Clown and Improv
I recently did a Clown course with a lovely chap called Mick Barnfather a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve seen me recently you probably know
that already, as I tend to start every sentence with “I just did a clown course with Mick Barnfather”.
I found it exceptionally helpful; especially as it strengthened some views I’d already started developing from teaching various improv workshops and shows. But then again, I’m bound to book a course on something I share a view with.
So below are some observations from the course regards differences and similarities between clown and impro, and how they can help
each other. Remember this was only a two week clown course, so I don’t mean to cover everything in the style, only my own experiences.
Again, this is just based on my limited experience of clown, not the whole of clown in general! There are also sad and tragic clowns, while
this course was based around upbeat comedic clowns.
Connection to the audience and the sound of laughter
In impro we’re often trained, especially early on, to put our full attention on the other actor, away from ourselves, and away from the
audience. Keith Johnstone even says things like ‘bore the audience’ and also has whole chapters on how the audience can be misleading and that the sound of their laughter can send improvisers into the wrong direction. I think he even mentions Michael Jackson being trained to grab his crotch by the sound of the audience over the years!
A lot of improv (not all) seems to be about working on a finished craft, where the main focus of attention of the performers is on the story, the
game, and the other actors. This is then put in front of an audience, for the audience to see, but not necessarily to adjust that much to the audience. Improvisers get suggestions from the audience, but quite often that is the end of the interaction before its back into the piece/story/game being performed, largely performed in a pre-decided style.
Improv also seems to take place largely in an imaginary world. We take suggestions and then improvise inside these suggestions, inside
this imaginary world, where it feels very real to the performers and we hope that the audience is able to suspend disbelief and also believe the worlds we create. The more we believe in our imaginary worlds, emotionally and physically, the more we hope the audience are drawn in and are likely to believe them too.
Improv largely seems to happen behind a fourth wall. It’s a slightly more transparent fourth wall than scripted theatre, but still a fourth
wall. Maybe it has a little door in it so we can pop out and get suggestions. The eye contact is largely with other performers or above the audience’s heads when improvisers do a monologue, song or other expression of inner dreams and feelings. It’s quite rare for an improviser to directly address the audience during a scene (even though this was very common in Commedia dell’Arte) and when they do they might even be accused of breaking reality by their team mates after the show.
When improv is going well then all of the above creates wonderful entertainment that the audience enjoy. The audience can inspire
actors and watch them create real worlds and characters spontaneously in the moment with stories, games and laughs.
However much of the above can also be responsible for improv’s biggest drawbacks. One of the main criticisms of improv is that it’s sometimes self indulgent. Sometimes a real audience can feel that improv seems is being done for the improvisers, and their improvising friends in the audience, and that the show is going over the heads of the real audience. While the improvisers on stage are having a whale of a time, the real people in the audience can feel ignored.
From running an improv venue for years with shows every week I’d already started to believe that improv needed a stronger connection to the audience from the performers. The audience give off such strong signals if they are bored and confused, and also if they are happy and amused, or interested and excited. Sometimes I find myself watching a show from the back of the room and thinking “this clearly
isn’t working, why are they still doing that?” Quite often I feel like improv sticks too rigidly to it’s own perceived improv structure, even when it’s clearly not working on stage and it would be better to just acknowledge that,get off, move on, and try something else.
Also from running the venue I was already of the opinion that laughter isn’t that misleading after all. If people laugh, it’s probably funny.
If they laugh a lot for a long time really loudly, it’s really funny. If they don’t laugh at all, it’s probably not funny. If 1 out of 10 people laugh at
something half-heartedly, 9 out of 10 people probably aren’t finding it that funny and are probably finding it a little bit annoying that the other 10% are giving off the wrong signals. Yes, there are some laughs that are clearly meant for just a one off thing that isn’t worth pursuing, but overall if there are lots of laughs then generally the show is going well. If it’s improv comedy that is, not all improv has to be comedy.
I’d also already written a blog that mentioned a lot of comedy performers seem to be scared of making people laugh. The second they get
a laugh, they move on to something new and abandon it instead of just making more out of that seems to be already working. I see this happen all the time in shows, where the performers are so busy improvising and sticking to the structures of improvisation that they’re forgetting to stop and have fun with the audience, leaving the audience left behind and a little confused.
So for me Clown was the missing link between impro and the audience.
In clown we were taught to have an almost constant connection to the audience. We were constantly told by the teacher “for us, for
us” reminding the performer to have eye contact with the audience, see them, be affected by them, be open to them, share with them, be at one with them.
In the clown course the audience were the director. They told us what to do by the sound of their laughter, or the absence of it. When
it was going well they told us, and when it wasn’t they told us, and we adjusted or increased what we were doing.
This was taught by various games such as ‘dolphin training’ where the audience guide you to do a specific task in front of them by clapping
when you get close. The only way to complete this is to have constant connection with the audience, picking up on their signals. Funny enough this is one of Keith Johnstone’s great paradoxes, he tends to talk about how the audience can be misleading, but then teaches this exact game which is all about listening to the audience and being totally led by them.
As we did more and more games in front of the audience they gradually became less and less alien and less frightening to the performers,
and more a mass human friend to be played with. If something worked then great, do it more, if it stopped working then just try something else or go back to the last time something worked – no problem!
An audience not laughing became wildly amusing and exciting to the performer, as they learnt how much it would be to get them laughing and sharing the enjoyment of life with them. Even dying in front of the audience became fun, as we learnt how to acknowledge in the moment that something hadn’t worked, and just get off, with a drop in energy known as the flop. These flop moments became wildly funny to audience and performer, it was very humanizing to see these people have that open honest connection and stay open while playing failure.
