Recently on Saturday and Sunday 19th — 20th September, we had a fantastic workshop with Babette Cornet from the Samovar School of Clowning in Paris, which I attended. Each day was broken up into a morning and an afternoon session with each session beginning with between a half hour and an hour of meditation.
The teacher for the clowning, Babette Cornet, has tremendous physical energy and charisma and it is always fun to be around her. Her obvious vigour and mischievous demeanour makes you feel like she is going to ask you to do something you’re not sure you can do so the lessons were both entertaining and exciting!
The meditation before each lesson was calming and helped to remove distractions. It also helped me bring a sense of presence and courage to the class. I found this especially helpful for clowning! One takeaway from the workshop for me was to meditate more often before I begin my normal everyday work.
In the first session of clowning we focused on feeling our bodies, loosening up our minds and entering a creative spirit. We shook our bodies, jumped around, and did a body scan including pulling our hair and carrying out an all-over self massage. This was followed by stretching, and a few basic yoga postures, after which we loosened our faces and voices by contorting our faces and making strange sounds. These exercises also gradually introduced us to making fools of ourselves and not taking ourselves too seriously.
We played games to liven up our minds, and encourage a sense of presence. Examples were a ball passing game to learn each other’s names, and a game where we wandered around the room and when Babette called, we stopped, closed our eyes, and tried to recall everything around us from memory. There were other fun and quirky games but I can’t remember them all.
After our minds and bodies were ready we had to get ready to be vulnerable. For this we used trust exercises, including falling backward into a partners arms, walking at an off-vertical angle with a partner by holding hands and leaning away while walking, and running blindfolded to be caught by others. These exercises helped us to trust that we would be taken care of, both during the exercise and later when we performed. It doesn’t work completely of course; I was still nervous when I performed later on, but my I trust in the other participants made it much easier.
Now fully equipped to be clowns (including a red nose!) we started with an individual performance comprising the following scenario: We are sweeping alone on an imagined stage and realize midway through our normal sweeping job that the theatre, which should be empty, is full with an audience expecting a show. I found it challenging to be authentic and not try to be the funny man. As an audience member while others performed I connected strongly with the parts of the performances that were authentic and immediately felt stiff and bored when I felt someone was trying to be funny. It was very clear; I felt something when people exposed something real. Babette gave quite challenging feedback, pointing out parts of performances that were forced or unnatural. The crucial message was that authentic presence trumps other aspects. I wondered afterwards whether authentic presence comes from a sense of basic goodness and unquestioned existence or from simple practice. Also are shy people (like myself most of the time) less likely to feel like they have a right to exist?
After this we studied performing in partnerships. For example in one scenario we were shady street sellers, overselling and over-hyping an arbitrary object with exaggerated claims before being chased by the police. In another scenario, one person sold the other (a useless idiot incompetent companion) as a servant promising false and unbelievable talents. As in the previous exercise, it was important to find an authentic feeling or experience and to channel it, e.g. in the first case an example of boasting and/or exaggerating. An added challenge was to be present with your partner and to authentically feel what was coming from them despite being on stage. It was challenging to do all these well. I was struck by how excellent this exercise was for testing and developing one’s confidence, as perhaps is every activity where you expose your self and make yourself vulnerable to rejection. In yet another scenario, we acted as a lover receiving a yes/no response to a proposition from our beloved. We saw that to do this well, one really had to allow one’s true sad memory or experience to be seen, which was difficult.
Lastly we performed in groups in various stories, for example acting as young children watching a horror movie by accident, catching a laughing bug from each other as if it were an infection, experiencing ecstatic joy when an exam was postponed/cancelled, and playing in a bumbling orchestra for a performance. These were fantastic experiences but we didn’t have much time for precise feedback. I found it harder to be authentic in the larger groups because I didn’t have control and I felt nervous about whether the group would do a good job. In some ways maybe it is harder to be vulnerable together, depending on the behaviour/performance of the other/s. Lastly I realised how hard it can be to represent ecstatic joy convincingly! In the act about the cancelled exam, it was hilarious to compare my own flat performance to the explosive joy of Babette as she demonstrated what she had hoped for. The best part about Babette’s poking and blunt critiques were that they always felt genuine and non-judgmental, and were followed up with a smile.
In a developmental workshop like this, the outcome is not just determined by the teacher but also by the group and other factors like the surroundings. We couldn’t have been luckier. Everyone in the group was good-natured, forgiving, and quick to laughter. This made making a fool of oneself, an essential part of clowning, much easier. Also our location was fantastic. The Studio at the Salisbury Centre is an exquisite space full of light with views out on the beautiful garden. I have fond memories of our warm up on the last session on Sunday afternoon when we did some Baba Yoga (led by Angie) outside on the sunny back lawn. For those who don’t know, Baba Yoga is not really yoga, but is instead calisthenics driven by imagining your body is being controlled by various strange natural forces including bouncing balls, the wind, and other fun things.
In summary it was a wonderful workshop. I am more convinced than ever of the effectiveness of the practice of the arts in spiritual and personal development. Many thanks to Babette and everyone in the group for making it so great and an especially big thanks to Rod for making the event happen. I hope Babette comes back for another round of clowning in Edinburgh soon!