After my first day of clown school I tried to drop out. The instructor was provoking us in a way that made me uncomfortable – to the nervous smiley woman, ‘Don’t lead with your teeth;’ to the young hipster, ‘Go back to the meth clinic,’ and to me, ‘I don’t want to hear your witty repartee about Oscar Wilde.’
I was the only non-actor in the program and had made the mistake, as we went around the circle on the first day, of telling everyone that I was a psychoanalyst writing a book about laughter. As part of my research, I explained, I’d frequented comedy clubs and noticed how each performance, had it been delivered in a different tone of voice and context, could have been the text of a therapy session. Audience members, I told them, laughed less because a performer was funny than because they were honest. Of course that’s not how all laughter operates, but the kind of laughter I’m interested in (spontaneous outbursts) seems to function that way, and clown pushes that dynamic to its extreme – which is why I decided to enroll in clown school, and how I earned the grating nickname ‘smarty pants’.
But if I dropped out, I’d lose my tuition money. So I decided to stay, and, by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed.
There’s a knee-jerk tendency to perceive provocation as negative – like how in writing workshops participants often call for the most striking part of a work to be cut. When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up – we lose our habitual bearings, and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in. Habit protects us from anything we don’t have a set way of handling. As it’s when we’re off-guard that we’re least automatous, it’s then that we’re most likely to come up with spontaneous, uncurated responses.
It turned out the perpetually-smiling woman was sad, the hipster (who didn’t even do drugs) acted high as a way of muting the parts of his personality he was afraid we would judge, and I found it easier to hide behind my intellect than expose myself as a flawed and flailing human being. Each role, in other words, offered a form of protection: by giving off recognizable signals to indicate a character type, we accessed a kind of invisibility. We cued people to look through us to the prototypes we were referencing. When the instructor satirized those roles, he defamiliarized them so that the habitual suddenly became visible. His provocations knocked the lids off the prototypes we were hiding inside of, in a similar way to how many psychoanalysts, in the attempt to understand a person’s conflicts, begin by analyzing their defenses – what is being used as cover – before moving on to what is being covered up and why.
Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning – though in radically different ways – create a path towards the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in Nietzsche’s terms, to ‘become the one you are.’ Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott considered play ‘the gateway to the unconscious’, which he divided into two parts: the repressed unconscious that is to remain hidden and the rest of the unconscious that ‘each individual wants to get to know’ by way of ‘play’, which, ‘like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation’. In clown school, the part of the mind that psychoanalysis tries to reveal – by analyzing material brought into session, including dreams or play – is referred to as a person’s clown.
Each of us has a clown inside of us, according to Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of The Funny School of Good Acting, where I was taking my two-week, six-hours-per-day workshop. The theatrical art of clowning – commonly referred to as ‘clown’ – is radically different from the familiar images of birthday party, circus or scary clowns. Bayes’ program helps actors find their inner clown. The self-revelation that results provides access to a wellspring of playful impulses that they can then tap into during creative processes. His method stems from the French tradition developed by his former teachers Jacques Lecoq and Phillippe Gaulier – the kind of training the fictional main character of Louis CK and Zach Galifankis’ TV series Baskets seeks, and that Sascha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Roberto Begnini underwent early in their careers.
Lecoq, who began as a physiotherapist, believed ‘the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant’ – a phrase that could be applied to the unconscious. The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that had been there all along – or in Winnicott’s terms, your ‘true self’.
Various experiences affect our ability to make contact with our true self. Winnicott saw the first signs of the true self in the spontaneous gestures of an infant, which would develop if a ‘good-enough mother’ was able to affirm and accept them, or be hidden if she disapproved of or corrected them (‘It’s not mooooah, it’s Mama!’). When an infant modifies its behavior to please – a survival mechanism at base, given the infant’s dependency on the mother for basic needs – the socialized self begins to develop. The more our concerns surround survival, in fact, the more we suppress primal instincts and try to blend in – or in the extreme, play dead (like hiding amongst a pile of bodies during a mass shooting). The social equivalent to playing dead is to put forward a façade – what Winnicott termed a ‘false self’, built around manners and protocol as opposed to spontaneous expression – that flies beneath the radar in order to ensure the survival of the true self. It’s a kind of psychological slouching based on the belief that whatever stands out is dangerous: the tallest sunflower gets snipped.
