Humiliation is not an emotion I am familiar with—embarrassment, on the other hand, I have experienced numerous times. But, in the presence of Phillippe Gaulier, the 80-year-old maestro of clowning, I learnt that being humiliated is an important element of clowning and how far our teacher was willing to go to ensure it was felt.
Indeed, I thought I had come prepared for clown school. I was ready for the insults and negative feedback that Gaulier is famous for (example, “You have a chromosome problem”). I was looking forward to what he might say about me because, whatever it was, I’d wear the comment like a badge of honour and use it as material for my next comedy gig. This is the guy whose former student, Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat), declared him the funniest man he’s ever met.
So, on the first day, I was amused to find that we were to play a warm-up game of "Simon says," a childhood favourite, where our teacher takes on the role of "Simon" and delivers instructions (usually physical actions such as "jump in the air", touch your nose"). A command starting with "Simon says" means the players must obey that command, while a command without "Simon says" means do not do this action. I was getting into the swing of the game, enjoying this throwback to my childhood, when the nostalgic fog suddenly faded. Someone had made the mistake of moving when Simon didn't say. This action would be punished, but not in the way I remembered from my childhood.
We stood amused, then froze in confusion as the game shifted into a command I had never heard before, “Bend over.” It was directed at the woman who had made a mistake. She looked at me with panic, and I looked back at her with a reassuring head shake because surely the teacher didn’t mean it. He did. I realised this would be good footage for the documentary filmmakers who were present. They had been hired by Gaulier’s wife, Michiko Miyazaki Gaulier, a former student who runs the school. Before the class started, she asked everyone if they objected to being on camera. Before we had even had the chance to respond, she told us she didn’t care if we objected; we would be in it whether we liked it. Said with a smile in a joking, not joking, way.
Gaulier’s beat of his hand-held drum was the command for his assistant to ensure the woman bent over. She did so slowly and reluctantly, only to rise again when she heard the following command: “Hit her bottom five times.” We were encouraged to clap as the smacks landed. Watching this spectacle became more bizarre and uncomfortable when the hand was swapped for the assistant’s shoe to land more smacks. All the time, the teacher asked, “Does it hurt?” with the recipient hesitant to say yes and saying no, which ensured more smacks until the teacher got bored. The ‘smacking’ was designed to be playful, but judging by the recipient’s face, it was not. I hadn’t realised until after that my mouth was open in shock the entire duration of the smacking(a great look for the documentary, I suspect). Thoughts of the #metoo movement came to mind, and this would never be allowed in the UK (where the school was originally for 11 years before moving outside Paris in 2011).
Gaulier proudly told us that he was the Theatre Torturer and had written a book with this title. And so, this was how every class started: the warm-up before the main activities. I managed to avoid this activity, unlike some of the others who were picked on again and again. This, on top of the insults which flew throughout the lesson; "You look like a murderer, a paedophile, you are f@cking boring”, were common insults thrown at all of us. He would often ask people if they agreed with him when saying an insult, mainly after someone had performed on stage. Often, they were fooled into thinking this was the way of the clown, despite it feeling wrong to turn on our classmates like this. I got the impression that he kept regurgitating the same insults.
His wife, who sat beside him the whole time, laughed, but it wasn’t funny. It was having an effect as he chipped away at everyone's joy and spirit. In the house I was staying at, there were wardrobes full of abandoned costumes by former students who didn't finish the oneyear course. I was told they had grown tired of the insults which constantly suppressed them. Gaulier promised to break us down but lift us back up and be reborn into a clown, but there wasn’t enough time during our two week course to get to the lifting part. Most of us were emotionally worn out when we left, especially after our last class. He called us all vile and threatened to walk out because he didn’t like our interpretation of entering the stage as if we had escaped prison. Perhaps what we should have done was to imagine the feeling of leaving Gaulier’s class for the last time – maybe that would have hit the mark. Ultimately, I was surprised at how much of an impact he had on me. We had him for two sessions each week.
The remaining sessions were taught by his more uplifting assistants, who had spent many years at clown school. One teacher, Richard, taught us about movement, the second teacher, Davide, taught us improvisation, and Gaulier taught us…I struggled to think about what he taught us apart from humiliation. I left his school feeling low and questioning myself as a performer. But slowly, in rebuilding my confidence, I started doing things I hadn’t the courage to do before – interacting with the audience during my stand-up routine, improvising material on the spot, such as recounting my experience at clown school and doing a French accent to impersonate Gaulier. As well as writing my comedy play and performing a one-woman show. I would never have been brave enough to do all these things before clown school. I realise I’m more open to failing not afraid to show vulnerability or take risks. Perhaps this is what Gaulier meant by being reborn as a clown.