Skip to main content

Mastering simplicity since 1981! Galumphing through life with an understanding wife since 1974! Making people laugh since birth (except for a humorless vice-principal in middle school who didn't think I was very funny at all.)

Home  Who is David Bartlett?  Lectures  Store  Clown Creed  Gallery  Latest News  Balderdash and Humbug  Behind The Big Red Nose  Hodgepodge  Boots of St. Nick  UKE Show   
Opening  > Foundation > Education > Character Development > Creativity > Performance > Professionalism >  

My trusted editor says that this article is the theme of the whole book. I made some revisions for this edition, so it is not exactly as originally published. I didn't change the substantive points I was trying to make. In retrospect I just thought it was poorly organized and lacked transitional paragraphs to make the flow logical. l also cleaned up some syntax and an irritating little cliché I overused of putting words in quotation marks. The example I use in the article (the old TV show Doogie Howser MD) shows how long ago I wrote this column. It is also an example of how I try to incorporate contemporary icons in my routines. A later column entitled "Where's Waldo" talks more about doing this.

 

On Being A Real Clown (Revised) Laugh‑Makers vol.9 #5

Imagine if you will, that you are in public, in costume, and suddenly realize that you forgot to bring your balloons, your tricks, you even forgot to put anything in your pocket. Kids are surrounding you clamoring for entertainment. What do you do?

Have I, by chance, touched on a recurring nightmare?

What I have just described is the clown version of the actor's nightmare where you dream you are on stage in a scene and you haven't the slightest idea what the play is or what your role in the play is, much less what your lines are.

For the sake of argument, suppose this really does happen to you. Do you think you can cope? Do you need to cling to your gizmos and gadgets as Linus clings to his blanket in the Peanuts cartoons? If the thought petrifies you, ask yourself a tough question: Are you a clown, or are you a magician, juggler, or ventriloquist dressed up?

I think most of us at one point or another get so caught up trying to learn more tricks, juggle more objects, create more balloons, buy better costumes, etc., that we forget the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

Before I go any further, I owe it to you to explain my philosophy of clowning. If clowning were like religion, I would be classified a devout nondenominationalist. I don't say this as a criticism in any way, shape or form of those who clown by rigid codes of makeup, dress, or action. If you choose to clown by specific codes, then by all means live up to them as best you can. I, on the other hand, I have been infuriatingly (to some) open minded about costume and makeup.

I am also not saying that you can dispense with magic or balloons or puppets because, realistically speaking, they are strong selling points, especially when you are starting out. The adult calling usually asks, "What do you do?" and if they are not familiar with the quality of your service, you may need to get the job through quantification of goods. It is quality however that gets you return bookings.

But clowning is not the sum of the composite tangible parts. Clowning comes from the inside and is not applied from the outside. Clowning is always with you whether or not you have your bags of tricks or balloons. The clowning is the essential part of quality.

If you are a real clown on the inside, it will be perceived by children of all ages. No amount of makeup, no tricks or lack of them, no dexterity or lack of dexterity with balloons can add or subtract from being a real clown. Children are not like Olympic diving judges. They don't give extra points for degree of difficulty. They simply like to laugh and have a good time.

I recently saw a performance by Hall‑Of‑Fame clown Leon McBryde. I can close my eyes and still see "Buttons," the way he moved, the way he talked, the attitudes he took toward different situations. I know he did no balloons, did no magic, and used no puppets. I don't remember the details of the skit he was in. I do vividly remember him! I have a memory that will last longer than any trick or prop. I know I saw a real clown.

It is also my contention that nothing you can put in your pocket or pull out of a bag can entertain children as much as a friendly, funny, personal chat that takes place on the child's level or, better yet, with the child in the superior position. Beautiful memories depend more on atmosphere than on specific action. Long after the magic tricks are forgotten and the balloons break, the memory of the atmosphere set by having a real clown will linger.

