The following is an excerpt from Christopher Bayes's Discovering the Clown or, The Funny Book of Good Acting, new from TCG Books.
The clown in its purest form wears a red nose. Let’s talk about what the red nose is and why it is useful. First of all, the red nose is a mask. As Pierre Byland famously said when he first introduced it as part of the training at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, it is “the smallest mask in the world.” Unlike other masks such as commedia, neutral, or larval masks, which cover you in some way, this one does the opposite. This one uncovers. It works like a magnifying glass or bull’s eye because it brings all the attention right to the middle of your face, right between the eyes. It opens your face and softens your brain. We see everything. If you lie when you wear this nose we see right away. It distances you just enough from yourself to help you find this other very playful, very physical, very open, immensely stupid, very childish creature that we call the clown. It is a little mask, however, and it demands that you support it from underneath with all the same muscles that you would use to support any other kind of mask. In order to give it life, it demands the use of all the muscles encouraged by the work described in the first half of this book.
A proper clown nose is a simple round red nose that is held onto your face with an elastic. The elastic is important because it makes it very clear that the nose is a mask. Don’t bother trying to disguise the idea of the mask with fishing line or spirit gum. “What red nose?” Similarly, clown makeup changes the mask by adding another kind of mask (the makeup) and then you have two masks to play. That’s one mask too many. The makeup also begins to drive the clown into the world of the grotesque. Use it sparingly. The nose should be red and round rather than some weird shape or color that makes it some kind of eccentric character. It is important that you avoid the foam nose, the flashing ones or sparkling ones. They are too horrible even to discuss.
There are five holes in a clown nose: the two little ones on the sides into which the elastic gets tied; the two medium ones which should be pointed down, rather than up like a porpoise’s blowhole. The most important one of all, the biggest one, is the one into which you will thrust your nose relentlessly in pursuit of your fun. There are a few different sizes. It is important that you choose the size of your clown nose based on the size of your head. If you have a teeny, tiny head, pick a small one. If you have a big ol’ head pick a big ol’ one. If you have a gigantic prehistoric head it’s probably a good idea to take the jumbo. If you refuse to commit to the size of your head . . . pick a medium one. When you are wearing the clown nose, do not touch or adjust it. Do not honk it. Do not pretend to pick it. Don’t pull it off and snap it back on your own face. Don’t do any of those terrible things. It is horrible to watch. And for God’s sake don’t take it off in front of us! It’s your face. It’s like popping out your glass eye at the dinner table. “Look at my empty socket!” Horrible. When the red nose is being played correctly we cease to notice that the actor is wearing it. That is the moment when you know any mask is being played correctly. You no longer notice the mask. It is when the audience no longer says, “Oh, look at that person with a clown nose on,” but rather, “Look at that amazing creature!”
When you strap on this little mask, it is important that you banish from your thoughts any clichés that you may have of what a clown is. Particularly in the United States, the image or icon of the clown has been co-opted by the circus performer with the big shoes and the rainbow wig, or the one on the TV who wants to sell you a cheeseburger, or is cynical and smokes cigars, or the scary one at the birthday party who wants you to come down into the basement with them and their Polaroid camera. Those are icky clowns. (They live in Wisconsin, mostly.) Clowns are not icky. They are beautiful. We must try to banish these clichés in order for us to proceed. The clown is ancient. Clowns go back to the first pagan festivals and the first storytelling circles. You must try to let yourself play the smallest mask in the world simply without any preconceived ideas of what you might discover.
Also, clowns are presexual. They are innocent in that way. Clowns do not have mothers or fathers. Track it through: “Okay, so the clown has a clown mom and a clown dad. So that means their clowny parents had clowny sex? And then their clown mother carried them for nine clowny months? Then she had a clown C-section, because the clown doctor didn’t want to miss their clown tee-time at the clown golf course with their other clown doctor buddies?” The implications are horrifying. Clowns are born by being squirted out the end of a pickle, or rolling off of a turnip truck, or dropping from the sky, or they get thrown out from backstage. Each one has a very particular way of being born and of dying. What would kill one is not something that would kill another. They do not just drop dead or linger in the ICU. They disappear in some way. It is a tragic event. They go away for some reason. Maybe they get their little hearts broken and get so small, so tiny, we can’t see them anymore. It is a unique thing to each clown. It is a poetic mystery.
