Bouffon In Belfast

October 2016

Ever since the mid-seventies I have been involved on the fringes of clowning - more hippy circus and festival walkabout than traditional children’s party entertainment. As a performer I personally favour a low-status, ever-curious, faux-innocent Auguste, but I’m no purist - I loved Heath Ledger’s malevolent Joker in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight. In my time I have occasionally organised little ensembles and run workshops sharing what I know. I have long been fascinated by the 18th century origins of Joseph Grimaldi’s ‘Joey’ - ‘part child, part nightmare’ and the complexity of Baptiste Deburau’s Pierrot as portrayed in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis. So when fellow comedy tutor Pat Welsh rings me with details of a short-notice available space on a Philippe Gaulier workshop in Belfast, I am more than interested - I’m in! That said, all I really know about Philippe Gaulier is that he’s a celebrated master clown who runs very unconventional workshops.

I spend the next 12 hours first confirming my place on what turns out to be “A Philippe Gaulier Bouffon Masterclass” and then, with far more difficulty, booking a flight from Heathrow to Belfast and finding some digs close to the venue. That doesn’t happen. So finally I organise to arrive (from Gatwick) on the preceding night and arrange to meet up with Pat and maybe others, for a meal in a hotel in the city centre where I’ve booked to stay for the night.

For me such an itinerary is all very grown up. So it starts to unravel before you can say 'Easy-Jet regrets to announce'. Easy-bleedin-jet owe me twelve hours of my life. Due to being bumped off the flight. So that, adjusted to baggage restrictions, I arrive sleepless in Belfast. And then, wearing my baggy clown gear over two layers of clothing, I take an early morning two mile stroll from the Airport coach station to the venue!

The Master

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In a church hall in Protestant East Belfast I meet Philippe Gaulier. I find him gentle and courteous. In our brief conversation we manage to talk of theatre and revolution. I discover to my surprise, he is 73, only two years older than me to the day. “We are of that generation” He says, fully aware that I know what he means. He still looks the part - dressed in faded denims, long hair and a full beard albeit frizzy and grey, with a large black beret perched on top - very Paris May’68.

He is also, hunched, overweight and slow-moving and has the weak crackly voice of someone who packed up smoking only very recently. During the workshop, he is frequently coughing and clearing his throat. His own unwise decision to wear a lapel mic rather than use a microphone on a boom stand, results in an unavoidable distorted amplification of everything he emits; from his amusing scoffs of derision and caustic comments, to his vocal rasps and splutters, but also, more disturbingly, an ominous death rattle. In the spirit of his own comic analogies; I’d say he sounds like an asthmatic French Dalek impersonating Janis Joplin.

Day 1. Masterclass

I soon realise that by joining a Philippe Gaulier Bouffon Masterclass I was signing-up for temporary membership of a 35 strong troupe of eager acolytes run by a cantankerous boss clown with a heavily ironic sense of humour.

From the first moments of the introductory exercise, the love and respect for the Master is clear; all believe that his unconventional methods will get results. He has little patience with those who dawdle, fail to answer questions correctly or who over-contribute. Oddly, both Master and acolytes very quickly fall into what appears to be a time-wasting yet enjoyable reverie of dealing with mistakes, disputes and minor transgressions. Regulars, who are au-fait with the regime of playful self-denouncement and denouncement of others, are quickly ahead of the game, so the Master stops proceedings and explains. His assistant Michiko, who sits by his side, and is also his wife and clearly a tutor in her own right, repeats essential details for the slow ones. (I am half asleep and quietly grateful for her intervention). Most mistakes, I learn, deserve punishment; punishment can be immediately avoided by requesting a kiss or kisses (1, 2 or 5 depending on the seriousness of the transgression) from others in the group and then publicly kissing or exchanging kisses with them (mostly on the cheek, platonic and friendly). Any procedural mistakes in the ‘kissing’ sees the whole group noisily pointing out the mistake, and with the culprit denouncing themselves. This in turn spurs the Master into action; he stands up, delighted at the prospect of dishing out punishment - It’s nearly always the same, apart from a few improvised extras: - He locks the arm of the miscreant in a Half Nelson, bends them over and while giggling to himself and muttering abuse, he then slaps the palm of their open hand. Finally he manically repeats the word “Guantanamo" while seeming to twist their thumb in mock torture. Some of the ‘victims’ go along with this charade and cower and scream in agony.