The clown is different. The clown gets up before an audience and risks letting whatever is inside seep out – just as patients in psychoanalysis free associate and let their thoughts go wherever the mind takes them. While the analyst searches for the true self by way of material that reveals the unconscious, the actor in clown school seeks to discover it by way of their spontaneous expressions. These processes are similar to what philosopher Martin Heidegger termed alêtheia, or truth as unconcealment. The clearest expression I’ve heard of alêtheia came years ago, when I overheard my then three-year-old daughter, Isadora, call someone beautiful. I asked, ‘What does beautiful mean?’ Still close to her clown, she replied, ‘Beautiful means most self.’
Like a clown’s red nose, beauty reveals: ‘You know the clown is present,’ according to Bayes, ‘when you no longer see the nose.’ For clown guru Gaulier, who runs a school in Paris that actors flock to from around the globe for its famous year-long training program, beauty is ‘anyone in the grip of freedom or pleasure.’ The clown is the embodiment of this beauty in the unmediated expression of raw emotion – the mask, according to Lecoq, ‘draw[s] something from [the actor], divesting him of artifice’. The mask, in other words, unmasks.
Ten years later I asked Isadora, ‘Is it better to be beautiful or photogenic?’ She paused for a while, thought about it, then said, ‘I’d rather be beautiful, but I think you get more out of being photogenic.’ Our preoccupation with perfecting our exteriors, our profiles – which often determine what we have access to in the social world – has caused us to lose touch with our interiors.
The dominant issue bringing people into my office for psychoanalysis is the sense that, after sacrificing so much to achieve the lives they’d dreamed of, they’re unable to experience the pleasure they’d expected to accompany those ideal lives they laboured to construct. The false self may be attractive to onlookers, but it is not connected to the emotional panelboard (which the clown sticks every finger inside of without fear of getting shocked). Whereas most are encouraged to work to line up their external chips and let the internal chips fall where they may, the clown does the inverse – lines up the internal chips and lets the external chips fall where they may. The beautiful mess that results reveals the clown’s interior – and the interior of the audience members, who recognize themselves in what the clown is expressing. They mark that recognition with laughter, sometimes the only acceptable form of catharsis.
The desire for acceptance prompts people to hide whatever they imagine might be judged, their true selves and their clowns, the motley colors within. ‘It’s easier for other people,’ Bayes told us repeatedly, ‘if you’re less – that’s why we have the social contract on the subway: no eye contact, don’t take up space. I want you to be more’:
You can be less if you’re going to sell real estate, but not if you’re going to be an artist. It demands that you live hotter. I’m trying to undo socialization: stop wiggling, sit still, please behave. When someone says please behave, it means please behave less.
Behaving less supports the status quo and increases your chances of having access to the benefits that accompany belonging, which is often achieved by putting others first. Giving the mother what we know she will affirm trains us to develop a radar for what is wanted by other people, as opposed to tuning in to what is inside of us. The result is a sense of alienation from ourselves that gets transmitted to others and is often rewarded, as it keeps the wheels turning without catches or snags.
Yet things are different in the consulting room and the theater, for the person trying to access the deepest recesses of the self within a framed environment. Psychoanalysis tries to understand the forces that bend our psychic development, and to understand how those forces shape us and the choices we make. Clown, like analysis, raises our awareness of our impulses to accommodate others in the pursuit of affirmation and, by removing the social filter, pushes us to explore what might have been possible had we continued to believe that what is most beautiful is the moment we are most ourselves – even if that means being messy, vulnerable or despairing. ‘Imagine what you would be like,’ prompted Bayes, ‘if you’d never been told no.’ If we resist aligning our interiors with the social order, we create openings into which we can spontaneously grow.