While this is something that should be a basic in clowning, it really truly isn't. I've seen clowns with wonderful makeup and fabulous costumes fall flat when faced with real, live, up-close children. They ask flat questions with flat voices and get flat answers.

I don't question the sincerity or desire of these people. I question the conceptual understanding of who and what a clown is.

A conversation with a real clown should have as many exhilarating twists and turns as a ride in Disney World. A conversation with a clown should engage, enlighten, amuse and transport the child into the wonderful world of nonsense. Children are willing passengers on that kind of journey.

What do I mean by "flat questions," "funny chats," and "nonsense"? Let me offer a few examples.

A flat question is the type of question that any grownup might ask of any child. "Hello, how are you? What is your name? How old are you? etc." Assuming you want to find out this information there are ways to get it in a roller coaster fashion.

"Gosh, you're beautiful! And cute too! How long have you been beautiful? (if no answer) You don't know ...Have you been beautiful ever since you were born?... I think so! ...Well then, how long have you been born?"

You want a name? Mistake the child for a celebrity. "Its Doogie Howser! ! ! Doogie Howser MD!!! Hello Doctor Doogie, say, I've got a pain in my pimento, what should I do? ....What?....You're not Doogie Howser MD? Well what is your name? Billy! Pleased to meet you Doogie Billy. Wanna shake ....rattle and roll?"

Think about talking in terms of triple exclamation points with the associated vocal and facial expression to avoid the flatness I was talking about.

Lots of times the child will try to straighten you out. The longer the child takes to get you out of the morass of misconception you have just set up, the deeper into it you can get. The deeper you get into it, the smarter the child feels in comparison to you. The smarter the child feels in comparison to you, the better they feel about you, talking with you and playing with you.

One of the highest compliments I ever received was from a child whom I found out later was two and a half years old. Leading his mother by the hand up to me he stated firmly and loudly, "Gosh clown, you're stupid!"

For a magician or a juggler or a ventriloquist, that may not be high praise, but to a clown it is. He won't remember the magic, he won't remember the balloons, he will remember me.

If your appeal is your tricks, the appeal is over when your tricks are done. If your appeal is your costume, the appeal is over once they get a good look at your costume. If your appeal is your balloons, the appeal is over once you give the balloon away. But if your appeal is your character and your personality, they kids will love and want you, not what is in your pocket or bag. Life long relationships are based on just that.

Make your primary effort one that will ensure that your audience sees a real clown in you.

 

 

 

 

This is another article that needed a little structural revising and rewording so I revised it for this edition. Just like my clowning, my later efforts were more polished through experience. That doesn't mean the early efforts were bad, just a little rough. At least now I get a chance to fix a few glaring oversights.

Speaking Of Speaking   (Revised)   Laugh‑Makers vol. 10#6

One of the first clowning decisions you have to make is whether or not to speak when in character. Consider carefully.

If you decide to be silent, how will you effectively communicate with your audiences? Have you realistically evaluated your pantomime skills? Pantomime is much more than being quiet. It is an art form requiring intensive study and rehearsal. How about other noise sounds?

If you decide to speak, what will you say? Have you realistically evaluated your speaking skills? Maybe its better to have people think you're not a real clown than to open your mouth and prove it. If you don't have anything interesting of funny to say, or cannot say things in an interesting or fun way, then it may be best not to say anything

Choosing to speak doesn't necessarily mean you can communicate effectively or entertainingly. Inadequately prepared mimes may be boring and monotonous, but they do not destroy the aura of fantasy created by a costumed appearance. Silence adds to their aura. Inadequately prepared speaking clowns are just as boring and monotonous but go a little further in destroying their own credibility by talking and sounding just like a regular person.

At times even the mute clown may wish to say something. Avner the Eccentric had a section in his Broadway show with volunteer from the audience and needed to give directions. He used a kazoo to speak. His voice was heavily disguised through the kazoo noise, but he made up for this by severely limiting his vocabulary and repeating the same phrases. Even if it couldn't be understand the first time, the audience eventually caught on. The break in the silence was done in a fun way and readily accepted.

