Article in the NY Time about Clown Festival Classes

At Clown Class, Reaching Deep Into the Psyche for Something Silly

Tina Fineberg for The New York Times

Rima Miller, left, and Lynn Berg in a physical-comedy workshop at the New York Clown Theater Festival.

Published: September 11, 2008

In the face of uncertainty, some people go to church. Others dive onto their analyst’s couch. The next time life gets confusing, how about a clown workshop?

Tina Fineberg for The New York Times

Bob Berky, with beard, leads Hilary Chaplain, far left, David Gochfeld, Audrey Crabtree and Jeff Seal in an exercise.

We’re not talking oversize shoes and rainbow wigs. There’s no water-squirting flower, no animal-shaped balloons. Bozo is no idol here; think Puck, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball. This is clown theater. It’s a sophisticated approach to reflecting reality through comedy, workshop leaders say, cutting through the politics and politesse of life to reach the simple truths of our existence. And when the clown pulls the curtain back on all the layers of civilization, we can’t help laughing, not only at the clown before us but also at ourselves.

Clowning is having a serious resurgence in America. Performance teachers, theories and lessons from Europe and South America have been invading since the 1980s. Now clowning is taught, sometimes as a mandatory requirement, at the Yale School of Drama, New York University, the Juilliard School and other esteemed institutions.

“Working on clown is in vogue right now with performing artists of all different walks,” said Dody DiSanto, director of the Center for Movement Theater in Washington. “It’s a vehicle to freedom, it’s a way to soften and to find truth.”

How do you teach someone to be funny? How do you get people to laugh at themselves so that others will also laugh at them? Forget comedy class; this is more like philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis. Through Sept. 28 five professional clowns are teaching workshops at the third annual New York Clown Theater Festival, at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Workshops, which vary from one to three days, cost $200. The instructors’ approach is an unexpected lesson in soul searching and self-discovery, geared to advanced clowns, performers of all types and members of the public looking to spike their creative life.

In its essence, clowning is psychoanalysis. So the first step in clown training, much as in military training, is desocialization.

“You have to relearn to be deeply inappropriate,” said Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama, who is teaching introductory clowning at the festival. “The body isn’t built to sit and be quiet. It’s built to run and play and make a mess.”

That play is the root of clowning, he said, which gets lost the more we are taught to mind our manners. So aspiring clowns need to delve back into childhood. They need to relearn how to be loud, rude and emotionally raw. How to cry, ask vulgar questions and throw tantrums.

“You have to strip away lots of clever ideas and socializing impulses to get at something much more simple, much more naïve,” Mr. Bayes said. “If we can find a way to shed some of that polite behavior, a different kind of sparkle starts to show up in the eye of the actor.”

When that polite veneer cracks, what remains is a vulnerable human being. But instead of being exposed in the privacy of a therapist’s office or a confessional, the clown is in front of an audience, inviting strangers to relate to the vulnerability.

People won’t laugh at a disingenuous, dishonest clown, workshop leaders explained, so more formal actors tend to have trouble playing their actual selves.

“Instead of playing a character, you’re shining the light on your own humanity,” Ms. DiSanto said. “It’s terrifying to expose yourself, but that’s what gets a laugh.”

Also, clowning is religion.

Bob Berky is a Buddhist clown. He shrugs at the label, and at most others, because, as he often says, “these are just words.” But at his workshop last weekend, the first of the festival, the lessons of physical comedy came in philosophical statements about nonattachment, stillness and staying in the present.

“The essence of clowning is seeing what is,” he said. “In a lot of Eastern religious literature, even early Western religious literature, you find the ‘holy fool,’ the idiot who is more conscious of what’s going on than anyone else.”

On Saturday Mr. Berky guided his students through an exercise involving two socks: one unfolded on the floor, the other scrunched into a ball eight feet away. Participants were asked to stand by the unfolded sock, quietly visualize the path to the scrunched one, then close their eyes, walk the distance between the socks and place a hand on the balled-up one. Two out of nine students did it. The others veered off course, reaching for a sock that was actually a few feet in front of them, several inches to the left or right between their legs. Afterward, Mr. Berky addressed the class.

“How many of you really wanted to touch the sock?” he asked.

Several hands went up in the air.

“Now, isn’t that pathetic?” Mr. Berky said.

The students had been too goal-oriented, focused on succeeding, preoccupied with being perfect.

“A lot of comedy is based on the relationship between perfect and imperfect,” he said, explaining that walking past the sock or standing on top of it was funnier than touching it. “Performance, more than anything, is watching for accidents.”

Lynn Berg, a workshop participant, is an actor from Bushwick, Brooklyn, who has been drawn to clowning classes lately.

“It’s a more open approach to performance,” he said, because clowning is about “celebrating mistakes.” He added, “When you’re playing Shakespeare there’s an expectation of perfection, which is the opposite of what we’re doing here.”

Clowning, he said, is about connecting directly with the audience over the joy of being human, shared experience and the recognition that “we are the same.”

“It feels spiritual,” he said, “in a laughing way.”

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