Clowning and Human Evolution

From Spymonkey to Actual Monkeys

I did a clowning course with Spymonkey in September and I am still absorbing the week (it was great, go and do it). My main note was to show my pleasure more, which is not surprising to me. I used to be really shy, and I still get shy in large groups sometimes. Performing standup and improv helped me to change that a lot, but it was not my habit to show emotions freely. So it was a big lesson to learn that when I started and I’m still working on it. I used to find the idea of showing emotions on stage terrifying, and it can still be intimidating but overall I’m grateful I get the chance to practice it and do something that I love. It’s really useful for characters and its fun to explore that on stage.

Showing my pleasure. That made me think about people I have seen sharing their pleasure. All the great teachers I have had, at school and later, all the best speakers and performers- they all obviously love what they are doing and love to share it. It’s a good path to follow.

"Show my what now?" Credit: Jon

“Show my what now?”
Credit: Jon

What does this have to do with human evolution?

I read an article in Scientific American Mind (Vol 25, No.5) called Let’s Talk, that made me think about how performances work. It’s about the common rules of languages across the world and what they tell us about human communication.

One difference between human and animal communications is that animals rarely require a response. For example, if a chimp shouts an alarm call it doesn’t expect another chimp to reply, but a lot of our communication directly requests a response. “Hello, how are you?”. If you don’t get a response you get confused or annoyed at the other person for ignoring you.

Comedy is a really elegant example of that rule. If nobody laughs then it’s not funny. Animals don’t tell jokes to each other. A sparrow has never chuckled out an amusing trill and then peered at his mates to see if they laugh at it. Humans are constantly firing out communications and expecting responses.

But I think sadly a lot of communication is mixed up in real life. Not a lot of our cultural dialogue is about vulnerability and honesty so we learn to close it off. People drop hints and talk sideways then get surprised when nobody understands. Then we go to the movies or a theatre to see raw honesty played out in front of us. That’s back-to-front way of doing things.

So in my humble opinion, combining the teachings of Spymonkey and current linguistic evaluations of the true nature of human communications, I deduce that showing pleasure is a really pure form of communication.  It’s saying “I am enjoying this,” and inviting the audience to come along for the ride. It’s weird and its humbling to do something that is essentially asking people to accept and trust you, as you are. It’s not always comfortable but it is always effective.

And it is really the only reason that I do improv, because I love doing it. So that’s my pleasure.

What’s your pleasure?

PS

(I also love story-telling so check out my Epic Tales workshop this Wednesday in London. Only £5 for a taste of my secrets. Full details here.)

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You Matter

I watched a video on YouTube by Eric Thomas, the hip-hop preacher.

He said something unusual. To paraphrase, he said:

“You matter. I’m saying that because some of you may never have heard that.”

It’s strange that people don’t say that more often. I know people like to say it with actions, but there is something powerful about hearing that raw phrase, ‘You matter’. There are two things that strike me about this, the power of the obvious and the power of the hidden.

The Obvious

This is something I have learned. People avoid being direct and obvious, so playing a character that is obvious is very unusual and almost always very funny or very touching. Usually it can be both.

Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. His reaction to everything is to freak out, you know he is going to freak out and yet it’s still funny. Him trying to hide things from Sybil is also funny because you know that she will find out. I think that series plays the with tension of hiding and revealing excellently. His well-known interaction with German guests is a great example of the power of the obvious. He says exactly what he’s doesn’t want to say and winds himself up into a ridiculous frenzy. Imagine that scene where he says nothing and maybe just made jokes outside their earshot. Absolutely no drama.

Credit: Michael Dorausch CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Michael Dorausch
CC BY-SA 2.0

The Hidden

It’s hard in the beginning to play characters that hide what they want, because often people don’t pick up on it. I think you need to work with other improvisers for a while to learn how to read each other. It’s not impossible though, its very close to how we live. Hiding what we want from ourselves or others.

You could try this experiment, stand in front of a mirror and say to yourself “You matter.” Then see how you feel about that. Is it weird and uncomfortable? Is that because you don’t often tell yourself that you matter?

If you aren’t positively acknowledging yourself, then what are the hidden things you say to yourself instead?

In Conclusion

Watching random videos on Youtube is a great way to find new inspirations. Why was I listening to a hip-hop preacher? That doesn’t matter. What matters is taking something fascinating away from it.

More importantly: You matter. Just because you might not say that to yourself or hear it a lot doesn’t make it less true. Especially in a creative field like improvising drama and comedy, your voice matters.