Doug Berkey speaks when his red nose is off but is mute when it is on. Harpo Marx was silent but used a variety of noises. He also had a brother standing by who could miraculously interpret some sort of meaning. If you work with another clown, you could develop routines with one making noise and the other interpreting. It is not much different than little Timmy interpreting Lassie's barks.

There is a hilarious scene in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum in which the character Hysterium goes through a wacky ersatz pantomime routine to relay a message to Pseudolus behind Erroneous' back. I saw a production of Cyrano de Bergerac that used this same gag scene outside of Roxanne's window before Cyrano takes over the speaking chores himself. Both are scenes worth looking into if you are part of a mute‑speaking duo.

A silent partner can whisper, or pretend to whisper, in the other partner's ear and let the one do all the speaking. If you do not work with a partner, try using an adult standing by. I used this once out of necessity when I had an unfortunate bout with laryngitis but still had to do a party. It worked out pretty well.

Rebo the Clown (Bev Bergeron) used a magic speaking box. The ability to speak came with the flick of a switch, and disappeared with the opposite switch. I've seen this device used by other clowns. The obvious problem is close-up situations where lots of kids all want to be in control of the switch. The switch box may take more focus than intended.

Many circus clowns speak, but because of the need to project each word so far into the audience, they use only the minimal words necessary to get across the point, as well as greatly exaggerated pantomime and props to make the point even to those who cannot understand the words. This is vaguely reminiscent of silent movies where long periods of conversation take place, but the frame with the words shows only one sentence. It may be incongruous, but it works.

Another half way measure between silence and speaking that might work for you is to carry around a box of Alphabits cereal. Before you speak, pull out the letters H‑I, arrange them in your hand, show it to the child, eat the letters and say Hi! Next, pull out the letters F‑I‑V‑E. Arrange them, show them, eat them, and then hold out your hand in a gimme five gesture and say "Five!"

By this time you have established the premise that you get your words out of the box. From this point on you don't really need to show what you are spelling anymore. The situation is ludicrous of course, but that is exactly the kind of atmosphere a clown thrives in and that children expect from clowns. Kids will buy into almost any premise from a clown as long as it is fun.

Carrying this bit on a little further, you can use mispronunciations that need to be corrected. You can forget to put a key word in a sentence. You can leave off the last word of a sentence and mouth the final word without a sound. You can dip back into the box and get the crucial sounds. You can grab a handful of letters and cram them in and say a sentence or say complete gibberish.

If you are on a diet, try the same bit with a dictionary, with the associated frantic flipping back and forth. You really don't have to look at the exact word you need once the kids buy into the bit.

In the talking vs. mime decision, there is a lot of middle ground. Somewhere in there is a spot for you.

 

 

This article seems to be a natural companion piece to another article called "Originality Imitation and Ethics" which is contained in the Creativity chapter. All characters are composites of those who mentored us or otherwise influenced us, just as we are composites of our parents and other notable people in our lives.

 

Influences                                          Laugh‑Makers vol. 16 #2

One of my all time favorite TV shows was a cable show called Inside the Comedy Mind with Alan King. The premise of the show was that Alan King, longtime stand up comic and entertainment entrepreneur, interviewed professionals in the comedy field. Often he asked his guests how and why they turned to comedy and who influenced them.

On one particular program, the guest was Louie Anderson. In case you don't know who he is, he is a very heavy comedian whose comedy act started with the obvious litany of fat jokes, but soon moved into extremely sharp, very funny observations of family life from a child's point of view.

King asked him who, in comedy, influenced him the most. On the tip of my tongue the answer was obviously Bill Cosby. Anderson's response caught me by surprise. He said Richard Pryor.

