The last week has been full of exercises that are wonderful, intense, and just about impossible to explain without leaving the impression that all we do is spend each day being hypnotized - whether by Sue or by each other. I'd say it all started when, last Wednesday we did an exercise called "Creator & Masterpiece", which Sue actually introduced by saying she didn't know how or why it worked it but that for some unknown reason it always did. And Barnaby, who had been bringing in his camcorder every day thus far to film the workshop (even if this was only the third day), said this is one of the exercises he wasn't going to film because to someone watching from the outside, it just wouldn't make any sense.
To start things off, half the class was assigned the role of being the Creator and the other to being the Masterpiece. Then everyone was told to shut their eyes. To stand in the space blind, to not have to worry about thinking anything, and just wait there until Sue took your hand and guided you somewhere else. You knew that if you were a Masterpiece you were being brought to your potential Creator and if you were the Creator you were being brought to your Masterpiece to be. For now, these were just labels. I had been given the role of Creator (later we would reverse roles) and waited until Sue came for me. When she did, we laughed together as she walked my two left feet to someone I wouldn't see and who wouldn't see me for quite some time.
Me and this other person sat down across from each other. The class had been given instructions beforehand so the Creators knew that this was when they should gently place their hands on their Masterpiece's face. Having only known whoever this person was for only two and some odd days, we had been told to move our hands around freely, to feel the texture of this person's skin, the curves of their cheeks, to fully explore the terrain of their nose, lips, chin -- to use the sense of touch to experience this person's face completely.
The goal was to do this until we thought of a sound. Any sound that this face led us to think of. And for a back-up plan, if we couldn't think of one, we could just make one up. That tid bit of advice that often follows Sue's instructions for various exercises is a virtual lifesaver since it relieves so much unproductive pressure from any given task. Once we were satisfied with the sound we were supposed to drop our hands to signify to Sue that we were done.
My hands draped over this person's face and my fingers went to work, moving up and down, riding the bumps and feeling their warm skin stretch in response. This was such an instant intimacy. At first, though, I instinctively avoided touching the person's lips directly - until I realized that I really did have complete freedom and unconditional permission to explore as I pleased. It was then that I let my fingers lightly graze over this person's lips to get a better idea of what they were like (later a Masterpiece even mentioned that their Creator had explored his or her nostrils). We weren't supposed to think about who it might be or if it was a male or female. Of course I spent some time on that ("is this a girl, if not, am i gay?") but I did my best to concentrate and continued to move my fingertips up and down over the person's face.
After some time, I started to focus on what appeared to be a dangerously steep downward slope of their cheek bones which then leveled off on what felt like a slightly long chin, surely a safe strip for emergency landings. After some internal revisions and without vocalizing any of them (we weren't allowed to just yet), I decided upon a sound that moved from what seemed like utter desperation and panic to a relatively long sigh of relief: "EEEEEYYY!!!!! Laaaahh..." And then I removed my hands and brought them down to my side.
When everyone was finished, still not allowed to open our eyes, Sue separated us. She guided the Creators and Masterpieces to different parts of the room. Then one by one the Creators were told to make their sounds. Throughout the day these sounds were all different -- from a deep "Buh--ooooom!!! -Chaka!-Chaka!-Chaka!-Chaka!" to a loud meditative "Ohhhhhmmm!!" to an odd but still unmistakable orgasmic sigh. And then there was mine which I thought sounded the least melodic but as far as I was concerned was the only one that actually made sense.
As the creators made their sounds, the Masterpieces were told to carefully listen to each one and to think about which one sounded like it was created using their face. Then all the Creators were told to make their sounds at once. While this was happening, the Masterpieces were told to blindly walk towards which sound they felt was theirs. What followed was a brilliant cacophony of primal mating calls that ended up going for some time....
