A chat with de Castro & Franki Anderson

Jun 30 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: The Why Not Institute

As part of the Why Not Cafe's new series of clown conversations, I got to have a lovely chat with two of my favourite teachers, clown maestro Angela de Castro and master fool Franki Anderson. This blog contains the recording of the chat as well as charting the conversation; paraphrasing some bits, quoting other bits and offering a bit of bonus extra background on some of the topics covered, which included; how we met, how we've influenced each other's work, how our students are our greatest teachers, pivotal moments of our teaching evolution, the difference between clowning and fooling, the importance of safety in clowning and fooling workshops, how some teachers methods are good for people who have emotional armour and others are good for hyper sensitive people and what we're up to next.

Here's the video

The wonderful Becky Webb from The Why Not Institute was chairing the conversation (although it was hard for her to get a word in edgeways with us three master-chatters) and the brilliant Sascha Goslin was the producer.

How we all met

De Castro [as they prefer to be known (they also prefer “they” as opposed to “she” or “he”)] spoke about meeting Franki in London in the the 1980's; having come over from Brazil, not speaking a word of English. De Castro went through hell and high water to enrol for the clown course Franki was co-running at City Lit [an adult education centre in central London]. Once De Castro finally got onto the course, they said they found “home”. 

Franki had a different memory of this moment, her initial thought on meeting De Castro was “Oh fuck!” Franki didn't speak a word of Portuguese, but she did speak some Spanish, so they eventually found a way to communicate.

De Castro remembered a moment when Franki told them that she could see De Castro performing as a high status clown. De Castro argued that they were definitely a low status clown, but Franki persisted, until De Castro became so adamant that they shouted “I AM LOW STATUS!” (in a very high status way) and that's how De Castro found their high status clown.

De Castro then talked about meeting me as a kid, having worked for my dad who ran a small touring circus called Arts Play Umbrella. Franki knew my dad as well and remembered me as a “very present” kid. I asked if I'd made her watch one of my many “shows.” I was always foisting shows upon innocent passers by. But somehow Franki managed to escape that once obligatory treat.

What we've learned from each other

I talked about what I got from training with Franki; I was 19 when I found my way to her training. At the time I was very lost in the world, incredibly sad and deeply uncomfortable in my own skin. Franki's workshop was full of permission and acceptance and compassion; it was the first time I'd ever fully felt at home and fully allowed. I really flourished in that atmosphere, so I kept going back until I ended up on Franki's three month intensive course called 'The Fools Journey'. There were 15 of us on that course, from all around Europe. It was like being fed and nourished for three months straight; I grew so much during that time. I grew into my shape and started to believe that I was allowed to BE in the world as I was; a really odd, strange, hyper-sensitive weirdo. It was the first time I felt all parts of me were accepted, having grown up in the circus where it was fine to be a weirdo but it was never really OK to be hyper-sensitive. 

Franki's work had a massive impact on me and really influenced my decision to train as a dramatherapist later on when I was in my 30's. I wanted to be able to hold that nourishing, safe space for other people so I studied for a masters in dramatherapy. During my dramatherapy training, I attended De Castro's How To Be A Stupid course, because I wanted to be inspired. My dissertation was about clowning and therapy and I wanted to put myself in someone else's environment and soak it up. 

De Castro taught me about the importance of slowing down and making space – up until this point my teaching pace was frantic, as I'd been teaching kids for years and had got used to crazy-paced teaching. I'd noticed some of my adult participants struggling to keep up with the pace. De Castro's workshop was so slow and spacious – the exercises went on for a long time and there was space around the exercises for reflection and assimilation. I was inspired to strip out about two thirds of my content after that.

Franki talked about her students being her teachers. She spoke about the rich learning that comes from teaching, explaining how she learns more when she's in contact with people than she does on her own at home. She credited her 'really terrible' teachers, explaining that we learn as much from the 'good' teachers as we do from the 'bad' ones. When reflecting on what she learned from De Castro and me, she explained that it's often the things she finds difficult about people that give her the learning, the things the students challenge her with. She said she was challenged by both De Castro and me, but we also brought blessings of beauty.

