Clown and Improv, differences, similarities, and how they can help each other

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.
I’m going to put some of it into practice at some our
Saturday workshops.
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 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
From running an improv venue for two 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 what 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.
Playing Failure

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
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
Improv played in the spirit of play and games is fun.
Characters – Go Big

Hey you know that improvised character you just did? You could go
bigger with that. Nope, bigger than that. That’s about a 3 out of 10. Push it
to about 11. Nope, still about a 4 out a 10. I think you’ve got more.
Lots of love,
Hoopla are teaching clown for improvisers at future Saturday
Additional workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday in
London, and Sundays across the UK
Improv comedy club every Tuesday and Wednesday at The Miller in
London Bridge.
All the details are at
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