Clowns are not little kids, but the clown does have the logic of children. Here is a really good example of clown logic: My son, Eli, and I were walking down the street one day. He was maybe four at the time. There just happened to be all these cars parked on the street. For some reason they all had those orange traffic cones on their roofs. And he said, “Oh, the cars are having a birthday party.” Then he began to sing “Happy Birthday to You, Cars,” because all the cars seemed to be wearing orange party hats. Okay. Here’s another one. One night, Cosmo, the little one, had snuck into our bed. He had been scared by the ominous shadow of a tree branch or the terrifying sound of nothing happening. It was 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, pitch dark, and I had to get up and take the train to teach a morning class at Yale. As I got out of bed, Cosmo woke up as well and said, “Dadda . . . what are you doing?” And I said, “I have to go to work, sweetie.” And he said, “But it’s the middle of the night! Who are you . . . Santa Claus?” He really put that one together. It is this kind of logic or soft-brain observation that we want to find in the world of the clown.
It is palpably disappointing when the clowns live in the same world as we do. To impose our world upon them, with the concerns of our mundane lives and our day-to-day trudging about is to tarnish them. Clowns don’t need to eat or pee or make a quick phone call. They do not ride the G train but they might like to make a show about the magical city or a big locomotive. They may fall in love, but clowns don’t computer date or calculate mortgage payments. They don’t know how to read, or count, or juggle, except by accident. The brain of a clown is so soft that the specifics get a bit murky. They can only squint at things in our world and say, “Okay, that looks like fun,” or, “That looks scary!” or “How beautiful!” We spend so much energy and time on things that the clown simply does not understand. Insurance? Well, I still can’t quite figure that one out. It seems to be an anticipation of disaster.
Some clowns choose not to speak. I really like it when the clown speaks. I like it when they sing and scream and cry and make a big noisy ruckus. As part of the training I encourage the actor to open the channel of voice and breath and make sound all the time. It’s all about opening rather than holding or withholding. If you imagine that you were never told to be quiet, wouldn’t you make noise wherever you went, all the time singing songs and commenting about things that you discover? The tradition of silent clowns is an abstraction. This tradition results from the lack of amplification in a big circus ring and the fact that many of the most beautiful clowns were making silent movies. It also comes from political oppression where, in an effort to prevent clowns from speaking truth to power (which is one of the fundamental jobs of the clown), the scary big shots made a rule that clowns could not appear onstage and speak at the same time. The police would stand in the back of the theatre on the alert for any subversive talk. So the clowns created puppets or sang songs or made signs, but were forced to be silent for a time or end up in prison. For me, the only time clowns don’t speak is when they have nothing to say, which is not very often. Of course, on the other hand, it is horrible to see a clown making witty repartee or telling off-color jokes. Clowns do not swear. They don’t understand swear words anyway, because the way we use swear words doesn’t really make sense with the literal meaning of the word itself. If you think about it, the way that we use swear words is an abstraction. “Go fuck yourself! Sounds good to me! Be back in 10 minutes!” See what I mean? They can say, “Aw nuts!” or “Gradingle!” But to hear a clown say, “Oh, fuck!” is horrible.
