Monday 23 November 2015

Chapter 114: Clowning Around

"Sometimes you just gotta clown around"
Photo: from Twitter @Dylan DreyerNBC in  Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

"So, how's the affair going?!" growls a voice as I creep in well past midnight, flushed. Or flushed out. My pulse is racing, my mind's a whir and my body is wired, in no mood for sleep. You see, I've been clowning around. In Kings Cross, of all places. Where else?!

Our rendez-vous was The Poor School on Pentonville Road. How deliciously Dickensian and ripe for the taking that sounded. The smog of disinfectant in the passageway, a building of bare boards and stroppy directors dragging actors through rehearsals, did not disappoint. I was there for three evenings at a workshop run by Ira Seidenstein, clown par excellence, who has performed with Cirque de Soleil and Slava's Snow Show, and is mentor to a wide range of artists. Why was I there? As we sat down in a circle I was first to be asked. I stammered something about having a disastrous time at the last clowning workshop I went to (See Chapter 42: The School of Hard Knocks) and being a sucker for punishment. That's partially accurate. Then there is my love of old school slapstick. But the bottom line is that I'm a storyteller, with a voice locked in a body, a body I am trying to unlock through circus, studying the mechanics of performance and exploring every avenue.

When a friend had alerted me to the workshop via a Facebook event, the first thing I noticed was that Ira had kind eyes. I would be in safe hands, and that was important for me because in any form of improv you are laying yourself on the line. It's scary stuff - who knows what will come out?! In terms of the group dynamic of participants, there were a couple of familiar faces from the world of circus, and in the main, actors, the majority professional, and a couple of true amateurs, all brought together by co-ordinator, illusionist Christopher Howell. 

We eased into the practice with twists, stretches and a choreography that held all the grace and dynamism of a yoga flow. I enjoyed that, and, in my comfort zone, I could feel the energy switch on. Then, when warmed up, we had to take responsibility for our own movements and add our own voice, a voice that would incorporate the shape and motion of our body. I felt more self-conscious at that point, but as we were all practicing at the same time there was a certain cloak of anonymity and a freedom to play. What interested me was the focus on letting the narrative come out of the body. Make a shape, move it, add a voice and see where it takes you. Essentially a creative exercise.

We then performed exercises in front of each other, as audience. Here were pros in their element, and I sat there enchanted at the magic created, feeling so privileged to witness a performance that would never be repeated again. Until it was my turn to take centre stage. I am grateful, at least, that my look of abject horror provided good value entertainment. Standing up there, whether miming robbing a bank or gleefully cackling with the knowledge of a whispered secret, it was all so poorly executed that Ira didn't even need to give my performance a post-mortem - it was death by MissTake. 

But then came the exercise where you got to don a red nose. That's where the magic's at, right? Wrong! According to Ira, a red nose does not a clown make, no special powers it endows, and that announcement came right before my turn, snatching the carpet from underneath me. Nothing to hide behind. Still, there was a sense of tapping into a ritual as I stood with my back to the audience, gingerly stretching the elastic over my head. And then I turned round. I moved towards the audience, drank in every single face in turn and ..."Lucy, take it off. Now." MissTake Two. I sat back down. I had frozen, my knees were locked and there was no movement to my body. Ira gave me one more turn with the nose and it felt I was beginning to get somewhere this time. For an instant there was a glimmer, then it slipped away again.  I didn't quite get it. But I will.


I learned, you see, that it is not enough to have a body that moves well, you have to know how to use it. Thanks to Ira, I now have an awareness of the power of my hands, and knees!, that I didn't have before. I learned that thinking too much about your audience means you forget yourself, your purpose and your act. Did I learn the secret to clowning? Well, I learned techniques drawn from Ira's unique methodology that encompasses Shakespeare, Pirandello, Slapstick and Stanislavski, to name a few, that make me think I can take on the world now, with a little more practice. Check out (click here) and Ira's YouTube channel (click here). I also learned each of us have our own unique fingerprints, creativity and chemistry in performance which can't be taught, but can be developed. 

There is much work to be done still, not to mention play, and so the affair continues, Lucy Loves Circus after all... cheers!

"I am a real ham. I love an audience. I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one"

Lucille Ball


  1. Thank you Lucy. Always be gentle on yourself. One can learn to trust ones body, gradually. Of course everyone in the profession thinks that they 'really know their body'. But the body is a magic place and not a thing. The mind is in the body and the brain is part of the body. For the work I suggest, although the body is in part anatomical - the real magic is physiological, energetic, and mental (mind-body as a whole). More anon .... Ira

  2. That's so kind of you Ira, thank you.


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