Friday, April 24, 2009

My Brain Is My Enemy

They Call It A Charivari.

Kooza! has one toward the beginning that includes human pyramids, bodies flying through the air and a "crash bash" – a daring dive into a circle of fabric inspired by the "Nalukauq," the traditional Inuit game of "Blanket Toss" and the landing mats used by firefighters.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Charivari was a boisterous parade, a raucous coercion sometimes used by the given community to shame or mock miscreants in a noisy spectacle. Charivari comes from the Greek kerebaria or “heavy head” (as in headache.)

I had my own personal Charivari after working on my clown bits with Luc Trembley, Serge Roy and the one and only David Shiner in the bright confines of Dance Studio 2 here at Cirque du Soleil headquarters in sunny Montreal.

Having David Shiner teach you clowning is like having Micheal Jordan help you with your jump shot, Mario Andretti teach you how to drive or Barack Obama teach you how to give a speech. There’s a mastery there and in Shiner’s case the information comes out in these hilarious spurts in which he can’t contain himself and jumps up and dives in, his passion for the work and performance savvy zinging out of him. This guy knows his craft.


Among clown circles (rings?) the exacting process of “finding your clown” is given a lot of lip service. It always struck me as a little touchy-feely but I was wrong.
The clown discipline-
(yes, it is a discipline. Just as much a discipline as the trapeze artists, hand to hand balancers and tumblers that I see every day here at Cirque headquarters practice.)
–requires one to find a nakedness and a naiveté that my traditional theatre work has only rarely asked of me. It is no longer my job to create a character and put him on like a suit of clothes. Indeed I must unlearn everything I know. Shiner exhorts me to bring myself into the mix. To find my own clown by embracing the raw, vulnerable and unpretentious Ron that can play simply and naively with none of the finely wrought self-consciousness that traditional theatre requires. No showing off- just do, no display- just play.

Finding Ronolo

Nothing worse than a clown trying to be funny. The act of trying denotes effort and nothing kills humor like effort. The great clowns don’t try to walk funny. They just walk and it is funny. Because they’ve found their clown.

Shiner says he had a major breakthrough when early in his career he saw some footage of himself clowning. He hated it. He was trying to be someone else. It was then that he decided to be himself- infused with the antic spirit of the clown- but himself. And if you watch him you see an authenticity in his performances that bears this out. And that became the place he could always return to if he got in trouble: himself.

Roch (whose clown name is Rocko) says it might even help in finding my clown to give him a name. My aunt Lindy, who along with my uncle Dave Shapiro could make me laugh ‘til I ached as a kid, used to call me Ronolo. Maybe that’s my clown name.
Roch suggests I’m not playing The King or The House Manager: my clown is playing at being these people. I don’t have to find them. I have to find me.

Oh The Things I Have To Unlearn.

The role I’m playing, “The King of the Clowns” is ostensibly what they call a “white” clown, meaning he has high status, (or thinks he has) sees himself as the Top Banana and often serves as the straight man for the red or Auguste clown. But what Shiner and the brilliant Gordon White have created is a white clown with deep rooted red clown tendencies. He’s the boss, but he’s the idiot boss.


My character uses a remote control device throughout the show to control the madness and mayhem that flies and bounces and swings around his tent “kingdom”. In one sequence, the remote gets away from him and is picked up by one of the other clowns. He uses it on me like a kind of channel switcher only I’m the one he’s switching. It’s a lot like the old improv game of Freeze in which you must justify whatever pose you’re in at the moment the leader yells freeze and come up with a new character and situation to suit the new pose. This section is completely open to my interpretation and I’m thrilled it’s part of the show- also it’s a kind of revenge of the red clown on the white.


First I thought I’d do a kind of Benjamin Button kind of thing, transforming from decrepit old man through healthy youth to gibbering baby and back (in about 15 seconds) but that’s too intellectual. Shiner pressed the point that the big top is not the theatre and it’s demands are simpler, more elemental and the images must be immediately recognizable. The circus audience should not be asked to think, only to enjoy. He reminds me that this show will eventually tour in countries where English isn’t the second language- or even the fourth or fifth. The words I was using to help comprehension are worthless in this medium.

So I thought a journey of evolution might be fun. Do a kind of Darwinian graph from amoeba to man and back but again too much thought process required. I could lose 2500 people in an instant while trying to show off in this way. Showing off my skills of transformation, something that has served me well in a career in theatre just obscures the clowns fundamental goal: to play and play simply. As Roch my clown coach concluded, as a little kid playing I wasn’t concocting clever scenarios, I was just playing at being the dog and that was enough, is enough for the clown who can find a world of possibilities in the simple act of play.

The Mastodon

The first clowns must have stood before the campfire and enacted the hunt. They played both the man and the mastodon. Why not embrace that and do some animal work?

So animals. Alright. Shiner has me improvise. He does the beep of the remote and with each beep I change. A komodo dragon appears, breathing fire. An ape throws a bone high into the air a’ la 2001. A dung beatle cleans its antennae. I’m on to something. Shiner knows I like martial arts and suggests a boxer in the middle of all this. A dash of corny Shakespearean actor arises. We borrow from Gordon’s bag of tricks and the witch from Wizard of Oz melts in a puddle and Voila!
The beginnings of something playful and naked and universal has begun to take shape.

15 Second Life Story

But something interesting has happened. This 15 second bit could be seen as my life story. I loved dinosaurs as a kid (and what kid doesn’t) so I start with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I enjoy martial arts so the Boxer makes sense. I used to do an ape in my formative years as a street performer in Europe to gather a crowd. My dedication to Shakespeare is well documented in these pages and the melt as Dorothy’s nemesis is just me joyously borrowing from my current influences. My life distilled into 15 seconds. Now I’ve just got to stay out of my head long enough to keep it simple.

My brain is my enemy.

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