How It’s Irish: Led by Jaimie Carswell, one half of the hilarious Cirque de Légume, on tour from Ireland as part of the 1st Irish Festival at 59E59. Read our review here! It’s full of highly-crafted silliness and absurdity. Go see it before it closes next weekend.
Clowns get a bad rap. If asked to think of a clown, chances are you conjure up images of bizarrely painted faces, clumsy large shoes, and overwrought gags that no longer inspire legions of children to giggle at birthday parties. Even worse are the images of the grotesque clowns that threaten to pull us under beds and haunt our dreams. But there is more to clowning than juggling and riding tiny bicycles. The hobo or character clown made popular by performers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton continue to find just the right balance between the absurd and the grotesque to make us laugh. Clowning is a professional art form, and a very difficult one at that, which I only fully appreciated after recently completing a 90-minute workshop with Jaimie Carswell of Cirque de Légume.
The workshop began with a few words from Jaimie, encouraging us clown performers (for the day, at least) not to be afraid to fail; that clowning is about seeking out failure, searching for a reason to flop, and that, no matter what, there is no way that we will do something wrong. But then he rubs his hands together just this side of menacingly, and says “But don’t get too comfortable.”
We began with a few group movement games in which we were asked to “feel” the space and interact with each other, exercises all fairly familiar to an actor. At this point I still felt confident in the ability to fail, because I was moving in unison with the 16 other students in the class and the most I had to put myself out there was to make a loud noise.
But then it got intimidating.
I sat through the first serious exercise—which paired down to eight students on stage together while the rest of us watched—and held my seat through the second and third exercises, too, which were now paired down to rotating groups of just three. Students asked to remain on stage were the ones that got clowning the best—the fundamental rule that being funny was not about TRYING to be funny. Jaimie warned us midway through that it would be difficult, and that being unfunny is a fate worse than death because the audience “will hate you…will want to kill you. And then will want to kill themselves.”
For a non-performer like me, that was difficult to swallow, and so I told myself I should leave it for the others to do, that they deserved the experience more than I did. It wasn’t until the last, solo clown was picked that I began to regret my decision. What kind of experience can I relate if all I can say is I walked around in a circle noticing the air and made silly noises but never put a red nose on? With time for one more, I volunteered to clown on my own. And I was terrified.
I made the mistake of following the actions of the person before me, before being reminded by Jaimie that I had not actually been asked to do that. Then he asked me one of the hardest questions I’d been asked in awhile: “What CAN you do?” The best thing would have been to admit defeat right away and say, “Nothing. I am good at nothing.” Except I think I am good at many things, and even great at a few things, and just how exactly was I going to admit to a room full of strangers that I was, in fact, terrible?
That, I learned, was the point: being a clown is about breaking down what you think you know about yourself and the world around you. I searched frantically in my mind for a thing that I could “do.” I landed on something awful: “I can play basketball.” This is not a logical response, certainly not in this context, and probably not in any context. Ever. Because of course, in response, he says, “Show me.” And there is nothing more unfunny, more embarrassing to watch, then someone pretending to play basketball. Without a ball. Clearly, I had misspoke about the basketball.
But Jaimie was skilled, and not all that mean in the end, and led me through a series of activities in front of the group, one being to dance like a ballerina, and the other to choose the most attractive male in the room to give me a kiss on the cheek, that resulted in me standing in front of the group with a really stupid clown face that managed to make people laugh.
“Stupid clown face. That’s a compliment.“
I made a very interesting personal discovery during this exercise. I take myself seriously, way too seriously for my own good. But Jaimie truly encouraged us to fail and feel fine about failing. And as soon as I made the decision to go for it I was ok being a failure, even if I hit a lot of bad basketball-playing ballerina road bumps on the way.
All this to say, not once was anyone ever insulted or angry. Jaimie is an incredibly adept instructor. The class went 30 minutes over and I guarantee everyone would’ve stayed for more if he didn’t have a show to perform that evening. I hesitate to say I went in credulous about clowning and had my eyes opened given the short amount of time, but I do have an entirely new appreciation for someone who manages to be funny. And an entirely new appreciation for Cirque de Legume, which I had seen the week before and was absolutely delighted by.
Jaimie ended the workshop by sharing what famed clown and theater instructor Philippe Gaulier says each day: “Today, I was bad. Tomorrow, I will be worse!” Not an easy mantra to live by, even for a clown.