Seagulls: Immersion and Awareness

Source: Adam Clarke: Flickr

Source: Adam Clarke: Flickr

I am temping in Westminster at the moment, on the 5th  floor so I can see out over the chimneys and aerials. I was looking out the window this lunchtime and I saw a seagull waddling down a grey slate roof. I wondered what it’s like to be a seagull.

Specifically I wondered what it is like to be a seagull on the Thames, bobbing about in the cold water, then wheeling up into the air and swooping down onto the geometric coral of the Westminster rooftops. The roofs of Westminster are a desert, with gulleys that harbour bin-bags of occasional delight for a scavenger.

That is a pretty interesting transition.

When I look out, I see a distraction from the mundanity of a quiet afternoon, perhaps the seagull sees respite from the struggle for food. Does a seagull wheeling down onto a rooftop feel like a worker heading into the tea-room for a sit down?

Life is filled with boundaries and transitions.

In daily life we often go through these boundaries without noticing. The rush hour is a different place than my bedroom at night, but I rarely pay attention to how my state changes during the day.

It’s easy to miss this on stage as well. If you are having to create your environment as you go then you can’t completely be influenced by it. But you can be more aware of how you are affected, and then use that to find more nuance on stage. I think next time I get to play a bird I will notice the difference between being on land or in a tree. I think it’s more dangerous to be on the floor as a bird. I will feel safer in the trees as a bird.

I also think playing games around this in rehearsal is a good way to open up that nuance in performance. If you can play at being a deer in the woods and the same deer crossing a road you can see that a deer isn’t just a deer. A wolf in its pack is different from a lone wolf.

You might want to notice these moments over the next few days. How does your posture change when you go through these boundaries? For example coming in your front door, or getting on a packed or empty carriage. What expands in you when you move into a different environment and what contracts?

There is a lot of creative fuel to be found in the quietest moment of opening a window and hearing traffic.


Freedom in Improv: Seeking the Unknown

Freedom

Source: Flickr/ izarbeltza

I just read a great article by Arthur J. Deikman, about how to find personal freedom.

http://www.deikman.com/personal.html

It resonated with me a lot, especially when I think of improv. When I started, without knowing it I was secretly asking for approval from the audience when I performed. The laughter or applause was the impetus to keep going. I realised that a couple of years ago, and it was very freeing to move past that stage.

 

We all have a steering wheel inside us. When I was hoping for a teacher to tell me how good I was, or an audience to encourage me I was letting go of the wheel and hoping somebody else would start driving for me. Then I wondered why it all felt so terrifying and out of control. Because my hands were off the wheel.

When I started experimenting and doing what interested me, suddenly I became much more confident. It was like I grabbed the wheel and started driving to interesting landmarks that caught my eye. I was no longer a passenger, I was an explorer.Of course I falter and fall back into old habits sometimes, but it’s really nobody’s job but mine to grab ahold of the wheel again.

Now when people appreciate my performance, it feels much more equal. They are jumping into the car for a while to come along for the ride, but I am choosing what sights we are going to see. And when I watch others I can relax and let them take me places. No need to be a back-seat driver.

What I realised is that it is supposed to feel strange and challenging when you do something completely new. I’m allowed to explore and make mistakes along the way just like everyone else. Trying to create a feeling of supreme confidence before I start experimenting is doing things the wrong way round. That’s like trying to draw a map before you’ve explored the territory. If you really want to grow and find something new about yourself you have to go where there aren’t any maps.

From the article above:

“Dependency kills us, for it is the unknown that gives us life. The unknown flowers when we are receptive to it, allowing it to enter. The unknown carries us to the constantly forming edge of the world where light, beauty, and ecstacy are found. There is no other path to the spiritual, to the creative, to reality.”

Check out my storytelling workshop coming up next week if you want to find more freedom in your work.


Finding Your Voice

Alan Watts says many useful things. Finding your voice is very important in many fields, especially in a collaborative art form like improv. I think if you are trying to find your voice its worth looking in the right place.

If you are looking back on what you have already done, then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place. If you are comparing yourself with others then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place.

Maybe you need to listen more and talk less about your ‘self’. You don’t need to tell others what you are like, or repeat to yourself old images of yourself. You can just explore and react. Water running down a hill finds out the shape of the hill by fitting to its terrain. You can find out about yourself by observing how you react to your terrain. You need to listen to yourself before you can listen to others.


Who, What, Where (is Cookie Monster)?

