Clowning in China, by Joan Mankin

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.


The King of Comedy

This interview with Cal Shakes Associate Artist and Fox Fellowship recipient Ron Campbell was excerpted in an article of the same name that is running in our Pericles program. The complete interview text below is exclusive to the blog.

The interview was conducted by Artistic Learning Programs and Outreach Manager Emily Morrison and Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem.


Cal Shakes: So you taught seventh and eighth graders this past spring for the Art of Comedy. We were wondering how do you get kids at such a self-conscious age to break out of their bodies and take risks?

Ron Campbell: A lot of the exercises that I do to start the ball rolling with seventh and eighth graders are the same exercises I do with adults at Berkeley Rep. One of the things is that I tell them how interested I am in two things: One is failure. They will fail big and ugly and awfully and have wonderful failures. I celebrate failure as a weapon because failure is kind of a—it’s what we do most of the time. And the other thing is that I say is that I’m very interested in them from the chin down; how expressive they can be from the chin down. So believe it or not, what I do is put a shopping bag on their head.

CS: We saw that in the pictures.

RC: But if I tell them I want to see them express a question mark or an exclamation point or a comma, from the chin down, they start to have that kind of freedom, and they get celebrated for that. Even though they’re under a bag. I feel that a great part of the fodder for comedy is failure and things that go wrong. No one has a comedy routine—no stand-up guy has a routine about how great a day he had. Never. It’s all the bad stuff. Part of my introduction to that group was that they each state their name and the most embarrassing thing that they’ve had to do. It does take a little time to get them to know that failure is their friend, and that they’re going to get more laughs and get more built up the more they reveal the bad things that happen to them.

CS: Did your personal kind of physical comedy, your style of comedy work as a way to get kids to respond to you more easily?

RC: One of the things that I say at the very beginning is, “Welcome to my church.” I’m an actor. I don’t do this because I want to, but because if I don’t, I’ll die. It’s as important to me as breath. And so they see this grown man who’s willing to fail, look stupid, trip and fall. I give homework, and one of the assignments I gave this last group is to trip in public. Then I develop with them the technique of tripping effectively so it’s realistic; and then the response to that, noting other people’s response to your own tripping. So clumsiness is another weapon. We hate to be clumsy but that’s where the comedy lies.

CS: Do you think that gets the kids to connect to you more easily?

RC: They can tell I’m fully in it. I’m very into nervous fingers and calm eyes—when you make a combination of things. Shy chin plus bold eyes, that coy; there’s juxtaposition there and that to me is interesting. So I’ll be talking with my students about why we laugh there and all of a sudden they’re using my terminology: They’re saying “well, there was great juxtaposition, he had scared elbows but he had proud chest.” And those things have really affected how I have to believe what I’ve said. And now I have to apply what I’ve said to my own work. I get so much more out of teaching.

CS: What do they teach you?

RC: I used to teach “acting from the outside in.” And that’s kind of the direction that I play with. The other day, one of the students in the Art of Comedy class had to do an exercise where you show what you are on the inside and what you are on the outside. On the outside he was a real estate agent showing a house. And on the inside he was an evil killer of people. Again, juxtaposition—those two things going on at the same time. You see an actor engaged in the art of deciding which one wins. Does the psycho killer win or does the smooth real estate agent?

I also do a character exercise where there’s a large circle. In the center of the circle is one quality, say smart or democrat or whatever and on the outside is, somehow, its opposite. So, stupid or republican. And I want them to take a very specific route. So they know there’s a time when they’re fully the smart, total brain center, and then they walk a little farther out. Their IQ goes down. That place where they’re kind of both can be very interesting to me.

CS: So you’ve been teaching these kids The Art of Comedy for eight weeks; but in the summer you’ll be offering one-hour Master Classes to the kids in our Summer Theater Programs. How do you cull all that information down into an hour? How do pick what you’re going to do into such a short period of time?

RC: Well, if I haven’t worked with them before, I have some of my greatest hits. One exercise involves anger: You know your anger can go from one to 10 where 10 is the angriest you’ve ever been. Two is kind of irritated, pissed off and you have all the things in between, so let’s use that. You make them get specific, and they think it’s taking away their freedom as an artist, but actually it’s given them a cleaner scale.

We have all that power in our brain to do that, to use our experience to act. So that’s a weapon we all have—we learned it back when mom was shaking you and saying, “Come on, it’s time to go to school.” And you said, “I don’t feel good, I’m sick. I don’t want to go”

CS: Our marketing director says her three-and-a-half-year-old has already figured out that she can whine about school, act like she’s not feeling good because she wants to stay home and play. How old were you when you started acting?

RC: As the story goes, my grandmother Campbell started reading me stories very young, and she took me to see Man of La Mancha at the Old Vic theatre in London. Richard Kiley was Don Quixote. And he was dying in front of all these people and no one would do anything, and it was the most awful thing! My grandmother started pointing out things like that it wasn’t a castle, it was a flat. As my grandmother told the story at Thanksgivings, a kindly usher, seeing that I had gone berserk, took us backstage to meet Mr. Kiley with his makeup and everything. So I was about 8.

At my house we’d act out The Mayflower and my little brother would play Plymouth Rock. Little brothers have to do things like that

CS: Did you have a comedic mentor? Or an acting mentor?

RC: Before I was an Associate Artist at Cal Shakes, I was an Artistic Associate at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, where the great actor Tom Rosqui took me under his wing. He was great.

CS: When was this?

RC: This was before the (one-man) Buckminster Fuller show brought me to the Bay Area. I was about 22. I was very fortunate—I started as a founding member of The Actor’s Gang and went (Actor’s) Equity shortly thereafter.

CS: How do you act funny without becoming flip or cartoony? How do you get the laughs without forgetting the fundamentals of acting—finding the foundation of the character that makes them a real person and not just a goof?

RC: There’s a Japanese concept of Kokoro, which is sometimes referred to as “heart,” though it’s much more involved than that. It also refers to “giving your all” and “not saving anything for later” and “cherishing the present moment.” It’s kind of like commitment. We know some of those performers that are able to keep that sense of commitment on a balance with the same thing. Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey are in clown world and they trip over into absurdity, but they have commitment. The Cable Guy is a little scary because this guy actually exists.

I think maybe it’s down to something that has come up with my students a lot, and that is to erase the apology working in the back of their minds. A lot of actors work like that, not having an apology in the very corner of their minds. They should erase that. They feel some gum underneath the table and try it. Don’t apologize.

CS: What do you think the main difference is between clowning, like when you were the Chef at Teatro Zinzanni, and comedic acting?

RC: I don’t know if Teatro Zinzanni was clowning or something else. I think at the root of it the tools we need to be a great clown and the tools we need to play, for example, Charlie in (Larry Shue’s) The Foreigner, are the same. Clowns see the world as the jungle; comedic characters may not have that.

Ron Campbell and California Shakespeare Theater are participants in the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships, funded by William & Eva Fox Foundation administered by Theatre Communications Group.