(Please note: although these pictures are not from my classes, the practice plays out so similarly!)

I recently taught a workshop on Dramatic Improvisation for a Comedy Festival focused on Improvisation and Stand-Up comedy for adults. Mine was the first workshop of the day (a Saturday), and I had anticipated a small turnout of people, mostly men, who might resist all but the hilarious and shallow. Why? Because Dramatic Improvisation only works with deep vulnerability and an almost intimateLong Form Improv relationship with a scene partner, who may be a stranger. It’s hard to do, and if the commitment to the scene partner is not complete, the scene is unsatisfying. It’s also not necessarily funny (although it can be), and has the potential to be beautiful and raw. Kinda doesn’t fit Saturday Improv Comedy Fest, but that’s what I was asked to teach.

Well, it’s true that people dribbled in and it’s true that they were men with one late exception, BUT they were receptive, worked hard, took direction, and did some poignant, funny, breath-stopping work that was character-driven rather than joke-driven. They took direction and critique and grew in awareness and, yes, intimacy.

I have given this outcome and my own prejudice a great deal of thought in the days since. I typically teach Dramatic Improv and Contact Improv (another deeply personal and wonderful improv form that is movement based) to teenagers, and the hard part is always inching them towards the Contact Improvletting go of their outer walls, helping them to launch themselves into a moment where they are vulnerable co-stewards of an intimacy of emotion and raw honesty made public.

To be clear, I don’t mean ‘intimacy’ in the sense of sexuality or sex scenes. In Contact Improv, the intimacy is both physical and emotional; students’ bodies stay in contact as they discover and apply what are, in essence, planetary and geographical physics. They must learn to not be self-supporting, but rather co-steward as they move through poses hunting for balance, center-point, centripetal force of the unit which invariably puts them as individuals in a place where they would fall if they let go or tried to use brute force instead of trust, vulnerability, and connectivity.

Contact Improv 3There is always huge fear, huge resistance, and then unfettered and profound joy when they nail it. I often take as my partner the largest or least physical comfortable person—I am not very big—in order to demonstrate that it will be okay. I will have the large young man do the pose with me where he ends up standing on my knees as we both lean back, his arm extended, like flying …. because relationships are not about who is stronger, who is bigger, who has what qualities as an individual, but rather how those

Contact Improv 2qualities can be used to find the balance, the center-point, the connected but turning planets, the tectonic forces of people. After this body work, we do an exercise where each person slowly and carefully touches the air about an inch from their partner’s body (with the back of their hand, not the front) in slow consciousness and respect. Then we do scene work.

Although the process of inching teens towards intimacy, vulnerability, and co-stewardship is different when I teach Dramatic Improv (different exercises), the outcome is the same—surprise, elation, pride, bravery, and an enriched capacity for calm and courageous openness. It’s that trusting co-caring that relies on the relationship and not the self; it is intimacy. Inevitably the scene work is extraordinary, regardless if they ever met their scene partner before, regardless if their scene partner is someone they would even like under other circumstances.

Inevitably the performers carry forward a heightened awareness of other and interpersonal bonds, and the realization that they can create something truly incredible through this practice…onstage AND in life.

Why was I surprised by my group of adults? Because for teens, the resistance grows of the newness of true co-caring and the ‘terrifyingness’ of such intense vulnerability, and I had presumed that most people who do Stand-Up or joke-type comic improv would be focused on the self rather than the other. Yet in the workshop, they moved more quickly through the steps of deepening vulnerability and emotional intimacy than the teens. Why? Oftentimes, dealing with other targeted performance skills, adults are less willing to take risks than teens. I wonder if, perhaps, the value and impact of a vulnerable, co-stewarding practice was so great in their past (on stage? In real life? In actual relationships?) that they were able, in 50 minutes with people they had never met, practice the art of intimacy and create fabulously engaging Improvisation.

Regardless of the underlying reason, it was an incredible experience it was for me to work with them and have my assumptions turned upside down, and I will carry this learning forward with me to other times when I am teaching intimacy in performance practice—as something to be mindful of in the workshop participants’ relationships to the material and with each other …. but also in my relationships with them.

