A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Noses Off – Or What I Learned at Clown School

(and what it's still hard to remember)

I signed up for clown school – it's a workshop at the City Lit college in central London – four weekends in a row. I've done other workshops there and they've all been good.

The one that I think was the most useful and interesting was the one that is the hardest to explain to people – that was the mask workshop. Improvising with masks. It was the first course that I did at City Lit and I did it because someone I met when I was doing improvised theatre, in a Nissen Hut somewhere near Finsbury Park station, said that she'd done the mask course and it was good. People think when you say you're doing stuff with masks that you're weird an pervy. I think this is because people are weird and pervy, or would like to be.

When you put on a mask – just a neutral mask, nothing fancy like a comedia dell arte mask, you start acting more with your body. You start having to think of things to do with your body to move a scene along. Initially you do it too much. You move too much – you make one move, and then immediately afterwards you make another move and cancel it out. Then you start to get better at it, you start to make gesture and moves and stick with them, let them go for their natural length of time before you move onto the next idea. Possibly the best mask class that I went to was one where we made our own mask – just out of bits of card and Sellotape. This is the mask that I made:

A Mask

What I really liked about this session is that all the way through it we really had no idea what we were doing – what "getting it right" would look like. The tutor for the course who demeanour was shout an abusive Cockney (I think it was an act) just told us to make a mask and then develop a character. I can't remember anything about the character that I developed. What I can remember is the feeling of having no idea what I was doing and being on the verge of throwing a bit of a strop and asking for more definite instructions. But I didn't quite lose it. I just managed to deal with having absolutely no idea what was going on and making it all up as I went along: the mask, the character and finally a scene based on the character. Of course, it was alright in the end. And if it hadn't have been, well, so what?

I was reminded of this business of making my own mask this week. Somebody at work asked me to do something that I didn't know how to do. It was in many ways a preposterous request – and what's more, they wanted me to travel a reasonably long way out of London to do it. I got very annoyed about it, and spent a lot of last weekend being annoyed about it (even, I'm ashamed to admit it, when I was a clown school).

Finally when I'd got to where I was supposed to be. I managed to stop being annoyed at being asked to do something stupid, and started to realise that there was actually a really fascinating problem behind the nonsense that I'd been asked to do – and actually, there was also a bonus, that because what I'd been asked to do was something that everybody else had really struggled with, I could essentially do what I liked. Nobody would give me a hard time for not getting it "right." It reminded me of the mask workshop, and the time when I'd been asked to make my own mask, and I'd nearly thrown a strop because the rules weren't clear but had managed to restrain myself and everything had come right.

Of course at work, it always seems that such situations are so much more serious. We're desperate to get it right. All the time and if we're not really careful, it can cripple us.

The first week I went to clown school, we played a game. It was a really simple game – half of us left the room so we couldn't hear what was going on in the main theatre. Then we were brought back in. The other half of the group acted as an audience. The rules were simple – if we made the moves on stage that they had pre-decided that we should make, they would applaud, they would. If we didn't, they wouldn't. So, initially, we moved around doing lots of different things, and the first thing that got a ripple of applause was kind of laying on floor. So we did that a lot but then we seemed to get stuck. Whatever we did after we laid on the floor, we didn't seem to get any more applause, and the applause was never totally fulsome. Finally, we stopped trying stuff. I remember distinctly, the urge to just give up – but the tutor kept pushing us "try something different!" Eventually we backed up and tried doing something else before we laid down on the floor – playing with different causes for ending up on the floor. Then somebody said "like having a heart attack" – and this got a little bit of applause.

The tutor said "go on then! What would that look like?" And we mimed it and the applause was fulsome. That was what it had been pre-decided we would mime.

It's such a simple game, but I learned a lot from it: it's easy to get stuck down rabbit holes and somehow be convinced that what you're doing is the right thing, even though you're not really getting feedback that it's working. Sometimes you need outside help to get you out of being stuck – to encourage you just to try stuff.

Of course, in a work setting when people are trying to solve similar problems – how are we supposed to behave in this new situation? The feedback isn't so much applause as disapproval, threats, hostile emails that copy in your boss. The feedback is negative more often than positive.

I asked the tutor if he ever played the game using negative feedback rather than positive feedback – he didn't give that suggestion very positive feedback, miming screwing the idea up in a ball and throwing it away – "let's just forget you said that Mark." Of course – that's almost always the way the game is played in real life, rather than at clown school.