Yesterday, in class, Gaulier did an exercise that I tend to think of as one of his “Philippe creates a Moment of Theatre”/”master puppeteer directing” exercises.
This is a moment I’ve seen him create in class now many times.
It usually goes like this…
A student is on stage doing an exercise or a piece of prepared show. Usually something with quite a lot of energy in it.
Yesterday, the exercise was that there were 8 women on stage doing the haka, the Maori war dance. And a man had to come on stage and give a big enough impulse and voice, with an opposite “rhythm” to the women… enough of an impulse to stop them.
Almost all of us failed to provide a big enough, clear enough, opposite enough rhythm.
(A shame he only did it with men, as I think a couple of the non-male people in class might have succeeded… sometimes there is a bit of “old French man’s gender bias” in Philippe’s instructions here).
But one classmate succeeded in the exercise today – i.e. gave the right impulse to stop the women dancing the haka.
From there, Philippe began his “Moment of Theatre” directing.
This moment basically involves him creating something very still and concentrated with the actor.
He does this only with actors in which he sees a particular quality in that moment… I often don’t fully understand what it is that he sees in such moments. But I can see the effect.
Usually, he will get them to stand centre stage and walk, very slowly, towards the audience.
He will get them to say their text (any text is usually fine, or one we’ve been using in class)… slowly. Line by line. Thought by thought.
And he will direct them. He will stay “Stop” or “Walk” or Walk… slowly.” or “Shut up.”
From the surface, you’d be mistaken in thinking the student is just walking towards the audience and delivering text.
But I think that’s not what’s happening. Like a skilled puppeteer, his instructions turn the energy and game of the actor into something much more subtle.
The effect can be quite dramatic.
We, as a class and audience watching, remember all the energy and impulse that went into the previous activity on stage. And the student doing the exercise (should) maintain all the strong energy and play that they had in that exercise… but they are now hardly moving or speaking at all when before they were. If they “lose the impulse” Philippe will stop the exercise and send them off.
The effect is one of a great amount of concentrated energy and “life” going into a simple but powerful performance.
As I was watching this again yesterday, I thought to myself, “I should write about this and try to work out why it is that Philippe so often comes back to this particular exercise so often.”
But then, at the end of class, Philippe’s comment to the class answered my question for me…
He said of the student…
“He’s not bad, eh? He doesn’t cheat. ‘Not bad’ means perhaps we see your soul through your body.”
“Not to play too much. Not to destroy your body too much with too much play, too much joke. Let the light come from your body. It’s not healthy to play too much.”
This describes a process I’ve seen in myself here at Gaulier:
In my performances, I started “too small” or “too boring.”
When I stood on stage and delivered lines of text or improvised, my body and soul were actually held back by years of hiding and “masking.” I didn’t know that I was hiding so much of my “soul” but I was… and Philippe could see it.
But then when I started to learn how big I can be, then I started “playing too much.” Putting too much energy into my performances and not enough subtlety. First you’re soul is hidden and then I overcompensate by hiding it behind a manic cloud of too much energy.
Many of us hold back ourselves when we first perform (and even if we’ve been performing for years). When we get up on stage, we are hidden by years of unconscious conditioning. And not just on stage. In social and other situations too.
I think I recognise the dynamic that Philippe sees when he spots something hidden in students. I have experienced it (to a lesser degree than him, of course) in my voice coaching clients, peers, and even fellow classmates here. I can see the potential of the performer that they could be, and that I believe they can become.
Philippe can see you hiding your “soul” on stage before you are even aware that you have that soul. And long before you have any idea how to start letting it free.
These little Moments of Theatre that Philippe creates in this activity allow us, in the audience, to see our classmates “unmasked” in the vulnerability of theatre.
Not through any “shitty psychological work” but through taking us in those moments when we already show that authenticity in a big, energetic way… then concentrating that impulse down into something clear and powerful.
Here are some of my own moments during my time so far here at Gaulier – moments when we’ve seen glimmers of my soul:
- On the very first day of the Bouffon summer course where Philippe got me to sing a Scottish song. When he said to me “We love you when you sing. But when you speak, you are not lovable.”
- The Bouffon summer course when I had an all out, full energy moment on stage in a grotesque “erotic advert” exercise. This exercise showed me how big and powerful my voice could be… and this “big voice unleashed” learning is an impulse I’ve come back to again and again.
- In the Melodrama year module when I did a full scale crying sobbing piece as a young boy whose mother had died. This was another “huge voice” moment for me, letting me play with the immense power that my voice can create when I am free with it.
- In the Bouffon year module when I did a parody of a Scottish “ned” (a loud, angry hooligan). My play was too big, as it often is. But it had an impulse Philippe saw he could work with in that moment. He did his other favourite “Moment of Theatre” exercise that involves someone kissing the actor’s neck to create a very vulnerable, gentle moment.
- Anger in Clown. This was just a small moment. I got a bunch of laughs being an angry version of myself… which was interesting and kind of cathartic as I’d just spent the previous 3 months being very angry and cooped up at home after breaking my spine skiing. Nice to get some laughs from an emotional dynamic that had been giving me so many problems for months.
And maybe there were more such moments. These are the ones I remember most clearly.
Now that I think about this, I remember something that happened just before Philippe got me to do the Scottish song on the first day of the first Bouffon summer course…
He asked me questions about myself, as he often does to students he hasn’t seen before (though actually hasn’t been doing recently, as he is winding down for retirement).
One thing he asked of me was what I did for work.
And I said marketing. Which is still true, though I don’t identify with it in the way that I said back over a year ago when this was as other parts of my job feel more “me” (such as teaching and voice coaching).
At the time, I said that, by doing marketing, I didn’t have a soul.
And Philippe said to me, showing the kindness that he has despite his reputation for harshness: “Don’t say that you don’t have a soul. You have a soul.”
A classmate after that particular class also said that my assertation that I didn’t have a soul had touched them in the class.
But, back then, I guess I kind of felt that I didn’t “have a soul.”
I mean I’m a scientist, so I’m still not talking about the literal idea of souls. But the soul as in the “emotional and energetic energy of being a full person”… I think I haven’t been connected to that part of me for many years.
This past year has been transformative for me…
I enrolled in clown school, sure. Also, the long-term relationship that had defined my life for 14 years ended. And I discovered I very likely have ADHD and maybe some autistic symptoms. And I’ve done a bunch of therapy and work on myself that’s been more directed (thanks to outside perspective from coaches and counsellors) than the self-guided work I’d done previously.
And I’m now starting to see what my “soul” might actually look like…
And it’s very different from the person who I had thought that I was.
I am succeeding more on stage this term. Part of this success is being more experienced with some of the “technique.” A lot of it is just “having fun” as much as possible. But some of it is probably because I am “unmasking” (to use a neurodivergence term) and letting the world see who I really am.
Today, David, one of the main teachers here right now, said to us:
“If you are in this school it’s because you want to change something. What? I don’t know.”
Maybe part of what I needed to change in this school is to realise that I have a soul…
Now, the question becomes: What should I do with it?