Richard Pryor!?! Out loud I said "What?" I couldn't wait to hear the explanation. Anderson's act is nothing like Pryor's. They couldn't be more different. Anderson is very low key and Pryor is manic. Anderson is G to PG, Pryor is R to XXX rated. Honestly, all those thoughts popped through my head in a second. The brain is a marvelous thing.

Anderson explained that Richard Pryor showed that he could create comedy out of his pain. He wished he'd had a loving family upbringing like Cosby but that just wasn't his reality.

In thinking about it I began to see the similarities between Pryor and Anderson. While Anderson's career path outwardly seems to be following Cosby, his comedy comes from a different well.

I think it is an instructive anecdote. When we think of influences we often think of skits and bits people do that we, in turn, perform ourselves. That narrow conception of influence leads people to spend their time looking only for things that can be directly copied. It is an easy way out but it is also severely limiting in a career sense.

Think of it in terms of music. A local dance band can spend all of its time trying to reproduce the sounds of the latest chart toppers. It can get pretty good at it but, in doing that, it will always be a local dance band copying the success of others.

A more expanded concept of influence includes many things like style, look, attitude, thought patterns, comic base, effect, etc. It can and should be a combination of many things from many different people creating a new mix that becomes uniquely you.

I've thought about my act and my character and who influenced me in many ways, turning me into the clown I am today. Here is a short incomplete list in no particular order.

George Burns has greatly influenced me in two ways. He was a different style of straight man. He not only set up Gracie, a job he says was incredibly easy to do, but he would include the audience in his set up with a take to the audience that seemed to say "I know I'm going to get taken for a ride but I'm going to ask this question anyway. Hold on tight folks, here goes!" One well done "take" can say an awful lot. I also have been very much influenced in the "take" department by Oliver Hardy who did not rush it as so many do, and by Jackie Gleason whose double takes with opposite reactions are priceless. Takes and double takes are an essential part of my character and my act.

George Burns also had a way with songs that I have appropriated as part of my character. He had a breezy, very loose musical style that included off the cuff, throw away, half done songs. He'd get to a punch line in a short song, say to his pianist "Ah, that's enough of that one," and move on as if there were really more of it he just wasn't singing. Maybe there was and maybe there wasn't but one of the oldest of show biz maxims is to leave 'em wanting more. His short songs always did.

I do a lot of one lyric or one verse songs and move on. Sure enough, I am often asked to sing more, but I just move on to another song unless I'm sure I have a second verse that will equal or top the first.

I have also been heavily influenced by Gracie Allen. Gracie lived in a world of altered reality. Within our world of conventional thought, Gracie might be considered stupid. Gracie's world turned on unconventional thought and within it she was extremely smart and you were the idiot. She could easily explain anything she said or did with well reasoned argument based on her altered reality. The character Balki in the TV show Perfect Strangers did the same thing citing the "customs" of his home country and would pierce through conventional thought with the comment "Don't be ridiculous" which became one of the catch phrases of the TV season.

Cartoons have influenced me. I love the multi level entertaining done in the Warner Brothers cartoons and in the very old Popeye cartoons where Popeye does a lot of mumbling to himself. The older I got the more these cartoons appealed to me. There was stuff in there that used to fly right over my head without me even knowing it and crack up adults. Now I get the jokes and appreciate the cartoons even more. This was exactly the effect I wanted as I began to create my own style.

Bullwinkle certainly fits into this category of cartoon, but he influenced me even more. Bullwinkle is the guiding influence behind a lot of Mr. Rainbow's vocal characteristics. There is a little of Red Skelton's "Gertrude and Heathcliffe" thrown in (oh my, am I dating myself here or what!), a dash of Ralph Cramden's braggadocio and a pinch of Ed Norton thrown in there too. Finally is a character called Titus Moody I heard on tapes of old Fred Allen radio shows (I'm not that old). I very consciously borrowed vocal features and characteristics from all these characters in coming up with my own.

