When Holly met Jamie

Feb 12 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jamie Wood in Beating McEnroe / photographer Alex Brenner

Last week, I met 'international art-clown' Jamie Wood. We'd heard a lot about each other from shared students, and I've seen two of his three solo shows (which are, incidentally, coming to Bristol this week), but we'd never officially met to chat. 

On moving to the southwest of England, Jamie decided it was time look up this Holly Stoppit character, and find out about what I do with my days.

I had a feeling our conversation might cough up some valuable clown pearls, so I asked Jamie if I could voice record it. In this blog, I've included excerpts of our conversation, so that you can come and sit with us and listen, while we trace our respective clown journeys from training to teaching.

Before I'd started recording, we'd been talking about Clowns: In Conversation With Modern Masters, a great book by Ezra LeBank and David Bridel, in which the authors interview various clowns, asking for their personal take on clowning. The book gives a taste of the vast range of styles and philosophies, all jostling under the umbrella of 'clown.' In a way, our conversation followed the same track as the book.

The scene: Two clown teachers; one tall and hairy, one small and funny-looking (actually they're both a bit funny looking), sitting outside a fairy typical Bristol restaurant, Yurt Lush (yes, it's a restaurant in a yurt), on a damp picnic bench, on a crisp February afternoon, eating soup and yakking about clowning until the sun went down.

Jamie: Has your perception of clowns changed over the years?

Holly: I think it changes all the time, it's still changing. I think I've come to the realisation that that's just how it's going to be, because there's no end to learning about clown.

Jamie asked me about all my influences, I've edited this bit because you can read about my journey elsewhere on this site. I began with describing my 'new circus' upbringing in the 80s and 90s, travelling with my family's anarchic non-animal touring circus. I explained how I learned from various clown masters at the annual Hay-On-Wye Circus-Theatre Conventions that my dad, John Paul, co-produced with the great Goffeee the clown.

I waxed lyrical about my parents' dedication to PLAY, explaining that they met, working in adventure playgrounds, and took the principles of empowerment, creativity, expression and connection through play into the circus, where we ran circus workshops and performed interactive circus-theatre shows for young people from all backgrounds. This dedication to PLAY is at the centre of all my work.

I led Jamie through my clown training journey, explaining how all my different teachers opened me up to a different way of thinking about clown. From the many Guallier / Lecoq trained practitioners who taught me the importance of pleasure, games, rhythm, complicite and embracing the flop, to Sue Morrison's shamanic clown-through-mask course in Canada, which taught me the value of authenticity in clowning, to Didier Danthois' Mindful Clowning.

Jamie asked me what Mindful Clowning is. I only attended a weekend workshop with Didier, so I can't say I got the full version of his training, but I learned a lot from experiencing his slower pace and gentle guidance to stay connected with what's present in every moment. 

Holly: [Didier] really seemed to like the wide-eyed innocent part of the clown, and I was like “What about the rest?” Which is what I think I'm becoming famous for; What-about-the-rest Clowning. I want to see the dirt, I want to see the shame, I want to see the filth. I want to see all the stuff we're all struggling with, I want to see that stuff.

Jamie: What's your current definition of clown?

Holly: Hmm. Clown is you, the most playful part of you, the most vulnerable part of you, the part of you that has never been told no.....or no, maybe it's the part of you – if you had never been told no by anyone ever - that's your clown!

Jamie: That's lovely... I've never worked with Sue Morrison, but I've worked with people who have, and so sometimes I find myself quoting something that apparently she said once: “The Clown is at the top of your intelligence.” How I've translated that is, rather than a clown being small and cute and innocent, the clown just feels everything more than I am brave enough to feel, and is much bigger than I am. One of Guallier's things would be “Don't play a small character.” and I feel like he's also about “Be as big as you're brave enough to be and we will enjoy, if you are taking pleasure in it, we will enjoy that.”

Later in the conversation, I asked Jamie about his time studying with the infamous Phillipe Guallier, the French clown teacher who pioneered the 'Via Negativa' (negative way) style of teaching, whereby the teacher offers the student opportunities galore for on-stage humiliation – in the hope that they'll begin to embrace their foibles and allow themselves to be fully seen (thanks to Amy Rose for this definition, which I have paraphrased). This style of teaching never worked for me in my 20's, when I was doing the bulk of my clown training, because I never felt secure enough to take a public shaming in a light-hearted way. Via Negativa just closed me down and made me cry.