But the road to growth often passes through the towns of awkwardness and shame. As we performed the given exercises, Bayes would look for what he called our ‘catch places’:
Where are your catch places? Where are the places you’re reluctant to go – when you feel you’re going there, you instinctively avoid it? How does something catch? Move it around to see if it engages, catches. It’s okay if it’s fake, it’s part of the growth.
In one of the exercises, we took turns coming onto the stage and telling the audience about something we had just seen – something so funny that the laughter as we try to recall it prevents us from being able to speak. When the laughter didn’t come naturally, Bayes would coach us on how to try to evoke it synthetically by moving the laugh sounds around – going low (ho), high (hee), shaking our bodies – because ‘body and sound travel together without filter’. The hope was that if we worked on opening ourselves up, regaining contact with our mental and physical drives, we could more easily access authentic laughter – an eruption from the unconscious – even if by way of the synthetic. Our daily morning warm-up was choreographed to help us ‘get out of ‘the body of the commuter’ and find ‘the body of curiosity, appetite’:
If you’re curious, ready and available, have an appetite for fun, it will show up. When you’re trying to work from a good idea or solution, you’re no longer listening to the world and what it has to offer you. You’re imposing something onto what could be magic.
Of course, the magic didn’t always come. ‘We feel the work,’ he told one student. ‘It’s okay to feel that the work is hard. It’s part of the process, to be in the middle of your growing, your changing.’ The job of the performer is to let go, resist having an agenda, and allow an impulse to emerge spontaneously from the body.
My catch place – what made me fall to the ground in hysterics – was when I shot a zinger at someone that crossed the boundary of the appropriate. As a child, the first ‘big word’ I learned was ‘facetious,’ which I heard repeatedly from my parents, who would snap, ‘Stop being facetious!’ Because facetious had come to mean bad, each time I made a puckish comment in clown class, I felt the imp of my irreverent childhood-self slip out – and accompanying its release was a massive discharge of the energy that had been mobilized towards holding it down in the form of uncontrollable, ecstatic laughter.
‘This work can change you,’ Bayes warned with logic very similar to what an analyst presents to a person beginning an analysis. ‘The only thing is that you don’t get to choose how you’re going to be changed. You just have to be ready for change.’
A day of clown began at Jack, a small theater in Brooklyn, in a circle: shaking out our bodies, stretching, softening our faces, mooing like cows. We’d walk around the room, accessing emotions called out by an apprentice of Bayes who’d prompt us to explore our anger, nervousness, despair. Having stirred up a range of feelings, we were instructed not to ‘tuck it away’. We were to resist exerting control over our emotions and ‘let the little one drive, the one who doesn’t know how to drive but loves to drive’ by allowing our impulses to extend into outward expression. We lined up the internal chips and let the external chips fall where they may. ‘Once you give the body the freedom,’ Bayes cautioned, ‘it’s reluctant to be put back in the drawer’.
We performed in front of each other, and understood the vulnerability involved in trying to break into a spontaneous outburst of laughter or sing a solo about a naughty little secret. One day, particularly anxious about taking my turn, I confided in the woman beside me. ‘Just get up there,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘We’re not going to judge you.’ It is difficult, even with reassurance, to trust others, to take off your armor and set the little one free – which is why in daily life it is rare that the little one gets to peek out except in the form of parapraxes (slips of the tongue, forgetfulness, unintended actions that reveal unconscious motivations).
Often, in the midst of the attempt to laugh, a performer burst into tears. ‘The wah wah is attached to the ha ha,’ Bayes told one person this happened to. ‘Crying is just laughing larger.’ He then instructed him to walk upstage, stand ‘in the zone of the pathetic,’ raise his arms, look above the heads of the audience members and wail, ‘Pick me up!’ As the actor sobbed, we in the audience burst into laughter, tears, or a combination of both.
