When "Back to School" Means "Back to Clown School"

LA's The Clown School is a modern academy for an ancient art form.

by Tanja M. Laden
Aug 24 2015, 2:30pm

CSU Summer Arts Cirque Intensive, Courtesy The Clown School

If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then clowning is not far behind. While today, the term "clown" is associated with greasepaint, oversized shoes, and rapid balloon twisting, the truth is that the best clowns don't really need props to provide relief from gravitas (though sometimes a red nose helps). With a history dating back to 16th century Italian Commedia dell'arte and beyond, the practice of clowning has become an important field of theatrical study—technically among the most advanced. With a growing symbiosis between the alternative comedy/improv scene and clowning, independent theatrical communities have become more and more interested in actually learning the discipline. Enter The Clown School of Los Angeles.

David Bridel has been studying clowning since the early '90s, when he was a student of Philippe Gaulier, who actually taught Sacha Baron Cohen as well. A London native, Bridel now works at the University of Southern California as Interim Dean and Director of the MFA in Acting for the School of Dramatic Arts and is co-editor of Clowns: In conversation with modern masters. For the past 20-plus years, he's been practicing clowning as a performer, director and teacher. In 2007, he and fellow clown Orlando Pabotoy established The Clown School for up-and-coming comic entertainers, some of whom went on to launch Four Clowns, a successful performing arts troupe where Bridel acts as Associate Director.

When asked about the role of the clown, Bridel says, "The function of the clown is, through humor, parody, and nonsense, to disturb the hierarchy of any given audience and to illuminate a series of paradoxical possibilities—for example, that intelligent people are also stupid, or that wielding great power is a sign of weakness, etc. Clowns puncture the constructs that we build to try to keep ourselves intact from failure, and in doing so, open up a world of creative opportunities. Picasso said, 'Creativity ends where good sense begins.' The clown's role is to destroy good sense and invoke chaotic potential."

The modern idea of the clown is closely related to the fool, an archetype that has endured throughout history. In the game of humanity, the clown represents the player, stepping blindly into the future to forge a path without knowledge of the outcome. This blissful ignorance became necessary when the fool appeared before audiences as, among other things, court jesters, because the ignorance mirrored the public's own issues. Not only was the fool making people laugh, they also had a forum to speak the truth, however unpleasant.

Bridel explains, "The clown lives on the bottom of the social ladder (think Chaplin's Tramp, or Laurel and Hardy), or sometimes even outside society altogether (think Borat at a rodeo in Virginia). There are some sub-archetypes under the clown umbrella—boss clowns, servant clowns, satirical clowns, etc.—but in all cases these characters are part of the great, anti-establishment tradition of the clown, who exists, as does the fool, to speak the wisdom of the opposite or the reverse." He adds, "Some clowns in the Native American tradition walk backwards, a vivid example of the backwards-ness of the archetype."

So, what's it like to actually go to The Clown School? Alumnus Lis Roche, a.k.a., Lis the Clown, says it's a sacred arena in which mayhem is actually allowed and people have the opportunity to actively examine and utilize their flaws.

"It is a space to celebrate and decipher what I like and what I don't like—what charms me and what repulses me," Roche says. "I gain so much information and experience from the other clowns about what is universally funny, awful, terrifying, embarrassing, and joyful based on one clown, or many clowns, performing for an audience. It's truly a magical place, a thrilling experience to be had by all, again and again."

Bridel describes the process of enrolling in The Clown School as "numbingly simple." The school basically accepts any applicant, and each course includes a series of weekly classes which run consecutive weeks. There's some time commitment, but other than that, the only requirement to truly succeed is a willingness to explore and exploit your own foibles. Sometimes the result is funny, and sometimes it's heartbreaking. But if a clown is good, like any true artist, he or she will make you feel.

As Lis the Clown points out, "Good clowns make us laugh, and brilliant clowns make us cry."

Click here to visit The Clown School's website. 


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