In June, I had the amazing opportunity to work with 3 Tier Consulting (http://3-tier.org/home/ check out some of their amazing blogs and work) and some fabulous kids who are also kids with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. We were doing theatre/dramatic play/acting and playbuilding exercises and games, partly because yes, those skills are what those kids need to analyze and memorize social cues and responses, but also because it’s fun and develops social awareness for anyone!

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear. Check

Applied Theatre Center's Autism Network workshop

out the incredible website for Autism Theatre Network here: http://www.appliedtheatrecenter.org/autismnetwork.html

There is currently lots of blogging and research done on these kinds of topics, albeit few professionals who incorporate a theatrical approach/encourage a child with autism to do the school play. But that number is growing. Below are some links to help you learn more. You can also go to your twitter account and search #autism– great way to keep abreast of the latest happenings and ideas. There’s great book if you want to incorporate theatre into your practice, or to help you theatre people feel more at home with kids who have Asperger’s “Teaching Asperger’s Students Social Skills Through Acting: All Their World Is a Stage!” by Amelia Davies.

I want to close by recommending checking out the Teaching Artists Journal. I keep up with the blog called “alt space” (http://tajaltspace.com) and the below article takes an amazing look at teaching/learning, different brain happenings and learning styles, and the role of the arts in that.


More links:





In keeping with my recent theme of Performance and Protest (three previous blog), welcome to Part Two of Clowning!

Holly in Abu Dabi, 2001

This little section looks at ‘what is clowning’ and how that was understood early in the history of Islam in the Silk Road countries. Next week’s blog will be another look at Autism and the role arts can play in bridging, but after that will be a third (and closing) bit on Clowns on the Silk Roads. Feel free to contact me for more info! And now, on with the show.

The exchange of styles, skills, characterizations and so forth was (and is) facilitated by the itinerant nature of performers. Three main reasons why performing clowns traveled were:

*The search for new markets

*As part of royal court retinue (they were expected to accompany various court members)

*Self-preservation; as laws changed and social pressure increased, it became in the clowns best interest to keep moving

To elaborate,

The first factor was/is especially motivating for street performers: even if one is constantly developing new material, one cannot earn a living forever performing solely in one town.

Clowns retained by the court traveled with the royal entourage on sojourns and even conquests, in addition to accompanying ambassadors or other court personnel on various journeys.

The codification of Islam, the rising heat of debate between the learned as to the appropriateness of humor, and the widely varying enforcement of Muslim law to combat magic and other unnatural acts against God fueled the practice of roving. Magic and other acts against God sometimes included juggling, balancing tricks, acrobatics, slapstick, and unnervingly accurate mimicry.


Men crowd around to watch us clown, Feb 2002, Kabul

In addition to providing impetus for a semi-nomadic lifestyle, the more strident legal measures also compelled many clowns to alter their performance style in order to protect themselves; to quote Gogol, “Even the man who is afraid of nothing is afraid of laughter.” These performers adapted the art of storytelling to create a “once removed” form of clowning, thereby protecting themselves without relinquishing social commentary. At this point many people wonder how storytelling can be clowning- are they storytellers or clowns? Acrobats, jugglers, storytellers, et cetera may also be clowns. They may clown in some moments and not in others. In the same vein, although many clowns wear masks or mask-like makeup, others do not. Moreover, the presence of makeup/mask does not mean that a performer is performing in a clown role. Clowning is a social phenomenon rather than an isolated incident or a set of prescribed actions. It is like a car- if I have a ‘race car’, am I automatically racing? No. I may be buying groceries. If I do not have a ‘race car’ am I never able to race? No. You and I could challenge each other verbally or non-verbally at a stoplight.

To provide context for understanding clown modalities, it is important to understand critical clown elements. For the purposes of this blog, we will use the following parameters to define ‘clowning’:

*There must be both a performer and an audience

*The performers and audience have an agreement; they enter willingly into a space-time in which different social rules apply, a sacred negotiation space

*The performer has a social status outside of the linear and vertical social strata

*The performer communicates a context of affection/caretaking of the audience/community

*The performance instigates awareness and/or change

The first four elements make possible the last, and without the impetus to awareness and/or change (and the awareness may be as subtle as the discovery of wonder), the performance cannot be thought of as clowning. It is the delightful but startling newness that compels this kind of laughter, opening the heart to momentary clarity and the possibility for transformation. In support, I share with you the writings of three great Islamic physicians:

Alî b. Rabban at-Tabarî: “Laughter is (the result of) the boiling of the natural blood (which happens) when a human being sees or hears something that diverts him and thus startles and moves him.”

