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Impro in Brazil: The Coringa and the Clown

“Only one capable in the language common to the clown and to children, a language distanced from sense, would understand the clown himself, in whom fleeing Nature bids a shocked adieu…. Nature, so pitilessly suppressed by the process of becoming an adult, is, like that language, irrecoverable by adults” ~ Theodor W. Adorno (“Chaplin Times Two” in The Essential Chaplin, 2006)

Last week in Belo Horizonte, Dale and I saw the movie Joker (titled “Coringa” in Brazil) on the day before it premiered in the U.S., which is extremely unusual because most U.S. films don’t premier here until at least 3 weeks after opening at home. We wanted to see this film because of the hype, of course, but also because my brother-in-law’s company Driving Plates created the wonderful virtual environments for the bus and subway scenes. Since seeing the film, I have been processing Joaquin Phoenix’s chilling and honest performance, and today, the Adorno quote above, in reference to Chaplin’s clown, brought it into focus for me. We see Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, at the precise moment when his gentle, childlike innocence can no longer stand up against the “adult” world, a world absent of what is natural and beautiful; and we witness his transformation from the happy to the sad clown, from the comic to the tragic, from the inauthentic to the true clown—the visible self no longer suppressed by society.

It is not surprising that the film references Charlie Chaplin on several occasions, e.g., with the song “Smile” which Chaplin wrote and with the clip of Modern Times (1936). The first 20 minutes of Modern Times, essentially a Marxist critique on industrial capitalism, reveals the Tramp on the factory assembly line doing fragmented, repetitive tasks until his body is transformed by the labor and he literally becomes part of the machine (e.g., the famous clip of the conveyor belt pushing/pulling the Tramp through the body of the machine). The Tramp, in these opening moments, represents Brecht’s concept of Gestus, because the totality of the Tramp’s physical behavior is representative of his sociopolitical conditioning. In Marxist terms, the Tramp is the exploited, alienated, reified laborer supporting the superstructure until, of course, he goes mad. Joker ends where Modern Times begins, i.e, in madness. The difference is the Tramp’s madness is not representative of his true clown, but Fleck’s madness is. The Tramp spends the rest of the film getting back to his authentic clown. Up until the very end, Joker is about Fleck discovering his clown, and the journey is painful to watch.

Before the metamorphosis is complete, we get glimpses of Fleck’s authentic clown in the moments he slows down and stays with one activity, making it more and more interesting (e.g., putting on/stretching out his clown shoes, dancing in a public restroom, laughing “painfully” and uncontrollably when under duress, etc.). And this is where Phoenix’s raw and palpable performance connects to the work we are doing in my Saturday Impro System Lab at UFMG in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Keith Johnstone was fascinated by the way silent comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would give “great attention to ‘insignificant’ details” and how “an eerie ‘persistence’ was added to this preoccupation with detail” (Impro for Storytellers 248). “Staying With It” is the technique Keith created at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s to train actors to “Not Advance.” Reminiscent of lazzo routines—bits of comic business, often very repetitive, that were spontaneously thrown into commedia scenarios—“staying with it” is about staying with one activity, one idea, one moment, and instead of worrying about the future, simply making that moment (e.g., putting a worm on a hook, reading the paper, breathing) more and more interesting. “In this state the clown abandons any thought as to what he will do next in order to concentrate on what he is doing now,” wrote Keith (“The Abyss” 1965).

Players can start with a suggested action or a side-coach can select an action from a scene already in progress. Until the side-coach says “Advance,” the player must attempt to make the current action more interesting. My impro lab group played “Staying With It” for almost 2 hours this week. A memorable “staying with it” routine was when Tiago, a professional clown, attempted to get an extremely tight button-down shirt on. At one point, he was going in circles, like a dog chasing its tail, trying to catch up with the sleeve that kept getting away. Then the buttons didn’t line up and/or they didn’t fit through the holes, and so forth. Other great examples of extending the action are Chaplin diagnosing an alarm clock (as if it were a heart!) in The Pawnshop or Keaton trying to boil an egg in The Navigator.

To make it more interesting (and to buy more stage time), Keith suggests changing emotion, adding conversation or emotional sounds, asking an audience member for help, and most importantly, slowing down. Great clowns do things slowly. A skilled clown “trusts that ideas will present themselves,” so there is no need to rush or search for the next idea. “Ideas are commonplace, we float all of the time in an ocean of them,” wrote Keith (“The Abyss” 1965).

Arthur Fleck discovered his clown in those moments when he slowed down and stayed with one action. For example, after the train event (won’t reveal more than that), he finds a public restroom where he slowly begins to dance, alone. This strange dance goes on for some time, with Fleck giving great attention to every move and allowing the single action, “to dance,” ample time to expand. Given our current 8-second average attention span, the dance actually becomes slightly uncomfortable to watch but we are still captivated.

Furthermore, Phoenix’s performance was a masterful example of status, especially of a low-status character fighting his way up the chain. And in every scene, he held a different status position and/or see-sawed beautifully. Interesting that his early, stereotypical clown mask/nose made him completely vulnerable and invisible, and placed him at the bottom of the social pecking-order. But later on in the film, his organic clown mask/make-up reveals his true self and his power, which is simultaneously good and terrible.

In Sue Morrison’s book, Clown through Mask, the red-nosed clown is compared to the Native shaman who embraces the concept of wholeness, that is, the good and bad of humanity: “Opposites complete. Comic/tragic. Silly/serious. The Native shaman accepts us in all our terrible glory, our wholeness; the shaman’s mask, the red nose, reveals us in all that terrible glory; and the fallible God of Clown, Humanity, demands that we laugh at ourselves” (13). Arthur Fleck’s clown has a divine purpose, as all clowns should, but that purpose is not to make us laugh: “The divine purpose of a clown is to do what is necessary, to do what is required, to ensure our [human’s] physical and metaphysical survival” (Clown through Mask 13). In the context of the film, Fleck’s glorious and terrible clown does what is required to reveal humanity’s underbelly and to punish accordingly.

Viola Spolin’s “Explore and Heighten” serves similar objectives as Johnstone’s “Staying With It” and so we spent the last hour of Saturday's impro lab exploring and heightening moments (e.g., objects, ideas, attitudes, conditioning forces, etc.) in scenes through side-coaching. “Explore and Heighten” is a tool I use with scripted scenes, too, in order to get actors to notice more, endow the space, and to particularize objects in every single dramatic beat.

I will be teaching impro and clowning around in Rio de Janeiro next week so my next weekly blog post may be slightly delayed. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait!

Obrigada, readers, for sharing this journey with me!

(Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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