" Clowning "
I redraw the steps of the seven-year’s work that led Jean-Pierre Besnard, founder of "Caravane Théâtre" with me to create the concept of "clowning" in 1996. Clowning sprang up in India, from a fusion of interactive theatre style, mostly forum-theatre, and clown-theatre.
In a few words, the clowning is about: "spotting out, understanding and surpassing individual and/or collective difficulties with the help of clown resources and the theatre interactivity".
Half a dozen of clowning intervention mode has sprung up from these researches and also an emblematic character of joker-clown: the "magic-man". Beatrice FORET
Paldi Meena, a "trash town" of Jaipur suburb in India. The red sun strikes the sand of the place, shaded by the shape of thin trees. Children and adults, all together in a semi circle, patiently wait for the forum-theatre show of caravan theatre, around the scene, despite flies and mosquitos. We hear the actors preparing themselves at the far end behind the black "curtain" of the scene. Suddenly a red thunder crosses the scene... agile, the "Narrator" appears without announcing... the "magic-man"!
He starts the show, introduces himself. He comes from another place for sure. He is temporarily with humans, where things are not going so well...
On his forehead, a shinning "trash" crown. His face is unlighted with white colour. He wears a red "jacket" with a yellow belt and black pants. A symbol of Indian colours.
Red referrers to the embodiment, to the action, to the energy of transformation (processing) and to the human life. Black is for the destruction and re-birth. White signifies the spiritual world...
He shows his power. "I will make rain fall" he says with big movements. Splash! A backstage "complice" has just thrown a "pot" of water on the scene in the direction of the public... "Complicity starts with the public, says Jean-Pierre Besnard. The magic-man apologises for the few amount of rain that has just fallen. In Rajasthan, it has been drought for years and people really suffer from lack of water".
"Excuse me but rain is not exactly my speciality, it is more of my colleague’s, I don't really know how to do it... hum... Do you want to see the moon right now?"
A moon quarter rises with difficulty over the black "Curtain".
"A wink, poetic and clown’s sweetness..., comments Jean-Pierre. The public is laughing and listens to the complice word from one of its own. The "magic-man" as August situates the action in the "right here and right now". We are in true emotions, the shared laugh. The public is shared and bounced between sky and earth, laugh and pain, the possible and the magic. From now we feel that everything can happen, that everything is possible. The spectator himself is allowed to get the unnatural and ridiculous power of the magic-man who will lead this vital show".
But chut! ... Story is about to begin. The "magic-man" leaves the scene to the actors; he is near the public, with whom he will share the emotions of the theatre. Today in Pladi Meena, a story will end up badly: a young woman is married against her will, the dowry is not paid, the fire is set in the kitchen, a murder will be disguised as an "accident".
At the end of the show, the magic-man becomes the joker and the forum-theatre’s leader, and says to the spectators: "I stay one hour with you. Come and let's transform the life". The proposal made to the public is about acting sooner in the story, before it’s too late! To make this possible, the magic-man rewinds time with his small bell and gets the story back to the beginning.
The actors start once again to play the initial scenario. This time, we are in the specific interactivity of the forum-theatre, one of the theatre style created by the Brazilian Augusto Boal, inventor of the “Theatre of the oppressed" in the 60's. The magic-man invites the spectators to interrupt the story, to replace the character in difficulties, to act their own solution in a confrontation with other characters. In this case, the public is facing reality without tricks: a "bad" and "pressuring" character can't be transformed in a magical trick! But there is always something to do! The magic man advises the public and leads it to choose not one but several solutions or possible actions. He makes interactivity easier, he particularly helps those who never speak to express themselves in front of their community.
The birth of the character
His magical aspect refers to the Rajasthan’s culture and to India’s culture in general. The magician character is particularly popular in Rajasthan: in the puppet theatre, the comic “Jadugar” is able to play with his own head that he takes off and puts back on his neck all the time. He can also make it dance with the top of his foot.
“The cultural, religious and superstitious Indian environment is full of gurus, sadhus, fakirs, magic and magicians, Jean-Pierre explains. It is a cultural environment that helps the creation of character combining half god, half man ".
“I always wanted to connect the forum-theatre and the clown character, Jean-Pierre explains. I felt that something should happen in India. You just have to watch these characters in the street wearing beast skins or wearing nothing at all, painted with different colours, masking all virtues, and assuming all imperfections" these are the characters dressed like god and they beg. Shiva, Hanuman the monkey god, Ganesh the elephant headed god...
