in the 1960s there came the huge variety of situation comedies (Gomer Pyle, F-Troop, McHale's Navy, Dick Van Dyke Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island etc).

In October 1979 I started to help my friend Ole Brekke to establish his Clownskolan in Stockholm, Sweden. Ole ran it the year before for several months and he had inherited Clownskolan from another American mime/clown/juggler Michael "River" Lynch. Michael "River" moved to New Zealand with his Swedish wife and began to teach mime and juggling (his forms of clowning) all over New Zealand and had the hugest effect on the development of clown there. I met "River" in May 1980 at a clown festival after that he invited me to come to NZ since, as he put it, I could take the teaching of clown further than he. With Ole in 1979-1980 he set up a one-year course and I became his co-teacher with each of us teaching our own classes in a Lecoq based curriculum. I taught the curriculum i.e. the subjects but only used my own exercises.

Within the first or second week, I went to see an astonishing clown Clownen Manne at the Comedie Teatern at Djurgarden's Grona Lund in Stockholm. The way he dealt with the kids would still be considered remarkable by any standard. He was totally interactive although the children did not come on stage he talked with them and listened to them and clowned/timed off and with whatever they said to him. I met him afterwards simply to thank him but he was very welcoming and I soon became friends with he and his wife. In the meantime I was helping to establish a new generation(s) of Swedish clowns who had all seen Clownen Manne as children. So he certainly directly effected the clown movement in Sweden and Scandinavia for generations. Manne had trained first as a lawyer and very completely fluent in several languages. He then got involved deeply and passionately with theatre based on Grotowski and it was that work that led directly to him becoming a clown and a quite physical one at that. For many years he has performed also with his now grown children. Hopefully soon, if he hasn't already, he will also perform with his grandchildren.

In the summer of 1980 I began to perform with friends Barbara Doherty and Jodi Gilbert. Certainly, at that time, Barbara and Jodi were two of the top women clowns. Skilled dancers - Barbara was a remarkable and unique mime and Jodi was/is and extraordinarily gifted singer. We performed totally, 100%, improvised theatre as a trio and often worked with musicians who also were free to play (or not play) as they wished. We were only restricted by time i.e. the lights came onstage at the advertised time and the lights would begin to dim 5 minutes before we were to end so that we could bring the show to a conclusion. Barbara had studied dance at Salt Lake University in Utah. Coincidently she came into being  a full member of the legendary The Great Salt Lake Mime Troupe. She was the last member with Jodi and they changed the name to Heroes & Regulars. When I joined we became Heroes, Regulars, & Jerks.

In the summer of 1981 Barbara and I performed in The Festival of Fools in Copenhagen. I had performed in the Festival of Fools in Cornwall in 1979. In 1981 Ole informed us that Charlie Rivels was performing in Stockholm. Our work was done so we headed there directly. I saw him perform four days in a row on the outdoor stage near the Comedie Teatern at Grona Lund. Charlie was 86 and was assisted in parts by his son who was about 62 and his daughter who was about 60. Or maybe vice versus on the ages of the son and daughter. In Sweden in that period if you mentioned you were a clown people would ask with stars in their eyes "Have you seen Clownen Manne or Charlie Rivels." In essence, for the Swedish people Manne was a real folk figure and Charlie Rivels was equivalent to Santa Claus. Well, when I saw him... he was extraordinary. There was a point in the show when Charlie had to act like a bird. Four days in a row, just at that moment, a flock of birds went by the stage. I told Manne and he said "Oh, that's been happening for ten years" i.e. each summer when Charlie performed there.

More to come...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Teaching is Learning

Teaching is not easy. Every teacher needs to question their self, daily. BKS Iyengar has written a fine book on teaching called "The Tree of Yoga". A teacher needs to provide an honest history of any subject that they offer. Professionally many practitioners of theatre and performance skills recognized long ago that my method was unusually potent. Thus, I have always insisted that anyone who studies with me should also be sure to have at least one other teacher besides me. Usually I am really talking about them getting at least a movement teacher since I feel that movement can be more transparent than many aspects of acting, clown or theatre. Most often my recommendation or the actor's recognition of what they should study in terms of movement comes about from our conversation. Usually I recommend one of the three general areas of; dance, yoga or martial arts.

