‘Comedy, shall I say, is the sparkle on the water, not the depths beneath… But note, the waters must run deep underneath.’
- Athene Seyler
(Seyler and Haggard, 2013, p. 26)
On the first day of my Clowndance summer course in July 2022, I introduced the dancers to Athene Seyler’s extraordinary book The Craft of Comedy (Seyler and Haggard, 2013). First published in 1943, it takes the form of a series of letters between Seyler, an experienced and highly regarded comic actor, and Stephen Haggard, a younger, more serious actor, keen to learn. The concepts and language Seyler uses are so fresh and contemporary feeling, and so close to how I approach comic theatre, that I’m almost outraged that I didn’t encounter her book sooner.
Seyler suggests to her reader that in order to play comedy successfully, the performer needs to be in an appropriate state, which she variously describes as comic spirit (2013, p. 25), ‘tingling with knowledge of the joke to come’ (2013, p. 51) or ‘Bubbling with Pleasure’ (2013, p. 55). It was this last phrase that stuck with me, as a beautiful description of a physical state in which we could explore a new physical comic form. Not just feeling pleasure as an emotional experience, but our bodies bubbling with it. How though, could we generate this state?
We first attempted an exercise taken straight from Seyler, who suggests that her pupil try to recapture ‘the excited little twist in his diaphragm that he must often have experienced just before he is going to tell someone a funny incident that has happened to him.’ (Seyler and Haggard, 2013, p. 51) This is developed in the 21st Century edition of the book into an exercise where the actor delivers a speech cold, then spends a little time chatting nonsense with a friend before attempting it again (ibid 2013, p. 55).
My three dancers each performed a short solo sequence they had prepared, in leiu of the speech, once cold, and then following a quick and silly chat with another performer. The second performances had some distinct shifts:
So to a degree, we were seeing what Seyler described, particularly her concept of comedy as a point of view, a comment on what’s happening onstage. The dancers were excited by the possibilities of working this way, particularly coming out of a full day of working on a state of play…
Participant post-it note reflections, 18/07/22
I can see life differently, everything can be funny. My body can feel joy and share joy with others. Wow! Who knew!
It’s not about the laughter, it’s about the joy. I feel like I’ve found the gold!
I was excited too, but I didn’t feel that we’d quite found the state of bubbling with pleasure yet.
I had been thinking about the phrase ‘dance like nobody’s watching’- wondering what that looks like for dancers, and also why we associate dancing for your own enjoyment with shame. The phrase implies that if someone were watching you wouldn’t dance like that, or indeed, at all.
From this thinking came a game, Dance Like Everybody’s Watching, that I’ve described in the course write up (See TUESDAY). I wasn’t specifically seeking comedy here, but a sense of openness and connection with the audience that we struggle with, I think, in dance. We feel a connection among ourselves as we improvise and make material, but it’s not something we proactively train dancers to develop.
The dances that we improvised, with no other instruction than to ‘fucking love it’ and to share that with the audience, felt revelatory. Watching them back on video gives only a tiny sense of what we all experienced. One dancer was close to tears afterwards, saying she never thought she’d be able to dance like that, as honestly as that, to the piece of music she’d chosen, in front of other people. Our discussion immediately afterwards centred around vulnerability, feeling free from judgement, and being OK with not being perfect. Thinking back on it though, what I saw from everyone was a different kind of perfection. They were perfectly themselves, and there were moments of pure, perfect pleasure. We were bubbling.
Participant post-it note reflection, 19/07/22
A massive sense of freedom. Being able to experience new versions of myself.
So what was going on? How did this game make us feel so profoundly different to any other dance improvisation task? I have a few theories, that I would like to test further:
Asking dancers to simply dance, making full use of the emotive power of music, seems such a simple way in to a state of pleasure that I’m slightly stunned. In fact, it's something I already use but hadn't seen in that light; one of my go-to rehearsal warm up activities is to ask everyone to put a tune onto a playlist (sometimes the song that was number one on the day of their birth), and all simply have a groove together.
Journal extract, 20/07/22
Dancing IS bubbling with pleasure!
Figure 1: Portrait of Athene Seyler. Photographer unknown. From https://www.rada.ac.uk/profiles/athene-seyler/
Seyler, A. and Haggard, S. (2013) The Craft of Comedy. 21st Century Edition. Edited by R. Barton. London, New York: Routledge. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dmu/reader.action?docID=1128307&ppg=3.