Release your inner clown
What better way to start 2013 off in a good mood than chatting to a clown?
Master clown Ira Seidenstein comes to NZ later this month with a set of open workshops on Clown Culture. Renee Liang interviewed Ira ahead of his visit.
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Master clown Ira Siedenstein has devoted his life to clowning, with more than 35 years of experience in performance, theatre, acting, clown, circus and commedia. His resume includes Slava’s Snow Show and Cirque de Soleil, among others, and his many ‘clown personas’ have delighted audiences the world over.
Ira visits Auckland this month and offers a weekend and week-long workshop to release the inner clown in all of us. I asked him about his life in clowning.
How do you introduce yourself at parties?
I introduce myself usually as "a theatre director".
Is clowning more to make people laugh, or make people think?
Good question. First of all there are many types of clowns and many varied situations where clowns appear and in all sorts of guises. Specific to your question, I think it is fine for one clown to cause laughter and another to cause thought. Another clown may make people think about why they just laughed. Another clown may make people feel. And I suppose a clown such as Chaplin was able to provoke laughter, thought, reflection and feeling in his feature length masterworks such as The Great Dictator, Limelight, etc.
You have said that success in clowning "has everything to do with who the person/clown's parents were, how the person/clown trained as a youth, what their education and upbringing was like." What is your background and what made you choose a life as a clown?
I mention one’s personal background as the shadow side of the illusion, when many talk about who they trained with as the dominant influence. For example when one sees a 'successful' professional clown earning a living clowning, people will ask "Where did you train?”, and not much more. In fact where one trained or perhaps with whom, may well be the most superficial and least effective question in asking how did the person 'succeed'. This is just the 'tip of the iceberg' about how one becomes a clown or how one becomes a better clown or a professional. People have tended to not ask the most important questions. For example, how many people who are clowns or clown teachers can answer "Who taught Chaplin to be a clown?" Now I have framed that question in the most common way that would subconsciously imply that a) someone taught him to clown and b) that it was only one person. To answer that question very briefly - Chaplin had a range of very, very influential teachers.
How have you developed your clowning persona?
My clown persona is a reflection of an aspect of myself. However, as I have portrayed about 75 clown characters then I would say that each was an aspect of myself. Perhaps the ‘persona’ as you put it is referring to the grand total or complete essence of all of those aspects.
How does someone know if they are a clown?
Oy vey! You know it, you know it. Your family and friends and colleagues and strangers will tell you. However, there is another part of clowning: that is that, clowning is like the Fool card in the Tarot and is within every person. To be a clown or to be a fool is an aspect of being human.
Is there such a thing as a sad clown?
God yes!!! One such clown was Otto Greibling whom I saw live in 1972 in Ringling circus. He performed in the greatest American tradition as a Tramp clown. Other Tramp clowns including Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton's character Klem Kadiddlehopper. Kelly's character was named "Weary Willie". But Greibling as far as I know was - named as himself Otto Greibling. However, I do believe that the greater clowns all have shown their 'sad' aspect at various moments in their performances.
Why do you teach clowning?
I teach clowning because I love the breadth of clowning. I teach clowning because it is a wonderful tool for human potential development. I teach clown because I have been asked, repeatedly, to teach clown.
I teach clown also because I think that many of the ways clown has been taught since the late 1960s in Paris in particular should be questioned. Such schools and most of their offshoots have no reference to the great clowns - including both women and men clowns and I believe that the greater aspects of clown have been appropriated.
Many people who taught clown and who teach clown were never clowns, or hardly ever clowns, or had only the most limited experience as clowns. So I teach clown also as an alternative to the way(s) that have been imposed on the unsuspecting students since the late 1960s. I teach clown also because a set of exercises 'came to me' in 2009 - The Path of Honor - and that series is amazingly profound. A Russian, 3rd generation circus and clown, described that series and the overall template as "the bible". Without projecting a style of clown these exercises allow one to go right to the heart of clowning according to one’s own body, creativity and unfolding process. So I teach clown also because I love to bear witness to another person's grace.
How can people become better clowns?
First of all - train the body. Secondly, train the intellect. Third, give yourself small doses of unrestrained free form creative expression. Read my website and blog for more.
Clowning is performance, but also a lifestyle. Do you clown without an audience?
I clown without an audience in the sense that if you saw me and how I just cooked dinner and ate while I was also answering the list of questions you would have seen a clown, a living clown, no pretence, no falseness, only the clown alone. Pure. Simple. Basic. Primal. What is the sound of a tree falling if no one hears it? What is a clown like - alone?
What is your current passion project?
My current passion. Hmmm. THAT is a good question. Not that I don't know what it is, rather, I do not know how to frame it in a way that a reader could understand the overall expression without jumping to a conclusion. Certainly, as it happens, Aotearoa, New Zealand will be the first place that I step on to the precipice with my current passion - "Clown Culture".
I think that culture is not only lacking in quality in most people’s lives, it is much more profound than many people experience. So I have been evolving and researching within my workshops, as to how clowning can be used as a direct path to creating and unfolding one’s own culture. We have nationhood and nationalism, we have art and we have artifice. But culture is challenged as the greater society of humans expands exponentially. Globalization has good things and aspects that take something away. Clown, as I approach it is a direct experience of something quite profound, and challenging and joyful.
Culture - so much to say. River Dance was inspired by the National Folk Theatre of Ireland - Siamsa Tire. I was in a UK clown theatre troupe that performed at Siamsa Tire in March 2007. The next morning I happened to meet the founder of Siamsa Tire - Father Pat Ahern. We had a spontaneous discussion about culture and the body. I used to say "there are no saints in the theatre" (and I knew there had been one during the Renaissance). I meant that theatre folks and clowns are a peculiar mob. Well, after I met Father Pat I felt I met a saint. Certainly I met a saintly man and like most saints he had a very easy down to earth quality and was an honest person. So in part my passion is thanks to Father Pat Ahern and I call that passion "Clown Culture".
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- Clown Culture workshops with Ira Seidenstein
Weekend 19-20 January,
Whole week 19-25 January
Saturday 26 January - Performance evening