Auguste vs. Stinker
I learned theatrical clowning in Jean E. Taylor's at The Barrow Group. There I learned about the relationship between Authority and the Auguste. This was the primary clowning technique practiced in Jean’s classes. In solo and group exercises, students would play the Auguste with Jean as the Authority. The Auguste operates out of joy and a pure love for their audience, “the pooblic.” There is an unsocialized innocence to their interactions with everything and everyone. Everything an Auguste is asked to do, they are ready to take on with assured confidence. Clown, will you demonstrate a two minute version of Hamlet? The Auguste nods enthusiastically. Have they seen Hamlet before? Maybe. The Auguste will perform as best they can in their childish, innovative way.
There were baked-in aspects of my comedy instincts that caused friction with my full embrace of the clowning work. I was still performing as Vacation Jason on TruTV a couple times per month while I was taking one of Jean's clowning workshops. VJ is a clown-ish character. It's a costume character with kooky, punny slapstick-y humor. The white glob of zinc oxide Ocean Potion Lotion even works as his version of a clown nose. He's a technicolor cartoon character. But when he’s confronted by authority, he ironically betrays his Googy exterior. He'll mouth off or go dark, exposing his weirdly angry side. I grew up watching characters subvert the happy image with human breaking points. I find a lot of comedy in that tension. But this is not the Auguste way.
The most striking example of my tendencies to be “a stinker” not working in an Auguste context came in the form of a group exercise. Four clowns sitting on the floor, wordlessly co-developing a ceremony to honor a metal bowl. One clown at a time, inventing a step in the process. The bowl passed to the second clown, then the third, then me.
Inauthentically, I fumble and drop the bowl on the floor. CLANG. From there, I indicate to the group that the bowl is not that special. In my view, it's the other three that haven't caught on yet: clowns are the rule breakers of ceremony. We show the devoted the wrong way, as a reminder for them to do it right. We shock and subvert by playfully undermining the sacred.
It didn’t go well. An improvised, nonverbal invention theater exercise is difficult enough when four people miraculously stay on the same page. But on my back I was carrying the useless pride of hundreds of improv shows and years spent philosophizing to students in practice groups. My impatient improviser mind wanted to jumpstart into something exciting and different. Subvert expectations. Subvert subvert subvert.
It was this, and in other exercises where I was compelled to antagonize, belittle, and generally not give into the sincerity necessary to break through the invisible performer/audience barrier. I'll always clearly remember Jean’s words that finally clarified the Auguste clown for me: “The Joy is Subversive Enough.”