We are also here, us, accidentally people who don't understand what is happening. Who are these people? What are they doing here? Why these weird people are so well integrated into the society?
To me, the Indian street has always been a scene of theatre where clowns are passing by.
There, I don't understand many things, but I know that this strange situation makes sense. And it gives a poetic sens to my own life, helps to invent new schemes to myself, to carry on my personality through other stories, to build myself other identities, to develop my spirit, to get better. In India, reality is different than my habitual one and, just like the clown you have to handle it".
So the "magic man" founds his true place in Caravane Theatre through the different Franco Indian experiences: in particular the forum-theatre trainings which were immediately followed by clown-theatre-trainings, then experimental show in Rajasthan's public places. "Things have been mixed together" JP adds. This mixed approach of the two theatre styles has become the beginning of the clowning experiences.
And then, the clown spirit has started to be more and more present in the Franco Indian and Indian theatre actions.
"Indian people love the clown character, JP precises, they have an instant relation with him. His existence has become inevitable when people play forum-theatre. He widens the imagination, opens to the ridicule and to the gap.”
This “contamination” between the clown theatre and forum theatre brought forth various types of clowning. In caravane theatre, we approach this character of "mad-joker". In our show which is mainly for elder people, we have created a character acted expressions in order to get the spectator focus on the scene.
«When the fake actors have ended their show, they silently get out and "complices" stay on scene to discuss with the public and try to make people get the information. For traditional Indian minds, it is almost impossible to talk about a subject as sensible as AIDS. So: to call the clowns out is the best way to avoid the difficult situations. We can’t recognise the clowns and we don’t suspect them with their debonair entertaining attitude..."
The experience consisted in playing a short sketch "Kela and Mangoo" by an Indian clown and a French one in a crowdie cafe of Jaipur, the "Indian-coffee-house", with the agreement of the owner but without telling the clients. A meeting between two friends; Kela the first one is fully in love and wants to go further in the relationships... The other one, Mangoo is warning him against AIDS dangers and explains him the use of condom. But the first one is rushing out of the cafe, closely followed by his friend who wants to give him condoms.
After they left, the public is either entertained or wondering. The invisible actors, dressed like common Indian citizens, who had slipped themselves in the public before the clowns arrived, start discussing different points of view to develop the debate: should people talk about AIDS or not, while epidemic is growing in India? And how?
"One week later, people were still talking about it, and even local newspapers were on the subject, JP says. I can tell that it was close, especially for Kamal. But the objective was completed, and we didn't stop there."
This experience began the set up for similar experiences in France, like in a club in Pau where the theme of AIDS was raised in a western way.
Clowns inviting themselves to the show...
Alert in "Duddu village". A group of three generations of Rajasthani tribe is walking in the streets, shelters, plates, bottles, everyone is carrying something. Behind the tribe, the crowd is growing.
Clowns don't hesitate to go to the farms to convince the women to come and see the show. For this, they have to accept a small ride on a scooter. Clowns even get in the school. On the large area, several groups are attending outdoor classes. Winter is a good season to do that! One of the teachers comes to help a papa clown whose daughter refuses to go to school! He tries to convince her that it is a good lesson. Then, time-freezes: will the children be allowed to leave the school for a moment to attend a show? In the happy spirit of the meeting, the director agrees.
More than 400 peoples are rushing out of the school behind the clowns! The crowd arrives on the place of the village. The front of a house will be used as a scene with the agreement of the owners. Mission accomplished: More than a thousand of persons have been gathered in less than 20 minutes! It showed that clowns can move and gather lots of people in India!
Clowns intervene in forum-theatre show
The experience was firstly tried in the "slums" of the suburbs of Jaipur, since 1999: with a clown family (where I played the mother, see culture town number 2), then with a clown couple, etc... Each time, clowns take time to meet the population before attending the forum theatre show played by the Indian troupe carvan.
The principle is the following one: mixed with the crowd, the clowns are reacting to what is happening on the scene, reinforcing the interest and the implication of the public. Triangular relations and mirror game: the spectators are watching the clowns who are watching the show, and then they watch what captivates the clowns in the public! Everything is about sensibility, balance and discretion... and the amplification of the emotions! The clowns are vigilant not to keep the action on themselves but to involve the spectator, without "pushing away" the actors of the forum theatre, but on the contrary to improve the interactivity.
