Oct 15 – Send in the clowns.
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.”
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?”
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.