Archive for October, 2007

Oct 31 – Know what?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2007 by actingchick


It’s Halloween. People keep asking if I will be dressing up for Halloween and doing something fun. I say that I have clown class tonight, so I will be in a costume, but I am not so sure about the fun part.

Last class went the same as usual. Our assignment was to come in and tell a joke. No one thought my first joke was funny. Then later I had to tell another joke, but again, no one thought it was particularly funny. I thought both of my jokes were (which is why I told them), but what can you do?

Our assignment for tonight is two different things. First, we are supposed to write about what we have learned so far. Second, we are supposed to come up with our clown name. Writing what I have learned so far shouldn’t be too bad, mostly a case of organizing my thoughts, becaue luckily I have been writing this blog to help me process the clown experience. But coming up with a clown name is hard. I keep trying to think of things, but they all sound stupid.
So I am going to start with the easier of the two things and write about what I have learned so far. This is what I have submitted as my assignment.

What I have learned in clown class….so far.

My first instinct is to say I learned how to feel like an idiot, but actually I knew how to do that already. Though as they say, practice makes perfect. I wonder about the difference between learning something intellectually and then learning something practically. I have a lot of conceptual ideas that have a) been told to me, and b) I have observed in others and myself. Then there is the ability to put these ideas into practice, to show learning by doing.

I have been told by more than one of my teachers that commitment is vital. Make a choice and commit to it, even if turns out to not be such a good choice. I have seen the effect that commitment has on the performance of the clown in the ring. You can tell when the person is really going for it, and even if it is not laugh-out-loud funny it is interesting and engaging. Wishy-washiness is not funny, not engaging, and often comes across as pathetic. Putting commitment into practice however, is challenging for me.

To make a commitment you have to settle on a choice, which means that you have to have choices to choose from. I think this is the hardest part for me. I suppose this is following your creative instinct and letting your imagination go. My imagination needs exercise. It’s gotten flabby and atrophied by adulthood.

How did we spend hours running through the playground pretending the sand was hot lava and the jungle gym a spaceship? Now when I have to imagine things my brain freezes up. Either that’s because imagination doesn’t show up, and I left standing there like someone waiting for the last late-night bus to arrive. Or it arrives with smorgasbord of cornucopias and I have no idea which way to go. I don’t want to make the “wrong” choice. I’m trying to get over this, and it is getting better, but…you know.

I have also learned that failure is funny, which is a sort of weird thing. I should clarify that failure is funny to the people who are watching, not the person who is experiencing the failure. And I’ve noticed that it has to be a real failure to be funny. A fake failure isn’t funny. The person really has to be suffering, which it seems to me goes back to commitment. They had to be committed to something, then thwarted in some way, and then affected by the failure.

Maybe it is related to why we laugh when people walk into glass doors or fall down. They are really trying to get somewhere when they smash their nose on the glass or fall on their asses. If they faked running into the door, we would look at them and think, what a dork, instead of laughing hysterically at their misfortune.

Aside from commitment I have also learned about alternating levels of intensity, and that bigger/louder/wilder isn’t always better. Less is more and all that. Although, too much of less is too much. I guess it is the contrast between the two extremes. And you have to explore the middle ground, because if you just did the extremes that would be boring too. I tend to want to stay on the low end of the spectrum.

Then there is specificity of movement. Vague or generalized gestures lack impact and become tedious the more you use them, whereas subtle specific movements can be way more powerful and interesting. Working with the masks showed this really well, I think. Then there is specificity of intent, to have a specific goal in mind, a specific action to play. Going up with a vague sense of I’m going to make people laugh doesn’t work (as I found out here), but it is by trying to achieve something real that you become engaging.

So that’s what I’ve submitted. Really that is a lot considering we are only half the way through class. I can say that I have learned a lot, and I have a lot to learn. And a lot to practice, because knowing this stuff and being able to type it out is one thing, but being able to do it is a whole other world.

I wonder what other crazy things we are going to learn. I know it will be interesting, and will probably (definitely) make me look like an idiot.

