Clown teaching?

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For 35 years Philippe Gaulier has been teaching performers how to find their inner clowns. A ‘small, hunched, bearded, long-haired man with a beret and red glasses on his nose’, Gaulier uses pedagogic techniques variously described as frustrating, insulting, inspiring and falling ‘somewhere between absurd and totalitarian’:

He said that drama schools like RADA with their big audition processes choose the better students, the ones who have a natural flair for performing, teach them a few vocal warm-ups and then put them into the world, claiming that the school made them the great actors they are.

He’s also been called a ‘Zen-master in Dilbert suspenders’.


10 thoughts on “Clown teaching?

  1. Hi Matthew

    I also teach at Westminster and have been to a few of the HEAT sessions in the last year or so when you have been hosting or there and have found them really interesting. I had no idea you were interested in Gaulier’s work. I’m really interested in this too, used to be an actor before becoming an organisational psychologist (albeit one leaning more towards a critical psychology perspective), and am currently doing a project exploring using theatrical masks to help facilitate leadership development at Westminster. Gaulier’s work is very interesting to me anyway, but especially in relation to this and his approach to play, Le Jeu etc. Anyway, I’ll try and chat to you and find out more about your interest in Gaulier at the next HEAT event, best wishes, Andy Peisley

    1. Hi Andy, thanks for commenting on the post.
      Your project on performance and psychology in education sounds fascinating and I’d be interested to hear more (it would be great if you could talk about this at one of the upcoming HEAT research labs?). I know very little about Gaulier other than what I’ve read and shared on these posts (via a friend who attended Gaulier’s school) but I was interested in the combative negativity of his pedagogic technique as an exception to the usual affirmationism of education (and how students learnt to adjust to and assimilate this in their own experience), so I’d be grateful to hear more…
      Regards, Matt

      1. Hi Matt,

        Thanks for replying. I don’t know a huge amount about Gaulier either, although have started to become more interested in this recently. Yes the combative negativity of his pedagogic technique is interesting and he is renowned for this, as are others who have trained at LeCoq or in that tradition. This kind of arguably brutual combative negativity also used to be very common in actor training and certainly was very prevalent in my drama training at that time, although since the move of drama schools into HEI’s seems less prevalent and so easily accepted by students and staff than it was. Personally I have found this kind of pedagogical approach very painful and damaging so am quite conflicted in my interest in other aspects of Gaulier’s work, because of this. Interesting that Steven also seems to have had similarities in his response to the video also. So lots of stuff here that’s interesting – would be great to talk more about all this at the HEAT meetings, best wishes, Andy

    2. Hi Andy
      (I edited this down from a previous post as I thought it was too anecdotal.)
      There are some very interesting theoretical and practice pedagogic issues raised by the video and your and Matt’s comments. I’m interested in the idea of the master class (MC), and its potential uses and abuses. I have to say the video suggests to me more of the abuses of the form, but that may be due to my coulrophobia. The MC has a long history in the performing arts (teachers as various as Leonard Berstein, Maria Callas, Lee Strasberg, and so on). Is there much about the MC as a pedagogic tool?
      Regards, Steven.

      1. Hi Steven

        Thanks for your comment on my post. I seem also have a similar response to yours with the video and with regard to possible uses and abuses of the form of the masterclass – as I’ve just mentioned in my reply to Matt’s comment, I personally have found this kind of approach that Gaulier demonstrates very damaging and painful as a student of acting in the past, and this approach was very prevalent in drama schools and professional workshops when I did my actor training, so am very conflicted in my interest in other aspects of Gaulier’s work because of this. Very interesting, would be good to talk more about all this at a HEAT meeting perhaps. I’m not that aware of pedagogical research on the MC, would be good to have a look at this, best wishes, Andy

  2. Mistressclass somehow does not have the same connotation….
    Could we focus on how HEAT influences practises?
    Best. Pauline

    1. Thanks Pauline. I wasn’t quite sure what your comment implied: by HEAT do you mean theory of educational in general or the group at Westminster? Is your “we” an inclusive one (you and others) – in which case, please do use the opportunity to say more about practice – or a rebuke directed at those involved in the previous conversation? And could you say some more about the gendered implications of the term “master class” (as it seems like there’s an important point to be made here)?

