Thursday, 10 November 2016

Chapter 159: The Book of Clown

"I care nothing for any sect or party under heaven, as such I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask. 
All I desire is to do what is right and prevent what is wrong."

P.T. Barnum
(Extract from "Struggles and Triumphs: 50 years of recollections of PT Barnum" as shared on Twitter by @TheBarnumMuseum)

Well, Mr Barnum sir, circus impresario turned politician, champion of universal suffrage, that is my type of humbug and it was a sweet dream to go to sleep on. The nightmare came the following morning with the news that The Donald trumped, and I imagined Barnum turning in his grave. References now abound to the appointment of a clown to the White House, a prospect that no right-thinking individual finds remotely funny, while all true clowns do their best to distance themselves from any such comparisons - take Ringling Bros. spoof of a political circus, "we take clowning very seriously indeed" (see their video "Take Back the Circus"- click here).

Another who takes the art of clowning very seriously, and is consequently one of the funniest people I know, is Ira Seidenstein, who has worked with Cirque de Soleil and Slava's Snowshow, and now runs his own school teaching The Seidenstein Method (see website To date I've been on two Seidenstein workshops, once with Ira (see Clowning Around - click here), and once with Butzi (see The Gift of Clowning - click here). Ira's stories are endless, his life brimming with tales of extraordinary encounters and adventures that rival those of the legendary Coco the Clown, whose fascinating autobiography I read recently. Ira has just been in London for a few days, delivering a storming three hour workshop on Friday instructing actors, jugglers, magicians, acrobats and circus performers in improv exercises unlocking creativity in physical performance. Unfortunately I couldn't attend the workshop itself, but heard all about it afterwards when I was able to join the group for a private sharing by Emily Burton and Sang Park of The Book of Clown co-created and directed by Ira. The show is a series of interludes that chart the odyssey of two clowns, and was born out of eight sketches from Emily and Sang, and an eureka moment when Ira noticed a thread that, rearranging some of the order, could link them together.

Walking into the theatre space, I found half a dozen chairs for the audience set up opposite a single chair and two yellow balls on the floor - an indication of the play that was to come. I took my place in my comfort zone between Christopher and Robert, classmates from previous workshops, and was fascinated by the new faces. What's your story? I wondered. In a funny kind of way, the show was about finding out.

On staggered Sang as an old-school clown, not in the sense of wearing any face-paint, but signalled by the multi-coloured chequered tie accessorising his baggyish suit, his gait, and the expert execution of pratfalls, juggling and his style of raising a laugh. He had been hit in the eye by the third yellow ball, (a neat set-up for later juggling) and played the gentle idiot, muttering incomprehensibly his frustration in a language that later turned out to be Korean. His act involved making contact with an English-speaking audience, continually crashing into the barrier of language. Moving from South Korea to Australia to study under Ira, Sang was obviously able to draw comedy from his own life experiences, and, having been an innocent abroad myself, struggling to communicate, it in turn struck a chord for me. Maybe radiating empathy explains why I seemed to have a flashing light above my head with an arrow pointing down and the words "use me"!  I was more than happy to be an audience stooge and play along with Sang, whether spelling out my name for him s-l-o-w-l-y or volunteering to be stabbed (one of those situation comedies, folks), although when he fell asleep on the chair and started groaning my name with certain accompanying hand actions, I asked myself if I had been a little too enthusiastic... ;-) 

Following his dream, Sang discovered the secret to life in the mythical Book of Clown. What was it exactly? "Bullsheet!" he declared. Leafing through the book he skipped to the chapter on how to make money, which led to a classic sketch with Emily, who with her red-hair, beauty and American accent was Lucille Ball meets Amy Adams, playing a goofball in an over-sized suit jacket, deftly tripping over own feet. The money-spinner was a 50s style advert for a pick-me-up tonic that Emily was selling. The comedy was in fact that the mixture was clearly disgusting as well as intoxicating, as take after take was repeated. It was a classic clowning conceit, hilariously done. We followed Emily's journey, directed by the Book of Answers, that would only respond if questions were asked in the style of a French snob (Emily and Sang have just come over from an intensive fortnight doing Cubist Clowning Calvacade - eh ben, dis donc! - with Ira in Paris) and guided her through a succession of props that would set her on the right path for finding her true self. It was a spiritual journey that made just as much fun of looking to the Book of Common Prayer for instruction as seeking enlightenment from Sang's clown of a Guru; in short, nothing is sacred, a philosophy that is at the heart of clowning. 

Whether acting together or separately, Emily and Sang were a joy to watch: slick, dynamic, fun and generating a tremendous energy that made you feel good to be alive. I think they really should take what they've got there, bottle it and sell it. They say that laughter is the best medicine after all, and we all could use more of it right now. 

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