Franki talked about feeling protective over me, because she's known me since I was young. Back in my early 20's when I was very vulnerable, suffering with extremely shaky mental health, I'd gone along to a Fools camp that Franki was running in the mountains of Italy one summer. It took place on a Sufi commune in the middle of nowhere and the enigmatic Sufi's were very keen on having me stay on at the end. At the time I was wide-eyed and into saying YES to whatever came my way, often making decisions by rolling dice. Franki dived in and took me away to the beach to camp and help me work out what I really needed.

Franki talked about matching up De Castro with theatre company Mummer and Dada – effectively giving De Castro her first big break with a professional touring company in the UK. De Castro talked about the audition; the people from Mummer and Dada asked them, “What can you do?” and De Castro said, “Nothing!” and they got the part! De Castro then talked about being persuaded to come to the circus and theatre convention in Hay-On-Wye instead of going home to Brazil. (The Hay-On Wye circus-theatre conventions were legendary epicentres of circus-theatre innovation in the 80s and 90s, attracting people from all over the UK to come together and study with different masters before creating a public show and parade for the people of Hay-On-Wye. My dad used to co-organise them with The Great Goffeee) 

We learn with our students

De Castro agreed with Franki about how we learn with our students, explaining how “students put you in the shit,” which is exactly what Franki did to De Castro when she called them up and asked them to teach part of her clown workshop. De Castro didn't think they were up for the task, but they learned by realising that workshop participants can be guinea pigs for your own research! De Castro learned that teaching is a way of learning, but to do this, teachers need to put themselves on equal status to their students, honouring that everyone knows something. 

De Castro talked about a student who put them “in the shit” when they were teaching at a university. This student said “You keep telling us not to act – so what's the difference between acting and clowning.” Not knowing the answer, De Castro was saved by the bell, literally, the bell rang and everyone went home. That night De Castro called infamous Parisian clown teacher Phillipe Guallier and asked; “How am I going to explain this?” Guallier said “Think, De Castro, think!” and put the phone down. So De Castro phoned Franki and said “What's the difference between acting and clowning”? And Franki said “That's very easy, think!” But the way Franki said “think” was very different; softer, gentler, more inviting of curiosity. Franki offered her own opinion, “Actors are clever and clowns are stupid,” and De Castro went in the next day and said just that. Franki had saved De Castro's skin.

I asked whether the student was there to hear it, De Castro said he was and told us that many years later “this arsehole” wrote a big part in a play just for De Castro. The reason why I was asking was because I wondered if a phenomenon that often happens in therapeutic work, had taken place. I have experienced this many times during my weekly groups - if something important happens in a session concerning one particular individual – perhaps a particular theme will arise that feels like it might be useful for the group to explore further. I'll go away and plan a session for next week to address the theme. You can almost guarantee that when I do this, the person who brought up the theme won't show up!

Our Commitment Is Mirrored by Our Students

De Castro said they don't work in this way, their courses are intensives, they don't do drop-ins and people rarely miss sessions. They explained that their plan stays the same, but the tone can change, continuing on to explain how they have developed a good eye for seeing people individually, their work is to figure out ways to support people without being directive. In De Castro's workshops, the in-between moments matter as much as the exercises – the breaks, the lunchtimes, they find moments to have a little word with people here and there. They make sure every body is being seen individually.

Franki said the City Lit course that she co-ran in London was originally a drop-in course – she said people would use it for the social aspect – there was practically a different group every week. Franki admitted that she was scattered at this time, working across Europe, there were three teachers who delivered the course and their patchy commitment was mirrored by that of the students'. Franki said that when she got pregnant with her daughter, she wanted to root herself in London. Magically, that's when the courses started selling out and people started coming all the time. Franki said that still to this day, her commitment to her students is always mirrored back.

Franki's evolution from clown to fool 

Franki explained that she was asked to teach clowning at City Lit, but before that she was teaching acrobatics, juggling, physical comedy, comedy dance and mask work – she avoided teaching clowning because she herself didn't “learn to be a clown,” she merely “stepped out into the world and [she] wasone.” This was backed up by people telling her she was a clown.

Franki talked about the process of how she found her clown; the initial inspiration came from “being jealous” of her baby son, as she watched him exploring the world – she saw him surrounded by a world of possibilities, all held within the containment of his mothers love. Franki wanted what he had! So she would put on a costume and go out, wearing the “mask” of her son, looking at the world through the eyes of a baby. She had someone with her to stop her if she got into danger. She didn't call it “clown,” it was just her responding to a longing to view the world afresh. People called her a clown, even though she had no formal clown training and she hadn't come over from circus. However, she told us that she had been a big fan of Buster Keaton. She used to go to the annual Keaton festival and watch his silent films accompanied by a live piano. Franki pondered on whether part of her motivation for doing her “clown” performances, was reclaiming the magic she'd missed out on as a child.

