I am learning so much about clowning by being in a place where I understand no one, and no one understands me. When I say I understand no one, I am referring to words, of course, verbal interactions (which for me are limited to “hello” and “thanks”). But when I have no hope of conversing with someone in the usual, more facile manner, I must look into their eyes and read their body language, and respond in ways that touch different chords in my body energies. And Chinese people have the most truthful smiles. Either their faces are composed and distant, or they smile completely–there is no half-smile, they don’t do it unless they mean it. And that makes me be more truthful in what I say and do. I feel like I am revisiting the core of what clowning means.
Last night Jonah (a student from the SF Circus center) and I were walking home along Stinky Tofu Alley (our name, not the official name) and we started singing “Country Roads” (“country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads”) and when we got to the “West Virginia” part someone started singing along with us. It was a Chinese man, who somehow knew the words (although I’m sure he had no idea what they were about) and loved the song. So all three us walked down this alley in the heart of downtown Nanjing, singing about West Virginia at the top of our lungs–we even did harmony! And when we finished, he went to get into his car, and he held out his hand to shake mine, to thank us for letting him sing with us. And I couldn’t help bursting into “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”–and I sang to him and his friends with all my heart and soul as they drove away, leaving me and Jonah in the smoggy, dark Nanjing night.
(Pictured above: Joan with Arthur Keng in SF Playhouse’s 2008 production of Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.)
I’ve been in Nanjing for two and 1/2 half weeks now, teaching Western clowning and acting to Chinese acrobats (and a few magicians). The workshop itself is in Nanjing, but the acrobats are from troupes all over China: Beijing, Wu Han, Yin Chuan, An Hui, Tai Yuan. They were brought together by the Chinese Arts and Cultural organization to try and raise the level of comic acting in the acrobatic performances, and to encourage them to connect on a more personal level with their audiences.
China is going through a transformative phase now, letting go of some of the attachment to tradition and seeking out new artistic and performative channels. It’s exciting to be in on this surge of interest in Western comedy forms. There are very few Westerners in Nanjing (a city of five and 1/2 million people) so I get stared at a lot (which I kind of like) and laughed at a lot (which I really like). I’m here with three other people from the Clown Conservatory at the San Francisco Circus Center, and we’re all intrigued by the cultural differences and similarities. The students threw themselves with tremendous dexterity and gusto into every gag we ask them to do–running into walls, tripping, falling, slapping–but ask them to reveal something true and vital about themselves in front of other people, and they run into a different kind of wall.
We will do two performances at a college here in Nanjing in the middle of this month; I’m so excited to see how they take in what we have brought.
I miss eating salads sooo much. Best to all from Joan Mankin.