In between screaming "EEEEEYYY!!!!! Laaaahh..."I, for one, had to reject a number of Masterpieces who thought I was their sound. They would stumble up to and when I touched their face either I didn't recognize the angle of their jaw line or their skin was just too cold. So I cupped the ball of their shoulder and sent them away. Meanwhile, I continued exclaiming "EEEEEYYY!!!!! Laaaahh..." until finally, I found my match. Or rather - my match found me. Only then were we allowed to open our eyes and I saw that the face I had traced and then recognized belonged to Charmaine - one of the friendliest female clowns in the class. And while it wasn't someone I had expected, for some reason, I wasn't surprised. I mean, her face didn't look at all like the black diamond ski slope I had imagined. But the Earthy feeling I had gotten from spending time with her did much to shed light on the person it seemed I was only now looking at for the first time.
Some people apparently found their match right away. They'd hear the sound and just know it was theirs. I obviously hadn't been one of those people. I had to sift through other Masterpieces and Charmaine approached a number of other Creators to boot. At the time, I thought the premise of this exercise was fantastic even if I didn't know how it fit into clowning. That we each gave off a sound. And not only could others perceive it but that if heard, we could recognize it as well. However, it seemed like the number of those who had found each other during their first encounters could be explained by chance. I thought back to when Sue said this exercise always worked. The thing was, though, this exercise wasn't over.
Once everyone met their original partner, everyone's eyes open, these pairs moved to sit in a wide circle around the green mat. One at a time, each Creator, the one who created the sound from the Masterpiece's face, was directed by Sue to stand up, walk in a circle, and make their their sound. To let the sound run through them, to say it again and again and to not interpret the sound so much as to let go and abandon their body to it. As the Creator walked in a circle, Sue would direct with something like this:
"Sound in your feet and ankles...Sound in your elbows and hands...Sound in your knees...Sound in the small of your back...Sound in your shoulder blades...Sound in your hips...Good, Good. Fall into it, let it fill you up like water. Shoulders, elbows, back of the neck! All that sound! Lovely!"
In the middle of this, Sue told the Creator's matching Masterpiece to get up and catch up to their partner. To follow right behind them and just walk or run as they naturally would. So the Creator was in the lead, letting the sound guide their body, and the Masterpiece was right behind them just being themselves.
For many, this was a moment when something magical happened. You could hear it in their laughter. People were noticing that the Creator was walking in the same way as the Masterpiece. Since they were so close together, the Creator who was in front couldn't see the Masterpiece yet whether it was leg movements or arm swings or the pace or just the way they held themselves, there was this laughter in the recognition of a similarity of movement.
When I got up Sue had to keep reminding me to to repeat "EEEEEYYY!!!!! Laaaahh..." but when Charmaine got up to follow me I heard the class make a sigh of recognition when the movements of our legs apparently lined up. Although being in front, I couldn't see how it looked. And it was difficult to feel much during the process. I didn't really know if my body was replying to the sound itself, to something random like indigestion, or just to Sue's voice.
Others had different experiences. This is another Creator's (Tim's) comments after he had been vocalizing the sound from his Masterpiece, Gabriel:
"I really just let go. He [Gabriel] has just so much masculine energy. I just felt really good, I felt different, I felt like I had to slow down. I wasn't thinking, it just happened. He walks different than me. He walks a lot more heavy..."
And then Gabriel's reaction, which turned out to be pretty common for Masterpieces:
"It's funny to watch yourself walk, that's for sure."
And Sue's comments after the fact:
"...We don't want to comment on the sound! We don't want to -- "This is how the sound would move - Ch, Ch, Ch - Oh I'm moving like this!" This is going to be always an internal motivation, an internal discovery. And because you continue making that sound you continually can discover the movement. You continually meet yourself. You continually meet the sound...So we go away and the sound comes forward."
As for me, I may have caught glimpses and could have seen something but the laughter was more contagious than clarifying when people apparently saw similarities in what were by necessity a likeness of idiosyncratic motions. But really I could have not seen anything. This really troubled me - especially because it was cumulative. Every time I saw a pair walking, the Masterpiece behind the Creator, I kept being pretty sure that I wasn't seeing anything or that if I was I could have just been reading too much into it. And yet it seemed like everyone else was seeing something.
Even when Sue pointed stuff out like:
"Do you hear their feet on the ground, it's the same weight."
"Do you see the way their bodies have the same axis?"