Oct 25 – Have you seen my sherpa?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 25, 2007 by actingchick


It was Clown class again last night, but this time I don’t have any great stories of personal failure to share. Why? Because I succeeded wildly? No, that can’t be it. It was because I sat on the sidelines watching because I have 14 stitches in my lower abdomen, which makes me not want to spend my evening flailing about like a crazy person. (Mole removal, nothing serious.)

So I watched class. It was hard, because I actually wanted to participate. Actually wanted to participate, you say? Why wouldn’t you want to participate? Ummm….because it’s hard and I don’t want to fail.

A guy in class and I have been discussing this the last few times. We are filled with a sense of dread about coming to class. Not enough to make us not go to class, but a sense of impending doom nonetheless. Like going to the dentist or the doctor. You know there is going to be unpleasantness, but you know it’s good for you, so you go.

Why do we have dread? Because we know we are going to fail. It’s set up that way, because in the moments of failure is where we are going to find the clown. Unfortunately for us, we have programmed deeply into our brains by our culture that failure is really, really bad, and you don’t want to do it, because then you are a … failure. (gasp!)

Of course the clown doesn’t think of failure. The clown thinks of success. Clowns think they are going to succeed at whatever is they’re up to. It is the performer who thinks of failure, and feels like shit. Right now, none of us are too good at separating the ourselves from the clown. So it is our ego that gets dragged down, and our soul that gets crushed.

Not that there are not moments of victory and success. And there are moments when we are genuinely making people laugh and that’s good too. But unfortunately, as is also prevalent in our society, we have been focusing on the negative. And quite frankly there has been more down than up in this class so far. But I think that is good. Beat down that ego. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc.

Maybe it is like climbing Mount Everest. It’s hard and harder. You can’t breathe, your toes turn black and fall off, oh yeah, and you can die, but if you succeed then you have accomplished a great thing.

Well I am at Base Camp Two on Mount Clown. I can’t see the top due to fog, but I am guessing it is there. Hopefully it will be sunny at the top.

Oct 23 – Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy.

Posted in Uncategorized on October 23, 2007 by actingchick

I had Stage Combat class this Saturday. We had last week off because our teacher was out of town. I had forgotten to buy batting gloves to wear for working with the swords, so I used some gloves from home. Unfortunately they were fuzzy, which is nice when your hands are cold, but fuzzy translated into slippery when applied to the swords plastic handle. I had to squeeze twice as hard to maintain the same grip. My hands were pretty darn tired near the end there.

We reviewed the punches we had done before, and added a couple. Then we worked on punch combinations, and also punch avoidance techniques (i.e. ducking). We did several short combos. That was fun. It was like 1960’s television western fighting. Yee hah!

We did more sword work, reviewed the basic strikes and blocks, and then we worked on some offensive parries. That was fun. The swords slide together and make cool metallic sounds. Very swashbuckly.

Sunday was my clown class. We have been doing this one exercise for the past few classes with some variations. I don’t know if it has an official name, but I think of it as the Psycho-Emotional Scale exercise. Basically you start out at emotion level 0, which we will call neutral, and then work you way up to (almost) 7, focusing on one emotion at a time.

First, three people go up to the front of the class and sit on some acting cubes spaced a few feet apart. (Ah, acting cubes, where would we be without you?) We all sit with our hands on our laps, our faces emotionally neutral (well, as neutral as we can get anyway). The first time we did this we did joy/laughter.

Person on the left goes up to Emotional Level 1, which visually looks like a small, pleasant smile. A person in a good mood. That first person turns to the middle person, and the middle person takes it up to Level 1. Then they both turn back to the audience to exhibit Level 1. Then the middle person turns to the person on the right, who then takes it up to Level 1. Everyone turns back to the audience. We are all Level 1. Then far right person takes it up to Level 2, and then passes it onto the middle person. The process repeats until it reaches the end person who takes it up to Level 3, then back across to Level 4, etc. etc.

At Level 1, you get a subtle smile. Level 2 is maybe a bigger smile with a small chuckle. Level 3 is something like a laugh with the beginnings of a body movement, say arm waving, knee slapping, or whatever. Level 4 exaggerates everything. Level 5 is even more, and Level 6 is epileptic seizure levels laughter and movement. It is physically exhausting to be at Levels 4 through 6 for any length of time.