Franki explained how some people deemed her clown teaching “wrong” because she was a “dilettante” (dictionary ref: a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.). She'd get up in the morning and put a different costume on every day and her clown did the same. But people said “No you have to wear the same costume and have your face on an egg in a church” (Here Franki is referring to the Clown Egg Register– a tradition where traditional clowns submit their clown look to be painted on an egg by an official clown egg painter, thereby trademarking their unique look. The collection of eggs used to be kept in a church in East London, but the exhibition has since moved to Wookey Hole in the South West of England. I got to play amongst the clown eggs as clown in residence when Clowns: The Eggshibition came to Bristol Museum as few years ago). 

To solve the problem of people not accepting Franki's work as “clowning”, Franki decided to move away from the name “clown” and chose the word “fool” to describe herself and her work instead. Franki was one of the co-founders of 'Fool Time' – Bristol's own circus school. She talked about how at the beginning she taught everything because they didn't have any money to pay teachers. Franki said she could do all the skills on a basic level and was an expert at none of them She would bring in experts to offer masterclasses. As the money started to come in, Franki got to hand over the teaching of different skills to different people, but what she kept was movement and fooling. When she left Fool Time, she continued to concentrate on those two disciplines (At this point, Fool Time was rebranded to Circomedia).

What's the difference between 'Fool' and 'Clown'?

Franki said: “the clown wants to be loved and will do anything to be loved, whereas the fool wants to be themselves, even if it means everybody goes “you're crazy!””

I said “the clown is all about connection, wanting to make a direct connection with audiences, wanting to provoke laughter and communication and the fool is about the truth... they can use the clown's mask in order to tell the truth, but what the fool does is not necessarily funny.”

De Castro said “the fool is the soul of the clown, the spirit. Both entities can work on themselves individually...but if you have your fool head, that's where … the “why not” comes.”

Creating Safe Space

De Castro talked about their methodology of clown teaching which is to help people access the state of clown where they are free, because until people find that open playful state, their performance will not be genuine. I spoke about how I'd experienced De Castro's workshop as magical, deep and full of ritual; exercises happen in a carefully put-together order which felt to me like an internal massage, a massage for the heart, which allowed my heart to gradually, softly open and allow itself to be seen.

De Castro said Franki taught them how to be careful, to create a safe space and prepare the participants to be able to be vulnerable, to expose themselves. They said “It takes a hell of a lot of courage to expose yourself and not know what's going to happen.” They qualified this exposure as creative exposure, performance exposure, audience exposure and self-exposure, in a clown workshop it's possible “to surprise or shock yourself with things that you maybe didn't know.” To this end, the first week of De Castro's (2-5 week) course is designed as preparation for what's to come. 

Franki talked about the first period of a workshop being the time when we as facilitators / teachers have to prove to people that it issafe; that we're not going to shame them or criticise them or tell them that there's something wrong with them. Franki explained that this is something we can't pretend to do, we need to genuinely offer our heartfelt acceptance, then each individual can feel into whether it feels safe enough for them to show themselves.

To prioritise safety in her workshops, De Castro takes “such a detour” to get to the clowning part of the workshop. They can sometimes sense people asking “where is the clowning?” and they say “It's coming! Let's just go one step at a time and prepare ourselves for what's to come.” They explained that people arrive at her workshops nervous, they want to be funny, they are itching to put on the red noses and clown straight away, so it's their role to deal with people's expectation.

Different Styles Of Clown Training Suit Different People

Franki spoke about doing a masterclass with the great French theatre teacher, Jacques Lecoq. She explained that his teaching was geared towards teaching actors – to help them be more authentic and play as clowns. Franki said the people she tends to work with are not actors with a whole lot of armour on, but sensitives who are hoping that the world is going to accept them. When Franki stepped into Lecoq's methodology with her sensitive vulnerability, it didn't work for her at all, she shrivelled, even though she knew she was a good clown and she had evidence of this from audiences laughing at her! But she said, in this environment, “the whole of the inside of me collapsed because I didn't have any armour.” She said “to slap someone who is already raw, doesn't work!”

