‘You are so stupid.’ This is what comedy director Cal McCrystal, an award-winning clown and comedy director, said to me in rehearsals one day. I was in London, working with him as part of the Australia Council’s JUMP mentorship program. We spent a week exploring clowning and physical comedy, playing ridiculous games and wetting ourselves with laughter (OK, just me). When he called me ‘stupid’, it was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received.
Clowning is the art of stupidity. Your clown is your inner idiot, or in Cal’s words, ‘the thing about you that your friends make fun of behind your back’. Unchaining your clown can be a gruelling process: it requires you to really look at yourself (in a wonky mirror), be surprised by your weaknesses and admit your own ridiculousness.
One of Cal’s exercises is called The Torture. On stage, the clown is told to ‘come on and be funny’. She walks onstage to entertain the audience, only no one has told her how to do this. The clown does the first thing that pops into her head, thereby revealing her own stupidity. In this scenario, ‘flopping’ (both kinds) is inevitable. The clown makes one bad decision after another. For most people this is the epitome of painful, but the clown’s pleasure in this endeavour is the magic ingredient: she retains a child-like hope that the next move will be absolutely brilliant. It won’t be. A clown follows the ethos of Winston Churchill: ‘Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.’
The most important thing for a clown is their relationship with the audience. Pretending the audience isn’t there or trying to trick them by ‘acting’ only betrays the truthfulness that is a clown’s currency. The audience is your teacher and playmate all at once. I mostly work solo, which brings some great challenges. There are some things that you can only discover after you have been alone in a rehearsal room, banging your head against the wall for ten hours straight (now I wear a helmet in rehearsal). It does make workshopping material a little difficult, but I try to put material in front of people early on and there are no guarantees in comedy. Things that you think will be hilarious may flop, while the dumbest throwaway bit will bring the house down (literally—that was the last time I performed in a yurt).
Vulnerability is at the heart of the clown (next to the squirty flower). In another exercise, Cal asked me to recount the story of my most disastrous love affair. When I was done dredging up the horror, he said, ‘I never want you to be less honest with your audience than you were telling this story.’ This is the person the audience wants to see onstage. Not that you can’t be funny, or tell a funny story, but the vulnerable, delicate side of yourself needs to be worn like a tragic wig. This may sound overly emotional, but I think comedy comes from a sad story that is actually funny. It’s trying to do something serious, but getting it wrong. After all, you never know a person until you’ve walked a metre in their clown shoes.
There is a new dawn of clowning happening in Australia at the moment. This is thanks to exciting young acts like Slow Clap, Tessa Waters and Neal Portenza, all performers who are making work that combines elements of clowning, theatre and comedy to create new styles and conventions of performance. I have dubbed my own comedy form ‘body poetry’. It’s a mashup of mime, clown, puppetry, physical comedy and interpretive dance (all the hottest art forms right now). Body poetry is like children’s character Gumby being your favourite aunty: both poetry and Gumby-aunt are tender and comforting, but they’re also pretty weird.
Sabrina D’Angelo’s Why Do I Dream? is playing 28 September to 5 October at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.