So here you are sitting on a cube with two other people, flailing about, cackling insanely while everyone stares at you and laughs. I love acting class.

The next time we did anger. A lot of growling. My throat was very sore afterwards, and I had to stop on the way home to get popsicles, which is the best medicine for a sore throat in my opinion.

The last time we did sorrow. Started out slightly sad, and then morphed into inconsolable grief and wailing, which started to turn back into laughter for me. It’s hard not to feel ridiculous at times flapping about like a madwoman.

I am not sure what other emotions we might be doing. We’ve done the big three: Mad, Sad, Glad. What else is there?

Oct 19 – Burning Ring of Fire

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19, 2007 by actingchick

Well another clown class has come and gone. I have to say that before hand I was filled with a sense of dread. Mostly because of our assignment. We had to come with a trick to do. Not only a trick that we can do, but a trick no one else can do.

First of all the category of trick is quite broad.

Card trick, pony trick, a trick you can do with you body (like crossing your eyes, or wiggling your ears). Standing on your head? Is that a trick? Juggling? They all sound like tricks to me. Since I can’t juggle, I can’t stand on my head, and I don’t have a pony, I was left with cards and the body. Cards seemed to me to be more magician-like than clown-like, and anyone can do a card trick, so I ruled out the cards.

I do have a trick I can do with my body. Actually I have two, but the second one requires some nudity, and I didn’t think that was appropriate to a classroom environment. I have this thing I can do with my fingers, where I make them wiggle back and forth like a snake. It is hard to describe. If I can figure out how to get some video of it, I will put it up. It makes my fingers look boneless, like the bones have been replaced with cartilage.

Anyway, I put my index fingers together and do a snaky movement. Wiggly Snake Fingers. That’s it. That’s my trick.

Not very many people can do it (that I’ve met), so it seemed to fit the bill. It also seemed sort of lame. I had envisioned that everyone else would be bringing in all sorts of cool things, and doing all sorts of cool tricks, so I had a back up trick. The problem was I couldn’t really do my back-up trick, which was balancing a stick on my head, while I tried walking on my knees.

I was torn. Try the finger trick that I could do, or the back-up trick that I couldn’t do, but which seemed cooler.

When I arrived at class (I always get there really early because I come from work which is only a mile away), one guy was there. He had brought a skateboard, and some croquet balls and a mallet, and a bucket to hit the balls into as he was riding the skateboard. It all seemed vary elaborate to me. Just like I had imagined, people had cooler ideas than me. My finger trick was looking lamer. I would go for the stick.

Then class started and we did our warm-ups and our exercises (more about a particular exercise in the next entry). Then came time to do the tricks. We set up the ring with our chairs, and put our props beside us. I set my stick next to my chair.

The first guy went. He had a rough time. The flames started rising and George’s maniacal laughter started cackling through the smoke. OK, I am exaggerating, but there was some definite grilling going on. The first guy had no props and he didn’t really even do a trick, which is what got him in trouble with George.

He showed us that he had nothing in his hands, and then pantomimed a magician making something disappear. Then he showed us his empty hands again, and said, “Gone,” in a little sad clown voice. He made nothing disappear; he made nothing happen. George challenged him. So the guy took a quarter out of his pocket and pretended to make it appear. Magic.

George didn’t let that go either. “Clown, Did you just pull that out of your pocket?”

“No.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“No.”

“Well, then make two more quarters appear.”

And of course he couldn’t do that because he had no more quarters. Lesson learned: You have to have a trick that does something.

I went next. I wasn’t planning on it, but after the first guy, no one got up to go, so I did. I have been going first or second consistently because I like to get it over with, but I thought I should give others that chance.

At the last minute I decided to do my finger thing instead of the stick thing that I couldn’t do anyway, which turned out to be a wise decision, because someone else got grilled for having a trick they couldn’t do.

I came out, showed my index fingers to the audience. George said he hoped this wasn’t a trick he had seen before, and apparently way to many times by his expression. I assumed that this wasn’t likely, but who knew? Maybe many other people can do Wiggly Snake Fingers.

