Were you at the Philly Improv Festival? Did you see ChImp? If you did you saw me giving ChImp a standing ovation (I believe I started it off, in fact). Not only was I glad that the audience shared my admiration for the work, but I was glad that this type of work was being done at all.
For those who did not see the show, ChImp can be categorized as highly physical, mostly non-verbal improvised clown show created and performed by Asaf Ronen. Would Mr. Ronen agree, I wonder? Oh well, I must say what I see. Perhaps I could be fairly accused of having clowning on the brain.
Asaf began the show without a suggestion. He appeared in a tiny vest and longish colorful tie, classic clown garb. His costume attempts formality and high status and at the same time, through failure to achieve that same formality, exposes a lovable buffoon.
Asaf also interacts with the audience throughout the show, though you don’t know when or where this will occur. I believe this is where most peoples fears of clowns can be traced back to. Clowns are admittedly scary, because of their unpredictability, however that same quality can be what is soo engaging about the work. A good clown may fail at any time because they have no idea what will happen next. They have no plan. All they have is their honest actions and reactions and their child-like logic, that, more often than not, puts them in worse situations than they started off in.
The failure or flop is key to clown work. It transforms a mistake or flaw into a laugh or a delightful juxtapostion, which is at the heart of all good comedy. A flop is not looked for, but recognized when found. The beauty of clown work is its acknowledgement, even exhaultation of the “present”. I think improvisors could exhibit a little more of this type of abandon, abandoning form, plans, jokes to acknowledge what is really happening in the moment. We all talk about this but few are capable of doing it because of our fear of failure.
Asaf ended his show with just such a beautiful failure, growing organically out of unplanned physical gesture. He reaches for what is soon discovered to be a safe, after discovering many smaller safes inside our clown discovers an even smaller man locked inside. After a moment of hesitation, he cruelly relocks his tiny friend back in the multiple safes. When he goes to leave the room the clown discovers that he cannot open the door. In effect, our poor clown ends up locked in the same safe he heartlessly left his trapped companion in just moments ago. An unanticipated lesson in karma. We laugh.
The work had a lot of qualities I could do with more of: stillness, surprise and specificity, not to mention silence! We could all use more of that onstage.
At the risk of shameless self promotion, this is the work I am trying to do. PonyCoat is a long-form troupe that has tried to incorporate some of these same daring principles into its work. I don’t pretend to have attained the same degree of perfection as Mr. Ronen, I am just glad that the same principles were ratified by such a notable figure in improv doing the same kind of work. I know there is nothing new under the sun. What ChImp and PonyCoat do is in many ways old hat – but I want to take that old hat and wear it onstage along with an over-sized dress and uncomfortable shoes.