Where clowns hit the right nose for singing - a red one

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

If like me you’ve never been in a choir and done the whole dddd, bbbb, gggg, bbbrrrhhh musical warm-up thing, you might sympathise. It’s the feeling you get when you’re telling an embarrassing story in a noisy crowd and find yourself shouting in an unexpected lull. The music suddenly stopped. My over-zealous burst of song continued while the others fell silent. Cue roars of laughter and amused encouragement from the choir director. But hey – it’s clown choir practice so someone’s got to do it.

Hallelujah! is a citywide community clown choir starting next February in Draíocht theatre, Dublin. Under the guidance of Veronica Coburn, Draíocht’s theatre artist-in-residence 2012/2013, members of the public will come together to form a choir with a focus not just on singing but also on clowning. The first major work will be entitled The M50 Symphony – A Symphony for Human Voice and Car Horn.

A founding member of theatre company Barabbas, Coburn explains that clowning is perfect for a community project because the clown represents the everyman. Apart from the comical circus clown, there is the sad clown, the scary clown, the lonely clown and the rejected one. Consider the jester who points out the faults of the king, allowing him to laugh at his own shortcomings.

Different aesthetic

Clown theatre or red-nose theatre has a different aesthetic to that of circus clowning. “In circus clowning, people might have the impression that you can do anything because you’re hidden by the wig, the make-up and the funny shoes. But that’s not how the theatre clown works,” says Coburn. “The clown is the most honest presentation of the performer on stage. This means that it is a delicate discipline and a scary discipline. There’s a great line that says ‘If the people don’t like the clown, they don’t like you’.”

For Coburn, the clown is about humanity – historically, clowns have represented the ordinary man or woman and given them a voice at the power table alongside the medicine man or priest. “Many indigenous societies have festivals that are about chaos and anarchy and the conduit for the speech of every man or woman is often the clown,” she says.

The red nose is also a powerful tool. The clown can move from comic to tragic, revealing the breadth of human emotion. The classic red nose somehow transforms a person yet emphasises their character. The nose draws us in and allows us to connect with the clown – with her pathos and humour and above all with her humanity.

The clown represents the plurality of existence. “There is a theory that the red nose is round because it symbolises all of life, all of death and everything in between. So clowning doesn’t say that we take the nice bits or reject the bad bits, but that we take it all. Above all, the modus operandi of the clown is play. It’s about having a laugh despite what the subject matter is.”

No shirkers

During clown choir practice we do vocal warm-ups – everyone is enthusiastic and any hesitation is relieved by the openness and skill of musical director Debra Salem. The group is of mixed ability, good-humoured and earnest – there are no shirkers. Only a quarter have sung in a choir. There’s a sense of pleasure and achievement when we master the first few lines of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile in three parts.

Participants will join for any number of reasons – for an interest in play or in clowning, for a love of song or for a challenge.

Philip Smithers from Rathfarnham is retired. “I wanted to try the choir thing but something more fun, less serious than the average choir, ” he says. He’s hardly ever sung outside the shower.

Discipline of clowning

Participants will also be invited to explore the discipline of clowning. The workshops include exercises to reignite that sense of play that abandons us as adults.

Sandra Austin from Portmarnock volunteered to wear a red nose during the introductory session. While she has done some comic acting and sung in choirs, up there, alone in her red nose, she was asked to run around, do press-ups and talk about her ideal romantic date. “I’ve been on stage before but up there today I felt like I was naked in a way. The red nose made me feel vulnerable – part of your brain is thinking ‘Do I look stupid?’” says Austin.

Mother of five Toni McNally from Mulhuddart said she’d be waiting for the doors to open when the programme starts. She recently participated in the community project You, Yes You! under the direction of Liam Halligan, Draíocht’s theatre artist-in-residence for 2011/2012. McNally describes her experience of this project as “transformative” – “What an opportunity it is to take your singing from the kitchen to the stage! If you love singing, it’s a dream come true,” she says.

To find out more about Hallelujah! phone 01-8852610 or email teresa@draiocht.ie . Rehearsals begin on Monday, February 18th, 2013, from 7pm. You must be over 16 to take part.

Red nose day: clowning’s special place in Irish theatrical culture

Clowning is the art of making failure funny. Avoiding a ladder, a clown will skid on a banana skin. Sniffing flowers, he will get sprayed in the face. Wooing a woman, he will end up humiliated, his pants around his ankles. Clowns are funny, yes, but they win us over through pity rather than a desire for emulation.

There are hundreds of different types of clown: from the court jester Fool of Shakespearean comedy to the white-faced Pierrot of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte; from the red-nosed Mime to the colourful children’s character playing circus ringside games.

As Raymond Keane, one of the founding members of Ireland’s most long-standing theatrical clown company Barabbas, explains, “clown is a mask behind and through which is revealed the very essence of being human”.

Shaped by a narrative of inevitable catastrophe, clown holds a special place in Irish theatrical culture.

As Keane sees it, “we are good rule breakers and a nation of slaggers, preferring the put down over the compliment, which is not surprising given our colonial past and the dogmatic hands of church and state”. It was not until the 1980s, however, that Ireland began to develop a formal theatrical clowning tradition.

The Oscar Mime School run by Vincent O’Neill was the home for many an aspiring performer, but many travelled to France to train at the prestigious academies run by Jacques Lecoq and Marcel Marceau in Paris.

Barabbas was one of the first Irish companies to devote itself exclusively to clown. Established by Keane and fellow-clowns Veronica Coburn and Mikel Murfi in 1993, the company connected its work to “traditions like the Strawboys and Mummers” and “the music hall greats”, Maureen Potter and Jimmy O’Dea.

Indeed, one of the greatest exponents of the Irish clown, Keane says, was Samuel Beckett, who, for all the bleak philosophy of his plays, toyed with some of the oldest clowning routines: a banana in Krapp’s Last Tape, slapstick and identity-swapping in Waiting for Godot.

“Perhaps nearly all of our great playwrights – Yeats, Synge, Murphy, Keane, McDonagh – have drawn on the clown archetype,” Keane says, “embracing its power to entertain, disrupt, dismantle.”

Yet in the 1990s Barabbas was one of the few artists interested in exploiting how the tradition of comic physical performance could be used to entertain theatre audiences and explore Irish culture.

This is the theme of a new book by Carmen Szabo, The Story of Barabbas, The Company, which serves as a welcome introduction to the company, which is still performing, albeit in reduced circumstances. (Barabbas lost its regular Arts Council funding in 2010 and is now funded project by project, while Coburn and Murfi are no longer formally associated with the company.)

Szabo’s book is at its best when it reminds the reader of the company’s early work, which lives on only in the memory of those lucky enough to see productions like Half Eight Mass of a Tuesday or Sick, Dying, Buried, Dead, Out in 1994 and 1995.

I sat in the audience myself as a young teenager, enthralled by half-pint puppets, shadowy silhouettes and red noses shining like beacons in the dark. I had been to the theatre before and thought I understood its freedoms, however, seeing adults so obviously and joyously “playing” opened up a whole different world of possibility to me.

A few years later I was lucky enough to attend a clown workshop, where Barabbas shared the principles of clowning with a motley group of adolescents from various youth theatres.

It was tiring and embarrassing, as Mikel, Raymond and Veronica pointed out how we were actually breaking the rules: fidgeting, grinning, gurning, “acting the clown”.

But this was the rite of passage through which we would earn our red noses. A clown wasn’t a personality you pulled on, was the simple message, but one that emerged from inside you you when you weren’t looking.

* The Story of Barabbas, The Company by Carmen Szabo is published by Carysfort Press.

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