Opening Up Your Imagination
"I've seen actors who trained in clowning and did not go on to become clowns but moved into doing Shakespeare or musicals or other kinds of performing," says Mark Lonergan, artistic director of the physical comedy troupe Parallel Exit. "And the skills they had gained from their clown training proved absolutely priceless. A background in clowning makes an invaluable contribution to an actor's technique. Shakespeare is a great example. There are so many clown roles in Shakespearean plays, and attempting those roles without some kind of background in clowning is almost unthinkable."
Clown training is applicable to almost any performance style or context in which one is doing comic material. "For example," Lonergan says, "if you're making an entrance in a comedy and you have no stage directions telling you what to do before you say your first line, an actor with clown training is likely to imagine something he could do physically. Of course, it would have to be in line with the story, your character, and the overall world of the play, and you would have to first propose it to the director, but it's a way that your clown training makes you aware of opportunities that are unscripted and that you might not have thought you had."
Though clown training is often associated with learning how to execute pratfalls and other laughter-inducing movements, the essence of the training is really about opening up a performer's comic imagination. "Granted, a lot of acting training involves getting you back to a childlike sense of play," Lonergan explains. "But clowning is the purest version of that. As a clown, when you look at a script or look at a character, your mind is immediately thinking of gags or physical bits, which you shouldn't insert gratuitously but that can often add comic layers to your performance."
Before embarking on his clowning career, Lonergan, a Canadian, trained as an actor at York University in Toronto and also studied mime and modern dance. Though he founded Parallel Exit in Toronto, he relocated his company in 2002 to New York, where he discovered a thriving clown scene, due in large part to the visibility the art form had gained from Bill Irwin's and David Shiner's Broadway appearances.
All About Honesty
According to Lonergan, the clown's humor is universal. "It can reach audiences of all ages and all cultures," he says. "When done really well, it elicits a visceral response. There's a kind of laughter you hear at really good clown productions that is different from what you hear at other types of comedy shows."
So what is it that makes a really good clown performance? "Honesty," Lonergan says. "The greatest clowns are, while acting in a foolish or silly manner, very honest performers. Good clowns reveal something very truthful about themselves. And that's one of the things that makes clowning so incredibly difficult. It's a very vulnerable place to be in as a performer. There are a lot of people who try it and give up because they find it too scary or challenging. There are very few people who can do it really well."
While Lonergan believes there will always be an audience for clowning, he admits that in the U.S., clowning is typically a "fringe" art form. "It is somewhat marginalized," he says. "But that's only because there's a strange stigma associated with clowns. Even though we use elements of clowning in our shows and I work with clowns, we don't self-identify as a clown company. Not that we're embarrassed to say we're clowns or that we work in the clown tradition—we love that, and it's definitely what we do. It's just that people in this country have an aversion to the word 'clown.' So we prefer to use the term 'physical comedy.' "
Parallel Exit presents what Lonergan refers to as "clown theater." The troupe's productions involve characters in situations in which they are trying to overcome some kind of conflict. "We incorporate all the standard dramatic elements," he says, "but we use clown characters rather than more-traditional character types." The clowns in Parallel Exit's productions do not talk, for the most part, though there is no rule that clowns must be silent. For example, Lonergan considers Groucho Marx one of the greatest clowns of all time, and his use of speech was extensive. "But we love clowning that doesn't use language, because we think it's more universal. We can travel to other countries and people who don't speak our language can still enjoy our work."
On May 9 at New York's Here Arts Center, Parallel Exit will present a free night of physical theater that will include clown performances. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.