According to the spectators, clowns are also here to lead the shy to dare standing up and to come on the scene to replace the character facing difficulties. The shy ones or more particularly the ones that the society keeps behind: the women. From woman-clown to Indian-woman, the words are useless: the enthusiasm and the freedom appetite can be shared through energy, eye looks, physical proximity.
Exceptionally, on demand of the forum-theatre’s joker, the clowns can also intervene directly in the forum-theatre show: they create a big event that will involve the public and push it to react. Ambedkar Basti’s experience is a good example. A young clown couple has just been friendly welcomed by the public, especially the young clown woman, "adopted" by the women group.
The forum-theatre show was about a young married woman who just gave birth to a girl. The family and the village community, disappointed, oblige her husband to have a son, the tradition insists on having a son. She finally dies because she is pregnant too frequently.
This subject is a taboo, so the Indian joker knew that it would not be easy to make the spectator intervene during the replacement phase. With the complicity of Jean-Pierre, he made a sign to the clowns to come forward for replacements. The young clown couple, disappointed with the destiny of the young woman, rushed on the scene to help her.
The effect of this solidarity action in the public was surprising: the ancients from the trash town gathered on scene, acting like a Panchayat council, traditional common assembly which is progressively coming back to the villages. The wisemen discussed and finally decided to protect the young woman against her own family!
"clown-forum" and prevention
As Caravane Théâtre in France, the Indian troupe Carvan deals with public health prevention in the forum-theatre. It’s a necessity because it is a part of JKSMS, an active NGO in the field. The troupe has many propositions for the shows. Most of the time big NGOs ask for this kind of prevention.
Most of these health questions are not easy to raise: it is often difficult to talk about things related to body in India... For example, how should people talk about ... diarrhoea theme, so many children continue to fall victim of? Serious subject, but eminently organic, body related and scatological! Only clowns can talk about it.
It allowed the first "clown-forum" experience to be set: a forum-theatre show played by clowns. The carvan clowns have intervened in a village near a district hospital, the only one in a large sector, where an international NGO was organising a preventing day around several themes. After involving the biggest amount of habitants as we saw it previously ("clowns inviting themselves to the show"), clowns settle their camp on the place chosen for the show. Then an actor dressed like a doctor comes to speak about diarrhoea. He pushes the clowns away who step back in a small part of the scene and become active spectators! They agree enthusiastically with the doctor, and finally live all what he says: in their tribe, their daughter is sick! They will cure her on scene, following the drugs and procedures advised by the doctor.
This one, at the end of his speech asks the clown grandfather to explain once again the precious information. The doctor notes that the information is precisely given, the doctor gives his white "coat" to the grandfather. This one will invite someone else in the public to express what he or she remembered about it. Then it’s time for mothers and school children to come on the scene, proud and happy to express once again their knowledge to the community. The coat passes from one shoulder to another as a symbol of knowledge transmission.
The well-cured clown tribe leaves the public being cheered by the crowd. The work started by the clowns will be continued by the social workers of the NGO organising the event.
Magic-man's cousins transform theatre
The workshops and shows experiences led during summers 2002 and 2003 are dealing with a new aspect of the presence of clowns in Forum Theatre. It is not only about clowns-spectators participating to the replacements and leading to an emotional participation of the public anymore: the magic-man joker makes the clowns exist by giving to them powers and magic. They intervene in the core of the theatre itself and in the transformation.
At a moment he says:" you people can't see them for the moment, but I have cousins of mine who are hidden among you. I give you the opportunity to see them. But the actors who play on scene won’t see them. I send them in life to be the small particle of sand that will stop the oppressing machine".
When Magic man rings the bell, the characters in the story stand still to resemble pictures, time stops. A space where everything is possible appears a poetic space. The magic man lets his cousins do what they want.
For example in "the dowry", parents forbid two young people to love each other. The fathers of the young man and the young woman were surprised to see their children flirting in a garden. They separate them with violence and bring them back in their families where they will marry according to the choices of the family.
