On living with the red nose on - interview with Lee Delong
15. 06. 2016
Lee Delong, actress, director and clown teacher, talks on her experience working on the tiniest mask in the world, the red nose. Why is it so challenging, why actors keep coming back to it and what has the clown to do with ourselves.
AoN: Can you tell me something that is known about the origins of the clown?
Well…as I learned it, the style of theatre clown, based on the teachings of Jacques Lecoq, comes from Harlequin. Arlecchino is his great-great-great-grandfather, the difference, of course, being that Arlecchino is commedia dell’arte and clown is not commedia dell’arte. Clown is you, whereas Arlecchino had very specific rules you had to follow in order to play him. In clown there is no character interpretation, it is you.
When speaking of the clown, it is undeniable and impossible not to speak of the circus, because this is where the clown found his life. But, that being said, the clown that we do, the theatre clown, has nothing to do with the circus clown. The circus clown is often the young people who can do gags and fall down, who are heavily painted, who are performers. If there is an older clown, usually he is the guy that fell from the trapeze when he was a young man and, you know, has an arm that doesn’t work anymore and so he became a clown. Through his pain he becomes a great clown because, actually, like life, you learn your lessons through pain and in my experience, the greatest clowns are the clowns with most experience. I would much rather have a bunch of old failures in a group than a bunch of happy young people (laughter).
AoN: How was your discovery of the clown and when and how did it happen?
Well, I was always attracted to clowns, and by clowns I mean Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball in the early “I love Lucy” sequences, the Three Stooges, Curly in particular, Laurel and Hardy…. As a child, I was always attracted to this kind of work and imitated it. When just small, I already started entertaining my family, for example, on the way to the church by being a fly in the car. I had various pantomimes I performed regularly, etc. Later, I went to university to study acting and there were two very good friends of mine who were two of the best jugglers in the world at the time. They also did mime and stuff like that, so I became very inspired by their fabulous duo and started working on my own routines. During the football games at the University, I would go to the trunk parties, where they had drinks in the parking lot from the trunks of their cars. I started working as a street clown. When I got to NYC to support myself as a young actress, I started working as a birthday party clown, a bar mitzvah clown, clown for small shopping malls. This is the clown I created myself. I did not know what I was doing. I was creating it through imitations of things that I liked. I worked for a while with another clown I met and we did a lot of basic circus routines that you can find written up, you know, with telephones smacking you in the face and water squirting out of things.
So, it wasn’t until I went to Lecoq School in Paris that I realised that all those years, my research was going down all the wrong roads. Not really wrong roads; I suppose it was my path to a certain place. When I started learning about the clown at Lecoq School, I absolutely fell in love. I realised it would forever change the way I worked as an actress.
By the time I found the clown at Lecoq School, Jacques Lecoq was spending a lot of the time on the clown. His students requested it more and more, and what was originally a few day’s work became weeks and weeks of intensive research.
Lecoq would say “You can’t just have clown workshops”, you have to go through the entire pedagogy. Starting with the masque neutre, (the neutral mask), the larval mask, the character mask, the commedia dell’arte mask, etc.; in conjunction with learning how to do improvisation, learning how to use your body and finally, lastly, arriving at the tiniest mask in the world, the red nose. Today I know I have had incredible results with workshops, I must say, and I don’t want to say I’ve proven him wrong but I have proven to myself there are other ways. Back then, I was pretty sure I was just going to be a clown.
AoN: How did you start teaching the clown?
I didn’t want to teach the clown, I started to do it because of the war in Sarajevo. I had lot of friends and colleagues in Bosnia and I wanted to do something to help. I managed to get in touch with them under siege and they said they needed professors. I thought “hm, war…they for sure need to laugh, let’s do clown”! Eventually, I became their movement professor at the National Academy in Sarajevo.
People started loving the clown and wanting it and asking me for it. I never intended to create a clown workshops; it has always just come to me. It is a work that is obviously destiny, a charge that has been given to me, because it is not at all what I sought to do.
AoN: In the everyday imaginary, clown has been put into a certain box. How did that happen?
That brings us back to the circus clown. Circus clown is very garish and frightening, to small children in particular. It is because of that the clown has been misconstrued. Even in the world of cartoons, the clown is somebody who is hit over the head, kicked in the ass, falls down; it is a certain kind of funny. So, this violence has become associated with him as if he doesn’t feel anything. I think this is because of the circus. I mean, even if you look at the large circus today, what they do with their bodies is not human. It’s this kind of thing, it’s taking it away from the human aspect.
