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.