Additionally since I recognized the strength of what and how I taught, I made sure to always have at least a movement teacher myself as well as a mentor. Some of my mentors have included Guillermo Keys-Arenas and Antoine Saleh who have since passed away. Other mentors include Harry Haythorne, MBE and Cletus Ball. 

In my own journey it has been the case that my mentors, many teachers, and a much greater number of my own students have become good friends.

I have never tried nor have I ever taught anyone 'everything they knew'. A teacher needs to recognize that no matter how young (or old), or how inexperienced (or experienced) a person is when they come to learn from you, each individual brings you a gift. You are not a teacher unless you have learners. Additionally no matter who comes before you in your class or studio, each individual brings knowledge and experience (life and professional) that you do not possess. 

True teaching is less about being an expert imparting knowledge than it is about facilitating a self-discovery of awakening and self-empowerment in each individual who stands in your class or studio.

In acting I have noted that most schools and teachers of acting are really trying to clone or create an actor to become a 'red rose'. Why? There are a thousand variations of roses. Additionally there are thousands of other types of flowers so why a rose at all? And why not weeds which are an important part of any ecosystem. So too for acting. There are likely a million varieties of 'actor' and many 'weeds' become stars in acting. 

One of my most influential teachers, mentors, and friends was Peter Dittrich who taught me sociology and his version of political science. He said that his greatest satisfaction as a teacher was when a former student visited and that former student won an argument. Likewise in the performing arts each student ideally should exceed their teacher in some capacity. We see this in a sport such as gymnastics as each generation at each olympiad exceeds what their coaches had never even dreamed.

In acting, there are improvements in many technicals aspects of theatre. But one of the trends is what I term 'the scientology of acting' that means that even though technically the well trained actors today can 'do anything well' they seem to be empty or void of an enriched, enlivened personality.  In other words it seems that as the techniques for teaching acting have developed (not necessarily improved) there is also something missing from the gestalt of many good, technically proficient, successful professional actors. There is something cold and empty on the stage. I think the musical performers have, generally speaking, the better understanding of acting, performance, physical and vocal technique than the average actor, clown, or physical performer. Really dancers exceed the ability of most so called 'physical performers'. 

One has to continually question the processes and methodologies and the beliefs in the performing arts. 
That questioning is as important for the teacher as for the learner.

A Life in Acting and Clown

In the finale of Cirque Du Soleil's Corteo - December 2007 something shifted in my life. During our company bow in front of a full-house standing ovation, at the request of my friend and colleague Jeff  I went into the center of the stage. As I rose, I went into an altered state of consciousness. Time slowed. Senses increased. I passed through a portal in my life. By the time I was 5 I wanted to be a clown in the circus. My dream as a child culminated 50 years later at this very moment during my final bow. Although I had been a clown in circus before my contract with Cirque, and this was my 104th and last contracted performance. This moment was a personal shift. just as a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, so did I pass from circus clown to my reawakened process as a teacher. 

My contract with Cirque was an experimental one is several ways. One of the experiments was for me to be the first person to be the Resident Teacher of a Cirque show. There had always been a Head Coach on every show, someone who could oversee the technical acrobatic performances. My contract was officially a "Replacement Contract" for me to replace a wonderful young actor who wanted to leave the show. However, even though Cirque did not make my teaching position official, little by little many of the artistes asked me to teach them a variety of techniques related to acting and performance. Such spontaneous requests for me to teach and to direct have happened ever since I began in the theatre. It has been people other than myself who noted or called on me as a teacher. 

At the request of a friend in 2008 I began to emerge again as a teacher, this time in Paris. As a result, I began to mentor a number of individuals as well as two companies since 2008. However, in May 2009 en route to one of my own workshops I had an epiphany in the Paris Metro. The new concept appeared called "The Four Articulations" and I began that day to teach a new format for understanding the deeper truth and universal principles in acting, clown, theatre and creativity. In October 2010 in the closing moments of my workshop "The Four Articulations" one participant who is 3rd generation circus artist and teacher called The Four Articulations "the bible". He meant, as I understand it, that I had indeed found something so essential and pure that in fact it is like a new beginning (genesis) for the teaching of clown, acting, and the inner dimension of theatre.