But I didn't hear it, I didn't see it, and knowing that I wasn't picking up what other people were sensing one way or another (you could hear them laughing!), whether it was there or not, I think I lost a little bit of my new-found faith in this thing called clown. To be among believers and not be able to believe, I think that's what happened. To be among believers and to question. As if somewhere in this limbo of wondering if everyone had just been brainwashed or if I wasn't really all that perceptive some of my faith just seeped away.
It was like I was pushed into this funk where my momentum froze and I started questioning things all at once and in the process started forgetting why I came here and what inspired me to study clown in the first place. And I think when that happens, when you lose a new-found faith it makes sense that you go back a few steps, steps which that faith helped you leap over.
That everything came to a head just because I couldn't see matching footsteps really sucked.
And what made matters worse was the exercise wasn't over yet. I had only been the Creator.
The class took a break, we came back and everything happened again. Except this time it was the other way around. I was the Masterpiece.
Really, it started out rather promising.
It wasn't long before I was sitting down and someone's hands were on my face. What struck me right away was how strong and purposeful these fingers were in learning the map of my face. Their hands never held back, never touched my face the same way twice. Their fingers pushed my features together and apart, spread outward and inward, moved from and followed every direction, and finally explored my neck and the space behind my ears. The experience of this person touching me was both majestic and sexual at the same time. Even when making love, I don't think anyone has ever felt me with such intensity and scope...My eyes closed, I thought for sure these hands belonged to a sculptor and since there was a furniture designer/artist I relinquished myself to the thought that it was him. While I prepared to deal with the dissapointment that it wasn't a woman who was touching me I found solace in the thought that the sound being sculpted from these highly perceptive hands would at the very least be something that would be awe-inspiring.
When it came time for all the Creators to make their sounds, I heard mine right away. It was exactly what I thought it would be - long and deep, ending in a string of vocal fireworks. It was one of the examples given earlier -
I immediately went in the direction of this person but right as I was about to reach him he stopped making the sound and since I was blind he instantly dissappeared from my radar. . All of a sudden, I was lost.
I continued to listen to other sounds in the chorus of calls but I couldn't make heads or tails to my attraction to any of them. All I knew was that there was no way one of the sounds in the mix was mine. It began with a bright burst of an "eeee" and ended in a weak moan of "uh" followed by an even even more pathetic "uh". Said together, It went something like "EEE!!! Uhhhh....uh..."
I went up to just about everyone who wasn't exuding this sound only to be turned away. These Creators would just touch my face and then ignore me without even using their body to say goodbye. Each time I had to wander away, missing the sound I swore was mine, overwhelmed in the moment and having no idea where I would go next.
Finally I was one of the last few that was unpaired (the chorus had greatly diminished) and in an act of desperation went up to the sound I just knew couldn't be mine. The hands I never thought I'd seek. These hands searched my face for features to recognize. The hands felt similar -perhaps the same but only cooler. This was not good.
To signify that we had found each other, Sue whispered that we could open our eyes. This unbelievably pathetic and poor excuse of what was supposed to be my awe-inspired sound was mine. It also happned to come from the tiniest and quietest girl in our class. Rachelle.
The rest of the exercise was irrelevant because of how disspointed I felt at that moment. I really did not want to be this sound. It wasn't fair!
It took a little while but I finally realized that Rachelle really did capture how I felt. "EEE!!! Uhhhh......uh..." Huge ambition in the form of expectation instantly blown apart by process. "EEE!!! Uhhhh......uh..." While this discovery should have lifted my spirits, all it did was bring me back full circle and reinforce my own personal shit collection.
My brilliant logic for becoming a clown had vanished but some residual passion was still there -- at the very least in the form of sticking with the workshop and not jumping ship. All that was in the sound:
This was a hell of a follow-up to what Sue had been talking about when she said, "Expectation cuts off experience." As if so many of Sue's lessons exist on a micro and a macro level. On stage and in the real world. In both, in an infinite number of ways.
Everything was related. I had to re-build. To start over in what felt like the middle and not be bound to who I was coming in. To approach the workshop like a clown and not only work on being a clown during the work. Each moment free to explore something new. Each day not stuck in the drama of the day before. So if for whatever reason one exercise didn't make any sense, to just let it go and get on with it. It doesn't have to be the end of the world.