Unscheduled versions of these scenarios - The kissing, the denouncements and further faux-sadistic Boss clown performances will take place frequently and arbitrarily throughout the five days of the workshop.

Double Zero

Late in the morning of the first day I fall foul of his scorn. Having failed to understand the parameters of an exercise and watched his one-word dismissal - 'Next! Rubbish! Moron!' - of several people before me, I adopt clown mode. I lean forward with a blank expression and deliberately fail to understand.

“Is he an Idiot?” The Master asks his acolytes.

When I respond by acting ‘affronted’. He tells me to stop moving about. When I then respond by acting “rejected’. He answers his own question. “An Idiot!”

Soon after I am dismissed and given a ‘double zero’ for my efforts. Double zero is the most common mark awarded in a Bouffon Masterclass. I don’t suppose I would have fared any better had I politely ask him to repeat the exercise. Nonetheless I had experienced at first-hand what I later understand to be "the 'Via Negativa' - negative way - approach to teaching".

From then on I am attentive and listen to every word the Master says. So something had worked.

The script

At some point in the afternoon of day one, we are breaking up into groups and putting on the rudiments of Bouffon costumes when ‘the script’ is mentioned.

The script had been distributed to participants on acceptance of joining the workshop. At the time, it was made clear that we didn’t have to learn it but merely ‘familiarise ourselves’ with it’ which suits me perfectly. The Master is clearly having none of this and shrugs off any excuses offered for not knowing ‘The script’.

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It is soon apparent that hardly anyone has done their homework and eventually he concedes that those who are ‘strangers to the script’ can ‘sing or recite’ something they know. I edge my way near to the front of the Bouffon ensemble - a group of limbless, hobbling, hunchbacks with blacked out teeth. After a poorly received ballad and an even more brusquely dealt-with Shakespeare recitation, I step forward and take the option to sing. Having already removed my false teeth (for added effect) I give a hearty, if lisping, rendition of Leadbelly’s blues waltz ‘Goodnight Irene.’ Philippe, less harsh than previously, stops me abruptly after I’ve sung the first verse and chorus and tells me again that I must stop moving about so much. Then he tells me to learn the script and shouts “Next!”

‘Via Negativa’

Philippe, responds to one student, whose performance he appears unhappy with, by asking if they work as a pharmacist. When they say “No.” He suggests that their parents may have been pharmacists. When they repeat “No”. He explains that in France, provincial pharmacists are some of the most boring people you could meet. He then continues in tetchy and unforgiving mode, interrupting people’s efforts after only a few words by asking about their relationship to pharmacy. He later poses a similar comedic set-up around the scenario of dull rural hunters in France who have nothing better to do than wait in the forest with their loaded rifles and shoot migrating birds. He then makes the analogy with the bird not paying attention and getting itself shot or the dullard hunter with nothing better to do than shoot birds; The last student that suffers from a variation of this analogy is told:

“I would rather be shot in the head than listen to any more of this.”

Such deliberately larky and ungracious honesty is, of course, a further example of ‘Via Negativa’. Then, just as I think that no one is exempt from the ritual abuse and embarrassment, a student (who I learn later is a leading acolyte) gets it right.- He recites a sequence from the script and is not dismissed. Unlike the chorus who are ushered ‘off stage’. The mood of the workshop changes. The Master starts to direct; barking out instructions: “Again!” “Again! Louder!” “Much Slower!”

He watches and listens intently to his actor. He demands make-up and items of costume be added. People assume tasks and rush about doing as they are bid. The direction continues. In the space of ten maybe fifteen minutes, sections of the little vignette are worked on and run through, the Master insisting that both pain and humour are expressed. It gets better and better. Until, finally it is performed to perfection. The whole room knows it and we all of us applaud.

“Yes…” cackles Philippe when the applause dies down.

“…that wasn’t so bad!”