But after a while just open clowning could become a bit samey, with weird noise followed by random movement, and just constantly randomly trying things can look a bit desperate. This for me is when I appreciated what improv gives us. It gives us structure, skills, technique, characters, games, story, group mind, dialogue, everything.
Improv gives us all the tools to entertain the audience, clown gives us the ability to know whether they are working or not and adjust them accordingly. Improv can create whole worlds and characters; clown can connect to the audience directly and make the show for them. So using both together can be highly effective.
Game of the Scene, intellectual verses is it funny?
Game of the scene in improv seems to be taught on a largely intellectual basis sometimes, especially if my research on the internet is anything to go by. Quite often performers are asked ‘what’s the game of the scene?’ as if there is only one possible game and some kind of right answer.
A step up from this is getting the performers to be really playful, get them playing games and having fun like the great open game Kick
the Can Marco. If they are in playful moods they’ll quite often find game of the scene intuitively by themselves without really thinking about it.
However there seems to be little talk of what the audience want the game to be. Game of the scene often seems to be discussed as a
separate entity that has a form away from the audience.
But recently when directing workshops I’ve found myself using the audience more and more to help spot the first game of the scene. Just
start a couple of people off in a scene, with aim of being as normal as possible. They’ll probably go about 8 lines before there will be some sort of chuckle from someone in the audience. That’s a little subconscious signal that there was something in that offer. Usually it will happen at the first weird thing, the first unusual thing, the first funny thing, the first hint of a game. Rather than bury it I then encourage the performers to really explore that moment. If there’s suddenly an escalating wave of laughter, then well done you’ve got the game.
Clown seems to be very similar to this. The clowns in our workshops just did something, did something else, and when there was the laugh they’d really explore that.
The direction from Mick Barnfather would be things like:
“I noticed you got a laugh at that, but then you did something else, why did you do that?”
“Go back to the last thing you did that was funny.”
“Nobody was laughing, but you kept doing it, you were too much in your routine, why did you do that?”
“People are laughing when you do that, so do it more.”
Usually at first these laughs/games are just the slightest whiff of an aroma of fun, that we have to breathe in and bring to life for everyone to enjoy.
In impro we’re taught to justify and incorporate mistakes. If something pops up that doesn’t make sense we make sense of them and
incorporate them into our story or game.
I now actually prefer the idea of going one more than this and yes anding the fuck out of mistakes. Rather than treating them as something
to be apologized for and swept under the carpet of a perceived pre-existing story, I prefer to think of them as firecrackers that go off and send the story in a whole new direction.
Mistakes in impro aren’t a blip in the story or game, they are the story or game.
Clown is played almost entirely in the world of failure, with loads of the laughs coming from watching someone on the brink of their
In impro the moment of failure can be only a second or two, before it is turned into something brilliant and polished.
In clown the moment of failure can be played out for ages.
We had flops on stage, a flop corner where failed clowns stood in some kind of detention in front of the audience. We gradually learnt that there is a whole world of character and fun to be played with while experience honest and open failure in front of an audience.
Idiocy verse Playing at The Top of Your Intelligence
I found that they were the same thing. Yeah, funny that! Allow me to explain.
On the first day our clown teacher started by saying that we are already stupid enough to be a clown. You don’t have to be more of an idiot,
you already are an idiot. You have to find your inner idiot, but I found by not looking inwards, but by putting myself out there into situations that reveal what an idiot I am. The situation reveals the idiot.
Someone ‘trying’ to play the idiot, or ‘trying’ to think up idiotic things just looked stupid and not that interesting or funny. However
someone on the brink of their capabilities having idiotic things accidentally come to them and then play with them was very funny.
I found early on in the course that if I pushed myself physically I couldn’t help but be idiotic. When you’re pushing yourself you are
playing at the top of your intelligence, but the top of your intelligence is revealed to be stupid, and that’s when they become the same thing.
For instance there was an exercise where we had to run with our eyes shut across a massive church hall, to be eventually caught by the teacher. I found if I did it at a comfortable pace then I was able to run at a set rate, be caught no problem, look graceful, and the class would politely applaud for a job presumably well done. However on the next time I ran as fast as possibly could, head long into danger, and couldn’t help myself as halfway across I inadvertently let out a girly scream and ended up on the floor clutching the ankles of the teacher for safety, which put the class into hysterics. At the brink of my capabilities my inner idiot was revealed, who at that exact time was also my highest level of intelligence.
So clowns can use their high intelligence to deliberately put themselves in situations where their utter idiocy will be revealed. This
reminds me of one of my favourite improv performers, Henry Lewis from The Scat Pack, who’s an incredibly intelligent person who can play the funniest and most stupid characters I’ve ever seen.
Play and Games
On the clown course we’d start every day with a game of volleyball, with the whole group trying to see how long they could the ball up
for. This was so much fun and really brought us all back to our playful childish selves that we could then bring into performing. If I’d turned up one day and he said it was just going to be a day of volleyball, I would have been happy.
When people are playing together, genuinely playing and not just pretending to play, there’s a great connection between them and a great life about them. I think sometimes this can be forgotten in improv. Lots of things we rehearse in improv happen quite naturally when people are playing together.
For this reason I think short-form games are still really helpful for improv groups, even if they aren’t actually performing short-form. By
giving a team a pre-defined game in a practice it can get the performers in a playful spirit, so when they are defining their own games in a long-form or narrative piece they have that playful nature about them.
I even re-introduce arms through at a workshop this Monday, which is a game I thought people were fed up, yet it produced some scenes that were so funny people were gasping for air. Yes, it’s a silly game, but isn’t that the whole point? And it’s got a lot in it – you have to be aware of multiple offers, there’s no one leader, you’re constantly adjusting to your scene partner and also your arms, and you have to be physical and attached to someone.
Improv played in the spirit of play!
Lots of love,