Whereas, the reason why I love the “Lecoq clown”, is that it is only human. For Jacques Lecoq and many other of the great clown masters who evolved from his school, the clown is horizontal and human, deals with only human subjects. I repeat this all the time: ‘jealousy, love, hate, need, desire, want to fuck, want to eat…’. It is very, very human, almost at an animal level. And, the clown is you. The way we do the clown is that you have to find your clown, you have to discover who he is.
AoN: Clown has no past and no future, it is different from the usual actor’s work. Clown is all about now. Can you say something about that?
One of my main jobs, when I am teaching the clown, is to be very vigilant and watch very closely all of the actors to make sure that they are not responding before something happens; that they are reacting to something that happened that very moment. It is the most important thing to learn about the clown: it is about the present. It is not about the past, not about the future… clowns cannot say, “when I was a little girl and when I grow up”, that’s part of another world.
The world of the clown is human, without time - actually, not without time, only with the present time. This is why it is so important for actors to learn the technique because the actor’s work is about the present. And the clown simply cannot exist outside of the present. So, that’s why one of the reasons he is such great learning ground for all actors. Clown teaches you about the present.
It is very difficult to do, it is very difficult to teach and it is very difficult to define. I think it’s one of my hardest jobs, watching out for people remaining in the moment.
As it is for good acting, also it is for good life. When speaking of meditation and awareness, it is all about being in the moment. It is about the present and being here, being here now, reacting to only what is there, reacting truthfully only to what is happening. When you are not in the moment, all you do is worry about the future or mourn over the past. If you are in the moment you can’t do either of those things. Sometimes I say when I am old and retired, I might give classes in life. But you gotta wear a red nose. (laughter).
AoN: The clown is full of desire to be liked, to get attention. What is the connection between the child in us and the clown?
There is, of course, a great connection. Though, a clown is not a child, but he is childlike. In order to find the clown, and for me to successfully guide you to find your clown, I have to get you into a state which Lecoq called “premiere clown” (first clown). This is the kid who has learned to react to all of that kinds of stuff like: “don’t eat with your elbows on the table, don’t pick your nose, stand up straight, do your homework, don’t run!” and then I provoke this child, so he starts to not adhere to those rules. Usually, I have to push him very far because we are all so regimented. I have to push him very far into that place of saying “If I wanna walk this way, I wanna walk this way!”.
There is a very strong connection between the child and the clown, the naivety of a child. If you say, “The sky is falling”, the clown looks around “Where?” He is very naïve. If you say “Stay here, don’t move!” and come back five hours later, he is frozen to the spot. This is very childlike. There are many connections, but the clown is not a child. He is not crazy or sick either--he is you! (laughter) As crazy as you are.
AoN: Why is laughter so cleansing and is laughter today underappreciated in the artists’ world?
I think laughter is underappreciated everywhere, in all worlds. For example, I had cancer. When I got cancer, I read lots of books about people that had cancer and I followed some advice from a guy on curing oneself with laughter. I bought all of the “Absolutely Fabulous” videos, the Marx brothers, Charlie Chaplin and “I Love Lucy” tapes. Every day, I watched all this stuff and laughed and laughed. My friend got me a kitten, a little, tiny kitten. I played so much with this hilarious kitten, I laughed all the time. I knew it was my door to health. I believe laughter is a doorway to health. I know the power of laughter; it is the strongest medicine in the world.
People think that laughter means not being a serious person because we live in a world which is so technically minded and so competitive. If you are not a serious person, you are nobody, you are just not gonna make it. Steve Jobs did not become the head of Apple by laughing. That is the kind of thinking we are up against. Bankers don’t laugh at your jokes, they don’t laugh even when you make good ones.
Laughter is underrated and much theatre has become intellectual. Highly appreciated and talented theatre people do this very dark work which is a reflection of our society, but it doesn’t help us much to deal with that society.
I think that we have gone quite far down the technological spiral. I feel the spiral is going down in this technological age, and when we hit the bottom, we will have to go back up, the energy will have to go back up. I hope in my lifetime I see us go back up this spiral.
AoN: Seems to me the red nose is much more a revealing than a hiding mask. Can you talk about clown as a mirror to oneself and as a mirror to the audience?
