Monday, 14 March 2016

Chapter 134: The Gift of Clowning

"Clowning is a radical reinterpretation of the world: to chose joy and dare to hope in the face of despair"

Sonia Norris in "Women and Circus"

The gift arrived in the post in the nick of time. A grey sweatshirt with the words in black "Winging It". Well, that made me laugh, because that is how life works sometimes, isn't it? Take a running leap, catch that thermal and then glide. But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I take that leap and fall flat on my face. The secret to clowning, as I learned in the workshop a couple of weeks ago, lies in going with that spiral and then, crucially, picking yourself up again. 

Photo: Butzi the Lion Tamer
The workshop was a full-time five day course at The Poor School in Kings Cross, a continuation and deepening of our three evening workshop with Ira Seidenstein back in November, exploring Ira's methodology to release creativity through improv and clowning (click here for Chapter 114 - Clowning Around). This time it was led by Johannes Alinnhac, aka "Butzi", Ira's Parisian protégé.  I had my work cut out from the start. I hadn't done the homework prior to the course, I had to miss the first two days to boot, and am well aware of the awkwardness ahead having a body that works, but no clue how to use it. Let's call the whole thing off, I thought, and willed the organiser Christopher Howell, and Butzi, to take me up on that offer. But these guys are magicians by trade, they know all the tricks, and I'm a lousy escapologist. So it was that on Wednesday morning I was squashed onto the Northern Line at rush hour, watching the video of Butzi explaining to me the core mechanics we would be doing, which is a sequence, around 10-15 minutes long, of very physical exercises that we practiced twice a day to get into the flow. It was a "serious" video, yet I was laughing because Butzi has that way about him, and some of the manoeuvres he was demonstrating would be pure comedy when I attempt them. Here's to "winging it"!

The class dynamics were similar to last time round and it was easy to slip into place. We warmed up moving to music. I loved that. I heard echoes of Paris in the strains of Django Reinhardt, but then the playlist moved on and that accent slipped away. 

Photo: Core mechanics exercises with Butzi
After our warm ups came our exercises where improv arose from shape, movement and sounds that emerged organically, through different prompts. Many of the exercises were new and I quickly learned, after daydreaming my way through listening to the instructions at one point, that "winging it" was not an option. Funnily enough, it turned out when your teacher's profession is to read other people, they are quite wise to bullshitters, however much you think you have covered your tracks by hiding behind others! 

What was becoming more and more apparent to me was how all these exercises were designed to teach precision and purpose in physical language, and draw particular focus to the use of hands and knees. The exercises were straightforward in theory, but for me they were a real challenge and outside of my comfort zone. As my English teacher at school once explained to a friend, if there was a lake with people playing a game in the centre, she would be the one with the ball, and I would be on shore, observing the rules before jumping in. Twenty years on and I still squirmed when catapulted onto centre stage. Throw in a sea of faces watching (a whole half a dozen, imagine that!) and I, for one, was then pitching around in a tsunami of self-consciousness. Still, it's credit to Butzi as a teacher, and the supportive dynamics of the group as a whole, that soon I was actually volunteering to go first. 

Some exercises go surprisingly well. Highlights for me included acting out a scene from Waiting For Godot, and a piece of free-clowning where we ended up burying a hamster...?! Both were with a partner, and there was a sense of reciprocal play that I enjoyed. I liked the exercise when we were invited to imitate a clown we have seen, and were allowed to talk as well. I leapt to my feet and relived Tweedy the Clown's latest (mis)adventures in Cirque Beserk (see Chapter 131 - click here), although, it has to be said, I relied more on my storytelling skills rather than physical impersonation to communicate. Still, I felt alive and was having fun, and that's what the audience picked up on. My favourite moment though, was the practice of handstands and cartwheels across the room. In my preparation I had the air of a seasoned gymnast, and then proceed to bunnyhop my way across the floor, inadvertently the best bit of comedy I served up on the course! 