The bell rings. Picture freezes. A clown "cousin" uses this opportunity to bring a doll symbolising a baby in the young man's arms. The bell rings again. At this moment the actors start once again the story but adapting the show to the new element: the presence of a baby!
This event will trouble the characters for sure; it will disturb, shift the situation, move the action. Confusing moment with this baby, "already born»! It’s impossible to step back. Will the fathers reject him? Will they negotiate with their children? It is an opening to the spirit. A whole field of research opened.
The actors have to question themselves on what is happening, and have to deal with sudden situation. "The clowns, Jean-Pierre says, is the unpredictable thing that gets into life. The small thing that disturbs, make you doubt, entertains. Spectators are happy about these jokes, so useful to transform oppressing situations".
Clown, dancer and forum theatre : another way to act
Summer 2003 was very useful for the exploration of new clowning dimensions. One of the episodes took place during the show in the Maharajah’s Palace in Jaipur, after a forum theatre show involving magic man "cousins" and other clowns and franco-italian dancers. I had led training "clown and motion" with Pascale Bravo, dancer and artiste “plasticienne" of Toulouse (Abordage en Compagnie).
During the replay of a scene of the forum theatre, a young couple from a village and their baby are in danger because of the drought in their region. Pascale and I have imagined that a dancer and a clown could have met the characters of the story and help them to transform the story in another way than they have tried, experimented until then. Form a scenario that we had been set up we improvised.
Linked by a long green string, the clown and the dancer start the discovery of the steady characters. An dialogue starts without speech with the young Indian woman. The string meaning evolves with the story: intercultural link, life bringer string, veil that reveals or imprison the woman. And this baby, about to be abandoned to other people, in desperation... finally ends up in the surprised clown's arms; it finally returns in his parents arms. The universe has opened itself once again: in his emotional "excess", the clown gives the characters a few hope. She finally leads the small human chain to the exit at the palace, the dancer is the last.
In this extension of clowning, we discover other ways to act on a difficult reality, other shapes and colours of pleasures, of solidarity, of breathing. The clown comes to "free" people with his language, just like the dancer with his and their gesture mingled. Poetically, they help characters to get back to motion, leave the scene with a smile, to create a moment, an inspiration.
A lost traveller
The presence of the clown has become necessary in the intercultural experience of “Caravane Théâtre."I would have never been able to work with Indian people, to train theatre or forum-theatre actors, if I did not have the clown, Jean-Pierre Besnard concludes. How can you teach something when you don't speak the same language as the other one (we had really few English in common...)?
How can you really understand so different people if they don't express themselves through body language... It is the freedom of clown language that allowed us to be closer, gestures and body language that have made us understandable to the other one. The Humour has made difficult subjects possible to deal together, while our cultures are very different.
It is also the "clowny" connection with the public (fun, character and role replacement, words and speeches, body language highlights...) that make hard or taboo subjects so easy to understand, to handle...
The joker or the magic man creates complicity with the public as they are watching eyes in the eyes.
In France also our experience of the forum-theatre is linked to the clown’s one. Clowns and the clown-spirit have their importance in our shows of forum-theatre. Images are very similar. Press articles that talks about our shows even publish clown pictures almost every time!"
But story is not over yet: Clowning is also taught in training workshops, and uses the powers of the clown to transform violence, to help people to go through personal difficulties...
The next part of the story of clowning, of the magic man and of his clowns-cousins will continue at the world social forum in Bombay, at the end of January 2004: Caravan Theatre, the Indian troupe carvan and other African and French partners will play together on the globalisation theme.
Jean-Pierre remembers the lyrics of Brel song:
« Regarde bien petit, regarde bien…
Dans la plaine là-bas, à hauteur des roseaux, entre ciel et moulins
Il y a l’homme qui vient que je ne connais pas.(…)
Est-ce un lointain voisin, un voyageur perdu, un montreur de dentelles ?
Est-ce un abbé porteur de ces fausses nouvelles qui aident à vieillir ?
Est-ce mon frère qui vient nous dire qu’il est temps d’un peu moins nous haïr ?
Ou n’est-ce que le vent qui gonfle un peu de sable
Et nous fait des mirages pour nous passer le temps (…)
Tu peux ranger les armes ».
Caravane Théâtre 11, rue des Jacinthes 31500 Toulouse
Tel : 06 08 28 89 97 E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
** Nom déposé à l’INPI en 2000.