We invariably laughed when a performer cried, yet in a profoundly empathic way. ‘The clown gets all up in your humanity,’ Bayes told us, encouraging the expression of all emotions without prioritizing the more comfortable ones. When the actor tried to compose himself, Bayes admonished, ‘Don’t wipe it ‘til it’s done!’ He flipped what would be shameful in an ordinary social interaction into inspiration: ‘Get all up in your humanity and celebrate your courage and audacity, your elastic connection to emotion, and we’ll envy your ability to do that. We’ll want to be you.’ It’s not the content of what you bring onto the stage that has an effect, but ‘your reaction, relationship, to what you bring that the audience connects to – we crave an authentic conversation.’
Communication that originates in the true self, according to Winnicott, feels ‘real’, whereas communication from the false self does not. A similar distinction exists in the way a performer connects with the audience and the audience, in turn, with the performer. If a performer’s expressions feel real, or honest, the audience senses ‘an authentic conversation’, connects, and marks that connection with laughter. If not, there’s silence. The way others receive you is communicated simply and quickly in clown. As the performer, you want the laughter and fear the silence, but are made to explore both – if you value one over the other, go after the laughter and avoid the silence (or pretend it isn’t happening), you, in Bayes’ terms, ‘lead with your desperation’:
If you’re honest in the moment when something isn’t working, we love you more. Acknowledge it. When it’s going well, you can celebrate that. If it’s going badly and you admit that, you’re alive. If you pretend it’s okay when we know it isn’t, we hate you a little bit. If you’re bad and you admit it, we love you again. Like a shark, you have to keep moving.
In order to keep moving, you need to be fully present, take in what is before you, as opposed to trying to force the world to conform to your hopes, expectations or desires. This advice applies regardless of the position you occupy, whether artist, instructor, analysand or analyst.
The late psychoanalyst W.H. Bion advised analysts to approach each session without ‘memory, desire or understanding’. As the patient free associates and puts into words the leaps their mind takes, the analyst takes in the patient’s trail of thought through an equally unguided thought process. By not always linking back to previous comments as though there were a fixed self, desiring a certain outcome or matching individual experiences up to meta-psychological theories, the analyst gives the analysand room to grow and change in whatever direction they’re headed. Similarly, when you take the stage, you’re not supposed to use something that worked in the past, or want to make the audience laugh, or have an idea of what you’re going to do. You have to ‘soften your brain’, Bayes told us, perform without an agenda, at ‘the speed of fun, faster than your worry, louder than your critic’, and trust whatever gets dislodged. ‘By not planning, you train yourself to listen.’ Bayes explained:
When you wonder, how do I make them do something, affect the audience, you disconnect from the source. Your good ideas will kill you because they’re attached to your ego. Don’t present ego material, it’s not funny. Let it not be so precious whether you succeed or fail.
‘Ego material’ doesn’t always prove fruitful in psychoanalysis either. Pursuing something that erupts from the unconscious – such as spontaneous laughter or a slip of the tongue or the transference (expectations and emotions that get transferred onto the analyst) – is far more likely to lead to insight. Connection occurs between two people not simply when they communicate ego to ego, but unconscious to unconscious – and the form that connection takes varies depending on the context. Unconscious communication is marked by laughter in clown and emotion in psychoanalysis. Sometimes an analysand will cry, but have no idea why they are crying – just as we are sometimes overcome by a fit of laughter that has no clear trigger. These moments are meaningful even if they cannot be logically explained. The true self is not something circumscribed, but an emotional wellspring you tap into. You know you are close to it when you feel, are brought, in Lecoq’s terms, ‘into contact with the essence of life, which I call the universal poetic sense’.