      1. I think for many teaching practitioners there is a need to bring in and consider theory and so the HEAT group is very important. This is particularly as ‘teachers’ have their own other disciplines and so educational theory may be foreign. For me, theory is of importance in order to improve practice. As a participant in the meetings theory is very interesting and I want to go on and discuss what it all means for what we actually do/could do in classrooms. What we as teachers (and theory makers) do can change lives. Big ideas like clowning, humour, flipping etc. can be explained in a variety of ways, and then practiced differently. I’m thinking of the links between theory and practice. But this is not primarily a discussion to be had on the ‘clown teaching’ discussion board.
        My comment on ‘masterclass’ is just to point out how language might consciously or more likely, unconsciously attract or repel us at some level. It’s borne from our history. It may not be helpful to think in dichotomies but seems to be how we do conceptualise, so I get:
        theory – good/academic ——practice less good/less academic
        male – powerful/knowledgable ——female less powerful/less knowledgable
        Dare I posit:
        male theory – female practice….
        I’m in danger of rambling on….. I need to go and DO something (joke)

      2. Hi Pauline

        Thanks for elaborating on a number of points. As I was the one who mentioned ‘masterclass’ I ought in my defense to say I was aware of its gendered connotations. That’s why I included Maria Callas as an exponent of the form: women have been and are among the most renowned givers of master classes. But the concept seems under-explored to me in the literature, and I was asking for any leads on ways in which it’s been critiqued. I’ve never knowingly given a master class by the way but I have been in some of them, including ones given by women, e.g. Marilyn Hacker’s workshop on how to write a sonnet in which she (very remarkably) never alluded to any of her own very distinguished work in this genre – maybe that is a sign of ‘good’ master class, the suspension of the facilitator’s ego.

        Whether we want to take issue with the wider elitist and gender connotations of the term (or the concept itself), that’s another matter, and actually I do think the video and the clowning focus provides a good stimulus to inquiry: the teaching of skills and their mastery in certain of the performing arts does appear to have a long tradition of being passed exclusively through the male line, which has led some (and not just women alone) to want to change this situation, including in higher education contexts. As for the term, Donald Schon has probably been more responsible that most for introducing the notion of ‘mastery’ into the epistemology of the reflective practitioner, and for Schon the concept is intended as a democratic rather than an authoritarian or gendered one. I don’t think we can get very far in discussions of practice without bumping into Schon and the idea of mastery, whether we feel comfortable with either or both.

        Your point about dichotomies and binaries is an important one, and it is entirely possible to see ‘theory’, as pervasively understood, as a competition between rival males arguing essentially (as Mary Midgley puts it) that ‘my ideas are bigger than yours’. One only has to think of the struggle women philosophers have had to be taken seriously in the profession. That’s partly why in the HEAT team we have made a conscious decision to have female and male thinkers featured in the readings (Arendt, Sedgwick and now Spivak as some of the female thinkers). We haven’t yet included any thinkers who situate themselves outside gender binaries but I am sure we will. Some of these thinkers focus on gender more than others. We certainly don’t want these theorists to be the sole spokespersons for ‘gender’.

        In my own professional experience the male/female theory/practice has never settled into comfortably neat binaries. Others may report different experiences of course and I suppose examples of the extremes are not hard to find. As a nursing practitioner I was very much attached (a la Schon) to the notion of nursing as an artful practice and not a science: however, I was constantly forced to define myself as ‘male’ (and hence as something ‘other’) by a number of female theorists in the nursing profession who constantly pushed me towards the management route as if somehow my kind of caring practice couldn’t be the real thing if it was embodied in a male. This experience demonstrated to me that these dichotomies and pressures are much more fluid than might be presumed.

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