I felt lucky to be asked to sit in on a set at Brooklyn Comedy Collective's Dumb & Fun improv festival yesterday. Freshly shorn and still floating after soaking everything in at Camp from the past three weeks, I was feeling myself.
I'm not the fully switched on heat-seeking improviser I was a decade ago. It's neither here nor there. It was a perfectly fine, low stakes, dipping my toes into friendly water. I got to meet some friendly people and perform in a beautiful venue. If that had been all, then how sweet it was!
As luck should have it, the very next set on stage after mine was a group of clowns called THE BOOF performing ANTI-CLOWN: CLOWN ANTE and TEA. There were four clowns. They burst onto the stage, fully committed to Buffon-style confrontational chaotic messiness. A mass of bodies acting as one lumpy, grunting, face painted, disheveled organism. They tore it up. The vibe shift from "improv festival audience" to "clown audience" was delicious.
Four extremely informative and influential live show experiences came to mind:
The Phenomenauts playing at 924 Gilman & The Command Center
UCBW Cage Match / various indie wrestling events in NY/NJ/Philly
The Chris Gethard Show at UCB
Slava's Snowshow on Broadway
It'll be fun to go into greater detail on each of these individually. But here's the most important thread connecting it all right now:
Picture a bird's eye view of a performance space. There's a circle onstage, and another circle in the audience. The secret sauce that elevates these shows is the magic circle formed in the overlap between the stage and audience. The mandorla in the venn diagram. Whether the audience knows it or not, when they cross over into these experiences, the rules change.
The sci-fi punk band that has everybody dressing up in home made space suits. A jaded improv nerd cluster who suddenly can't help but cheer and boo for fake wrestling. A midnight talks show stirring an entire city's scene into an emotional frenzy. A full Broadway theatre audience transformed into a group of playful children.
I caught a glimpse of a similar transformation taking place while watching THE BOOF. Before the audience even had time to process, the clowns had changed the rules of engagement entirely. They had us right where they wanted us, and they engineered an environment for the audience to loosen up and give back. To see such simple tools put to use -- and WORK -- gives me hope and joy.
That's good clown. It's a dissolution of the fourth wall. A sneak attack that creates an absurd comedic moment, then mutates it into a beautiful communal moment.
I'm sitting there, watching a clown show. It's hard to take my eyes away from the mayhem onstage. But I have to turn and look to my left and right. I love seeing what they've done to the audience. Total group transformation. That's the stuff!