Traditionally in the Juilliard Drama Division, there are few classes that result in more tears, laughs, breakdowns, and breakthroughs than the dreaded physical comedy class. Taught by the incomparable Chris Bayes, it’s commonly referred to, simply, as clown.
Clown has been one of the most helpful tools I have received in my actor-training here at Juilliard. So this summer, when I was hired as a teaching artist at Snow College in Utah and the Osceola Arts Intensive in Florida, I could think of nothing I would rather give teenage students than the feeling of freedom and sense of play I found in clown.
It all starts with fun. Get students smiling and enjoying themselves and they will be more apt to relax and open up. A game called Stone-cold Face-off was the biggest hit. It’s basically a big dance party with a few simple rules: you must dance full-out using your entire body, but your face must remain impassive (stone-cold). You must make eye contact with the other dancers, but if you laugh or smile, you’re out. It’s harder than it sounds—and ridiculous amounts of fun.
Next, we moved on to what I call “funny-muscle” exercises. Just as freedom of movement is facilitated by warm muscles, freedom of comedy flows from laughter. So the students milled around the room until they spotted a normal, everyday object (like a water bottle or light switch), exclaimed that it was “the funniest thing they’d ever seen,” and proceeded to laugh themselves stupid at the object. The louder and longer the laughter, the better.
Finally, now that their funny muscles were (hopefully) warmed up, the aspiring actors were ready for more advanced exercises. Here’s my favorite: get up and make everybody laugh. Sounds simple enough. Actors are entertainers, after all, and we do it all the time. But here’s the clown-catch: get up and make everybody laugh using only your body and some sounds, no words. This has reduced more than one drama student to tears. Words, words, words. We feel like we need them. Especially to be funny. Joke-telling, sarcasm, storytelling, wit: these are all tried-and-true ways of getting a laugh, but they also all require words. Which means they also require thinking. Clown, I have learned, requires just the opposite.
It requires an innocence and ignorance we do not normally allow ourselves in our everyday life. It requires the courage to be perceived as stupid and uncool. To go back to a childhood mentality when all you wanted to do was bounce on your bed and make noises with your belly. To truly not care what other people think of you. To allow yourself the possibility of failing.
Understanding this, one can immediately see the profound impact clown might make upon teenagers. At a time when their thoughts are constantly occupied with how the world and others perceive them, clown provides an almost therapeutic release. One of my proudest moments as a teacher was watching one of my shyest, most withdrawn students perform the dunce-dunce, a dance she made up involving a lot of bottom-wiggling, erratic finger-pointing, and the off-tune belting of “dunce-dunce-dunce-dunce.”
Both she and I fully recommend trying this at home. Or, better yet, at a subway stop.