It is a mask that reveals more than it hides, that is why it is the tiniest mask in the world. It used to be huge, almost covering the whole face. Now it is small and that is a good thing because it is the mask that reveals your innocence.
If you work it like a mask, it is a mirror for you because you can feel this invisible space between the nose and your face. This invisible space will guide you like a mirror. I would call it a revelator; it is a way of revealing yourself.
I think that the public, when they see the clown in his state of failure, they feel superior; but at the same time they identify with the clown because they have been in the same situations. That is why they are able to laugh. If not, they would cry. If they saw themselves in situations of jealousy, like a clown, they would cry. The public have to feel superior to the clown. I think the nose helps to do that.
I also think the nose protects the actor from being laughed at. If you are going to put a nose on your face and make your ears stick out and show your skinny legs, you know you are going you be laughed at, you are asking for it. So, the nose protects you from feeling humiliation or from becoming too psychological about the work.
You know, for the whole two years in Lecoq’s school all he asked us to do was to observe nature and humans and recreate that, imitate it, become it. For the clown he said, “Go inside, imitate nothing, bring out you”.
Also I am beginning to realise… the more your clown is an individual, the more defined your clown becomes, the more he can be one with the others. In other words, by becoming completely yourself, you become one with everyone. You are the individuality that is every man. It is very interesting.
AoN: What about challenges of an experienced and trained artist in the clown process?
Red nose clowns are equal, they are friends. The more experience actors have, the more energy it takes for me to make them all equal with each other, and I have to be more clever. I have to equalise them without appearing to do so. That is a very difficult task, when you have somebody who is a successful and proven artist. You can’t equalise them in the way that you can somebody who just got out of the Academy. But you have to, because if you don’t the work will not happen. Everybody has to dance on the same foot at the beginning.
Actors with learned habits and bags of tricks…sometimes they can outwit me, pretend they can do the clown, and they are not doing it at all. Really good actors can sometimes get away with it. But not often.
AoN: Presence…one of the things that gives life to an actor on stage or in front of camera. What about the clown and presence?
Presence comes from the public, it comes from the energy of the public. If you are not working with their energy, you don’t have any presence. Without the public you have no presence, whether using the fourth wall or playing directly with the public. In film, I believe it’s really very much about whether or not the camera loves you.
Acting is something you can teach, something that people can learn. You can’t really teach presence or timing. I can give you skills so you are able to let your presence be known. I can’t teach spontaneity, but I can bring out all the conditions in you that make you ready to be spontaneous. I can’t teach timing, but I can clear away all of the dirt so that, if you have it, you can show it to me.
Then I say “That’s it, remember that”. You can remember that feeling and then you can find that feeling again and again. Until it grows and becomes second nature to yo. “Can you receive the energy of another?” If you can, then you will have presence. I think of it as osmosis. It passes through them to you and then you give it back.
AoN: One of the things that make it challenging to enter the clown is about putting down our own private mask. The obstacles are
one of the entrance doors in the clown work. Can you tell something more about obstacles and “accidents” as possibilities?
Everybody likes to think he is powerful and handsome, clever and talented. It’s great for somebody to come on stage like that and expect a certain reaction because for sure he will not get it. Then, what is interesting to see is how he fails. The clown is all about failing. It is all about being a failure and how each individual deals with failure. The obstacle of failing is the best obstacle in the world. It shows us everything about us. It attaches us to the public emotionally, it allows the public put their own failures into perspective and to minimize them. Because, when the clown fails, it is for him, of course, life and death, and it is terrible, but when the public sees that failure, they can rationalize it.
It is not about winning, it is about your failures; the things that make you feel uncomfortable. Your skinny legs, your ears that stick out, your big belly…all of these things help you discover your clown. The more you feel embarrassed about the ears that stick out, the more we see your clown. Obstacles and accidents are the quickest way to find your clown.
AoN: You grew up in the American culture, studied and lived in France, worked in the Balkans, in the Arab world…what are the differences between cultures in the clown work, what is universal in that language?
Every culture has it’s own sense of humour. I have lived in France for 30 years, I understand French humour, but it doesn’t make me laugh like American humour. That is true for every culture. When I look at a cartoon from Russia, I want to cry, and they are laughing their heads off. Humour is cultural.
However, the clown is universal. The clown is absolutely universal, the same clown can work in France, America, Japan, Kazakhstan, Africa. It’s universal because it is human. It is universal because it doesn’t need spoken language. It is universal because everybody can relate to the human condition. It is the only style that covers all cultures. That is why I love it.
