Between the studio run and the schools’ tour of Little Red Riding Hood (Middleton, 2021), which I directed for Nottingham Playhouse, both of the cast caught Covid, and we had to rehearse in a swing understudy. During these rehearsals, I stepped into the dual role of Granny and Wulfrick the wolf, while our understudy learned the other actor’s track.
I am not an actor, and have never felt particularly comfortable performing. The only role I have ever chosen to perform was in my own company’s show FIVE (WinterWalker, 2019). That role took the form of a non-verbal, semi-improvised clown performance; very different to the scripted character roles I was covering in this context. I wasn’t therefore expecting to feel any joy or creative flow when standing in as a performer, I was viewing it as a job that needed doing for the benefit of the production.
Stepping in to play Granny felt like performing an acting role. She’s written as a heightened but essentially believable character, with subtext and human emotion in the text and staging. Performing her, even in a rehearsal room with only our stage manager watching, made me feel exposed, self-conscious and uncomfortable. I was acutely aware of not knowing what to do with my body and voice, and I felt how untruthful my performance was. These are all familiar feelings, which accompany any attempt of mine to act.
Playing Wulfrick however felt completely different. He’s written as a far less complex character, with simple wants and needs driving him, mostly because he’s an animal. He’s also played for laughs, and much of the audience’s enjoyment of him is derived from his failures (he keeps eating his friends, or since he’s a predator, making friends with his prey). So in many respects Wulfrick is written as a clownlike character, and I have certainly been directing the original performer, Carolyn Murray, to play him in this way.
Performing Wulfrick I felt relaxed and happy, and I could see from the responses of my stage manager and the performer I was rehearsing with that my performance was engaging and funny to watch. I wasn’t wearing the physical mask of the costume, but the cartoonish nature of the character felt as if I had a mask-like layer to stand behind. My movement felt stylised but assured, I knew what to do with my body and voice, and I could be flexible and responsive within it. The closest analogy I can find is that I felt as if I were puppeteering my own body, a feeling far closer to my experiences of dancing than acting. And as when I’m puppeteering, playing or moving in an improvisatory situation, I felt completely absorbed, unselfconscious and in the moment. I was also far better able to see, feel and respond to the others in the room with me; this was an open and playful state.
There is much discussion within clown training and theory about the nature of the clown persona, and the need for it to be truthful and personal in order to conjure that same state of immediacy, connection and absorption. In a recent podcast interview clown legend De Castro describes clowning not as a technique but as ‘a state of being’ in which the performer grants themself permission to behave with greater creativity and freedom (Stroud, no date). Gaulier training almost fetishizes the intimacy and exposure of the performer’s innermost psyche within the development of a personal clown, suggesting that ‘the “true self” is revealed through the mask form of clown’ (Purcell Gates, 2011, p. 231). Is it possible however that a mask, whether literal or figurative, can simply be a mask? Something that the performer can stand behind, hide behind, in order to feel less exposed and therefore freer to play?
I have never been through a lengthy process of birthing a personal clown, in fact in this instance I was stepping in very briefly to a written role, created by another performer. To a non-performer like myself that layer of masking feels like a comforting detachment; this isn’t me playing a role, this is me playing at a role. Or perhaps in that detachment, and in playing a clearly non-naturalistic role, what I’m feeling is greater honesty. I’m not attempting to trick the audience into believing that I am a different human being, feeling real feelings, instead I’m honestly playing at being a wolf. So I have to question the assumption that the clown state must be deeply and uniquely personal; are there other ways into that clown state of being that may feel more accessible to performers from other disciplines, particularly dancers?
1: Wulfrick mask from Little Red Riding Hood by Sarah Middleton, 2021. Designed by Ella Barraclough, built by Alex Hatton. Photo by Alan Fletcher, shot during rehearsals. From https://nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/events/little-red-riding-hood/
Middleton, S. (2021) ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Nottingham Playhouse.
Purcell Gates, L. (2011) ‘Locating the self: narratives and practices of authenticity in French clown training’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 2(2), pp. 231–242.
Stroud, E. (no date) ‘Clowning with Angela De Castro’. (Clowning Around...). Available at: https://clowningaroundthepodcast.libsyn.com/episode-21-clowning-around-clowning-with-angela-de-castro.
WinterWalker (2019) ‘FIVE’. The Hullabaloo, Darlington.