In the magical field there are just too many to mention as I picked up a bit of timing here, a bit of business there, a skillful subterfuge hither and an attitude yon. Just to name a few are Kohl and Company and Larry Wilson.

My first hero in clowning influenced me. Steve Rancatore really showed that there was more than costume, makeup and carnival skill to it. He had a manic spark to his performances that I hadn't seen in any other clown before. He was the first person who personified to me what a real clown was. He set the mark for what I have aspired to achieve.

In music I have been influenced by Mike Cross for his ability to take a joke and flesh it out into a song, by "Weird Al" Yankovic for his parodies and by Leon Redbone for his cool style. I have also been influenced by singers who can't "sing" but sure can

present a song well enough that nobody cares. These include Jimmy Durante and Allen Sherman.

Calvin Klown influenced me into adding jokes as a part of my repertoire as well as learning to tell them well. Cathy Gibbons influenced me philosophically with a lecture she gave one time on "No balloon, no magic, no face painting birthday parties." I still do magic and balloons at each birthday but the key points of the lecture influenced how I approach each party.

A final influence I want to recognize are video tapes I've seen of the worlds great clowns in action, not for the specific skits and routines but for the audiences they performed for. As the cameras pan the near hysterical crowds, I rarely see a child. It keeps my belief that great clowning is for all ages.

As I travel around, so many Laugh Makers readers tell me how much my writing has influenced them. It is gratifying and gracious of them to say so. I'm just passing along a lot of stuff I got from a lot of others.

 

 

 

If  you understand this article, you are well on your way! Maybe I just think about things too deeply.

 

Stupid Is As Stupid Does              Laugh‑Makers vol. 15 #2

The usual response to that line is "Huh?!" It wasn't until I started thinking about the topic of stupidity that I think I finally understood. When you think you finally understand Forrest Gump, you need to sit down and rest a while.

In teaching clowning I sometimes ask people to describe their clown's character. I'd say at least 90% of the time the word "stupid" is used as a primary description. It is used without any explanation as if "stupid" is enough to ensure full comprehension.

When I say "what do you mean by stupid," I get weird looks and synonyms like "dumb" or "not smart," as if "stupid" just wasn't an entry in my vocabulary. If I press, I get the response that it means they do things wrong, say things wrong, etcetera.

Then I ask questions like "what is the source of your character's stupidity?" or "how does your character react to their stupidity?" Huh?! Never thought about it? You should. There are many different shades of stupidity with meaningful differences in the way it manifests itself in action. Stupid is as stupid does.

Part of the cookie cutter clown syndrome that we face as a group is rooted in superficial examination and development of character. The idea that "stupid" can be assumed to be self explanatory is a small example of this superficiality.

Lets start out with the source of the stupidity. Gilda Radner's character Miss Emily Littella from the original Saturday Night Live shows was undoubtedly a stupid character. The source of her stupidity was misunderstanding. She would misunderstand a key word like national "resources" and instead hear national "racehorses." This mistake was enough to let her build up a head of steam and go off on a comical tirade. Mr. Magoo was also a victim of constant misunderstanding but his stupidity stemmed from his ego not recognizing his failing eyesight. He was often wrong but never in doubt.

The source of your character's stupidity has a lot to do with what you do as a result of your stupidity. Consider these sources of stupidity. Forrest Gump's stupidity comes from his being a bit slow and therefore unaware of subtleties and changes. He knew he was slow and tried to compensate by listening carefully to others. His stupidity manifested itself in pure honesty and absolute literalism. Gracie Allen's stupidity comes from what I call an altered reality. When pressed for explanations (that was George Burn's job) Gracie could fully explain whatever she thought and whatever she did with a comic rationale born of logic gone awry but logic none‑the‑less. Jackie Gleason's character Ralph Cramden was stupid too but his source of stupidity was greed and overthinking. He inevitably would be the one who outsmarted himself.