It is difficult to resist the urge to play it safe, play the part you imagine the other person will find interesting or entertaining, despite the fact that in doing so you hem yourself into a ready-made position – even Isadora, who once divided her peers into the categories of store-bought or home-made, intuitively recognized at a young age the sad fate of the store-bought. ‘The middle is boring,’ Bayes asserted, ‘there’s nothing to be found there, the socialized mask that is desperate to convince the world you’re fine. That’s what everybody does. We don’t want to reflect that back to the world unless we are shining a light on it.’ One of the actors in clown school had the nervous tendency to say, ‘It’s cool’, when he was flailing and we would boo because we knew he was being disingenuous. It’s devastating to flop, and when someone pretends everything is fine when we know it isn’t, we disconnect. Another actor, by contrast, began to sob and berate herself in face of the audience’s silence, sparking the audience to laugh uproariously. ‘We love her when she despairs because we understand her,’ explained Bayes. ‘We have our own version of that.’
Risking failure brings with it the possibility of growth and change, which is its own kind of hazard when you don’t get to decide how you’re going to be changed. At the same time, Bayes told us, ‘If you have a clear idea of the path you want to follow, you’re just going to live in the part of your talent that you like and that you have confidence in. There is no surprise there.’ You will slowly morph into a prototype, even if it’s self-fashioned – like poets who receive recognition and then imitate their own work to maintain their standing.
In clown school, Bayes kept describing the moment when the audience felt moved by the clown on stage as ‘poetry’ which, because I’m a poet, caught my attention. I thought of the poet J.S. Prynne, who, after listening to a poetry reading, described the poems read as ‘written by a poet’, which he ‘could do without’. Like Bayes’ recommendation that the actor, ‘like a shark, keep moving’, Prynne explained that he wanted ‘a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself.’
A new set of possibilities can unsettle the poetic order, as it can the social – as when a poem doesn’t look like a poem, which most often results in its not being published. Most poets struggle with this split between the true-self urge to, as Sylvia Plath described in a notebook, ‘grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to my own gnomes and demons’ and the false-self desire for approval, to catch what she termed ‘New Yorker fever, as if I could by main force and study weld my sensibility into some kind of articulateness which would be publishable.’ (I certainly know the feeling). Yet in lining up the external poetic chips into publishable ‘articulateness’ rather than ‘indwelling,’ you face the danger of writing what Derek Walcott termed ‘a fake poem’. Still, many yearn for the status public recognition brings even as they recognize the possible falsity involved, as Theodore Roethke quipped in a notebook, ‘We all long to create a great dreary masterpiece that everyone will have to pretend to read.’
The fake poem, like the performance or session you enter into with the goal of manipulating the response, will not lead to an authentic conversation with your audience or your self. The cost involved in not playing true to your gnomes and demons – your clown or true self – is, for some, too high. To live by formula, according to Emily Dickinson, leads to feeling closeted:
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me ‘still’ –
Here, the equivalent to staying still is to write in prose, which restricts one to the sentence, described by Roland Barthes as ‘hierarchical: it implies subjections, subordinations, internal reactions’. To write in poetry is to write ‘outside the sentence, to take pleasure in the text, which Barthes says, ‘is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father’. Political resistance, poetry, self-revelation spring from that provocative, impish drive to burst free from external constraints – like my facetious zingers or an outburst of laughter. It’s fitting that at the end of Dickinson’s poem the mark of the speaker’s resistance, her psychological break from ‘captivity’, is to ‘laugh’.
The defining element of poetry – whether on the page, in the theater or in life – may very well be the transformative feeling it creates in its recipient, that universal poetic sense of having been brought into contact with the essence of life. ‘So far, about morals,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway, ‘I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.’ Perhaps Hemingway’s thinking can be extrapolated to poetry – regardless of expectations surrounding its form, what is poetry, at base, is what you feel moved after, which is another way of saying when another unconscious has made contact with your unconscious, when your true self has been stirred. Often what moves us is beauty, that feeling that crops up when we are at play, in the grip of freedom or pleasure, most self – but can just as easily be expressed through messier emotions, such as rage, repulsion or despair. For an authentic conversation to take place, you have to be willing to follow whatever comes up in whatever form – the free associative path your mind takes – so long as it is accurate and honest.
