My alarm went off and my eyes shot open looking toward the ceiling. It was the morning of Day Two of my most recent clown training workshop and I felt muscles used from the day before that I never knew I even had. My brain was fried as well – maybe just from being repeatedly catapulted out of my comfort zone for a continuous five hours the day before (sometimes to land with a splat!) Clowning can be many things but if you’ve never thought much about it, it’s probably not what you think it is. And I definitely had no idea what I was in for…
BANANA PEEL IN POSITION: ENTER THE CLOWN STAGE RIGHT
One sweltering summer’s day in Las Vegas last year, Ira Seidenstein came highly recommended to me by Parisian actor and magician Johannes Alinhac aka Butzi (who is also Ira’s protégé). So when I got back to London, I decided to see what Ira’s clown training was all about. Ira originally hails from Pittsburgh. His parents first met at a show featuring the clown George Carl, Ira’s father was known as a clown and his Uncle Moe was a magician… so it was probably no surprise that he’s followed a bohemian trail through life around the world as a clown.
His clown training method was interesting to me because almost all acting or theatre methods are dogmatic in that they push a performer towards a particular aesthetic. Ira’s method, which he’s been developing throughout his life as a clown, has been designed to compliment any other method or background a participant may have studied – whether it be in dance, clowning, or acting.
The students in both workshops I’ve done have been a motley crew of clowns, actors, magicians, storytellers, and circus folks. The groundwork of our clown training with Ira was to learn his ‘Core Mechanics’ (of human movement) which he first developed in 1976. It takes ten minutes to do it real-time as a warm-up routine, but it takes about a week of workshops to learn every step. Next to that, the workshops are full of solo, duet, and group exercises. I think it’s fair to say in starting out we all felt we were just going through the motions, not really ‘getting it’ BUT then around the middle of the course, pennies started to drop. Plateaus interrupted by ‘a-HA!’ moments of all sorts continued to ricochet around the room.
THE BODY AS A MAGICAL KINGDOM
On Ira’s website he claims that the body is a “magical kingdom” for the performer. I’ll admit I really didn’t understand what that meant until I began to connect some dots. I wanted to take the class to get better at improvising, thinking on my feet and to get ‘out of my head’… but where I was going after I did get out of my head, I still wasn’t quite sure. In working with Ira, I discovered the answer was: ‘I’m going into my body.’
Here’s the thing: society and lots of sorts of education push us to ignore the body, until it reminds us — often in the form of an illness or ‘that weird thing’ — that it’s all we’ve got! Through working on Ira’s clowning method over a few workshops, I started to develop a reliance on listening to the signals my body was giving me for ideas (instead of churning over options in my head). Until you’ve immersed yourself in the Seidenstein method for a while, I totally ‘get’ how metaphysical this sounds. But trust me, the discoveries are impressive and not as airy fairy as they first sound. The most fascinating thing is understanding that once you start to develop this access to the body’s ‘intelligence,’ you also begin to nurture a light-speed connection between your body’s impulses and your brain’s awareness.
SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
From an ‘everyday’ perspective my clown training with Ira has been better than therapy! Ira says that students have often commented that the method has offered them positive impact on their health and state of mind. Surprise, surprise! Our bodies are happy when we’re in touch with them! It sounds far-fetched to make the claim that a clown workshop could achieve this… until you experience it for yourself. When I sat down to make a list of the accidental ‘side-effects’ of clowning with Ira’s techniques, I noticed they also happen to be the creativity building blocks that everyone talks about, namely to
- Be more observant
- Be more playful
- Break routines of behavior
- Look freshly at things we think we already know
- Feel incredibly energized and alert …
Putting my performing hat on for a moment, there are lots of ‘shifts’ happening professionally as well…
- I’m listening more to my impulses during a performance, for example while delivering a script it feels more alive as I grab opportunities outside the script as they present themselves.
- I’m more aware of what stories I’m broadcasting physically to the audience.
- I’ve scratched the surface of endless magician character or personality options that are literally at our fingertips. (I say literally, because Ira’s clown training involves active use of the hands to inspire character decisions)
- I feel like this is a way to develop the muscle of getting in touch with my intuition. In fact this week I was reading the magician Tommy Wonder. He emphasized the importance of developing our intuition as the single most important trait for developing good magic. He saw intuition as a means to side-step dogmatic thinking and other people thinking for us.
At the time of publishing this article, I’ve taken two clown training workshops* with Ira’s techniques and worked on exercises on my own at home so I’m still a novice compared to many. But already I’m seeing the changes above. So what started as a personal challenge to work on my clowning in order to get out of my comfort zone as a performer turned out to be a whole lot more than I expected. My performance skills are improving because of it but apart from that I’m just happy to say I’ve frolicked a bit in that magical kingdom that Ira talks about. I know it’s a big place with lots more undiscovered territory, so I’m looking forward to the adventure.
Postscript: If you’ve had ‘side-effects’ from clowning, a physical theatre experience or something similar, drop a note in the comments. And if you’d like to keep informed about future clown training workshops with Ira’s technique in London, ask to join the ISAAC London Facebook group here.
* In 2019 now it’s been six workshops that I’ve taken plus work with the techniques on my own over the past four years.