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Vol 37  No 16
June 30, 2005


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Send in the clowns

English professor’s research
creates quite a show

By Tracey Mills

Participants in Dr. Jamie Skidmore’s (front, middle) workshop get into character. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

 

When most of us think about clowns we think of the party clowns complete with the big red nose, big red shoes and colourful hair. But this would only be one small aspect of clowns and for Dr. Jamie Skidmore in the Department of English, there is so much more to appreciate and discover.

Dr. Skidmore teaches within the theatre specialty and the diploma program in performance and communications media at Memorial. His specialty is the circus, clowning and sideshows. To walk into his office is to immerse oneself in a world of theatrics.

“My interest in clowns started when I was an undergraduate student,” said Dr. Skidmore. “I directed a play by John Krizanc called Prague which is set in Czechoslovakia. Given the time and instability, political statements were often made through clown shows.

“I started to think about the meaning and significance of clowning as a technique and later went on to write my doctoral dissertation on the Cirque du Soleil and a semiotic analysis of their work on the stage. Since then I have been trying to better understand the art and how it has evolved.”

As part of Dr. Skidmore’s research, and with the help of a VP-SSHRC grant, a workshop on clowning has been ongoing in the Reid Theatre since the beginning of June. Under the guidance of Ian Wallace, co-founder of the Theatre Resource Centre in Toronto, students and members of the local arts community are learning about a particular method of clowning unofficially termed the Pochinko method.

According to Dr. Skidmore, the Pochinko method is named after Richard Pochinko, a student of clowning who studied clown technique under the direction of Jacques Lecoq in Paris in the 70s. Building upon aboriginal traditions of the six directions, the core of his approach is the idea that if we can face all the directions of ourselves, North, South, East, West, Up, Down, we can discover the beauty and wonder that is within us.

“In the workshop, participants work on all six directions to make masks. It is about facing their essential uniqueness or what it means to be an individual, and in the process learning something about themselves. It is a journey of self-discovery which leads them to find their own personal clown.”

Most people do not take clowning very seriously, but this workshop is serious and intense. Participants are looking at method and studying it to create their own personal clown. They do workshops called “to the wall,” which involves them sprinting with their eyes closed to a wall, in order to discover their own personal impediments and learn from their experiences.

“Participants learn that performance is not performative. It comes from a very simple place ­ you don’t need to put it on to perform you can simply put it out and express yourself. Theatre is always bigger than life, but it does not have to be artificial ­ it can come from a personal place and still be interesting.”

Costuming is very important in the workshop. It is all about the mask, but Dr. Skidmore reminds participants to try and become the mask and not just embody it. As such there are a lot of emotions and a lot of self-analysis that goes on in the workshop.

“Ideally we want to get to a place where we can just experience ­ where we are seeing something for the first time, and thus surprised by it. Clowning has a childlike quality and that’s why babies make the best clowns.”

One more thing, Dr. Skidmore likes to remind students of is the fact that clowns do not have to be funny. They should represent a point of discovery and a moment of realization for the audience. That moment of realization can come when you laugh at something and later realize with shock that it really was not funny at all.

A very old tradition that includes the circus clown, August clown (submissive), white face clown (dominant), Joey (red-nosed) clown, First Nations trickster, and so many more, Dr. Skidmore hopes the workshop will introduce participants to the broad definition of a clown and stimulate their interest in clowning as an art form.

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