Last Tuesday I facilitated a long awaited Bouffon (Buffoon) workshop. I’d been looking forward to it for a long time – the chaos, the mischief, trying something different to the red nose. I’d actually felt quite giddy about it. Good space to be in, I thought. The day of the workshop arrived. It was a hot, unusually sunny, one. Despite a couple of last minute cancellations, I had a good number. Actually, I realised I knew everyone coming – no pressure.
After a long battle through traffic in a piping hot car, I was feeling a little Bouffon-ish myself. I was beginning to imagine pushing cyclists of their bikes with a long stick and I was very close to sticking up my middle finger at most other drivers. Anyhow, very hot, sticky and a little bothered, I arrived at the workshop venue. I signed in, walked upstairs and pushed open the door of our room. A wall of heat hit me and the thought struck, Oh dear, this could be interesting. One of Ireland’s hottest days this year and your asking people to pad themselves with cushions, pillows and extra clothes – hmmmm. You see with Bouffon, you pad the body to create a whole new body shape that distorts your own and allows you to be more playful .
As the people trickled in with greetings and introductions; workshop fees were exchanged and clothes were changed getting ready for work. I could feel myself getting slightly discombobulated… Who has yet to come? Who had said they’d be late? What’ll I do if someone passes out with heat stroke? What am I doing after the padding up? Should I move all these tables out of here? Who do I need to give change to? All the disadvantages of doing your own administration were becoming clear particularly when you are giving a workshop on a topic slightly less familiar to you.
But we began… I had wanted to create a very playful environment. But what I didn’t fully appreciate was… the complexity of Bouffon. You see Bouffon is great fun… but it’s serious fun and its extremely challenging. It requires you to be playful with the things in your nature that you mostly try to hide – your impoliteness, violence, ignorance, sexuality – while simultaneously having a certain beauty and grace. The Bouffon has an edge. It mocks the audience by poking fun at societies norms, regulations and repressions. I remember seeing Eric Davis in his Red Bastard Show, as an audience member I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I wasn’t sure if he was sincere or taking the piss out of me, if I loved him or hated him and vica versa, if he was beautiful or grotesque. In fact, he seemed to be all these things. He’s a great Bouffon.
To facilitate a Bouffon workshop, you need to be very aware of what your asking of your participants and the energy you are creating in the room. While studying Bouffon at LISPA, I remember doing a group improv that was building to extreme violence, a kind of mob killing and mid way I had to stop – I was getting extremely dizzy. Expressing the aggression in my own nature was a little overwhelming.
In this workshop there was an air of playfulness and simultaneously uncertainty as people played with being not so nice, breaking the rules and being a little outrageous. Some were straight in Bouffoned to the max, others a little hesitant – really, you want me to be… how rude? I could see this and it was pretty much what one would expect… but I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond all the time. Then, everyone padded up. It was fun watching others explore what body shape allowed them to be more playful. Some opted for huge bums, others… breasts, others… a giant belly and some all three. Again some people found it more easily. Others looked not so sure but decided to go with what they had. I got them to explore how they might move with this new body both individually and as a group. This was actually very interesting especially when they looked at the audience. However, it was also when I started to panic a little – people looked hot, faces got redder and sweat beads began to appear on people’s brows – I was thinking, Please God no one faint.
I decided to have a short break and resume with some guided improvisations. It was quite a change of direction. This work was looking at the Bouffon in real life situations as opposed to just playing more abstractly. I gave different scenarios and asked people to jump in, play and just see what happens. Then we discussed what works and what doesn’t. This is something I am very used to. It’s the way I was trained at LISPA. However, it can be difficult if you’re not used to it – both practically and personally. It’s the throw you in the deep end before you have the knowledge approach. As time goes on you discover for yourself (and through the Lecoq teaching) what a piece needs. And it needs a lot – rhythm, a build, clear characters, defined space (place) etc. You get used to being told what you are trying to do doesn’t always look like what your audience sees. It can be frustrating and enlightening. In my workshop, those who were used to devising/ critically looking at theatre seemed more comfortable with this whereas those that were new to it looked a little lost. At this point I had a realistion… uncertainty and even failure are not the issues; what’s important is that people feel comfortable (or at least willing to risk) being uncertain and allowing themselves to fail. And in fairness, this group gave it a shot.
After the workshop, I felt a little strange. It wasn’t quite what I had imagined. Of course it couldn’t be. I’d built this workshop up in my head. Between that and all the practical, admin and heat issues as well as trying to cover nearly the whole subject of Bouffon – yeah, I kind of did… On the flip side, there were definitely some really fun moments and interesting scenarios that with more time could have really worked – I’m not trying to throw baby out with bathwater.
What I learnt was… to be more simple; sometimes you are just not as present as you can be; know what you are asking of people and acknowledge what is in the room; it is up to you to create an environment of trust and that can take time; to create something truly funny often requires that something serious – sometimes difficult – needs to be expressed and acknowledged first. In red nose clown I am so aware of this – you have to acknowledge and express your own sadness/anger/ disappointment seriously in order to be able to play with it.
I will revisit Bouffon again. It’s a fascinating subject. In the immediate future, I’m looking forward to the familiar vulnerability of the red nose and being “with” an audience once more.