I clapped my fingers together and let them go. I could tell then by George’s face that he hadn’t seen Wiggly Snake Fingers before. I wiggled them center stage, then I circled the ring so everyone could see up close. Then I stopped, because really, I hadn’t thought any further than that.

Luckily George “saved” me by asking me to sing the song that went with movement. I started with the snake charmer song (you know the one), but that seemed to predictable, so I just started la-la-la-ing, very off key and no particular melody. I went on for a while wiggling fingers and singing, roaming the ring, trying to match the sound and movement, but I couldn’t sustain it, so I stopped.

“Is that it?” Implied: You’d better keep going.

“Um, no, that was just the first verse.”

I started up again. Even more exaggerated, and I started to laugh because it was ridiculous. Luckily I noticed through my haze of nerves, laughter, and silliness, that other people were laughing too. OK, so this wasn’t going to bad. I went on stopped.

“Is that it?”

“Oh there is an interlude.”

I started up again. It was getting hard to breath in my clown nose. I was breathing hard enough that my clown nose was almost coming off my face as I breathed out and then sucking onto my face as I inhaled.

Finally, I stopped. “Thank you, Clown.”

I got out of the ring, out of breath, and sweaty. Wahoo.

I watched the others. Some were hysterical, some were a painful, some were both.

Afterwards we got some notes. I got a couple of small critiques from George about trying to be too clever with the interlude comment. And a note that when I crack up to let it be the clown that has the laughter. Good notes.

Then we got our next assignment. Bring in another trick.

Now what am I going to do?

Oct 16 – Commitment issues

Posted in Uncategorized on October 16, 2007 by actingchick

Sunday’s clown class went better than the first one. There was still the Circus Ring of Shame and Failure (which I believe was one of the rings of Hell cut for space in Dante’s Inferno), but more on that later. I had picked up some more costume bits. I bought a long sleeve bright pink shirt to go under my bee vest, and I bought a bright orange chapeau with a yellow daisy sticking out of the top. Very clown. With more clothing I felt more comfortable.

We did more warm up exercises, and then for the last hour we did the Circus Ring of Hell. Throw the clowns in to stoke the flames. I didn’t go first this time. I think I ended up going second. The deal was the same. Walk in, discover the audience, make them laugh. The first guy got a pretty good roasting, so I thought I better go and get it over with.

Luckily for me, he left some props for me to work with. Part of his costume is a feather boa, which shed a few feathers onto the the floor. I came out discovered the audience. No comments from George. So far, so good. I waved at the audience a little nervously, looked panicky that I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then I spotted the feathers. I knew they were there from when I was watching, and I had thought I might do something with them, but hadn’t formed a definitive plan.

I walked over to one of the feathers, “discovered” it, and picked it up. I looked around the audience, and then stared at its former owner. Then I picked up the other feathers, and made a show of stuffing them into the fist of one hand, like a magician going to do a disappearing trick. Then I put my hands behind my back, put the feathers in my other hand, and made a show of how the first hand was empty. This got a few chuckles.

Then I stuffed the feathers into the back of my pants. A few more chuckles. Then came George’s voice. “Clown, what is in the back of your pants?” Now I could turn around and try and look at my butt, then give a clown “I don’t know” shrug.

George asked the question again. I then pulled out the elastic of my underwear for all to see. Luckily I wasn’t wearing any of the holey ones. A few chuckles. I was feeling pretty good, now that I had sort of a bit going. It helps to have something to do out there. Just going out like I had the time before and flailing the arms and legs with no plan, I have learned, is a bad idea. Oh yeah, and not funny either.

I have forgotten how the thing ended exactly, but I got the “Thank you Clown” dismissal, but this time, I felt good about it. I felt like I had not crashed and burned out there, but managed to keep my head afloat a little above the water line. Score one for the clowns.