Jamie: When I studied with Guallier, I was horrendous and in retrospect I think all of the “You are shit, you are boring, this is awful” [provocations from the teacher] in a way it made me so tense. And I really wanted him to like me and I wanted to be good.

Holly: [making sick noises - in my experience, tension + trying so hard to be good produces nothing but sick-making performance.]

Jamie: The mixture of fear and tension was just awful.

Holly: Were you there for the whole 2 years?

Jamie: No, no, no I did Le Jeu which was like 5 weeks – It was fine, it was just playing and I love playing, so that was fine – I laughed and laughed and laughed. At that time, Le Jeu was the beginning of the first year and clown was the end of the first year, so I did the first one and then came back for the end. And my mate – we had a street company together as well - he was just glorious, he's a 5 ft 2, stocky, Chinese guy who's just full of energy and the most radiant, beautiful smile. He just bounced around the stage and Phillipe would love him and I'd watch him and just be like “Right I'm going to do what he's doing.”

Holly: [knowing laughter - You can't get funny by copying someone else, you've got to find your own way!]

Jamie: [In the gravelly French voice of Phillipe Guallier] “Non, non, non, NON!” We'd go to the pub afterwards and I'd come up with a really clear strategy for the next day “Oh I know what I'm going to do tomorrow!”

Holly: [More knowing laughter - Planning improvisation will take you away from the moment and will not get the laughs you hope for!]

Jamie: And again, it would be awful! But what happened in that time, something I noticed so vividly, was how I just fell in love with everybody that I was training with. By the end of that 5 weeks, I'd just look at everyone and just go, “Everyone's so beautiful!” I just noticed that I was looking at people differently.

I've definitely felt this, as a participant in clown workshops and I've witnessed it as a clown teacher many, many times. Clowning is such a beautiful, open state, I've often wondered about running a clown-dating service...

Jamie: [Gaullier] does a thing where you come out from behind the curtain and you say “boo” and then he says, “I want you to come dressed as a...” and he has a kind of repertoire of costumes. There was an Australian actress who was apparently quite “Famous in Sydney” and very celebrated. He told her to come as Madame King Kong.

Holly: Ha ha ha!

Jamie: She was having such a tough time, and he just kept saying how bad she was, and at one point – I'm guessing two weeks in – she just stopped and said, “I hate you, this is bullshit, this is all shit – you don't know anything, why should I care about you?” and he said [in Guallier's rough French accent] “Ah! SOS! Emergency clown!” and then he did this exercise, where she had to try and remember a time she'd come on [to stage] and done things, and had to kind of comment on them, and then she'd tell us why she thought they weren't funny. She did it and it was so sad, and at some point he said to her, “Were you brought up a Catholic?” And she just started to sob.

Holly: Awwwwww!

Jamie: But you have to remember she's dressed as King Kong.

Holly: [raucous laughter]

Jamie: And so she started to sob, and there was this little titter in the audience. And Guallier said “Oh! Listen!” and he said, “I think your clown is somewhere close.” And at that point, she gave this tiny smile through her tears, dressed as Madame King Kong, and everyone laughed and laughed and laughed. I feel like that was the moment where I kind of went, “Oh god, clowning is AMAZING!” Because the laughter was so close to crying and it felt so effortless for her and for us. I just felt so excited about being human and sharing this humanity. It just started this, “Haaaaah! I want more spaces and people where there's no bullshit, because when there's no bullshit, we can all hold each other and laugh and cry and go, “Wow it's tough being human, isn't it?””

I agree whole heartedly! Creating a community of openness and shared vulnerability is an incredibly important part of my work and in many ways feels more important than the performance training itself.

Jamie went on to talk about the flip-side of his clown training, when he went to Southern Italy to attend a workshop especially for Clown Doctors in training, through The Theodora Children's Charity, the organisation that trains the Giggle Doctors as they're now known (they had a re-brand – but don't get either of us started on this!).