Imrân: “Laughter is defined as the astonishment of the soul at observing something that it is not in a position to understand clearly (ta’ajjubu n-nafsi min shay’in lam yuqaddar lahâ dabtuhû) . . . The matter and gravitational force serving laughter is the pure, even-tempered blood that is distributed all over the body. Its end is the awareness of the soul, when laughing, of the meaning of laughter by gaining clarity about its purpose as either humorous or serious.” 

Feb 2002, Kabul. Women laugh with delight; we are the first performers since the Taliban came.

Kindî: “Laughter —- An even-tempered purity of the blood of the heart together with an expansion of the soul to a point where is joy becomes visible.”

Without question, the personal discovery of the viewer is usually rooted in an altered social perspective, but it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the clown is simply evoking awe and delight, reminding us that “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. That there could be “more things in Heaven and earth” is at the crux of the debate in Islam as to whether or not magic, circus tricks, clown antics and so on ‘fly in the face of God’. Despite increased opposition at the beginning of the second Common Era millennium, there remained a faction that believed such performances were not the result of invoking the devil or false gods, but the revealing of the measure, beauty and wonder ‘of God’s capacity’.

My two most recent posts were about Community Process and Performance as Protest. Both touch on a performance form that to me is the most sacred and most profane, most accessible and most sublime, CLOWNING. As some of you may know, my Master’s Thesis was called “The Search for Indigenous Clown Forms in Afghanistan” (of course it was), stimulated in part by participation in a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in February of 2002 with the the Italian military, an Italian film crew, and approximately two dozen clowns, mostly Italian. My passion for Silk Roads clowns continues unabated, and lately, people have been asking me more about them.

Thus, this blog entry! This is an excerpt (sadly made slightly ‘rumpled’ in tone in my attempt to cut words) from a paper I presented at a Silk Roads Conference in Australia. It also provides a working definition/explanation for clowning (which is really a social phenomenon, not a particular costume or make-up). I am breaking it into two parts for more ‘readablility’.

Feel free to contact me with questions or if you would like more info!



Clown in Kabul

In any discussion of clowning, images of the court jesters of Europe and of Western antiquity prevail. Their presence in literature and common social construct is so profound that even in the United States (where, obviously, there have never been court jesters) they are as well known as the clowns of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Cirque du Soleil. Jesters were long an integral part of Silk Road courts as well. Modern day aficionados of the form recognize the traditional importance of clowns in a court or a community; they are ‘the wise fools’, the touchstones of human nature, and those who reflect the weaknesses and strengths of a people. Clowns are not only a medium by which a community regains internal harmony and mutual caretaking, but also by which strengthens its identity and offers resistance in the face of external oppression.

There are traces of the clown forms from these regions that are pre-Islamic, detectable primarily through etymology and through current clown customs that have existed so long that they are described as heritage. Marcus Aurelius claims that the use of masks by the Greeks came from Central Asia, and indeed the word “Mask” comes from the Old Italian word “maschera” from the word “maskara” adopted into Arabic as a result of trade and invasion. “Mask” is also the word for the facial hide of an animal, particularly a goat or sheep. The tanned hide of a goat or sheep fits the human face well, as the eye sockets line up with our own and the outer contours are also approximately the same size. Such masks were worn in sacred rituals both serious and humorous throughout ancient Central Asia.

Vestiges of these customs remain in the goat horns that adorn some of the rural mountain Islamic shrines in Afghanistan, in the modern (as of the 1970s) traditions and celebrations in some regions of Pakistan, and in the legacy of masks or mask-like makeup by clowns in Bali, India, China, Japan, Russia, and Europe. (Of course, they are also the likely source of the western Christian notion of the devil as having horns and other goat features.) The Italian clown form commedia dell‘arte has a predominance of masked characters, and the oldest character, Arlecchino, has a lump on the right side of his forehead, which is said to be either a syphilis lump or a goat/devil horn. Finally, the clowns of Kashmir are called “maskara”, and their ‘make-up masks’ include red markings on the cheeks and a big red nose.

