I'm fascinated by the exploration of performance, of finding new ways to tell stories, connecting with people and sharing ideas. I am dedicating a part of 2017 to learning from Philippe Gaulier and to examine and challenge my pre-existing thoughts on theatre.
I have always wanted to study with this man. He is a living legend and has had a profound influence in many people's lives as performers over the last 6 decades. Most people who have met or studied with Philippe realise he is a philosopher as much as an artist. His teaching resonates far beyond his rehearsal rooms. He is also the funniest man you will ever meet.
Philippe Gaulier is a French master clown, pedagogue, professor of theatre, playwright and director. He is the founder of École Philippe Gaulier, a prestigious French clown school in Étampes, outside Paris. For over 30 years, performers from all over the world have made this sort of pilgrimage to attend Philippe’s classes. To listen, learn, grow and be inspired by this enigmatic man.
"I don't teach a special style; what I teach more is a wonderful spirit. People have to find a way of being beautiful and surprising." By beauty he means "anyone in the grip of pleasure or freedom".
Gaulier is known for performing both Clown and Bouffon comic genres and is thought to be the world's leading authority on the Bouffon, a comic genre he holds as a sort of inverted Clown, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm.
I travelled to Etampes for the month of March to study Bouffon with Philippe and will be going back in July to study Clown and Le Jeu.
March 2017- Bouffon
Gaulier popularised the Bouffon genre of theatre in the 1960s, a group which had originated with the "Ugly People" of France during the French Renaissance. Gaulier said “the ugly people”- lepers, those with disfiguring scars or deformities, cripples, freaks, madmen, gypsies, homosexuals, dwarves were "banished to the swamp", except during festivals, when the Bouffon ("ugly people”, the people born of the Devil) were expected to entertain the "beautiful people" who were considered to be the children of God.
During these performances, the Bouffon's goal was to get away with insulting or disgusting the beautiful people as much as possible. Typically, the Bouffon would target their attack on the leaders within the mainstream of society, such as the Government or the Church. Theoretically, the ideal performance for a Bouffon would be one in which the audience was wildly entertained, went home, realized that their lives were meaningless and kill themselves. (To “kill” the cruel part of themselves to make more room for humanity within.)
Over the month we explored the different ‘Bouffon characters’- the starting off point which each performer then builds their own character- no two are ever the same. There are around 7 main ‘base’ characters:
The Dwarf, the Hunchback, Big belly, Big bottom, the Giant, the Homosexual and the Priest. All the characters (except the priest) are deformed in some way- i.e. amputated arms or legs, blind, no teeth, etc. All Bouffons are ugly and dirty and poor.
We explored our Bouffon characters while working with text from Bouffon plays including Aunt Aggie’s gut Rot, No son of Mine and Adam and Eve. Every day we were on stage trying new ideas and being directed by Philippe. There was no workshop or rehearsal in the classes, everything was explored on stage in performance, under lights with full costume and make up and with a full audience of peers, always developing, being directed and given notes while on stage in full performance.
We had to discover what Bouffon was through trial and error (many, many errors). This was a very different teaching method than any of my previous experiences. Philippe also teaches predominantly through metaphor and stories; it took a few days it get onto his wave length. “you are asparagus” “the owl is looking too much at the cow” and so on.
We played with imitation, parody, blasphemy and the art of mockery. All sorts of games to find the absolute joy that inhabits the soul of the Bouffon parodying on stage. I enjoyed developing my Bouffon characters, including a Big bottomed French prostitute with no arms and missing teeth.
There is real beauty to be found in this genre. Every element of Bouffon is horrifically beautiful, beautifully grotesque, every ugly movement, word, detail is thoughtful and it is this thoughtfulness that makes the performance captivating. I think there is a narrowed view of that is considered ‘beautiful’ in theatre (and indeed in life). Beautiful voices, sounds, beautiful faces, bodies, beautiful movements; what are they, actually? Whose concept of beauty are they? The Bouffon characters shine with their imperfections, they have embraced how they are, and the things they cannot change about themselves. They relish in their imperfections and they use them to confront their audience while smiling. Perfection is dull and isolating.
In my time here, I have witnessed such moving performances while in uncontrollable fits of laugher. I have seen characters with so much strength in their vulnerability and openness. I have been challenged on my concepts of what ‘good theatre’ is, what makes a good performance and a good performer. I have learnt a lot about the performer/audience relationship and I am excited to see how the overall themes and concepts of the Bouffon genre can be integrated into other forms of theatre.