Look at this:

 

I will now submit this adorable clip to Serious Analysis.

I think you can learn a lot about performing and improvising from kids, not because of some mystical inner-kid type emulation, but because they are generally unguarded so you get to see the essence of human interaction.

This is a scene with clearly defined Who, What, Where, without any dialogue setting it up. Kermit is a Kid’s educator trying to sing the alphabet and Joey is a kid who loves Kermit and it trying to play with him by teasing him. They both have character agendas that involve the other character, and they keep accepting offers whilst still trying to get what they want.

Of course Joey can sing the alphabet! She also can’t help waving her arms and joining in with the song, but she’s still going to chuckle out ‘Cookie Monster’ to get Kermit’s attention.  Kermit doesn’t tell her to stop, but he stares quizzically at her every time, making her giggle even more. That’s a classic straight man role, check out Ronnie Corbett in the ‘Four Candles’ sketch for a similar act. The whole scene is a kind of scene that you can improvise.

I think these old clips on Youtube show that the kids are better improvisers than the puppets. They go along with any random request the puppet makes, with earnest enthusiasm. Check out Brian helping Grover. The kids are just enjoying the interaction. The puppets look a bit dry in comparison sometimes, they have an exercise to do and they are just getting the kid to go through it with them. Of course  there is a guy moving that puppet trying to make a show and thinking about time, but when you create a character in an improv scene you don’t need to worry about any of that. You can play the guy who has a cast-iron agenda and won’t budge, but you don’t have to.

The puppets are at a disadvantage because the guy working them can’t really watch the kid to see what they are doing. The kids eyes are like laser-sights on the puppets, if the puppets had real faces those kids would pick up every nuance and offer. Why do we stop attending to other people’s faces? (Because it’s impolite to stare).

The kids can play and listen at the same time, because playing and listening are the same thing. If you aren’t paying close attention to your partner then you aren’t really playing with them, and if you are thinking about other stuff then you aren’t playing close attention to your partner. Trying to look good or telling yourself you are rubbish are thinking about other things. Trying to get your partner to play along with your brilliant idea is thinking about other things. Standing on the side wondering if you just fucked up that edit is thinking about other things.

 

Headings Break Up the Text!

Looking at how kids improvise is really useful, because I have seen similar scenes to the one with Kermit and Joey that just didn’t work, I’ve been in similar scenes that didn’t work. You can imagine a scene where the kid just mucks around and the puppet character is getting annoyed and telling them to stop and the scene just feels muggy and doesn’t really click. But all it takes is one kid, one honest and attentive player and any scene can work.

The most useful bit is right at the end. She tells him she loves him, and it’s just a genuine gift to him. I don’t think she’s doing it to get a response back, she just wants to make sure he’s not upset. When she says “Oh thanks!” to his reply it’s just a genuine response to an unexpected gift, like a co-worker giving you twix at work they got from the vending machine. She just gave him an offer, that he responded was really cool. That’s a really solid attitude to have in a scene. It’s raw affection, that’s what people notice when they talk about people working really well together, they are noticing that those people really like playing with each other. It’s pure good will.

Also it’s interesting that the most useful bit is the most beautiful bit. The most useful thing your partner is doing is the most beautiful thing they are doing. Being useful in a scene is just giving offers and reactions freely. It’s playing. And because you see it in kids all the time I don’t think it’s something I’m learning I’m just remembering.

The more I practice dropping my agendas and paying attention to the other people around me, the more joyful my life becomes, never-mind my improv. As I have practiced this it has become more of a habit, and the more I develop this habit of being true to myself the more I feel like myself. It’s witchery of some sort, I can’t explain it! Oh no, it’s just being alive.

Can you improvise inner Luke-child? Yes. Yes I could.


Beyond Talent: Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster JenkinsI’m keen to introduce you to the life and work of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), an amateur opera singer whose career transcended the limitations of that most mundane and stifling of personal qualities: talent.

Her cracked tones and dire prosody were hilarious enough to give her significant public success, culminating in a sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall a few weeks before her death. As long as people were eager to hear her, it was her joy to sing for them. Her commitment and bravery make the question of whether or not she was deluded irrelevant. She’s a hero of mine.

To her critics, she was said to have retorted: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Take it away, F.F.J.:

Let us celebrate Florence Foster Jenkins, but as we do so, let us not forget her loyal accompanist, the undoubtedly talented Cosmé McMoon, who supported her throughout the years, playing along for her benefit and for ours.