Almost all of my process comes from either dance or clown, not from traditional drama.
Is clowndance a process, not a genre?
Journal entry, 06/12/22
The first full devising process in which I tested out the performance-making possibilities of the clowndance techniques I have been developing was neither with dancers nor clowns, but rather with acting-based performance students (See MAPP – The Capitalist Self-Care Club). Working with them gave rise to some reflection about the difference between a genre and a process, and made me question which I was attempting to create or describe.
I think initially, I was aiming to coin the term ‘Clowndance’ to describe a genre; to stake a claim for a particular corner of the physical performance landscape where dance and clown intersect. Increasingly though, I’m questioning the purpose and value of genre descriptions. This came up in my interview with with Frankie Thompson, and she poured scorn on the whole system of categorising performances by genre, particularly when those labels are externally imposed and come loaded with expectations:
I was very resistant to being put in comedy, because (of the) pressure of the award system, the money and the almost quantifiable sort of aspect that there is, like: am I laughing every minute? I just feel like that is like capitalism in its most extreme applied to art, like: if I'm not laughing every minute, this is not worth my time, because it's a comedy show.
…sometimes when you're put in a frame, it's quite useful because you're breaking things, and then sometimes it brings completely the wrong audience and it's really harmful. And then sometimes it's just about money. And that sort of lie just makes me feel like the whole system is just ridiculous, really.
I don’t think she’s alone in feeling that way, and it’s certainly a continual frustration I faced when making work for my company; having it oversimplified or misrepresented by venues for marketing purposes. Performances, like people, are more complex than the label by which we seek to define them. Perhaps by continuing to subdivide and claim areas of performance practice, even in research contexts, we’re merely reinforcing a transactional, capitalist way of thinking about art.
Practice as Research sometimes seeks to pinpoint genres more accurately, as artists' voices are more centred in academic discourse, but perhaps the whole question needs to be thrown out. Is it possible to find a language that describes performance work without pigeonholing it in a reductive way? Is there any point, when we're faced with the reality that under our current system, art must be sold to ticket-buying audiences? Socialist Feminist writer Lynne Segal suggests that ‘a more utopian spirit may actually be... essential for us to resist mere accommodation to the known harms of the present’ (Segal, 2018, p. 22). Frankie went on to describe a night that she co-curates, that perhaps offers a glimpse of some post-genre-pigeonholing utopian thinking:
Alissa Clarke, when I discussed this idea of genre versus process briefly with her, suggested that my resistance to the fixed-point task of defining Clowndance as a genre perhaps ties into a strand of feminist thinking that runs through all of my work and research. She reminded me of Hélène Cixous’s concept of ‘l’écriture feminine’ (Cixous, 1975 in Clarke, 2017, p. 258), where the writer follows her own pleasure, revelling in the process, rather than the phallo-centric climactic endpoint. In a contemporary article discussing Cixous’s play L’Indiade ou l'Inde de leurs rêves (written, perhaps not surprisingly, for a clown-based company; Ariane Mnoushkine’s Le Théâtre du Soleil), Judith Miller says ‘Cixous… portrays feminine being as an unending, continuous, and transformative development.’ (Miller, 1989, p. 136). So for Cixous, process is feminine.
As I planned this research project, I felt strongly that I did not want my practical outcome to be a final performance. As a director and choreographer the breadth of my work isn’t necessarily visible in what the audience sees, it’s in every stage of the journey to get to that performance. I didn’t want to create a ‘masterpiece’ that attempted to encapsulate what clowndance is. It’s many things, made by many people; what right do I have to claim unique ownership? So I am not attempting to coin the term clowndance as a genre, as that feels bound up in patriarchal, capitalist thinking. I am instead working towards a definition or description of a process, which my clowndance syllabus will attempt to teach.
As a director, I’m provocateur and editor, keeper of the dream and representative of the audience.
Performers in this process need to be present, open, playful, responsive. To do this they need to feel safe, that they can make offers that may or may not be right, but that will be honoured, not mocked.
Everyone needs to have a secure enough structure to trust that the show is going somewhere, even if that journey isn’t narrative, or always clear. Think: what do we want, or need, next?
Responses to provocations (often games) could be improvised, scripted, conceptualised, choreographed or designed. They might form sections- blocks of material equivalent to a scene
I’ll sometimes add elements to create more through-line- a sense for the audience of something progressing, repeating, developing and completing. As such, this process for making performance (theatre, clown, dance, clowndance…) is compositional, not dramaturgical. More like choreography than devising narrative.
In performance, everything serves the idea in the moment.
We always include and acknowledge the audience.
All the material is treated as ‘text’ be it spoken text, movement, dance, interaction with objects, something visual or aural, song…
We must always be clear where the focus should be. It might be in more than one place at a time.
Journal entry, 06/12/22
I'll come back to the multitude of ways in which I now see feminist thought running through the clowndance project in another blog. For now, I'm thinking about how to systematise the processual in a way that allows for continual change, as I map out material for my next clowndance intensive.
Clarke, A. (2017) ‘The Pleasures of Writing about the Pleasures of the Practice: Documenting Psychophysical Performer Trainings.’, in Documenting Performance: The Context and Processes of Digital Curation and Archiving. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, pp. 253–270.
Miller, J.G. (1989) ‘Medusa and the Mother/Bear: The Performance Text of Hélène Cixous’s Llndiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall 1989, pp. 135–142.
Segal, L. (2018) Radical happiness: moments of collective joy. Brooklyn: Verso Books.
Thompson, F. (2023) ‘Clowndance interview: Frankie Thompson’.