My motivation gone, I still felt compelled to ask Sue a question: If you could be anything, why be a clown?
"You shouldn't be...For me clowning chooses you, you don't choose it....Why should you do it? Because you do it because you can't not do it. It's not like "Oh, I'm going to do something good for the world, I think I'll be a clown."...It's like, Save your time...It's a process. It's a facing of the self. It's a big deal. It's an incredible act of generosity...Courage. But don't do anybody any favors. You do it because you can't not do it."
Working today in the first class was kind of like blending being in a Chuck Palahniuk novel (i.e. - Fight Club), listening to a motivational speaker who also happens to be a psychic, doing a warm-up with a dominatrix, joining a new religion, taking a yoga class, experiencing really intense group therapy and through it all learning a whole lot about what it means to be a modern clown. The class started with Sue Morisson, the teacher, telling her assistant who has the most beloved name to get the theatre ready: "Barnaby, go lock the doors properly, would you?" Really, at that point, as far as I know none of us knew what to expect.
Before the class started, we all introduced ourselves, all of us standing in a circle formation around this interconnected green mat on a large widespread concrete floor. We were in the middle of a larger space that's carved inside an unsuspicious three-story building, bordered by an elevated stage in the back that's covered with a bunch of plastic tubs that I'm pretty sure are full of all sorts of crazy props. On the left there's a large mirror that's draped over and on the right there are a few gymnastics mats of various sizes more or less situated underneath two trapeze swings which are identical except for the fact that one of them hangs much closer to the ceiling and likely can only be reached by flying (leaping?) from the other. For all it's openness, the theatre also has a bunch of nooks and crannies that beg to be explored but perhaps can only be done so with the necessary background and skill. Our class takes place during the morning; during the afternoon local acrobats pay a monthly membership to use the space as their gym.
The class started with everyone going around in a circle, answering the usual questions of what's your name, where you're from, and telling a little bit about yourself -- the scary part about what brought you here. All of the fourteen students (thirteen at that point) had a different yet definitely wonderful reason for what inspired them to drive, fly, bus or just walk a few blocks to get to this theatre in Toronto, Canada, whose name is the Centre of Gravity to study for five weeks in Sue's "Clown Through Mask" workshop. One woman came all the way from Argentina with numerous students coming from different provinces of Canada and various parts of the United States.
Being from New York, I should have remembered which states some people had said they came from but for the most part I wasn't paying attention as it slowly became my turn to speak. I was way too nervous about what I was going to say. I don't know how I remember that one Canadian woman said she was a hospital clown and had been for years but had decided to become a street performer and was taking this class to help give birth to an act to take on the road. And then there was a man who said that he built furniture for a living except he didn't conform to any standard forms -- he just created interesting designs without thinking - until one day a Native American walked into his studio and told him you know what you are, you're one of those Sacred Clowns. This apparently had been a life-changing moment and after a searching trip in South America was what brought him here. My turn came ever closer as other students told their stories. Another told us how he had done a show about Will Rogers in New York City and after it was done he realized that he wasn't nearly as present and mischievous with the audience as Will Rogers was and was therefore taking this workshop to do something like go deeper into what it means to truly exist in the moment and share with the audience -- even if that means messing with them.
It was just a matter of time until I was next -- I have no memory of the person's story who came right before me and I likewise have little recognition of the stories that came after. When it came my turn I didn't feel obligated to make something up -- I had a few truths I could pick from: One, that I had nothing. That I had no idea why I was here. That sometimes we do things on a hunch and pray for a miracle but really we have no accessible explanation as to why. That I was feeling more and more lost in New York without any vision (or at least picture) of the future in mind. That I haven't known what I've wanted to do since I graduated college and that this workshop felt a lot like my last hope for discovering myself in some way that could somehow save me. That really I left everything with the thought that maybe something wild and wonderful would happen if I could find the "neutral space" that's described in an interview on her website. But that really I was just here because it felt right.