Different people had varying degrees of success and failure. What I began to see as a common thread in what worked is commitment. Now, we are always being told in acting school about commitment. We hear, “Make a choice, and commit to it 100%, even if it’s the wrong choice it will be interesting.” I can’t tell you how many times I had heard some variation of this. Intellectually I get it, but I was skeptical of putting it into practice myself. I have commitment issues. Don’t we all? We don’t want to do the wrong thing.

Yet, the clown moments I was seeing that were funny and interesting were when the clowns were fully committed to whatever they were doing. Even if it wasn’t laugh out loud funny, it was interesting to watch, and I felt hooked into what I was seeing. When someone was indecisive, it was completely obvious and took the energy right out of the performance.

So I learned something. “Make a choice, and commit to it 100%, even if it’s the wrong choice it will be interesting.” I guess those teachers know what they are talking about. What do you know?

Oct 15 – Send in the clowns.

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2007 by actingchick


I have had another week of clown class. Two more classes down, sixteen more to go, but whose counting? Not me.

Wednesday night’s class was the first night that we put on our costumes. It was interesting to see what others had picked. Pretty much it was a mish-mash of colored prints, layered on in items that were either too big or too small. I had felt like my costume was lacking even before I went in, but definitely even more so afterwards. Everyone else had layered on more stuff. More paisley, more plaid, more big frilly skirts, more scary wigs. Everyone had a hat or wig, or both. My head was feeling naked, so I took a bright green bandana I had brought and tied that around my head, but it wasn’t really cutting it.

We did our usual warm ups and in our regular work out clothes. George (our teacher) brought in some masks for us to work with. They were blank masks, painted bright white, with only the vaguest hint of a face. One mask, for example, was only an oval, sort of a cross between a bean and an egg, with just two holes for the eyes. Another had a suggestion of a beak, and another a rectangle (that looked exactly like it had been shaped by the end of a 2×4) as a nose. While the first three were definitely not human, the last had the beginnings of a human face, but again the emphasis was slight.

The masks were supposed to be neutral, or “blank”, but it was amazing how much expression they had. You could see emotions in the masks, and then you could see those emotions change as the people wearing them moved their bodies. It was also amazing how much the slightest body movement could make the emotions play over the mask. Going from happiness to sadness could take just a twitch of the shoulders.

This is really hard to describe, but I found it fascinating. It made me aware of how much body language plays into our understanding of what is being presented to us. It also made me aware of how much we rely on the face, and that even when the information we are looking for is not there, our minds will fill it in for us.

After the masks, is when we put on our clown gear. We were asked to practice the walk that we had developed in the earlier classes, but now in our clown costume. Again, walking around the room with my funny walk, watching the other funny walkers, I could hear that Fame theme song starting to play in my head.

After a bit of that we were given our nose. Yes indeed, the red clown nose. We got a lecture on how to treat it with respect. How when we put it on we are the clown and not our everyday self, so we shouldn’t be chatting about everyday things and doing ordinary stuff with our nose on. Or our clown clothes for that matter.

George then set up the “ring” by making a circle of chairs. He then put a black wall divider up at the head of the circle. We would stand behind this to get ready. We all sat around in the chairs that made up the ring. Our assignment was this: 1) walk into the ring, 2) discover the audience,3) make the audience laugh. Sounds pretty simple, right? What followed was 40 minutes of soul-mangling clown hell.

I went first because I wanted to get it over with. This was probably a good thing, because the roasting got worse I think as the time went on. I put on my nose, heart beating, rapidly inhaling the plastic smell, which reminded me a bit of the dentist. Not a good sign. I stepped out into the ring, head looking down so I could then look up and “discover” the audience.

That was my plan anyway, which was interrupted by George’s voice. “Clown, you didn’t discover the audience.” Apparently my plan for discovery wasn’t holding up under George’s scrutiny. I looked up stunned, plans thwarted, and then said, “Ummm, I was just about to get to that.” The George Lewis Look of Disdain followed. “Clown, go back and discover the audience.”

“Ummm…OK.”

I started again, and whatever I did this time it must have been OK, because he didn’t stop me. Then I stepped into the ring realizing I had no idea how to make these people laugh. So I just started leaping around, waving my arms, staring at people for help. But no help came, they all just stared at me, and no one was laughing. More leaping, more pleading with the eyes. Nothing. Cruel heartless bastards. Laugh! Damn you!

