Discovering The Clown, or The Funny Book of Good Acting

Long before our current cultural moment, when major new Hollywood films depict them as pure evil, and scientists try to explain why so many people find them creepy, my college guidance counselor urged me to become a clown.
I had asked her for help in getting a summer internship on a newspaper; instead, she steered me to a help wanted letter in her file from Ringling Bros And Barnum and Bailey Circus. “We don’t want crybabies,” it said – which is what convinced me this was not a job with my name on it.
So it was eye-opening to learn from Christopher Bayes, founder of the Funny School of Good Acting in Brooklyn and professor and head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama, that clowns should be crybabies.

“The sound of laughter and weeping are very similar really,” Bayes says in “Discovering the Clown, or The Funny Book of Good Acting,” written with Virginia Scott, who is co-founder of the Funny School of Good Acting. “You cannot separate them.” Nor, he advises, should you, when doing the laughing exercise he describes in the book, one of many games and exercises taken from his classes: “Laugh until tears are streaming down your face. Then cry a bit about something dusty and forgotten since your face is all wet already. Then laugh again because ‘Oh my God, why am I crying? How stupid.’ You have begun to open up like a little flower.”

Indeed, if you are open enough to cry before an audience, because the audience hasn’t  laughed when you’ve done something you think hilarious on stage, then, Bayes writes, “we will laugh. We will laugh at your honesty, generosity and vulnerability….Some clowns cry a lot. We laugh because we understand them. We laugh because we envy them…”

His riffs on crying are among the many zany Zen-like observations and instructions in “Discovering the Clown,” a brief, off-beat book that attempts to translate Bayes’ teaching to the printed page, but is more effective as a tease for his classes. (As he himself writes in the book: “..a huge part of what I do as a teacher is the adjustment of students. This is not something I can do for you in a book, because the adjustment is unique to you.”) Despite the title, it took a while for me to discover what Bayes even means by “clown.”  Two-thirds of the way through the book he tells us what he doesn’t mean:

“Particularly in the United States, the image or icon of the clown has been co-opted by the circus performer with the big shoes and the rainbow wig, or the one on the TV who wants to sell you a cheeseburger, or is cynical and smokes cigars, or the scary one at the birthday party who wants you to come down to the basement with them and the Polaroid camera….We must try to banish these clichés…”

Despite the subtitle/alternate title — “or, The Funny Book of Good Acting” — the book is not especially funny, and it wasn’t always clear to me that it was a book about good acting in general. It was not until the last of its 33 short chapters – and in a three page bio/promo for his school at the very end as well – that Bayes talks explicitly and at length about the connection between clowning and acting:  “The clown will show up easily and organically in your other acting work.”  Those who learn to be clowns become “hugely expressive both physically and vocally.” Earlier, after describing one of his exercises — imagine that you’ve seen the most beautiful thing in the world just now backstage, and then express it to the rest of the class throughout your entire body — he adds without elaborating that “this exercise, in some strange way, has a great deal to tell us about Shakespeare and poetry.”

Although from the get-go Bayes warns us that there is no formula to becoming a clown , and that “Discovering the Clown” is not an instruction book, nor a manual, the bulk of it offers detailed descriptions of the exercises he has come up with for his students to drive home best practices for clowns. These are represented by chapter titles that coin phrases he then explains, like The Speed of Fun! (you should be fast), The Sweet Spot (the best place to present comedy on a stage: “just a few feet downstage of center”) The Counter-Mask and Socialized Masks (“out of fear, an actor, metaphorically, puts on one of two common socialized masks” – the mask of cool, or of polite.)

But there are good reasons to embrace fear rather than try to mask it, Bayes argues. In the chapter entitled Flexing the Emotional Imagination, he writes: “Inspiration lies at the brink of disaster. Don’t betray your own potential for delight and inspiration simply because you are afraid. The audience wants you to succeed. We all hope you will be beautiful and hilarious.”

The clown, Bayes tells us, is who you would be if nobody had ever said no to you. You discover that clown by recovering your “unsocialized self,” and by rediscovering “your capacity for wonder” and for having fun. This seems the main message of Discovering The Clown, which Bayes repeats in commentary that sometimes feel like aphorisms.

“It takes courage and patience, to be more present and playful, to find more pleasure….and then bring all of that onto the stage with you.”

“The clown does not live in the clever or desperate muscles. It lives in your simple, soft, little hopeful lemon-headed vulnerability”

“It’s more funny when it hurts.”

 

Some videos that are not part of the book, in which we learn that his students have included Lupita Nyong’o, Mahershala Ali, Jessica Chastain, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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