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Impro in Brazil: Vulnerability and Clowning

“A skilled clown has no need to think ahead, he trusts always that ideas will present themselves…. When people start to learn clowning they attempt far too much, they won’t allow the events to carry them, they think ‘I do this’ instead of ‘this happens’” ~ Keith Johnstone (“The Abyss” essay, 1965).

This past week, I introduced the concept of vulnerability as essential to leadership in my Thursday class and a few of Johnstone’s clowning and pecking-order games in my Saturday class without consciously making a connection between the two, i.e., vulnerability and clowning, until today. As I said in previous posts, I have a handful of professional clowns in both of the classes I’m teaching at UFMG. Clowns here are influenced by the work of Richard Pochinko as it is carried forth and practiced by Sue Morrison. I have just downloaded Morrison’s book, Clown through Mask, and look forward to learning about the method that has made clowning so popular here in Belo Horizonte, and has empowered women, especially, to take up a profession traditionally dominated by men. I have just scanned the first chapter and wanted to share this excerpt from Morrison’s book:

“The red nose is the smallest mask in the world. The character that is inherent to the red nose mask, the character that must be served, the character that is revealed, is that of the wearer. Not the actor. It is not a fiction that is revealed. It is a truth. The truth that is revealed is that of the wearer….

Most students of clown come to the work with misapprehension. There is often excitement at the prospect of being funny. People like to be funny…. And they imagine that the source of their funniness will be external.

This is not how clown works. The red nose works in opposition to any notion of invisibility. The mask that is the red nose does not hide us. It makes us visible. The wearer. The clown. It makes us visible and reveals our vulnerabilities, our foibles, our fears, our joys, our petty jealousies, our desires and our failings. Our beauty. Our humanity. Our shame” (12-13, emphases in bold are mine).

For homework last week, I had my students in my Thursday Impro for Leading, Creating, and Collaborating class watch Brené Brown’s TEDx Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Brown says in order for real human connection to happen we have to be really seen, and that means embracing our vulnerability, embracing our fears, our imperfections, our failings, and our emotions--all of them. To live with vulnerability means that you cannot numb your emotions and/or predict the future. Eckhart Tolle in Practicing the Power of Now wrote: “Do not be concerned with the fruit of your action — just give attention to the action itself. The fruit will come of its own accord.” Not so different from what Keith wrote above about clowning. And much of the impro work Keith first developed at the Royal Court was to get actors to pay attention to the process unfolding, to accept their impulses, and to stop trying to control the future.

Keith’s impro work at the Royal Court, with Theatre Machine, and beyond has always been influenced by clowning and clowns (e.g., traditional clowns, silent film clowns, commedia clowns, etc.). I have never once heard him differentiate between clowning and improvisation. The clown and the improviser have similar tasks—to be obvious, reveal their innermost self, allow the events to carry them, to be interested in the now. On a historical note, in 1965, four years before censorship in Britain came to an end and at a time when improvisation was essentially illegal to perform, Keith’s partly improvised children’s show Clowning was given a license for performance by the Lord Chamberlain. It was the first time that improvisation was officially sanctioned on the British stage. Very important not to forget this history (see “Phantom Scripts: The Censor’s Archive and the Phantom Scripts of Improvisation” essay by James McLaughlin about how improvisation, and Johnstone’s work in particular, played an essential role in the death of censorship in Britain in the 1960s).

On Saturday, I introduced the Making Faces pecking-order game using long, airship-like balloons. I don’t know how many Johnstonian teachers still use balloons when teaching master/servant techniques—they are hard to find (I brought 3 bags with me from the U.S.!)—but like Keith, I think balloons “invigorate us.” They are “safe and dangerous at the same time” (Impro for Storytellers, 254). And balloons are a wonderful way to teach split-attention. The balloon reveals the inner life of the character, and just like objects in Russian vaudeville, said Stanislavsky, they “have their own language” and “will reveal everything about its owner.” So a balloon (like a cane, or a billy club, or a slapstick) can get enraged and start shaking while the master tries to calm it down. And balloons make wonderful slapping sounds but don’t leave marks. And they are spontaneous, exploding when you least expect it, as the one I was holding did while going over the “hitting with balloons” rules, making my heart leap and my students laugh! (See photo below of the airship balloons Theatre Machine always used)

At the end of my Saturday Impro System class, we played the simple version of Johnstone’s Hat Game. Basically this exercise involves two players sitting on a bench, creating truthful scenes but with the secret intention of seizing their partner’s hat. The focus should not be on the competition, however, which is something students learn over time. The clowns in the class got this point immediately and helped me flesh out more fully what famed director William Gaskill meant when he played a similar hat game with a cast of professional RCT actors (c. 1966) and told Keith after, “I’ve discovered the secret of clowning!” The clowns in my group celebrated losing the hat, too! Through the eyes of the clown, risking the hat meant deeply engaging with another human being, being absorbed in the unfolding action, and being okay with vulnerability (i.e., not controlling the future, accepting possible failure, etc.). The clown is in the present, allowing the events to carry her, so she may be quite surprised when her hat gets taken. Yet, the clown still wins because joy comes from the connection made and in the narrative created. Joy in the playing! Clowns can be competitive, but never at the expense of being authentic.

Finally, at the end of the week, Dr. Mariana Muniz gave Dale and I tickets to go hear the wonderful Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra play in the beautiful downtown Belo Horizonte concert hall. The program was called “Guerra E Paz” (War and Peace) and consisted of compositions about war by Prokofiev, Beethoven, Liszt, Penderecki, Santoro, and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky’s “Abertura 1812, op. 49 (“1812 Overture”) ended the program and my face was wet with tears after. Brown says vulnerability is seen by those who embrace it as the thing that makes them beautiful—the birthplace of joy, creativity, and love. There are times to control my tears in public, to suppress my emotions. But not in that concert hall. After the last note, and with a thousand others, I leapt to my feet and applauded whole-heartedly!

(Photos from my 2013 book, Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography, p. 70 and 78).

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