Clown and Bouffon

Although I like the script and love watching it come alive, I have reservations about the blunt style of directing, I am also confused about what theatrical discipline we are now operating in. One thing is for sure, Bouffon, as directed by Philippe Gaulier, is about acting and has little to do with Clown or clowning.

That evening, with the help of Gemma the gig organiser and Pat Welsh on Keyboards, I secure perfect local digs online via Air b n b - a room in a comfortable modern flat with Wi-Fi and a coffee machine. It comes with a bizarre bonus - on the street where I now live, there is 400 years of Loyalist history told in gigantic murals across every inch of available wall-space.

Also online I learn that Philippe Gaulier, was first a student of, and then a fellow tutor with, celebrated mime artist and physical theatre exponent Jacques Lecoq. By the time of his mentor’s death in 1999, Gaulier had long ago opened his own school with an extended theatrical curriculum including everything from Tragedy to Farce and particularly Clown and Bouffon, He was also continuing to teach in Lecoq’s controversial ‘Via Negativa’ style which he had made his own.

Philippe Gaulier according to Wikipedia has updated and popularised our understanding of Bouffon. Originally, the story goes, in rural Renaissance France the Ugly people - the deformed and the disfigured, were banished to the Swamps and only allowed out at the time of festivals when they were expected to entertain the rich and beautiful. The Bouffon according to Gaulier seized these opportunities to insult, disgust and attack their ‘betters’.

‘Theoretically, the ideal performance for a Bouffon would be one in which the audience was wildly entertained, went home, realized that their lives were meaningless and committed suicide.’

‘Banished to the swamps!’ Is this, I wonder, why we are so frequently being dismissed and our efforts rejected?

That night Pat and I make an effort to learn ‘The script’. He can soon rattle off a few chunks. Me? I can barely recite the first sentence.

Day 2. The Slow Learner

This morning a late-comer has to kiss 20 people. Each time they manage to get a promise of a kiss from 17 or 18, there is a playful collusion to say “No!” or “Of course!” Which also means ‘No’. Only “Yes!” means ‘Yes!’ So they have to start again. After three times the Master steps in and administers punishment. Then someone who denounced someone else for moving their arms when we were all supposed to be standing still, is in turn asked by the Master “Do you know my sister Claudine?” “She is a very boring woman.” “Claudine is married to a pharmacist.” The student playfully denounces herself for having possibly met the Master’s sister on a trip to France, and ends up bent over having her thumb twisted. Further confirmation that the whole daft game, is geared to find victims to service the Master’s comedic sadism.

Later, after a fairly long and competitive session participating in playground games like Skipping, Cat and Grandmother’s footsteps, we perform solo pieces Bouffon style. The Master revealingly explains that he wants to see the same intensity and focus that we had displayed when playing a game of tag.

When it’s my turn, I am encouraged to parody a preacher by shouting religious abuse. I throw myself into it, ridiculing one of the orators I am familiar with from Speakers’ Corner. I am soon stopped and told (not for the first time) to "stop moving about so much''. When I do it yet again, My master calls me "An idiot!" and I subsequently have to choose two women from the group who I fancy. I choose two who I reckon will be the least embarrassed. They are then detailed to stand either side of me, each firmly holding my hand. Then, when I start ranting, they are ordered to hit me if I so much as move anything other than my lips. After they have each slapped and thumped me a few times I start to learn the concept of ‘stillness'.


Underneath

On the night of day 2, several of us take the advice of gig organiser Gemma and see a show at the Black Box. ‘Underneath’ is a stunning solo theatre piece written and performed by Irish actor Pat Kinevane - a story told by a rotting corpse first seen emerging from the grave - a woman grossly deformed in childhood and who spends her life cowering in the shadows; but who is now brazen and shameless. Kinevane is an accomplished story-teller capable of expressing both pathos and humour. What we have experienced is a highly pertinent companion piece to Bouffon theatre - a dignified testament to all those outcasts living in virtual isolation on the fringes.

Having clearly and quite literally got off on the wrong foot (I did actually arrive wearing my clown boots) I am now a committed participant of a Bouffon Masterclass and not a clown workshop.

