Wise Fool red noses (a.k.a. clowns) are leading me to all sorts of curious places.
Last night we did solo and partner performances. I did my first solo performance and I tanked it. I wasn’t funny. I had trouble navigating the range of relationships involved: relationship with the audience, with objects, with my character, with the imaginary characters in the imaginary world I had created. I’ll dig into that experience in a future post. Right now, I’m more intrigued by the paired performance I did, which had much more success.
Here’s what I remember from last night’s scene with my partner, whose clown name is Charley (I’m making it up, I’ve totally forgotten her clown character’s name!). My clown character’s name is Matilda. The scene we were directed to inhabit was bus stop. Matilda came on first. I – Matilda – sat down at our improvised bus stop (two folding chairs next to each other.).
At first, I fell into a habit I have of getting really busy (also, perhaps, a legacy of many years in the social policymaking industry). I was moving around in my seat, I kept opening and closing a book that was in my bag. When I opened the book, I would flip through the pages. I just couldn’t sit still.
I was momentarily stilled, however, by the entrance of Charley. Charley came into the scene making all sorts of huffing and puffing noises. I turned in my seat to see what was going on. I quickly assumed a state of suspicion. I tried to focus on my book – or at least play around with my book (rather than merely opening it to a page an reading it). Periodically I would put the book down to look at Charley.
It wasn’t too long before Charley was at the bus stop. He propped up a leg onto the chair next to me and began stretching. “Whatchyadoin’?” I asked “I’m stretching.” he firmly declared. He also let me know that he was a champion stretcher. I tried to return to my book, while also sort of keeping an eye on him. I was alone at this bus stop, I was suspicious. Notably, though Charley was being played by a woman, to Matilda, Charley was male – a male much older than she.
I was also curious. Who is this odd fellow?
Charley startled me when he loudly asked if I would go sit near the stop light. He needed the full length of the bench to stretch properly.
I didn’t know what to do. As Veena, the person playing Matilda and responding to a fellow player, I didn’t want to full-out reject Charley. I felt I shouldn’t simply say “No.” As Matilda, I was thinking “But if I’m at the stoplight and the bus comes, I’ll miss it.” Unsure what to say, I fumbled with my book and bit my lip and fidgeted in my seat to delay giving an answer. Finally, I said “Please.” As in (though I didn’t use all these words) “If you are going to ask me to move, you should say please.”
Charley was shocked that I didn’t simply acquiesce to his command. He huffed and he puffed and started to walk away. In response to his rage, I said to no one in particular “In our family, we’re always told to say please.” I thought Charley had gone away. However, I had hardly been thinking about my family for more than a few heart beats when I heard him on my other side.
Charley was crying something awful. He was saying something about Bernice.
“Who’s Bernice?” I asked.
By now, I – Matilda – had closed my book and become very interested in Charley. He seemed terribly sad.
He came over and sat by me, continued crying and explained that Bernice was a lover who had jilted him.
I gently patted the top of his head to try and give him comfort. I did this a few times.
I had no idea what would happen from there in the scene. As Charley cried and I head-patted, we were told to wrap it up. We did so by Charley getting up and leaving the way he had come in and I headed off in a different direction.
Wow. The reaction from the audience during and after the skit was quite a contrast to my solo performance. Teacher in particular commented on how – though I began with all my fidgety ways – about half-way through, I became much more still. She emphasized what a great job I did listening. I really paid attention to Charley – his words, gestures and movements. Someone else commented on the way I seemed agenda free.
I explained to the teacher and my fellow students that I-as-Matilda had really enjoyed the interaction with Charley because I very early on had chosen to follow his lead. That is, I wanted to be Matilda at the bus stop responding to this strange character of a man who had appeared before me. I encouraged myself to be led by my curiosity in this odd man.
I totally sank into the imaginary world of the bus stop – thus my reluctance to have to move to the stop light so Charley could stretch.
Though I say I surrendered to be led by Charley, I was also led by Matilda. What was Matilda thinking and feeling about Charley? Matilda was first taken aback by his stretching and boldness. Then she was drawn to comfort him in his sadness. Unlike in my solo performance, I felt connected with the spirit of Matilda – curious and compassionate.
In giving feedback, someone highlighted the way status worked in the scene. What happened was not consciously created, I don’t think, by either of us performers. Yet, a powerful movement emerged: tall, assertive, taking-up-a lot-of-space Charley transformed into curled-into-a-small-ball-on-the-floor-and-sobbing-Charley. Matilda, without ever getting out of her chair and saying very few words, rose in status and shifted the power dynamic.
What I constructively seemed to bring to this scene (in contrast to my solo performance) was my lack of an agenda, a focus in being interested in what my partner/environment had to offer, a relatively solid connection with my own character (a sense of who I was being in that scene), my increased stillness, the way I allowed myself to be fully present in and responsive to our imaginary world.
The success of my contributions to our performance seemed to rely on ways of being that pretty much are the opposite of what I had spent most of my professional life doing.
I used to be a professional who took on the role of embedding human rights and equality principles into public policies. In this role, following cultural norms, I spent a lot of time creating and locking myself into agendas, reacting (versus responding) to people and situations, being somewhat disconnected from my true spirit (internal animating forces such as curiosity and compassion).
Am I suggesting that social policymaking systems and processes (which are all created by people interacting with each other) might benefit from functioning in the same way as a clown skit? Umm…
That’s absurd. The measure for success in social policy isn’t at all related to the measure of success in clowning.
Actually, maybe there is some sort of connection.
I mean, what if there could be a relationship between the two? What if all the being stuck, running around in circles, conflict and growing inequities we are creating are in part the result of too much fixed agenda, too much reactivity (not enough responsiveness), too much disconnect from restorative spirit? Not enough listening and observation?
What if, as I asked in my last post, we all were to start being led more by our red noses?