Edited extract, originally published in Meanjin Current Edition, Volume 73, Number 1, 2014. http://meanjin.com.au/editions
Monsieur Philippe Gaulier is a little bit hunched and a little bit grizzled. He wears a floppy hat over big white hair and an offensively bright tie. His nose tells the story of how much he drinks.
He is a master.
“You have to be fucking funny,” he said on the first day. “If you are not funny you are not a clown.”
I didn’t have cash to pay for the whole month of classes. Michiko, Monsieur Gaulier’s wife and secretary, said she wouldn’t be in the office tomorrow so I should pay him direct, “But seal the envelope very strongly because it is dangerous to give him money.”
We joined the others at one end of Gaulier’s top-floor studio, crosslegged on the splintery boards or perched on wooden church pews. We breathed the smell of Paris suburbs through ragged, floating curtains: the dust and muggy summer. Forty of us from five continents taking it in turns to walk out under the rack of old stage lights: the Cirque Du Soliel acrobat, the Brazillian clown doctor, the Finnish theatre director and the Kiwi indie-performer.
That first day, he sent us ‘backstage’ in groups of five or six where we hid behind a piece of scaffolding wrapped in bald velvet. “You enter, be happy to be with your audience, then run a circle.”
We each other one by one: the ‘silly’ face, the stage walk, the forced presentation. On the first day Gauiler told us we were horrible and to get off the stage.
“Why do you shuffle like that, like a penguin who is sad about his balls?”
Our classmate turned to exit, his shoulders suddenly loose, his performer’s smile dropped away into disappointment and we laughed at the sweet, vulnerable human he showed us.
“We like him better when he leaves,” Gaulier said. And we did.
To be a clown, Gaulier says, the performer must show a naïf child version of themself. Not a character, but the real human who is sensitive and “has pleasure to be with the audience.” In each class we managed to get through one, maybe two of his exercises.
“Come on, seven all together. Dance rock’n’roll, but you have problem. You only saw rock’n’roll dance one time: on the TV with the sound turn down.”
I entered with the rest of my group. I threw my arms and pumped my knees, pulling a grin up my cheeks, straining to look ‘ridiculous’. The audience was out of focus before I remembered to look for eye-contact.
I searched but everyone was watching someone else.
I realised I was so unpleasant to look at everyone had turned away. Ouch.
“She was so ‘orrible no? That was ‘orrible, what you just did.” Hunched in his seat, looking at me from eyes buried in spectacles and wiry hair. “You were like panicked lettuce.” He turned to the group. “Panicked lettuce!”
“You want to take her to Oslo and leave her there while you go far, far away to do some shopping, no?” It was the morning after the Oslo bombing and the laughter jerked out of people.
“You love her? Or take to Oslo?” He asked them. “Love, or Oslo?”
“Oslo,” one or two stuttered out. It was always best to agree with him.
“You,” back to me, “Panic Lettuce. Don’t push so hard. Be sensitive to your audience.”
I liked being called Panic Lettuce. It felt absurd and somehow true.
But in the café I remembered the moment where no one would look at me and I closed my lips against tears.
Christy ordered for us both. “Deux café crème s’il vous plaît.” Her awkward French accent, her hand reaching for mine.
Next time I arrived at the école it was like I had five coffees in my system and whisky burning the back of my throat.
The exercise was to stutter stupidly, then look like the audience might give you the Nobel Prize.
“And if you are not funny, I will tell you.”
We all laughed. As if there was a chance he would hold back.
I clutched at Christy in the wings to say how nervous I was. She held my coat-sleeve and smiled.
Don’t push so hard.
So I entered with my normal walk, face calm, looking out at the audience. There were several friendly eyes out there, bright with little smiles. I looked for Gaulier, behind glasses, under that shag of hair. I took time.
Then I tried the exercise.
But I could see them better than I ever had. I felt as though they liked me.
I tried again.
He stopped me.
“It was bad but good,” he said. “Yesterday was awful with your boyscout smile. Today you enter with sensitivity.”
Others were not so lucky.
“Your character, she is not Clown. She is just Orphan. Orphan in a special house for orphan after the war in Afghanistan.”
“You are too noisy on your feet. When you walk on the stage we think you are German army arriving in Paris in 1940.”
We laughed in bursts and shouts.
Laughed at the broad horror of the world and a single person’s humiliation. Laughed with a revealed love for the performer who dared show us her humanity: the sudden vulnerable eyes, the soft beginning-smile of someone who sees she might, despite all, be wanted.