The exchange of styles, skills, characterizations and so forth was (and is) facilitated by the itinerant nature of performers. Three main reasons why performing clowns traveled were:

*The search for new markets

*As part of royal court retinue (they were expected to accompany various court members)

*Self-preservation; as laws changed and social pressure increased, it became in the clowns best interest to keep moving

Pirates of Penzance-rollicking success!Whether you are directing a show or putting together a community pageant, there are several aspects of the project that will either support a smooth process and positive outcome, or create major stress and early onset balding (or maniacal laughter…).

Here’s a few tips to help it go well!

SCHEDULE. Number one arch nemesis. Everyone has other things to do, there are different skill sets represented (and so of course, different members of each subgroup have different learning-time needs), people forget, and things come up at the last minute. What are some steps you can take so as not to go postal?

    • If at all possible, create a google calendar! There’s a feature where everyone can type in their own availability and you can easily see where things overlap. As the calendar manager, you can erase the ones that aren’t pertinent once yo set the schedule. You can add fun icons for folks who need a visual cue (like me). You can have it send reminders to peoples’ emails. And for folks who do not have a computer, set up a meeting time where they write down on their calendar in pencil when they may be needed while you type it in to the google calendar. Once it is set, follow up with that person in person, with your laptop 1) so they can write the correct dates/times down on their own calendar and 2) so if they are at a library or other location with public-access internet, they will know how to check the google calendar online. Changes? Have google calendar send out an email AND TEXTS to all the subscribers. That way you only have to follow-up directly with the folks who do not have the privilege of cell-phones/computers, etc. By the way, the google calendar for your event will appear nestled into the rest of your computer-based calendar, in a new color.
    • Organize the schedule into what are called “French Scenes”. This means you rehearse the scenes with the same people in them, even though they are not consecutive, trying to follow the sequence in which they appear, so as to focus on how the relationships or use of space, etc change in the course of the piece. Very helpful both for schedule and for people seeing the relationships and character growth more clearly. I often do a variation on French Scene scheduling by adding a sort-of “pyramid” structure: Choose the pair or trio on which you wish to focus. Start with a large group scene that includes them, then do a scene that is a slightly smaller group, then a smaller group, then just the pair or trio. No performer is kept waiting, and the pair or trio gets a sense of their relationship in a group context. You can, of course, start small and grow the group sizes to end with a large scene, but then you need to give everyone exact start times, which they may or may not adhere to.
    • Scene buddies. When you are missing someone, make sure someone ELSE in the scene has them as a scene buddy (so that they go to the same locations and do related things), and pretends to interact with them, puts empty shoes where they are so you everyone knows how much space the missing person takes up, and learns where they go together. The scene buddy can go over it with the person who was missing BEFORE the next rehearsal—even if it is immediately before. Much time is saved!

SPACE. Whaddaya mean we can’t rehearse where we’ll be performing?!?!?Argh!!!! Where can we practice? How do people get there? It’s different every time! Yup, this is a challenge. As much as possible, try to have a consistent space so people can focus on

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Note that we are rehearsing in an old Oddfellows' Lodge!

developing the piece and not just re-orienting. Churches are often very generous with their spaces, as are schools (especially in the summer), and un-rented storefronts. Bring painters’ tape or sidewalk chalk to mark out the size and shape of the space you will actually be performing in—neither will hurt a floor finish nor a rug. For one or two rehearsals, try to find –even if you have to pay for it—a space similar to the one you’ll be performing in, especially if it is outside, or has vastly different acoustics. Have at least one—hopefully 2 or more—rehearsals in the actual space. ALSO—keep your set to a bare minimum and make sure to rehearse with the pieces every time.

EXPECTATIONS. Keep them clear, keep them consistent, keep them HIGH. Say them every time. Have fun with them. Use them to give adjustments, redirects, gentle reprimands and reminders. Bring in funny props as reminders. I have also found that using multiple cultural references to explain an expectation or explain why we have a certain expectation helps LOADS. Anecdotes make terrific illustrative tools as well, especially to show what can go wrong or be an undesirable consequence.

Hope these help for starters. And remember—no matter what the project is, have fun!