The Comic Thread & The Flop

by Bruce Turk

in Fox Fellowships

Post image for The Comic Thread & The Flop

(Editor’s note: The following posts are adapted from the Hartford Stage blog series by Bruce Turk about his experiences as a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow. Photo: Philippe Gaulier and Bruce Turk in Etampes. Photo: Tan Chui Mui)

Last fall the William & Eva Fox Foundation and Theatre Communications Group (TCG) announced the seventh round of Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship recipients. This award provides significant funding to support actors’ professional and artistic development, to enrich relationships between actors and nonprofit theatres and to ensure continued professional commitment to live theatre. Funded by the Fox Foundation and administered over two years by TCG, the fellowship is one of only a few programs of its kind for actors in the country. As a recipient in the category for Distinguished Achievement, I am investigating the comic thread which runs through French comedy from Moliere to Feydeau and preparing an approach to performing these works.

To do so, I am fusing research of classical French Comedy, the physical skills of clowning, and advanced vocal training. A look at some of the Shakespearean roles I’ve played over the past several years reveals a gradual shift from Spirits to Villains and Kings to Clowns: Ariel, Oberon, Angelo, Leontes, Claudius, Ford, Parolles, Aguecheek, Grumio, Fool, Trinculo, Malvolio. The natural arc of this casting suggests a theme for further artistic development. I have always approached these assignments as character work, playing from the heart and through the text. But now I challenge myself to draw even more from comic roles by delving deeper into the art of clowning.

There is a whole world of meaningful comic roles that I am beginning to age into. This is an excellent time to prepare for them by enriching myself through a detailed, thorough examination of physical comic techniques. The core of my training [is] in France with world renowned clown and teacher, Philippe Gaulier.

In theatrical circles, Philippe Gaulier is known as the premier teacher of clown in the world. For years he studied, then taught with, Jaques Lecoq, the great teacher of physical acting, mask, and performance. Performers and teachers come from all over the world to study with Gaulier and they arrive with varied experiences and expertise. Of course, clowns of the circus variety come; but so do actors, dancers, stand-up comedians, mimes, directors, and writers. They come in search of one thing: discovering their own humanity on stage.

Gaulier’s approach is completely different from most actor training in the US. He does not teach a technique. He has no method. He works instinctually. There is, as he says, no recipe for success. Each performer has his own soul–his own beauty–and he carries his own set of defenses and baggage which get in the way of that beauty. Gaulier’s job, as he describes it, is to tell you when you are bad and he is brutally honest.

What does it mean to be bad, to be boring, to be absolutely horrible? It means that you are not beautiful because you are not having fun. Pleasure, not truth, says, Gaulier, is the key for a performer because if he has no pleasure then the audience will have no pleasure. Pleasure does not mean laughing like an idiot. It means the pleasure of being on stage wrapped in the imagination. The pleasure of playing Richard III is the same as that of playing Bozo the Clown. Once you access that pleasure, you can invite the audience to join you in the game.

“I have to enter the imagination of the spectator and the imagination is a kingdom very delicate…it is open. When everybody is OK to open this box…I don’t have to be true, I need to enter and to enter imagination you don’t have to be true. We have to trust you in a way, but you need to have a special game, special madness, a special lightness and–Oh, we open up, or–No, we don’t want to open it. All these stories about character, psychology, my mother died when I was seven years old–all this stuff is shitty stuff. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t help an actor to be on the stage. It doesn’t help at all. C’est du la merde totale! And your personal pain is a secret of your life. It is for you. It is a beautiful secret of your life and it is enough. You don’t sell it, you don’t sell your pain: you sell your pleasure. Being on the stage, having fun, having a game, having humor, having imagination. That is honorable to sell. To sell my pain is not honorable. It is not [dignified] to sell my pain. To sell my stupidity, to sell my bad jokes–that is honorable.”

–Philippe Gaulier-

Phillipe and Red Nose

(One day, Gaulier told us to borrow the costume of another actor in the class…so here I am as Tan Chui Mui’s Chinese Opera Clown. Photo: Tan Chui Mui)

[In Gaulier’s class I go] onto the stage with a red nose and one simple directive: “warm up the voice.” In this exercise, the clown must pretend to be an opera singer and warm up his voice. He wants everyone to believe that he is a high-level opera singer. I must enter with pleasure to be on stage. I must listen to the audience and play with them. I must concentrate on the task of warming up the voice. And I MUST make them laugh. If the audience does not laugh, it is a failure.

Why would anyone put themselves through this? When you fail it’s painful from both sides of the curtain; but not everyone fails. Some players are able to operate in a zone of calm. Their concentration is acute. They can listen. They can respond to what the audience gives them. And they have fun. Yesterday I had fun, but today I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. I sing a note and I hear nothing but crickets. I feel like a man on fire. I am ready to combust. I look to my only salvation: the audience…and they aren’t laughing.

I am not funny. They aren’t laughing. I am failing. I am in the flop. I’m standing on hot coals. The pressure rises in my head and I hear my blood pounding in my ears. My voice rises in my throat. Gone are the rich tones of a Shakespearean actor. I manage to push something out, but it sounds like a faint growl. I try to scream, but I do nothing but squeak. It all falls flat. I panic. My body shakes and my hands sweat. I am desperate. I’d kill for a laugh. This is the terror of the clown. When I really can’t take it any more my shoulder’s slump and I give up with a sigh. THEN…they laugh.In the moment of complete failure–when all of my defenses drop around my feet–when I really can’t take any more of the torture–when they finally see some humanity  and not a character or an idea of what I think is funny–when they see the real pain of Bruce…they laugh.

As an actor in a play, I have a script, I have a costume, I have a set, and I have other players to rely upon. I have something to hang on to to help me from one moment to the next. After years of performing, professional actors develop survival skills, techniques, and tricks. We become extremely adept at concealing our insecurities; but with Gaulier, the performer has nothing but himself and the audience.  Through this training, Gaulier is taking away the crutch and stripping away all refined techniques to see just what is at the center of my performance. He is revealing the stage animal–the human being. It’s a different person than one who has a plan, an idea, a monologue or a set piece to perform. It is raw, it is human, and sometimes–with a bit of luck–it is funny.

Turk-Bruce-e1372970051323-798x1024Bruce 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.