Since the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down all public gatherings the world over, artists of all kinds who rely on those gatherings have been searching for ways to create and share solo work or virtual collaborations. Sometimes, though, the goal is not to produce something but rather cultivate a new skill or just do something for the pure joy of it. We need that kind of art during this time, too. Art that no one needs to see except we, its creators.
Hardly anything makes me happier than clowning and watching other clowns clown (#polyptoton). When I was first introduced to this work as an undergraduate by my professor (and one of my favorite people in the entire world), Patty Gallagher, I could not stop smiling. And please don’t misunderstand – I’m not talking about scary “Pennywise” clowns or the clown who showed up at your 5-year-old’s birthday party and made balloon animals. That’s a different strain of the work, and the people who do that work deserve my professional courtesy, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m referring to the strain of clowning that brought us performers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, and (my personal hero) Bill Irwin. These clowns all share a similar sensibility when in character that I have attempted to codify for the purposes of awakening it in young performers (and, let’s be honest, in myself).
Here are the general “rules” of clowning that can reshape the way you think about and interact with your surroundings, on stage or otherwise:
Rule #1: Make an entrance. Clowns make an immediate impression and broadcast most of what we need to know about them within their first few seconds on stage.
Rule #2: Not unlike a duck, you wake up in an entirely new and wondrous world every day. Practice the art of discovery. Look at the mundane with fresh eyes. Use objects in unexpected ways. Fall deeply in love with each new face you see.
Rule #3: You are never alone. There is no such thing as a “fourth wall” for you. Ever. This makes you both the most vulnerable and accessible person on stage at all times. Your heart is on display 24/7. No breaks, even when your actual heart is breaking. You share and are shared.
Rule #4: You have no self-awareness of how ridiculous your actions are. Can clowns be embarrassed? Sure. And they let us know it (and laugh at it). But this lack of awareness frees you from shame. Caveat: You might, however, have perfect awareness of the ridiculousness of others.
Rule #5: All of your actions are driven by your greatest desire. This is a deeply personal thing for each individual clown, but some common examples are food, love, money, applause, etc.
Rule #6: Normal laws of physics and proportion do not apply to you. A small shove could send you across the room. Your left foot could be magnetized to one part of the floor. What even is gravity? For a beautiful example of this concept, watch Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight. You’ll see what I mean.
Rule #7: Logic does not apply to you. This does not mean you are an idiot, it just means that you might take unusual pathways toward solving everyday problems that sometimes defy “common sense.”
Rule #8: Make an exit. Exeunt the way you entered – by leaving a lasting impression. One last peek at the audience is all it takes.
These are not hard and fast rules, nor is this list a road-map to instant comedic greatness, but I guarantee that once you begin to play in this way you won’t be able to stop. Once you see the world this way, you cannot unsee it. Layer this sensibility onto literally any character – whether “classified” as a clown or not – and you will instantly have a more alive and engaged performance. Layer it into the ASC’s audience contact practices, and you’ve got dynamite.
Begin to build your own clown and see where it takes you: Start with desire (see Rule #5), or something about your everyday self that usually goes unnoticed – amplify it and feature it in your clown persona. If you have a partner willing to play, try playing around with this lazzi (a classic clown routine) and see what you come up with. At the very least, you might rekindle some of the joy and wonder we tend to lose sight of in moments of crisis.