Success is not nearly as interesting as failure. We only have to read a few headlines to know this. We love to watch as celebrities and political figures crash and burn. Consider Lance Armstrong. What was more entertaining: his string of super-human victories, or his precipitous fall from Grace? Perhaps when we hail humans as Gods, their humanity is forgotten; but in the disgrace of failure, their humanity is revealed.
This must be why Gaulier says that the clown must always go for the Flop. For there, in the face of his own failure, his humanity will be revealed. What is a flop? Just like it sounds: the audience doesn’t laugh. It’s when your idea falls flat. It’s when something turns out differently than you thought it would. You believed that you could control the outcome of events; yet it’s clear that you have no control. If I can learn to derive pleasure from this, then my comedic roles may develop in unexpected ways. This is a difficult concept to accept because, as an actor, I am always trying to develop my skills and strive for perfection. But if you do not flop, you aren’t a human being. The trick seems to be learning from the flop and turning it into success.
CLOWN EXERCISE: The director of the circus comes to you and says something like, “OK Clown, the trapeze star broke her ankle. We need ten minutes…Go!” Can you stand on stage with a red nose and make people laugh for ten minutes? It is simple, but not easy. There’s no time to prepare. Gaulier plays some upbeat Jazz for our entrance.
We are now dressed in costumes that Gaulier has assigned for us. I’m a Hippy from the 70′s. I stride boldly onto the stage with Sean, who is a Boy Scout. I’m a bit strung out, but it feels good to have a partner. We take two circular tours of the stage, stop, and look to each other with intense complicity: Who is going to lead off? I have an idea and confidently step forward. “90!” I say. Everyone is perplexed. Is this a flop? Oh, yes. I search through my little brain and come up with “miles an hour.” It flops, but I think it’s fantastic. I start again bold and strong: “90…miles…an hour!” Total silence. I give a little exhale: “Ffffffffff.” The audience chuckles a little, because they begin to understand my pain. Then, under my breath, I say to myself, “Phew, it’s hot.” (Laugh) I say honestly to Sean: “It’s really hot.” (Big Laugh) I continue to look at Sean, hoping he will take over, but he won’t. He’s letting me fry. I try to give him the Major (control of the routine), but he won’t take it and I get a laugh. I hear Gaulier say outloud: “He knows he’s really bad.” I’ve never heard him comment like that on anyone. I take it as a suggestion and deflate. They laugh. I try to give Sean the Major again, but he is stoic. Silence.
I turn to the audience. I think, “OK, this is really going to be something!” After a big pause I repeat “90 miles an hour!” It’s really quiet. I decide to turn this into an impression of a Texas Highway Patrolman: “License and Registration, please.” They get it and laugh. I check in with Sean who tips his hat to the audience as if to say, “Isn’t this guy great?” (Big laugh!) “License and Registration, please.” (Laugh!) Tip of the hat. (Laugh!) “90 miles an hour! (HUGE laugh) We start riffing between lines, looks, and tips of the hat. I throw in “Please step away from the vehicle.” which gets a nice laugh for a time or two, but I come back to “90 miles an hour!” This is all really stupid, but I sell it as gold and Sean takes the laughs with a knowing look to the audience and the tip of the hat. I try “Your not from around here, are you?” but it flops so I come back with “90 miles an hour!” which gets an even bigger laugh. It is my sure thing for this routine. What an idiot.
Sean says nothing for ten minutes. I’m getting laughs so he leaves me in he Flop, which is pretty smart. I understand this. Not only will he not speak, he can’t. Now that we have found something that works, it would be crazy to change it. Last Friday, I was in the flop, but today I have a strategy: Go to the flop, go to the flop, then sell the show. This Flop dynamic begins to change for me and halfway through I begin to enjoy myself. They are having a good time, so I become happier with what I do. It is a huge success. I finally look at my “watch” and say ”Well, that’s about ten minutes.” I finish off with one more “90 miles an hour!”
Gaulier has been laughing a lot. He praises Sean for his tip of hat and brilliant support as Minor and says that the routine was really funny. This is a huge day. It may rank with the best routines so far: Big Andres as Louis XIV, Fabio’s crying cowboy, and Amy’s “Ahem.” I can’t believe my success. My stage experience has helped me along here, but I’ve clearly learned a lot in a very short time. Now I know that it’s OK to be bad. How liberating that is. There are certainly many technical things to remember, but as for material, you can go out there and be awful. It’s what you do with it that makes it funny.
One day when my son was about a year old, he toddled into the bathroom alone. After a few minutes I tapped on the door and asked if he was alright. The door opened and he emerged holding a perfect little fecal cigar. With great pride he placed it in my hand as a gift. Yes, the Clown is always proud of his poop.
Bruce Turk has performed On and Off Broadway, internationally, and at major regional theatres across the country. He has been a resident member of Tadashi Suzuki’s Acting Company in Mito, Tokyo, and Togamura Japan. He has worked extensively with Julie Taymor, appearing in her productions of Titus Andronicus, Juan Darien at Lincoln Center, and playing the title role in The Green Bird. Other New York credits include King John, and Pericles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His regional credits include seasons and productions at Hartford Stage, the Goodman Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Seattle Repertory, the Denver Center, Cincinnati Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, the Shakespeare Theatres in D.C. and New Jersey, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and many more. San Diego audiences have seen his work in six seasons of the Shakespeare Repertory at the Old Globe Theatre, where he received the San Diego Critics’ Craig Noel Award for Excellence in Theatre. He has conducted workshops and given Master Classes at Columbia University, UC Santa Cruz, University of Michigan, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, The Old Globe Theatre, and Cal State Long Beach, where he has also directed. Bruce received the 2012 Fox Fellowship for Distinguished Achievement and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.