Some clowns speak Italian. Some speak English. Some of them are born with an accent. Some speak only in a kind of grammelot or gibberish, while others are so stupid that it’s a big old monosyllabic hootenanny. It all depends. Of course, sometimes actors talk too much because they are afraid of the silence. They blather away, because they are afraid to hear the horrible sound of us not laughing. How and how much a clown speaks is unique to the clown. Your clown is unique. What makes you unique and funny is different from what makes someone else unique and funny. You enter the comic world through your own very particular portal. There is not a formula for it. It must be discovered in front of an audience. Your clown can grow and change as you grow and change, but there is only one clown. Everyone has one, but only one. Clown is not character. Clown is clown. And you do not have a clown character. You have a clown. From this clown can spring hundreds of characters, thousands, but there is only one. It is you. The clown is very rarely what you want it to be. It is never what you need it to be and it is only very occasionally what you hope it is. The clown is what it is, and we will tell you when we see it. You don’t tell us. We tell you, because we say “Ha-ha-ha” to you. That is how you know that you are on the right track. You must play through us. Not on us or at us. It is not a lecture/demonstration of how talented you are, but a vigorous and brilliant conversation between you and the audience. So you must listen very closely to us. The audience will never lie to you. We want you to be funny. We want to be able to support you with our laughter. We are not as suspicious as you may think. On the other hand, if we fail to laugh at your ridiculous antics and appear a bit confused, it does not mean you are bad. It does not mean that this whole thing was a big mistake and that you should reevaluate your life as a performer and fall back on the horrible five-year plan that your parents encouraged you to make. It just means we are a little confused because we don’t quite understand you yet. You simply have not invited us to your party properly. It just means that you are not fully present yet and haven’t allowed the big, stupid freedom of play to come bubbling up.
It is important to note that having a soft brain is not exactly the same thing as being stupid. Some clowns are stupid—not all of them. Even the really dumb clowns don’t think they are stupid. The most stupid people do not think they are stupid. No one thinks they are stupid, especially very stupid people. Who says, “Oh, I’m too stupid. I shouldn’t vote.” No one. Everyone thinks they are smart. Only really smart people know how stupid they are. The stupidest clown of all might say, “Look at that dumb guy over there! He is stupid as a bag of hammers. That’s the dumb guy. Not me. I’m smart. I’m not like a bag of hammers like that guy!” To be truly stupid, you cannot play stupid. You can only soften your brain and let yourself be stupid. Otherwise we feel that you are judging yourself and we begin to see character rather than clown. You have limited the possibilities.
Speaking of being truly stupid, I remember a clown named Pork Chop Jones who told a joke involving CAT scans and Kathmandu that was way too clever. Somehow or another he also ended up insulting a character in the joke by calling him fat. I encouraged Pork Chop to go with that. He started to say, “You are so fat your teeth are fat. Look at your big fat eyes! Big fat, fat, fatty man! I think you are so fat, you great big fat. Why are you so fat? You are all full of fat! Fatso!” When he did that he began to find something really lovely. Awful, but lovely. We saw him begin to surprise himself. His brain got really soft in the fattiness of it. It was a beautiful quality for him to embrace. He found a way to play in a time before he knew so much. It had been confusing and a bit disappointing that he knew what a CAT scan was and exactly how one might get to a place called Kathmandu. He somehow knew that it was two long flights and a layover in Heathrow. Clowns can like the word “jetlag” but they shouldn’t have any idea what it is. It was much more interesting when Pork Chop just had the impulse to insult someone he didn’t like but knew no good way to do it. In that moment we saw him surprise himself and he laughed. So did we. It was a wonderful moment. He laughed as if to say, “What I am doing is really stupid!” He opened himself to lots of surprising possibilities. He opened himself to impulses that were unique, connected, and true to him without a clever solution. He opened a door to his clown.
The clown sees the world in a soft way and enjoys the feeling of the wind as it blows through the soft brain. The clown sees something beautiful and falls in love. The clown hears a loud noise and is scared. The clown sees something sparkly and tries to catch it. The clown is always in search of something yummy or something sparkly. The clown is also on the lookout for Mr. Bitey and spikey things. Once all the muscles are in place and the impulses are free, the only thing left for the actor to do is listen to the world with great curiosity and see what it has to offer them today.
Christopher Bayes began his theatre career with the internationally acclaimed Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where he worked for five years as an actor, director, composer, designer, and artistic associate. He is currently professor and head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama.