Tag Archives: clown

“Words, word, words. I’m so sick of words.”

In college, there was a deaf student who frequently came to our improv shows. He usually had a friend with him, translating our words into sign language. Our troupe had a goal that we wanted the show to be interesting and fun for the deaf student even if, by some chance, he didn’t have an interpreter that night.

I wrote in an email to my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, “I’d love it if a deaf person watched our show and got the gist because of stage picture and body language, but things should definitely be harder for the blind.”*

An improviser I don’t know well asked me how I met one of my troupe mates. I said we’d taken a clown class together. Because he looked confused, I quickly explained that clown — at least, the kind I had been learning — was like improv, but without words. He said, “But that’s what improv is, is just words!”


Words are the quantifiable part. The seemingly-easy part. The least important part, if we’re doing it right. The part that can get us into the wrong kind of trouble if we’re lazy about them.

Most of the pitfalls Mick Napier lists in his book Improvise under “Common Problems” are about words. He’s got over seven pages about one version or another of talking too much (“Too Much Exposition” like in Blade’s sidewalk improv) and only one page about not talking enough.

I am aware the I’m starting to sound like Eliza Doolittle.

“Never do I ever want to hear another word … ”


*I just typed, “Things should definitely be harder for the blind.” Google is probably flagging me as a menace.

Trust Falls and Red Noses

I sat in on one of Paola Coletto’s Red Nose workshops a few weeks ago, just to watch. The performers were practicing trust falls.

I’ve led versions of trust fall games in the interest of developing trustworthiness in the catchers. But one thing I’d never thought to look for in a trust fall was the facial expression on the faller.

In the Red Nose class, Paola had the performers pair up and take turns falling backward into one another’s arms. She pointed out when a faller clenched up her jaw, or forgot to breathe, or shut her eyes. Then the player unclenched her jaw, or breathed, or opened her eyes, and tried again to fall without letting that falling feeling hijack her whole face.

Then, Paola asked the players to take turns standing in neutral while the class cheered. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s a confusing emotional roller coaster to be on stage without having anything to say or do.

If you haven’t done it, think of that moment between the time you step on stage and the time you get a suggestion from the audience. You don’t have a character yet, you don’t have anything you’re supposed to say or do, and your body is trying to deal with the fact that people are looking at you.

A priest recently told me that the scariest part of preaching was the time between the end of the Gospel reading and the beginning of the sermon — that is, the time it takes to walk ten feet from the side of the stage to the center of it and say, “Please be seated.” It’s only a few seconds, but it’s when the adrenaline hits, and there’s nothing to do but be looked at.

Think of spreading those three or four seconds out to a full minute, and that’s how it feels to stand in neutral wearing a red nose. It feels like falling.

Which is why it makes total sense that a player’s “I’m falling” face is usually the same as her “I just walked on stage what on earth am I supposed to do?” face. Clenched jaws, held breath, and closed eyes are coping mechanisms a player uses to shove down feelings she doesn’t want, to close off and protect herself from the audience. At least, they’re mine. And I don’t have any idea I’m doing them unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention.

It’s not as simple as relaxing your jaw. Because when you relax you jaw, you find that you’re holding your breath. And when you take a deep breath, you notice the tension has all moved to your hands, which are now balled into little fists. You release your fists, but now your hands are shaking and your fingers are numb. The tension doesn’t really go away, it just moves from one place in your body to another. By the end of one minute of this, some players are laughing uncontrollably; others cry; others have to sit down so they don’t pass out.

And then, the next class, you do it again, but you notice all of these things yourself instead of having someone else call them out for you. Once you feel them for yourself, you can play with those feelings.

So that’s the benefit for the faller: to learn to recognize that feeling so that you can manage it on stage without throwing up a wall between yourself and the audience. Or just without throwing up.

Walking in Neutral – or – Stay alive.

The last time I played “Standing in Neutral,” my class told me I looked like:

  • a person who judges people in public places
  • a teacher who isn’t friends with other teachers
  • a woman watching nervously out the window for gremlins

I wrote here:

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression. … I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.

So I was excited/terrified when Paola had us play a variation of Standing in Neutral* in our clowning class this week. I was afraid I’d be the same as I was back when Noah led the game.

Instead of just standing in neutral, we walked in neutral, and five people walked behind us. Paola told us that the leader was to think of these other five people as an extension of her own body — not to ignore them, but not to worry about them either.

And instead of just commenting on what sort of impression we made, she made each of us do it again and again until we were truly neutral.

After the first few people had failed, someone asked, “Paola, what are you looking for? How is it supposed to look?”

Paola** said, “This is like you ask me how you ride the bicycle. I write you the book on how to balance, how to ride the bicycle, but that does not make you do it. You do not learn to balance with words from other people. You know when you see, and you know when you feel.”

Then it was my turn, and I was resigned to failing a time or two at least. I walked across the room. This felt totally surreal. I was just thinking, “This is the strangest I’ve ever felt. I do not anything could take me by surprise right this moment, and also, I think I’m floating,” when there was this odd little gasp from several people. When I arrived at the front of the room to face Paola, the gasps turned into little groans.

Paola said, “Alyssa. You do this very well. In neutral, you walk like a queen. We all see this and soe we understand what I say about the bike. But then you disappoint me. You disappoint the whole room!”

“Oh no! What did I do?”

“You apologize! You apologize with your eyes. You are a queen, and then you use your eyes to hide being a queen. This is like you apologize for being alive. You were alive when you walked, and you died when you stopped. Stay alive.“***

I told this to my friend Steve tonight, and he said, “She’s right! You do that thing with your eyes!” (Someone please point this out to me the next time you see me do it so I can start breaking the habit.)

“Queen” definitely trumps “judgmental teacher plagued by gremlins.” Now I have to grow into it and quit doing the thing with my eyes.

*I now see that “Standing in Neutral” would be better called, “Standing in Natural.” Natural and neutral aren’t even close to the same, apparently.
**Italian is her native language; she tells us that her brain translates from Italian to French to English before words come out of her mouth. Imagine her words accompanied by lots of big hand gestures.

***Emphasis and Mountain Goats link mine.