AoN: You have worked with so many actors out of whom many of them had no interest or intention to perform as a clown. Why do actors love it so much and often come back to the clown?
That is simple. Because it is their only chance ever to work on themselves in a personal way. The minute they touch that feeling and see what that is, they realise they’ve been overworking everything for so many years. That it is much simpler, that their work as an actor can be much simpler, much purer. Their eyes are changed forever, the way they see the world, the way they see the stage. The way they see their own work changes completely. That is why they keep coming back even if they have no desire to play the clown. They have no desire to wear the nose, in fact many of them hate the nose, although they know that they need it to get to that state. Many actors come to the clown workshops because it helps them with their acting work. And their lives.
AoN: You have worked many times with a great Bosnian movie director Jasmila Žbanić. Curiously enough, outside of a small professional circle, it is not so well known that before shooting her movies on such strong and intense themes such as war, that, with the cast, you did – a clown workshop.
Jasmila believes in the clown very strongly. She believes in the clown not only as a way of making people a dynamic group, but also in the way that it hones acting skills and sharpens awareness. Somebody who knows how to search for the truth, knows how important the clown is. She has a trust in that work. I think that she believes that if somebody can do the clown, then they can do anything.
And, it is not entirely true that the clown is connected only to the red nose. Once you take the nose off, you still have a whole new set of skills that you didn’t have before. It changes your work as an actress, even as a tragedian. You will do Shakespeare differently if you had done the clown.
The concentration of energy that is required from your body and how targeted that energy must be to work any kind of a mask, gives you such power as an actor. Mask work is essential to acting. We have gotten away from that, but mask work is essential to acting because you need to have so much power to support the mask. A lot of actors are acting from the neck up and it just doesn’t work. Their work remains a mental exercise, and sadly, for the public as well.
Clown didn’t find his way to the theatre easily. However, all of the styles in theatre that are coming out now and merging, all of this is thanks to the clown. I believe the clown came in, did his business and kind of stirred everything up. It is a good thing because it is a truthful energy and people deserve the truth. They deserve a laugh and they deserve the truth.
AoN: Can you say something about the impact clowns had in movies and on tv?
I wasn’t around to see the great clown duos and trios of the 30s, 40s and 50s, the Fratellinis, the Cairolis, Grock…all of these guys of whom Lecoq spoke. We weren’t around to see those clowns, but we do have Chaplin and Keaton. Many things came from the clown, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball (she studied with Buster Keaton and Red Skelton). Lucille Ball was the birth of situation comedy. It changed things forever in America. I could go country to country to point out examples. Clown definitely changed things. Everybody knows how to say in their language “And now, tonight, especially for you…!” and that comes from the circus. The clown has had a huge renewal in the times we are living. He is rising up when we need him, and I think we need him now. We need a bit of truth and we need a laugh. That is why the clown comes here to the Earth, when we need her/ him. Because if we didn’t have the clown, what would we do?
AoN: Creativity and crisis. It seems they are connected. What is your view on it, how does it influencee the work you do?
I put clowns in danger and that is when miracles happen. When an actor is in danger, things come out of him…he doesn’t even know what’s he saying. I have seen people completely amaze themselves—and me. The reason why I do a public presentation at the end of the workshop is for several reasons. For one, the actors/clowns must recreate scenes they found in improvisation and do them without repeating the same experience, but by repeating the same events. The clown has to the same things, but do them differently, or more accurately, in the same state of discovery. This is the greatest learning experience. Everybody, invariably, tries to repeat what he or she did previously because it worked. But repeating remembered experiences never works! You have to see everything as if it’s the first time. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Every time you come on the stage, you never saw the public before that moment; you never saw the stage before. It is a discovery. To get to that place is the hardest thing to do of all, but that is the goal. And crisis helps. Putting yourself in danger helps, because you are required to open your brain and being and use other parts that one doesn’t normally use.
AoN: What do you gain out of teaching the clown?
I love when people ‘get’ it. I love to see them making a public laugh, love to see the public laughing at them. And it is my own personal research, as well, because when I am working on others, I am discovering myself. I am reaffirming and rediscovering things, ultimately making myself a better actress, I think.
I get to feel that I helped some actor along his path a little bit and that makes me happy.
AoN: And you probably get to laugh a lot…
I get to laugh a lot…that is very good! (Laughter)