The essence of theatrical farce throughout the ages is stupidity born of deception and mistaken identity. Stupidity can result from being simply unaware. Otherwise smart characters can be stupid as a result of having only half the facts. Stupidity can result from crossed wires, two characters thinking they are talking about the same thing but in fact talking about very different things with only the audience in full comprehension. You can be semantically stupid and either dip from the comic well of double meanings of words or be too literal.

Next, how does your character react to your own stupidity? Can you even be convinced of your stupidity? Don't try it with Gracie Allen, she thinks that you are the stupid one. Emily Littella can be corrected with facts and simply responds with a pleasant "never mind." Ralph Cramden can be shown evidence of his own stupidity and be sorry his latest plan failed, but his faith in the get-rich-quick way to success remains unshaken, thus ensuring more stupidity to come.

To sum up, stupidity is a many faceted personality characteristic made up of three parts, first is the source of the stupidity, second the action that results from the stupidity, and finally the attitude and reaction you have when others point out the stupidity.

This is a small article on a big topic. I wish I could work individually with you but that is not possible. My only hope now is to get you thinking about depth of character and character driven sources of thought and action. Getting in touch with this aspect of your character will go a long way toward helping you pick performance material, and toward creating a character that will make you stand out from the cookie cutter crowd.

 

 

 

Even people who did multiple characters, and had every intention of continuing to do multiple characters told me this was a good article because it made them think. That's all I can ask.

 

Multiplicity                                        Laugh‑Makers vol. 15 #5

Pardonmy skepticism, but I have the same reaction every time someone tells me they have 3 or 4 clown characters. I automatically think to myself they may have 3 or 4 costumes but I bet none of them have any real character. Sorry, that's what goes through my mind.

I also bet they are trophy creations. There are a saddening number of people out there whose goal in life is to win every makeup and costuming prize in existence. It is easy to get caught up in this massive trophy envy and spend all your time and effort creating an impressive array of looks, all the time ignoring what clowning is really all about.

Think about it in terms of the difference between modeling and acting. In modeling, the person is merely there to enhance the look of the wardrobe, while in acting the costume is chosen to enhance the character. One is a performance art, the other isn't.

It is an unfortunate truth that appearance is often considered more important than substance. In the long run, substance is more durable, more reliable and more satisfying, but in the short run it's no secret that we are a society obsessed with looks. I remember reading one music critic's opinion that if it weren't for her looks Phoebe Snow, with her incredible voice and unique style, would be a music megasuperstar. We buy cars more on styling than on performance standards. Explain the success of Baywatch in anyother terms. It even profoundly affects who we select to be our political leaders.

It is so easy, however, to buy a costume and so hard to create a character. Yes you need a costume, a good functional costume, but one that is secondary and supportive of your character. I've talked to many who have the same story. They invested in a magnificent costume and found that in their inevitable personal development the costume didn't reflect who they became. Their initial reaction is to create another character. My advice, bite the bullet, keep the one character and change the costume.

Why not split into multiple characters? I've talked with and read many knowledgeable people on the subject of character development and there is one interesting constant that comes through. It is the number 7. They all say that it takes roughly 7 years to develop a good well rounded consistent character. Lets see, with 4 clown characters at 7 years each that's ...near impossible.

One explanation I get from people with multiple clown characters is that having different characters gives them the freedom to act differently. That makes perfect sense if you buy into the restrictive definitions that force you into superficial stereotype. These strict guidelines may help First of Mays without a clue but it essentially mistakes characteristics for character. It is also provincial thinking.

I've never lost a job because I am, by makeup definition, an auguste and not a whiteface or tramp. I've lost jobs because I am a clown but that's different.

I've never felt restricted in action because I am an auguste. My character is capable of 360 degrees of action and emotion (O.K. maybe at my age I am not capable of that much action, but you know what I mean). I can be loud and boisterous and I can be shy and reserved. David Bartlett is that way in real life and Mr. Rainbow is that way in real life.