Photo: Madonna via adamwithane/Instagram
The lowlights and struggles brought up plenty of questions. Was I listening? Not just to instructions, but to cues my partners were giving, or to situations that my own movements were opening up. And if you handed a gift to your partner - whether an imaginary glass of water or a custard pie - did you make it clear what it is before passing it over? Another question I found myself asking was: am I likeable? Ouch! You see, there is this sense that if the audience "likes" you, they will follow you anywhere. Of course, first you need to have a good conceit of yourself, and utter faith in what you are doing. It forced me to confront how insecure I am on a number of levels, as a woman, as a mother, feeling like each day I am dropping balls, and that's tough. Mums clowning around, now there's a zeitgeist, as featured recently in On parrots, gorillas and women's day, and incarnated by Madonna riding in on a tricycle in her "Tears of a Clown" concert in Melbourne last night (click here for article at A few times, flying solo, instead of soaring, I looked down, lost heart and bombed. I self-sabotaged. I gave up, too caught up in the fear of not completely getting the rules of the game to enjoy the gift of clowning around in the moment. But the joy was that I was in a safe and supportive environment where I was allowed to fail, and then try again. Butzi asked us at one point to write three 
words on our arm, words that would be our mantra going forward. Mine read: Commit To Play. Therein lies the real present. 

Butzi, Christopher, Stella, Robert, Angelo, Amanda and Ira, thank you all.

Further links:

On The Seidenstein Method:
For more information on The Seidenstein Method of creativity through clowning see Ira has posted a wealth of videos on YouTube, ranging from demonstrations of practical exercises, discussion of theory and videos of the late and greats to study.

The February event is on Facebook as "Creativity, Improv and Clown Workshop: The Seidenstein Method" where you will find the wonderful video Butzi made that captures the energy and essence of the week.
If you are interested in the next workshop, contact Christopher Howell and join the ISAAC London Group on Facebook.

On Female Clowns:
Back in January, I managed to slip into the second half of La Soirée, the cabaret on Southbank. One of my prime motivations was to see the female clown Mooky Cornish, because, quite frankly, I don't see many around. While I missed Mooky's main act, I caught enough of her vibe and humour to want to see more. Funnily enough, in her article on "Women and Circus" Sonia Norris cites Mooky as her all time favourite female clown. You can read the full article at (click here).

As highlighted in the comments at the bottom, Ira discusses women clowning as well as contemporary clowning and the crossover between clowning and acting in his video "The Three Illusions". Click here to access video.

Also check out the 102 videos uploaded featuring performances from women clowns at (click here for direct link)

You can see actress, clown and musician Flloyd Kennedy in a one-woman show directed by Ira Seidenstein called Yes, Because: "a journey through the seven ages of woman, through sonnets, songs and stories". The show will be at The Lantern Theatre, in Liverpool, on 1st April, auspicious timing! Click here for more details:

On Magic:
Butzi's website:
Christopher Howell:
The Magic Circle:


  1. Thanks Lu! A breadth of insights. Regarding female clowns: see my YouTube clip "3 Illusions in Clowning": and out of the 9 exercises in Path of Honour 3 are "Lucille Ball/Vivienne Vance Exercise"; "The Honeymooners Exercise" (female and male prototype which anyone can play either role); "Josephine Baker Exercise". So those 3 exercises make direct homage to women/female exemplary and unique clowns. Regards, Ira

  2. Thank you Ira! That's such a good point linking in YouTube clips as there is such a wealth of resources on your channel - as well as the exercises featured, also the 102 videos you have shared on Women Clowns, will update now! I grew up on Lucille Ball shows, so Lucy & Ethel are characters dear to my heart. Funnily enough we did swap around gender roles with "The Honeymooners Exercise" to hilarious effect, and would have loved to have seen "Josephine Baker Exercise" played out in the group. The workshop continues to resonate, both with daily practice of core mechanics, and dramatically altering the way I look at physical language and performance. Next time round missing part of the course will not be an option - it has to be all or nothing. Best wishes, Lu

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