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Impro in Brazil: Endings...

“To be a child and yet to be able to escape all the punishments, all the dreary learning experiences, inherent in that condition is to be in a state of regressive bliss”

~ Film critic, Richard Schickel, on Charlie Chaplin

In the quote above, Schickel is referring to Charlie Chaplin, as the Tramp, living out a child’s version of paradise on the big screen. As my U.S. Scholar Fulbright experience in Brazil nears its end and I take time to reflect, it is apparent that I, too, have been living out my version of paradise. My learning experiences have been far from dreary. I have been able to teach, direct, and research what I love (IMPRO!) with passionate and generous students and wonderful colleagues, and I haven’t had to serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, or even grade stacks of papers! I also have had the opportunity over the four months to work with the clowns from Grupo Trampulim. A handful were in my classes, I was invited to work with them, briefly, at an exploratory rehearsal, and on Friday, November 22, at Funarte MG (Minas Gerais)—a federally funded cultural center in Belo Horizonte that hosts theatre, dance, circus, music, and visual art exhibitions—I co-directed with Rafael Protzner (clown/Balinese Mask performer) Grupo Trampulim in a Maestro!

Rafael told me that he has wanted to play Maestro with clowns since 2014. That was the summer he studied with Keith Johnstone in Calgary. Rafael shared his desire with Dr. Mariana Muniz, foremost practitioner and scholar of Johnstone’s work in Brazil (and my colleague here!), and then with Grupo Trampulim, and it finally happened this month. Rafael said my presence here in Belo Horizonte was a big impetus to turn his desire into a reality. How wonderful! Mariana was slated to co-direct with me but had to decline because of back issues, so Rafael (or I should say his clown!) stepped in as co-director/ringmaster.

As spectators entered the space, the clowns were providing improvised musical entertainment using the “soundpainting” structure I mentioned in an earlier post. I had a Maestro cheat sheet with me. I compose a little cheat sheet for every Maestro I direct. It contains lists of techniques I’d like to try, structures (e.g., lazzi), possible relationships, places, and tilts; but it became apparent, early on, that I would need to keep my direction and side-coaching very simple. Clowns are like naughty children, anarchists creating their own rules and their own paradise playground! If you give them a direction like, “Be interested, but don’t be interesting,” it might work for a few moments but clowns have a difficult time not being interesting. They aren’t necessarily trying to be interesting—they just are; because of their absolute focus on the present, a complete belief in the events unfolding, and a heightened curiosity about those events. Johnstone wrote in his 1965 essay, “The Abyss”:

“Clown-work embraces two overlapping fields, ‘Status’ and ‘the Abyss’. Status laughs don’t enthrall me, but the type of clowning based on ‘wrong thought’ and which involves, as it were, stepping over precipice after precipice and yet never falling, this excites all my admiration. 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” ~ Keith Johnstone

As a director, I gave the performers the first precipice and then let them go! With other improvisers, I often have to force a tilt or throw in an adjustment to get the scene to advance or to slow down (i.e., to explore/heighten beats). The clowns had no trouble finding and leaping over the second and subsequent precipices. And these clowns had distinguishable personality traits, which propelled much of the action.

In hindsight, I probably didn’t need my cheat sheet at all. What might have been useful, however, is a breakdown of each clown’s characteristics. Although I had worked with Grupo Trampulim before and several of the players were in my classes, I only had a few opportunities to see these clowns in full performance mode. For example, Adriana’s formidable clown is competitive and has a huge emotional range. She likes to take charge but will obey orders, albeit unwillingly. Robert’s clown enjoys posing and playing high-status, even though he isn’t. Tiago’s clown is sweet, wants to be liked, but is more than willing to share the spotlight with others. Victor’s clown is very shy but now and again spontaneously releases his pent-up energy through a sort of circular hip dance. Some clowns are more corporeal, some more verbal. The more experienced clowns understand the absolute importance of the audience. Clown teacher, and former student of Johnstone’s, Sue Morrison said:

“The audience is the [clown] performer’s external eye. It’s not the same as a performer watching him/herself. Am I good? The performer monitors their progress through the prism of the audience. One is about narcissism and one is about rigour. Responsibility”

~ Sue Morrison (Coburn 441)

Good improvisers, too, understand this responsibility to their audiences. In Maestro, the director also serves as a pair of external eyes, and having a bit of background information on the clowns ahead of the performance would’ve given me insight into what they were capable of and/or what would challenge them. Not so different working with children or character Masks. Before asking a child or Mask to engage or to take risks (after all, they are already in a vulnerable state), an established level of familiarity and trust is essential.