In the hospital it is appropriate to be one way in one room and the other way in another room. At 3 year old parties I am very low key, and for 6 year olds I am off the wall. For kids I am stupid, for teens and adults I am clever and glib. I've never said to myself I am an auguste so I have to react and be one particular way. I am Mr. Rainbow, a real character of depth and not a cardboard showcase, and I react appropriately to different situations. I just couldn't do my job if I accepted narrow, restrictive definitions of character.

What about tradition? I love tradition. I love history. I just don't feel bound by it. I am not into clowning as if it were a society for the preservation of an anachronism. I am not like one of those Civil War re-enactors trying to preserve an older time. I am a professional clown headed for the 21st century.

To be fair, some secondary characters like the very popular "nerd" and "nerdette" are intended to be superficial and nothing more. They are great for quick laughs and intended primarily for adults. With work, even the nerd can become a well rounded character but it is one character that works well in limited context even without any depth

My overall advice, however, is to resist the urge to split your character into many lesser pieces. Consolidate yourself into one magnificent character!

 

 

 

I've had more than one person tell me that they felt there was something wrong with the developmental exercise in question in the next article, and that they just couldn't put their finger on it until they read this article. Also, I heard from people who, as with the previous article, said they would continue to use the exercise, but it made them think carefully about it.

 

          Bio‑Hazard                                   The New Calliope vol. 15 #6

I occasionally do clown coaching sessions.  During these sessions an individual (or occasionally a small group) and I try to break through barriers and problems preventing them from developing into effective comic performers. Sometimes we discuss skills and techniques, sometimes routines, sometimes marketing, sometimes character development, sometimes philosophy, and often combinations of these. We try to identify the problems and talk over possible solutions.

One such session led to a common practice that is often misused in its application in clown education.

The lady told me that she had a real problem dealing with adults when in character. She said she didn't feel comfortable even talking to adults and that this was a big problem for her going into peoples homes and having to have any dealings with the parents and other adults during the parties.

As we talked, I asked her to describe her character. This question she was prepared for, and she went into a complete biography. Part of this biography included the age of her character, 6 years old. I asked more about this and she started talking about the research she had done to really know what the 6 year old was like. She was trying her best to be true to the age of her character.

I asked why she even picked an age. She really didn't have an answer for that other than to say that the person who originally trained her made her write out a complete character biography, including age.

I recommended one thing to her. I said "How about making your character ageless? What would that do?" She paused for a long time, looking straight ahead at nothing, but really looking into her self. She finally said, " I feel like you have lifted a boulder off my heart." The intensity and sincerity of her response caught me off guard and I made a mental note to myself to really examine this moment.

People trying to get into clowning most often turn to those who have gone before them for instruction and guidance. These instructors are really only able to teach what they themselves know, even if that knowledge is sketchy or incomplete. They often teach in the exact way that they were taught. This is how bad ideas and bad practices get perpetuated to the point of near binding common law. If an educational tool is misused once, it will more than likely be misused again and again.

The misused educational tool in this case is the writing of character biographies. It is easy to point out now that the lady should not have held on so tightly to her biography. She was trying her best to make everything she did try to fit through the narrow confines of something she wrote when she was very new and essentially clueless. This is a clear recipe for failure. I'm glad I was able to talk to her before she just quit altogether.

The writing of character biographies is a very effective theatrical tool that really doesn't apply to clowning and especially beginning clowning. Without delving too far into theatrical philosophy and jargon, here is what a character biography is used for: An actor, given a theatrical role, is absolutely tied to the script and to the director's interpretations. The actor has to reconcile, at least in his or her own mind, why their character says or does certain things. This can be taken too far also. You've heard the trite phrase "what's my motivation?" Answer, "Your paycheck!" In order to make the performance believable, sometimes the actor must create a whole past for their character leading up to the very moment that the curtain rises and the play begins. That character biography contains only the necessary material to support the motivations, feelings, words and actions that appear in the play itself. Nothing can contradict. Everything in the biography is there to support something in the script.