In clown class, we were only allowed to put on our red noses in the wings before taking the stage. The nose is a mask that allows the actor, in Lecoq’s terms, ‘not to play themselves, but to play using themselves’ – much as a poet does in writing out of the voice of a speaker, an analyst in using themselves as an instrument, and an analysand in reflecting on their experiences within the frame of the session, which like any performance has set parameters that signal a transition out of lived life and into the symbolic.
As the course progressed, I began to see the necessity of these parameters everywhere – and nowhere more starkly than in the field of politics. Donald Trump, for instance, has been referred to repeatedly as a clown (he even features as one on the cover of this week’s New Yorker) – but he is a clown who does not clearly step out of reality and into the show. He is a fake clown – what actor and writer Mary-Louise Parker described as ‘the opposite of all things clown’. Rather than revealing his humanity, Trump, ‘is always trying to pass off one emotion as another . . . plays indifference when obviously enraged, which is like playground sarcasm . . . sells you steadfast when at his most unsteady, which makes him transparently insecure.’ She couldn’t connect to him ‘even if he were the greatest leader on earth’, because ‘at his core, he’s just a terrible actor’:
Terrible actors always telegraph, always have to indicate because they can never fully inhabit. They never own it to the point to where you can’t separate them from the moment, it’s always hanging off of them a little, like an ornament. The really tragic thing about mediocre acting, for me, is that shitty actors are routinely convincing to most. They have a big audience on their side because they play to what that majority asks for and those people are so happy to see it. Too happy.
Trump reveals the reality he would like to construct – which coincides with the way many would like the external chips to be lined up – but not the honest expression that gets at a universal poetic truth and moves the audience. When self-interest is passed-off as self-revelation, we sense the presence of something store-bought – we can see the role hanging off of him, can smell the packaging.
This terrible acting, however, is nothing new in the methodology of American politics. Journalist Ron Suskind recorded an exchange he had with an aide to President George W. Bush in 2002 that depicts this same grafting of a false reality onto the world:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
History’s actors, like bad actors, create realities from the outside in. Clown is closer to the project of late night comedians, who, rather than imposing a fake reality onto the one before them, pursue truth as unconcealment. Humor, as John Lennon explained, has the power to disarm:
When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.
We know how to handle prototypes, but not the provocations that jolt us out of them. For Winnicott, creativity, aliveness and feeling real – the hallmarks of a healthy individual – are accessed through play. By behaving spontaneously, in line with our instincts, we have the potential to provoke ourselves – and others – into possibility, whether personal, poetic or political.
It’s subversive not to hide behind a prototype, to take up space, to resist behaving for the comfort of others. To act according to instinct. After clown school was over, I found it difficult to engage in a number of social interactions – I had, it turned out, a range of prototypes for different situations, and straying from those given roles proved disruptive. When I expressed myself spontaneously, stepped outside of established social scripts, other people became uneasy, thrown off – and destabilizing someone, as I discovered from my own reaction on the first day of clown school, is perceived as a provocation, aggressive. To utilize all I learned those two weeks at Jack’s and tolerate the fallout would require great inner strength. It is difficult to give up the social tokens you receive for staying in line, but perhaps more difficult, once your freedom and pleasure have been unleashed, to put them back in the drawer. To engage in anything that mitigates your sense of aliveness is too great a sacrifice, even after factoring in the cost of not taking up an assigned position. Learning to prioritize the arrangement of my internal chips changed my relationships, my poetry, the way I work as an analyst and, perhaps, most crucially, how I approach the world – now I try to listen to what it has to offer, rather than immediately wanting it to conform to my expectations, ideas or desires. And letting-be, it turns out, is a rigorous self-gathering.
For the sake of privacy, some details in this piece have been changed
Image © Ethel Franklin Betts