Or I could have said that I had seen one of her former student's one man shows, "Absence of Magic", in September at the New York Clown Festival, and felt so moved yet the details that really stuck with me was how the clown, Eric Davis, interacted with the audience, from searching in an audience member's mouth for a lost key, to making another one try and write down everything he said, to making just about everybody get up and help clean up the stage in the middle of the show. That I had never seen anything like that but had been mulling over similar ideas beforehand and so I took a class with Eric following the show and now I wanted to take my studies further with his mentor and collaborator.
When my turn finally came, I chose another truth. I said I really wanted to take something meaningful and add it to clowning, to see if I could ground a clown show in a meaningful context...I didn't give the example -- but I just saw another theatrical clown perform a short bit at a New Year's Party and her character was so nervous onstage, so scared of everything around her -- the wall, the audience, the ceiling, herself maybe, everything. And it was believable and funny and great but it just made me think how if I was a scared clown, I would want my fear to come from a more concrete and tangible place. It wouldn't have made sense in her show's context and it sounds like a non-sequitur, but I keep thinking of the genocide in Darfur. How so many people know so little about it and what if a clown pretended to be one of the victims who had fled his burned village and treated the audience as if they were his potential attackers. And what if the attackers -- as in most genocides -- also used to be this poor guy's old neighbors. You could open up this entire dialogue and still bring all that fear to the table -- except now you'd have a reason for it. Every action and intention behind "P-p-p-please don't hurt me!" would make sense right off the bat. You could also have so much laughter and love. After all, maybe these old neighbors used to be old friends. You could even have room for easy denial and possible redemption. My fear, really, is that it relies on bringing so much preconceived stuff to the table and could also be way too melodramatic. In terms of the future, that's the closest to where I'm at right now.
After introductions, Sue talked a bit about clowning and about what it means to be a sacred clown. About how clowns have existed for ages and were considered as Shamans who were in touch with the universe. And then Sue did a small introduction to the process of mask and how they can help reveal ourselves and how the red nose is really the smallest mask possible and symbolizes so much -- being a circle, life and death, and everything which that encompasses.
Later on, in an exercise called "Present Yourself", which stretched into the second day, Sue had each student not only put on a nose but also a hat. The hat, Sue insisted on because being a clown opens you up to the infinite consciousness of the universe which includes a lot of stuff you don't want to be exposed to. So the hat acts like a filter against all of that undesirableness. This kind of reminded me of the the yamacha that you wear in the Jewish religion. Except there the head covering is supposed to act as a constant symbol of humility, that you are always supposed to be reminded that the laws of the universe are above you and rule you and you should not forget to live in accordance with them. In theory, the clown version seems a lot more practical.
That I was even thinking this meant I was becoming wrapped up in the workshop pretty quick and with the talk of symbols I was getting the overall impression that clowning was this underground religion and this workshop was a means of being indoctrinated into this amazingly cool cult for clowns only. At this point in my life, I probably wouldn't mind the idea of being brainwashed for a little while but it was like perfect timing when Sue introduced the idea of "cynical benevolence." She said we should and could be cynical of the things we would be asked to do but that we should suspend our critical side until we have embraced those things completely so as to know exactly what we are being critical of. To be benevolent first and cynical second. This then was the true introduction to all the things that would be asked of us in the near future and is something I think I'll need to actively and continuously work on to stay simultaneously involved and afloat.
The first exercise was actually a warm-up: a French version of "Simon Says" which was the same except in this case "Simon Says" was pronounced as something that sounded like "Jacques Cousteau." And if you lost, if you didn't do what Simon said or did something without Simon saying so, Sue came up to you and hit your rear with a wooden stick.
That this was the first exercise and that a lot of it involved running was a huge relief. The only clown class I took before was the one that just wrapped with Eric Davis and that one started out each time with a game of tag. I remember that the reason behind the tag was that that was the kind of game that you could forget yourself in -- that playing it demanded that you be completely present and therefore it was an instant gateway to just being yourself. Here in Toronto during this opening game, for awhile no reason was blatantly stated for playing it but I didn't mind because I felt like I was already in the know.