Overall, it was a joyous experience for everyone and the two hours flew by! I am happy that Grupo Trampulim will continue to explore clowning through the Impro System. After all, much of Johnstone’s work was inspired by the work of clowns, especially the clowns of the silent film era, e.g., Chaplin and Keaton. Richard Pochinko, too, believed that the modern theatre clown evolved from the silent cinema. Grupo Trampulim’s clown work is heavily based in Pochinko’s methods, as taught by Sue Morrison. Pochinko said, “Their clowns – Chaplin and Keaton – were touching on the universal in all of us, and we were seeing more of ourselves, more of US, in their work” (Coburn 481).

The past week was filled with endings—my last IMPROLab Impro System class, my last Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating class, my last time working with the clowns of Grupo Trampulim, my last massage with my amazing masseuse Raquel, and my last time seeing most of my students.

For the last IMPROLab class, Cinara Diniz and I co-directed a very informal Maestro. We were missing about five of the regulars because summer holidays have already begun. I introduced a few new techniques because I approached this last meeting as another class. We did an “I love you / I hate you” mantra scene and what I call “A Scene with Ernie,” because when I first did this activity with Keith in 2008, he used an Ernie doll (from Sesame Street), but any stuffed animal with very large black eyes will do. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a stuffed animal, so I asked a player to sit on stage, open his eyes wide, and to do absolutely nothing. “Just hold your wide-eyed expression in stillness while the other two players interact with you.” This activity is a great way to demonstrate how an audience will project stuff onto players based on the given circumstances. The story provides the context, so a player can do absolutely nothing, and we will still “read” her non-action as something (e.g., we project feelings, thoughts, etc.). I always ask the audience after, “How many of you looked at the stuffed animal (or wide-eyed player) to see their responses?” Almost everyone laughs as they raise their hands! My one regret is that I never scheduled a night to watch Chaplin and Keaton films together with these glorious IMPROLab students, as I often do with other groups. But we did have a little goodbye picnic after class and the weather was beautiful.

On Tuesday evening, Tiago and Adriana took me to Butiquim do Walter in the Santa Teresa area to hear a wonderful Choro (also called Chorino) group. Choro (pronounced SHOH-roh) music is quintessentially Brazilian, but it has been described as "the New Orleans jazz of Brazil." It is very upbeat, cheerful, improvisational, and complex borrowing from samba, bossa nova, and even Chopin’s waltzes and Baroque counterpoint. Like great jazz musicians, Choro players are wonderful improvisers. It was a magical experience.

Finally, I had my last "Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating" class yesterday, on Thanksgiving. I have such gratitude for the students in this class, especially the 40 or so who were dedicated and engaged for the entire 15 weeks. After a short guided meditation led by Mariana, we played "What Are You Doing?" using a more rigid structure (which, ironically, frees up the imagination), "Fast-Food Stanislavsky" (my favorite Johnstone activity!), and "Sentences" using the aphorisms, bits of poetry, and favorite quotes I asked them to bring in a few weeks ago. I still stressed the theories underpinning each activity. After all, it's an "applied impro" course and I can't stop being a teacher! The "Sentences" scenes, all five of them, were excellent, with students from across disciplines performing like seasoned improvisers! Mariana side-coached these so I could simply enjoy. I ended the class with a "Shuffle Left / Shuffle Right" checkout where individuals could share what they were grateful for. We cried, we laughed, we embraced.... It was a lovely ending to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will miss all of my Brazilian students and colleagues fiercely.

Next week, Mariana and I will take a much-needed retreat to tropical Bahia for four nights, and immediately after that, I fly home to the Estados Unidos. My four-month U.S. Scholar Fulbright experience here in Brazil has gone by fast and yet I feel like I’ve been here for a very long time. I will write a post-Brazil blog after I have a bit of time and distance to process everything. Obrigada, friends, for sharing this journey with me.

Works Cited

  • Schickel, Richard, ed. The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

  • Johnstone, Keith. “The Abyss.” Programme 2: Royal Court December 1965-January 1966: 27-8.

  • Coburn, Veronica and Sue Morrison. Clown Through Mask: The Pioneering Work of Richard Pochinko as Practised by Sue Morrison. Bristol, UK: Intellect 2013.

(Maestro photos by Adrilene Muradas Nunes)

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