“Clown, is this funny?”

Obviously not.

He had me do something with straightening my costume or something, which got a half-hearted chuckle out of a person or two. I really don’t remember; it is all a blur. Just a foggy haze of failure until the relief/shame of my dismissal with the patented George Lewis Look of Disdain and followed by “Thank you, Clown.”(tm). I left the ring, took off my nose, and returned to my seat.

I was just the first. No one got through without serious beating. As much as I wanted people to laugh when I was up, I could see how not funny it was to be dancing around waving arms etc. Oddly enough it was in the moments where the Clown realized the failure that there was a chance to laugh.

We did do some laughing. There was some genuinely funny moments amid the carnage. I think George’s lesson of the day was to start learning what makes, or doesn’t make, something funny. Failure is apparently one of these things.

Oct 10 – Just Hangin’…

Posted in Uncategorized on October 10, 2007 by actingchick

Earlier I was writing about acting student archetypes that I have been mapping as I journey through acting school. I talked about the Diva-in-training, which was pretty easy. I think we have all run into these before. Some of the other types I mentioned were the Cliff-hanger, the Processor, and the Meticulous. Today I want to talk about the Cliff-hanger.

This is the person who wants to be an actor, but is too afraid, but they don’t know they are too afraid (or maybe they do, I’m not a mind reader). I call them cliff-hangers because the get to the edge of the cliff, look down, and stay there. They don’t take the plunge. Another analogy might be the swimming pool. Imagine a kid who wants to go swimming, gets their swimsuit on, walks purposefully out to the pool, slowly tests the water with one big toe, only to stand on the edge and watch the other kids swim.

I have two examples. Let’s call them Marcus and Cleopatra. Marcus was my first encounter. He was a young guy about 19, who was going to a local community college while he still lived at home. He decided to take acting because he thought it would be a good way to make money. We all sort of lifted our eyebrows when he said that, but really, it is true that it would be a good way to make money. It is just not necessarily true that it is a good way to make good money.

Anyway, he paid over $600 to take this class, had to commute a fair distance to reach the school, and he took this load on while he was already in college. Hearing that, you might think that he was highly motivated, but… no. When it came time to participate in class it was interesting (and occasionally painful) to watch.

I can’t really say he froze up, because he moved and talked, but there was no energy behind it. Imagine automaton Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland. It wasn’t just bad acting, because you can tell when a bad actor is giving a good (bad?) effort. And when he was encouraged to do more, he resisted, mostly by offering lame excuses and foot dragging. In his defense I will say that he did improve over the course of the class. I just like to imagine what he would have accomplished if he had thrown himself down.

Cleo was different in manifestation, so at first I didn’t recognize her Cliff-hangeriness, I thought she was more of the Meticulous type. It was only after repeated events that the pattern developed enough to make this determination. She would come to class, and would sit quietly, listening intently, eager it seemed to me to learn.

It was a Shakespeare class so the material was difficult and specific. She would ask questions. Very thoughtful and specific questions. When it came time to do an exercise she would ask for specific clarification on what was expected. In the Shakespeare class we had to memorize a sonnet, a soliloquy/monologue, and a two person scene. We also had to write a sonnet. Yet almost every time when it came to the performance part, she would sit quietly and not participate.

She did participate in some things, and again showed purpose, unlike Marcus whose claw marks on the walls were readily visible as he was dragged to perform. Cleo did read her sonnet, but didn’t do it off book ( the “final” of the assignment), even though she professed to have stayed up all night for many nights memorizing it, which I believe she did. Same with her monologue. And when it came time to her two person scene, she ended up disappearing the last few classes so her partner had to find someone else at the last minute.

She probably had performance anxiety. But don’t we all? I guess the thing for me it was the contrast between her show of intention, and then the lack of follow through. I think I am sensitive to this because I encounter it annoyingly often in my personal life. I know a lot of people who say I want this, I want to do that, I want to be better, I want change, and then sit there. What was that line from the Cider House Rules? Oh yeah, “Shit, or get off the pot.”