Days 3 - 5 The Bouffon prepares

Throughout the next three days we continue to play games and enjoy each other’s company, while at the same time upping the competitive ante and honing our focus. We are also stretched as improvising actors; the Master asks us to consider how we feel about racists, homophobes and bullies and more pertinently their allies and apologists in the institutions of society: the Church, the Law and Government; those who stir-up fear of minorities and who encourage populist demagogues and tyrants. His challenge is for us to express the odious opinions and at the same time distance ourselves from them with a convincing irony.

The Master will always stop an actor in full passionate rant, no matter how articulate they are, and tell them that he is bored. That they are merely displaying ‘militancy’ and to be militant is not good enough - a Bouffon actor playing a grotesque must be seen to express an inner beauty, but most importantly they must also be funny.

He also adds a note for those us who have been told to keep still when delivering lines.“You are hiding behind all that extraneous movement.”

Irony explored

Then, while we were playing a children’s game and told “Samuel says Stop!” and just as I had thought things had become familiar. A young woman stood next to me announced to the room in all seriousness and with increasing venom.

“I want to denounce Josie! She’s A BIGOTED PROTESTANT BITCH!

There is an immediate silence. The words hang in the air. Suddenly things have become decidedly real, it’s as if the religio-political tensions expressed on the walls of the neighbouring streets have torn themselves from the brickwork and are now manifest in our midst. The two women stare at each in silence other across the room! A little earlier, the two of them, had been at the centre of a frivolous dispute concerning pushing and shoving during a game of Grandmother’s steps. The sense of ludicrous escalation has escaped no-one. The Master breaks the silence and asks quietly how this is to be resolved.

“20 kisses” says Leonie the original protagonist denouncing herself.

It all goes quiet again as we imagine how this will pan out.

“Josie…” Says Leonie “…can I have 20 kisses please?

We all look at Josie, who remains serious and silent.

“Yes.” She says with a smirk.

Within seconds the two of them are snogging in the middle of the room. The tension, that had so instantly enveloped us dissolves immediately.

They continue to kiss. while mischievously starting to laugh. We all join in laughing, the dupes of a brilliant gag.

The Performances

Our work load increases as we grow familiar with the Master’s process. We become instant audiences and willing volunteers for costume and stage-management type duties, and we watch and learn as he selects one or other of our number, often some unlikely person who has been on the receiving end of his double-edged abuse; and is now at the centre of attention, directed at the head of an ensemble in a performance invariably both moving and hilarious. Not a day passes without me being reduced to tears by these scenarios.

On the last day the Master coaxes a fine performance from a young woman. She is effortlessly word perfect and from there becomes charming and ironic, he also nurtures in her the ability to deliver withering asides to the room.

He then reduces the number of the accompanying ensemble and concentrates as much on them as he has done on her. Before long he has them huddled together around her, echoing the spirit of the text and colluding and playing off each other encouraging a sense of group devilment. Lastly he organises them in a short coda to punctuate the denouement of her final speech.

“Giggle!”

“Cackle!”

“Louder!”

“Softer!”

“Focus on us, the audience!”

“All purse your lips to blow us a kiss, but don’t!”

“Instead you must SPIT!”

“Now you laugh!”

“Again! Louder! LOUDER!”

It is beautiful. Again I am in tears.

The actor was an actor, not a performer or a clown.

From the Swamps to the Gods

Theatrically, Bouffon has none of the specific personality traits of Clown; no childlike qualities; Bouffon are unashamedly adult; a stock character predisposed to be part of an ensemble situated in a metaphorical location of banishment and otherness. Bouffon have suffered and suffered so profoundly they have all but exhausted their humanity.

Once they have emerged from the proverbial swamps and stepped onto the stage, they exercise their only facility; to knowingly mock and parody their ‘betters’ and persecutors; and of course to delight in their own ironic honesty, monstrous appearance and hopeless predicament.

Bouffon speaks truth to power and is congenitally bound to express and give voice to the concerns of all of us bouffon - denied paradise and excluded to the cheap seats, so very happy and contented with our existence of meaningless work, endless trivia and LIES.

TA Oct 2016

Bouffon Pics and Clips