Franki said when she sees workshop participants who are heavily armoured, she knows her gentle way won't work and so she'll direct them towards the teachers who strip people down. She doesn't want to work in this way. She confessed that the types of people who have been in the army tend to hate her and her method – because it is so scary for them. Franki talked about her love of Japanese theatre, how the structure and rhythm of it is similar to [Italian masked theatre] Commedia Dell'Arte – which she says forms the basis of our theatre. Franki talked about how in Japan, to counteract the compliance endemic in the culture, the theatre training is vigorous and physical, to help break people out of their rigid conditioning. She said “when people are programmed with a lot of rigidity, they need breaking down.” She doesn't tend to attract these people, she attracts people who want to be gently nurtured into being who they really are.

De Castro spoke about helping people break through layers in their workshops. They said “I don't think it's with force...or being rough, or aggressive or humiliating the person... many people get traumatised with the styles of teachers who are very rough.... they get really hurt and sometimes people get really traumatised.” Having experienced that way of learning, De Castro said “I'm never going to teach like this.” De Castro talked about people who have been through that style of training, who now teach in that way, they said it's odd “because it's not their way... you have to find your own way to do it.”

I told a story I'd heard about how Phillipe Gualiier developed his “Via Negativa” style of teaching – a method where the clown student is given a whole load of “NO,” in order to eventually find their “YES.” Someone once told me (I wish I could remember who – maybe it was clown teacher, John Wright?) when Guallier was a student of Lecoq, Lecoq had spent a whole year saying “NO! SIT DOWN!” every time Phillipe Gualiier tried to get up to do an exercise. Lecoq had intuitively picked up something about Guallier and spent a year smashing down his ego and somewhere in that smashing, Guallier found his power, his clown, his beauty. So that's the method Gualiier uses on his students.

I spoke about people who this method might work for, perhaps if you've been to boarding school, if you're from an army family or if you're from some other culture that values rigidity and rules. I explained that it never worked for me – I have been traumatised by many clown teachers, I've often been the one crying in the corner, which has given me the embodied experience of knowing “I don't ever want to put somebody through that!” For me, if there's a lot of criticism in the room, I don't want to play... it's not safe. I use Franki's positive feedback model to keep the space nourishing and nurturing and kind and conscious, so that when you've bared your soul to an audience, the first thing you're going to hear is what did [the audience] enjoy? This builds up your confidence so that gradually you allow yourself to be seen more and more.

De Castro said they'd never been traumatised by Guallier or Lecoq, they said they never took it personally, probably because they'd been an actor beforehand, but they never experienced that style of teaching as aggressive, they said they learned “a hell of a lot of things” with these teachers, mostly that they would never teach like this! They mentioned that when Guallier was training with Lecoq, also in that class were three great clown teachers, Lassaad, Richard Pochinko and Pierre Bilan. They described Pierre Bilan's style of teaching as “completely the opposite” of Guallier, saying that he's “absolutely lovely, he loves you, to start with.” De Castro also described Lassaad's teaching as very gentle. De Castro didn't get to work with Pochinko, but is aware of his deep, soul searching style of teaching [known as Clown Through Mask – now being taught by Sue Morrison in Canada – both De Castro and me have attended Sue's course.] De Castro joked that perhaps Guallier was the most traumatised out of the four teachers [which is how come his teaching can come across as traumatising].

How does clowning fuse with other styles of comedy?

Responding to a question from the audience, I spoke about the comedy module I developed for Bath Spa University. We started with clown, then moved into comic characters and finally we landed in stand up. Teaching comedy in this order meant that the students' stand up was very physical, real and risky with their audience connection. They were able to leave wide open pauses to let the audience have their reaction, then they had the skills and confidence to respond to the audience reaction. They were brave and their material was bonkers, because they'd come at it from the clown mindset, which gave them the confidence to go off on tangents.

What are we up to next?

The last part of the chat was us talking about how we organise our workshops. Franki said “If you want to work with me, you need to self-organise” and a group of people spontaneously started to self-organise during the live recording. I said “I want to run a retreat, but I don't want to organise it.” (I'm still open for that offer) De Castro talked about how they are organising their summer schools (Check them out here).

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