Jamie: [This teacher] was much more of the variety of “Everything's lovely and sweet and lovely, oh it's so brave, that you're so lovely.” and so, I was in this workshop in Southern Italy, and we were drinking wine at lunch, and eating oranges off the trees, and it was all just gorgeous. [In one exercise] you had to go off and you had to put on a costume [and a red nose] and then you'd come on and you'd improvise. And every time I went off, I'd get naked and put on a dress and then I'd come on.

Holly: [laughter]

Jamie: It was really winding up the teacher.

Holly: [more laughter]

Jamie: Everyone was laughing a lot. And then one time he said to me, “Maybe next time you want to wear a male costume?” So I said, “Yes, I'm sure you're right,” and I went off and I put a shirt on, but had no pants on.

Holly: [even more laughter]

Jamie: He couldn't handle it at all, he said to me “I'm going to talk to you later.” So we had this really interesting talk, where he was saying “I don't think sex has anything to do with clown.”

Holly: Oh, that old chestnut! [While I was writing my dissertation about clowning and therapy, I asked the question on social media “Do clowns know about sex?” which led to a three-month long on-line debate among the clown fraternity. I should publish that one day...]

Jamie: How interesting! Why? Because for me, I don't think there's anything that a clown can't deal with, and primarily, if people are laughing and you're playing or sharing something, then I think this is clowning. But to his total credit, you know, this was a guy who'd thought a lot,... he came back later and said “I think it's me, I think it's about my relationship with sex, it's not you.”

Holly: Well done! That's amazing that he owned that! [In my experience, it's a rare occurrence that clown teachers will own their own projections.]

Jamie: What I really noticed, which I've taken into my teaching, is that I was so much funnier with him because he created an environment that was so safe, like so safe that it annoyed the fuck out of me – you know, I was like “COME ON!” What it did for me as a student is it made me really naughty.

Holly: Ha ha ha!

Jamie: And really funny. It's so interesting – when I had Guallier, I just tensed up and was terrified, but with [the teacher in Southern Italy], I'm really naughty and feel very free. So I try and do a combination of the two- which is a kind of provocateur but at the same time, the emphasis is always, “This is a safe place to play and to be naughty.”

A man after my own heart. I believe safety is key in clown training. In my experience with the Via Negativa style teachers, my clown simply wouldn't come out to play. She's so tender and vulnerable, even though know Via Negativa is just a game, my clown hears it as criticism and gets frightened to show herself.

Jamie asked me about how I use my dramatherapy skills to create safe space in my clown workshops. This will need a whole other blog (or perhaps a book?) to explain in full– as there's so much involved in creating safety, eg; embracing ritual, establishing boundaries, creating optionality, emitting constant clouds of permission, creating a culture of self-care and knowing how to deal with shame when it arises. But, what I realised again this weekend, whilst teaching my Intro To Clown, is that I've created a series of workshops that I would love to attend myself! Having learned what didn't work for me, I went out into the world and sought out the skills to be able to hold a group in safety and freedom. I love my job, Jamie quite clearly loves his too:

Jamie: It still always feels so vivid, so exciting, that room full of people exploring themselves and the possibility of discovering.... Something I have experienced a lot, is when people have created a hierarchy of what they can perform – they have their 'performance self', and the whole time... they only believe that the thing the audience wants, is the thing they perform. [But] then to be encouraged to just stop. Just stop. And to discover that there's all this other stuff - which was Madame King Kong, when she stopped trying to be good, stopped telling us how good she was, and how strong she was, we loved her!

How great to meet another clown teacher and explore the philosophy that underpins our work! I've recently been toying with a rebrand, to “Clown Midwife,” as I feel like that's what I'm actually doing in my workshops, I facilitate the birth of clowns. I really resonate with Jamie's definition of clown; “The clown just feels everything more than I am brave enough to feel, and is much bigger than I am.” As a clown midwife, I feel it's my duty to provide the safety that will allow clowns to feel and express everything that they feel, for without safety, why on earth would baby clowns want to come out to play?

Jamie Wood will be performing his trilogy of solo shows at The Tobacco Factory in Bristol this week, from the 13th-15th February 2019. Click here to find out more.

To find out more about Jamie's work, check out his website.

Holly Stoppit menu