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School of the Arts

Clowning: a theatre ritual

By Ryan Stutzman and Jeremy Weyer

Clowning

There is a small table positioned in the corner of a dimly lit room.  Risers and chairs line two sides of the room.  The dark floor is dulled with scuffmarks and black curtains hang along the perimeter of the entire room. This is not a traditional college classroom; it is the black box theater at the Ernestine M. Raclin School of the Arts. The Acting II class is about to begin and while it is full of ritual, it is also far from traditional.

“Theatre is all about the ritual. Everything we do in the theatre is a ritual,” says Associate Dean of Academics and Associate Professor of Theatre Randy Colborn.  His class begins with a warm-up exercise that emphasizes the actor’s physical and emotional state of being.  Once the warm-up is complete he dives right into the clowning ritual. Read more

“Find yourself some space.  Go to neutral.  Standing, feet shoulder width apart, head balanced on top of the spine,” instructs Colborn. “Deep inside is the impulse to begin to move through the space.  When you can no longer deny it, begin to move … giving voice to your inner rhythm.”  Immediately people start moving in a rhythmic pace and make sounds not using words but instead use a voice that comes from deep within the actor’s soul. 

“Once you’re ready, go over to the table of noses and let your nose choose you.  Once your nose has picked you, take it and go over to one of the mirrors, close your eyes and put your nose on,” says Colborn. “When you open your eyes, whatever you see is who you are.  Just continue to move thru the space as the clown that you discovered when you opened your eyes.  Don’t think about it; just do it. You have to completely let go and get out of the way of your clown.” Ten people wander around the empty space wearing clown noses.  Some appear happy, a few sad, and one just looks confused.  The ritual has taken them over. They are not themselves but the clowns that have chosen them.  This is very important says Colborn, “One must completely let go and not think about the direction his clown takes.”

Next, Colborn gives the students some dialog for their clowns to use while interacting with items they discover in their space, “Is that my schmenki?  I miss my schmenki.  I love you schmenki.”  The clowning begins.

While the ritual of clowning is not only great conditioning for the actor, it also plunges deeply into the psyche of the participant.  Clowning requires the actor to literally lose himself in the part and become the clown. The actor has to let his or her own personal thoughts take a backseat to the clown’s.  This is the true challenge and reward of the exercise. Actors around the globe strive to achieve this state of total engagement with their characters. It sounds so simple and relaxing; let go of all your hang-ups and preconceived notions of all things in the world and be someone else for a few minutes.  Yet, it is hard to hide from yourself in your own mind. 

Take for example a chair.  You know what a chair is, how to sit in it, what it looks like, and how it feels but your clown does not know what a chair is at all.  To him it is strange and new. What is it?  How does he feel about it?  How does he feel about not knowing what it is?  The questions expand to an infinite number of quandaries. They all spring from how well you can fool yourself asyour clown. 

Here we draw a fundamental line between “bad” acting and acting as a state of objective feeling and being.  This line exists in the mind between acknowledging you and your character.  To cross from one side of the line to the other is to forget “you” for a short amount of time and think, live, breathe, act, and react as your character.  Put quite simply, an actor must get out of their own way. This is the purpose of clowning. The actor reacts to the sight of being altered by a nose and creates the new self based on that change. You may feel and think other things as you explore your new self but the transformation created by what you initially saw cannot be undone.

For instance, the actor might open his eyes and see himself as absurd and feel very silly.  He is now Absurd Clown.  The actor’s thoughts, actions, and feelings are governed by the feeling of absurdity.  When seeing new things the actor must first consider how ridiculous and strange they are.  The actor will think about the shape, purpose, and construction of a chair in new ways.  If Absurd Clown figured out that it was something to sit on in the first place, he would sit in it in the most absurd way, would he not?  He may think it was some sort of heavy hat or pointy shirt.  Regardless, he would not see a chair as the actor sees it.  He would be governed by his clown’s thoughts and reactions.

We know when Absurd Clown looks at the chair the nagging voice in our heads thinks, “It is a chair.”  Just like that, we have failed a little bit of the exercise.  To overcome this is the final obstacle of clowning.  It is easy to throw on a nose and look at yourself in a new way, respond to stimuli as a clown, and act silly for the purpose of attempting to learn something in the exercise.  To really leap over the line between bad acting and truly being the character, you must intentionally stifle that little voice that says, “It is a chair”, before turning to see that there is a chair in the space.  You must intentionally work to train your mind to be unintentional.  Rehearse to forget, as it were. 
In that split second, when you can turn around and think, “What in the world is that?” and not get the response of, “It is a chair,” you have mastered a very difficult art.

Theatre students Jeremy Weyer and Ryan Stutzman took Acting II during the 2011 spring semester.