"Jacques Cousteau - run around in a circle!" "OK, Stop!" "I said stop!"
Some people stopped, those that did got whacked. "Jacques Cousteau - stop!" Everybody froze. Sue would then say "OK - Go!" "Run!" "I said, Go!" Some people made stutter-steps and and had to be hit. Then the running would start would start again with Sue saying: "Jacques Cousteau - Run!"
And then something like this happened, Sue said -
"OK - stop"..."I said, Stop."..."Stop!"..."Please stop."..."OK, fine, Jacques Cousteau - stand on one leg."
Insteading of raising their leg, somebody stopped. When asked why, the student said she thought Sue would say, "Stop."
"See! Anticipation prevents experience! By expecting something, this prevents you from truly experiencing it!"
This complemented the idea of cynical benevolence rather well. That you should give everything a try and that just because you've done it one way before doesn't mean you can do it another way again.
The game continued and somewhere around here Sue was like, "No juggling, what kind of clown class is this?"
The next few exercises all seemed to build up to "Present Yourself." This was the exercise that lasted two days where you got on a makeshift stage and chose a red nose and a hat. You then faced the class alone and were supposed to just be yourself. Not to act anything -- just be yourself, spend time looking at everyone in the class individually and simply be how you feel and to let yourself react fully to each person and thereby have a silent conversation which you were then supposed to carry to your next encounter. This is so much more difficult than it sounds! Some approximate but fantastic quotations during the process from Sue. I get the feeling the whole workshop is contained in these phrases...
"It's not about coming out with nothing, it's about coming out with yourself."
"I don't want you to go out of your body, I want you to stay right here!"
"We are emotion masters...We're not actors, it's not like "Why did I change my feelings?" Actors are Why, clown is How."
"If you want to be a happy clown, you have to be a shitty, scary clown!"
"Whatever the impulse is, that's what you must do...To not worry about being wrong about things. It's more interesting to see choices. Even if they don't work, it's nice to see that you agree to explore an impulse that is presented. Later we can learn to orchestrate these things..."
"Our job in clown is to be reactive and that's why we can't work alone...that's why we can't work in a vacuum."
"That is where the clown lives...is in between all the things...is between thought and action...panic and possibilities, is like the time between thunder and lightening, in this moment between the thing that happened and what will now happen ..."
"We want to think on the outside...I don't think clowns think and then speak...I think they do and then they hear what they said and then they go "Oh." That's how they kind of learn. It's in a backwards way."
"We will become brilliant manipulators: manipulate ourselves, manipulate others."
"We can be authentic at any moment and know that we're not going to be enslaved by that...It's not a life sentence, whatever feeling you're in."
"You must become indulgent with your feelings...The goal is to have a great time with your crappy feeling!"
"A gun can kill you but a feeling can't."
When I got up and went onstage, there came a point when Sue commented that I was looking too deeply at somone and not being generous or sharing enough. You can't really tell in the picture.
I don't really know what to give if we can't actually bring anything to the table. And I did feel that way when I was looking at certain people. That I was staring into somone's eyes begging them to give me something or to tell me their life stories. And throughout I needed to be reminded to breathe. So when I finished making contact with the last student and I walked off and Sue hugged me, I faced the class with her and asked her if she could tell me more about what it means to give...
"It's not that we even know who we are when we stand up. That's part of what this is. At this moment, who are we, how are we when we stand without the gimmick of words and everything. How do we become available and not dictate or direct what somebody receives from us or how they see us. ..when you ask about having something promptly to give ... that's NOT it. It can be reactive. It can be like looking at someone and having a feeling about that person. Being intrigued by them, bored by them, hating them, loving them..."
"You are NOT bringing something concrete to the table, you are just being yourself and when I say yourself, that sounds crazy, right, but when you're up there you can discover who you are and how you approach the world. And we saw that. "
It's kind of like all the time there are truths floating through this workshop and Sue is sharing them all the time and they're there for the taking but I think you really need to have your own epiphany before it hits you. Her answer I have a feeling is really important and it's not that I'm just going to wait for it's meaning to kick in but it's something I'm really striving towards -- it's that neutral space I think. Where anything can happen.