Clown school

There's more to clowns than masks and white-face. Matt Trueman talks to the artists who are using their training in France's grand ecoles as a springboard for innovative new writing.

feature | Read in About 7 minutes
Published 23 Jul 2012

Edinburgh is no place for coulrophobes. Each August, the city is invaded by clowns – a plague of the buggers. Year on year, they flock to the Fringe: the pierrots and harlequins, the buffoons, masks and mimes. There are rustic fools lugging battered suitcases, red-nosed naïfs desperate to please and, most grating of all, ‘Burtonesque’ white-faces, their eyebrows pencilled into position.

“Ugh,” exhales Valentina Ceschi, one half of the performance duo Dancing Brick, “White-face is so cringe. It really doesn’t appeal to me. It’s like rent-an-aesthetic.” Thomas Eccleshare, the other half, gives a little shudder at the mention of it.

As graduates of the famous L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Ceschi and Eccleshare have good reason to be sceptical. Lecoq’s methodology is often misappropriated as a catchall shorthand term for this sort of work. It has a vague whiff of the continent, blending different European traditions—Italian commedia dell’arte, classical French mime, Ancient Greek masks—that also form the backbone of the Lecoq training. “Not once in the whole two years did we paint our faces white,” Ceschi contines, “It’s just the idea people have of it.”

Caroline Horton, who trained with one of Lecoq’s best-known former students, Philippe Gaulier, is more forgiving: “I’ve seen amazing white-faced clowns, but then I’ve also seen a lot of mediocre ones… What feels strange is when it’s used as a fixed style, regardless of the story that’s being told.”

No one can accuse Dancing Brick of that. The duo—who met at Lecoq in 2007—have a real knack of finding their own spin on classic techniques and routines. Their last Fringe show, which won them the Arches Brick Award in 2009, involved two ice dancers skating on in a world without ice. Wearing ice skates and fixed smiles, the pair tottered and tripped around the stage, desperately trying to maintain poise and grace.

Their latest show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, explores aging and memory loss through the filter of science fiction and space travel. “In science fiction,” says Eccleshare, “the protagonist isn’t aware that these things are impossible. If the planet you’re on starts doing strange things, you don’t think it’s your problem. Similarly, when someone sees an 80-year-old in the mirror, but thinks they’re 23, it’s a real thing.”

Horton is arguably more classical, but still resists being pigeonholed. In 2010, she won The Stage’s Best Solo Performance award for her clowning portrayal of her French grandmother in You’re Not Like the Other Girls, Chrissy. She clowns beautifully, with a sense of always holding in an imminent explosion of excitement. In her new work, Mess, which plays at the Traverse, she’s using clowning techniques to explore anorexia – something that may strike people as counterintuitive, but, like Dancing Brick, Horton sees her training as a springboard. “I use some of the skills I learned from Gaulier, but people can be quite purist about it and I don’t think that’s helpful.”

For Eccleshare, there’s no such thing as pure Lecoq: “People mistake Lecoq for a style; that everyone comes, learns the same lessons and does the same thing with it… His pedagogy is so simple and pure. People take those basic principles and go a whole different bunch of ways.”

You can see that by looking at the two schools’ various alumni. The founding members of Complicité—Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni—met at Gaulier and took their name from Lecoq’s teachings before winning the Perrier Award in 1985. Gaulier can also claim Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Dr Brown as alumni, while Lecoq’s students include The Lion King director Julie Taymor, Stephen Berkoff and Ariane Mnouchkine, whose Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir plays in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

The Lecoq catchphrase is ‘Tout bouge’ – ‘Everything moves.’ Having started his career as a PE teacher, Jacques Lecoq came to theatre through the body. After spending several years studying various European techniques, Lecoq opened the school in December 1956, leading students from silence to speech.

“There are things you get from Lecoq that you don’t get elsewhere,” says Eccleshare. “One is the discipline and rigour of the physical body. You feel great and by the end of the first year, you can notice a Lecoq-trained body.”

In 1976, the school moved to its current location, a former gymnasium in North Paris. Gaulier taught there shortly afterwards, having studied under Lecoq in the mid-60s. In 1980, he set up his own school, scornful of Lecoq’s doctrinaire methods. He would later tell The Telegraph, “You can always tell a Lecoq student: too much emphasis on image.”

Horton elaborates: “He [Gaulier] very much works with the individual as a performer. He talks about finding your own beauty onstage.” There is, she continues, an “anarchic vibe… He spent the first term and a half making me shout from the back of the stage, telling me I was too nice and really boring.”

If that sounds harsh, Horton is far from alone. Baron Cohen has spoken of his former teacher’s “brutal honesty.”

Across town, Lecoq students face similar dismissal at the weekly auto-cours, short compositions shown publically on Friday afternoons, many of which are stopped within 10 seconds. Ceschi thrived on that (“You learn what works and what doesn’t”) while Eccleshare found it tough: “If you’ve been stopped three weeks in a row, and you’re stopped again on the fourth, you start to think you’re worthless, that, no matter what, you can’t do it.” He was regularly told he thought too much.

All three were Oxbridge graduates when they moved to France. Horton very intentionally “wanted to get out of my head” after several years in English academic institutions. She didn’t feel suited to the stereotypical route into acting. “I was chronic at the whole agent, proper casting and headshots thing, always trying to fit somebody else’s box.”

For Eccleshare it was a matter of discovery. “I didn’t realise theatre could be anything except pretending to be someone else as accurately as possible until I went to Edinburgh and saw loads of stuff, in particular Andrew Dawson and All Wear Bowlers – that just blew me away.”

For the moment, returning to Edinburgh remains important to both Horton and Dancing Brick as emerging artists. However, both are increasingly finding ways to fit into the UK’s wider theatrical ecology. Eccleshare and Ceschi have had support from a number of regional theatres, while Horton is now an associate artist at the Bush Theatre in London. “Some of the big institutions that had a purer idea of what new writing was are changing,” she explains. “Still, when I heard Mess had been programmed by the Traverse, I thought they’d make a mistake.”

What they do is, Ceschi stresses, a form of writing: “Whenever they criticise your work, they criticise the ‘écriture,’ the writing of it. We left Lecoq as writers, but here the translation doesn’t carry.”

Horton echoes the sentiment: “If there’s something that frustrates me, it’s when someone says, ‘Oh, I hear you’re doing a clown show.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not.’ I don’t really know what that means.”