What Happened at Clowning Summer School

Sep 04 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: meeeeeee

Wowee! What a week! 

I've been teaching clowning for over 10 years, but never have I had the opportunity to steep 12 people in the state of clown for  5 whole, consecutive days. I had notions about what might happen, but I chose to stay open to the process, designing each day as it came, in relation to the groups development and interests. 

We met in a lovely school hall in the centre of Bristol. As with all my courses, each day begins with a meditation, which allows participants to practice the art of relaxing with what is, an essential tool in improvised clown performance. Through regular meditation, participants begin to accept themselves and their experiences, which leads them to take greater risks in what they might be willing to share with audiences. 

After the meditation, we had a check-in, to find out where everyone's at, this supports the group through: 1.) practicing speaking to audiences from the heart and 2.) the group are able to gather information about each other, allowing us to take care of each other throughout each day.

The first day and a half were spent creating a good working / playing environment by establishing boundaries, shaking out inhibitions and increasing intimacy and empathy through play and reflection. 

When the group felt safe and silly enough, we moved onto recapping the basic clown tools, learned on the Introduction To Clowning Weekend. We explored rhythm, surprise, failure, breath and connection until their clown tools were good and sharp. 

Now it was time to drop deeper into their individual clowns universe. I adapted an exercise from Angela de Castro's clown training, mixing in a bit of dramatherapy to help the clowns reach deeper into their imaginations.

Clown Paradise

Through guided visualisation, art work and embodiment, each clown creates and inhabits their ultimate clown paradise, bringing back an imaginary object to remind them of their time in their perfect world. From hereon in, this 'object' kept in their pocket, serves as a key to their clown paradise. Every time they are about to step on the stage, they pause and reconnect with the 'object' in their pocket, giving them an instant somatic experience of their clown paradise. This seemed to relax and soften the clowns as well as cranking up the magical wonderment for whatever they encountered.

Next, we explored audience connection, playing a game called Clown Roulette, a game I developed with my supervisor, which the group embellished with their own ideas. 

Clown Roulette

Six people sit on chairs in a big circle facing in. They are playing the part of the audience. Inside the big circle, six clowns stand in a small circle, facing outwards with their eyes closed. They shuffle around in an anti-clockwise circle, singing a little song, "Shuffle to the left, it's Clown Roulette" (they made that up all by themselves) until they hear the bells ding. At this point, they open their eyes and see their audience member. The game is to approach your audience member playfully, checking in with them step by step, to find out where the optimum distance is for this particular connection. The audience can give a wink when the distance feels right and use their hands to signal the clowns to come closer or move back. The aim of the game is for the clowns to work within the boundaries set for them by their audience member, whilst also staying in touch with their own boundaries. Is it possible to sustain a playful connection whilst receiving direct feedback from audiences? Each clown had three goes with three different audience members before we switched around roles.

This game seemed to increase sensitivity and helped the clowns to keep dropping their agendas, in favour of finding games that serve the connection that's here right now.

At this point, the group had bonded in a big way and wanted to play together as a big group, as opposed to solo or duo clowning. So we explored ensemble play, discovering how to give and take the focus in improvised group play. We took this outside into the playground and they found out how to integrate the site into their play.

I'd been reading Patch Adams' book, Gesundheit! in preparation for the week and was inspired by his clowning adventures in Russia in the 80's. He'd been selected as one of 75 American delegates to go to Russia and build bridges between the two countries. He chose to go as a clown and spent 2 weeks making friends with Russian people:

"Dressed as a clown, I knew I'd have to stay in the role the entire time. I suppose it was my past experience that finally convinced me that if I led from my heart, the experience would be breathtaking. Love and laughter seem to be the prime ingredients of peace." Patch Adams

So, with Patch Adams' words ringing in their ears, I unleashed the clowns into an unsuspecting Bristol City Centre with only one mission- go and make some friends! We had an agreed route and each clown had a buddy clown, who they had to take care of, but apart from that, they were free to follow their instincts, playing the games that arose, connecting with the public in whatever ways felt good; this could mean direct improvised interactive play, long distance bus, boat or plane connections or just playing with the site and allowing the audience to witness their play. 

After some tricky negotiations (they really didn't want to come home), I managed to get all the clowns back to the school, where we did a thorough reflection, capturing their learning from their field trip and from the week.

I'm thrilled with how the week unfolded and intrigued to find out what might happen if I repeat this 5 day course and/or maybe even extend it to a 10-day course.... Watch this space!

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: meeeee
Holly Stoppit
Image credit: meeeee
Holly Stoppit
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Holly Stoppit
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Holly Stoppit
Image credit: meeeee
Holly Stoppit
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Holly Stoppit
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Holly Stoppit
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Holly Stoppit
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