Now really, do new clowns need to do anything like this? What kind of character study is really needed to get you ready for Busy Bee?

As you develop, its nice to have little biographical tidbits that you create to fill a situation. To support an explanation of my red hair I created a brother Baldy. I created my hometown Sillydelphia as part of another story as a situation arose. It took years to create all the little biographical bits I have about Mr. Rainbow. These biographical bits were created out of specific need. I did not create any biography and then try to fitmyself into it. One way is liberating, the other way is constricting. Stay away from constrictive biographical features. Stay away from any constricting definitions in your clowning. Develop first, then explain.

I hope clown instructors out there stop using this theatrical tool. I can't see any real value in it for clowns. There are other good, effective theatrical tools out there that should be used and have great application to clowning. Next issue I'll describe my favorite, one I call "The Mighty Adverb."

Oh, by the way, just how old is Mr. Rainbow? I'm four, but that's four clown years and I can't tell you how old that is to you without a clown-to-plain people conversion table, and I forgot mine. Have you got one?

 

 

 

The Mighty Adverb                     The New Calliope vol. 16 #1

O.K.lets see, where was I? When last we left I had just trashed the very common exercise of writing extensive biographies for clown characters, and how that can even be detrimental to the development of new clowns. I promised a good theatrical exercise which I called "The Mighty Adverb."

Actually I don't know if this exercise has a title or not. I made a title up just for identification purposes. I was first exposed to it while rehearsing for a theatrical show I was performing at a local dinner theater. The director was a drama professor at the University of North Carolina. He had all of us go through our scripts and put an adverb beside each sentence to describe how that line was to be delivered. Doing it was a tedious chore, but the lesson learned was an important one.

I became very aware of how much vocal tone adds to communication. Vocal tone can either add meaning to the words, diminish the meaning of the words or even contradict the words. Consider the words "You are beautiful." Said lovingly; it conveys one meaning. Said laughingly diminishes it considerably, and said sarcastically contradicts the literal meaning.

Its made me realize that it is not enough to say words or lines. They must be said in some specific way to enhance and complete the intended communication. You can say something quickly, slowly, haughtily, snippily, conspiratorially, jokingly, interrogatively, plainly, sweetly, parsimoniously, loudly, seriously, demonstratively, condescendingly, hopefully, quizzically, sorrowfully, gleefully, zealously, brazenly, dumbfoundedly, exhaustively, disgustedly ...you get the point!

Another part of this exercise was that no two successive sentences could share the same adverb. This makes you aware of vocal variety. Without vocal variety, your delivery takes on a lulling sameness that tends to lose attention. Think of every bad teacher you ever slept through as epitomized by the monotone teacher character in the television show The Wonder Years. Think of bad Shakespearean productions.

Of all the theatrical exercises I've ever run across, this is the one that would do the most for developing "talking" clowns. There is hardly a skit I have ever seen that couldn't use this exercise to make its participants aware of the need for intent and vocal variety.

In observing new clowns carrying on conversations with children, most of the sentences are said using the same adverb, either kindly or sweetly. The baby doll voice especially has a tendency to do this and reduce itself to mind numbing dullness. The male equivalent is the "nice and friendly" clown droning on and on. It doesn't have to be that way. COAI Artist-In-Residence Jackie Garner uses an extremely expressive baby doll voice for her character Lolly. Her baby doll voice constantly uses inflection, not just words, to show joy and exasperation, happiness and anger, chicanery and remorse.

Becoming aware of the need for vocal intent and vocal variety is a big developmental step. The myriad of different choices are what make unique clown characters. Your character's uniqueness will show itself through how you say whatever it is you decide to say, more than the actual words you use. The same is true for how you do what you do being more important than what you decide to do. It is what you can do to make Busy Bee "your" skit, and what will make the Magic Coloring Book "your" trick!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add your content here