Alumni Reflections is a regularly-scheduled column where alumni from Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre share what’s on their mind. This week’s article comes courtesy of Jeff Raz (PTP 1980):
[Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be published book Building a Clown: A backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil and The Clown Conservatory (working title). Building a Clown is fiction created from the decade that Jeff spent directing The Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. This excerpt is from the point of view of Jake, a student at clown school.]
In a corner store, I mindlessly juggle three oranges. A little boy, black-haired and whiny, sees me and freezes. I juggle for him, he hides behind his dad’s leg and I stop. As I put the oranges down, Dad says: “Hey, that was good. Know any tricks?”
Ego aflame, I pick up the fruit again and do a few moves from my ball-juggling act. The little boy slowly comes out of his hiding place behind Dad. Seeing my audience hooked, I get a little cocky, trying a 360-degree turn in the cramped aisle.
An orange pops out of my hand and hits the floor.
I feel the sting of shame that hits me every time I drop in performance, knowing that even this little boy can see I’ve failed. But the boy is smiling and picking up the orange. He throws it to me, I catch it in the juggling pattern and he is hopping up and down, laughing. He holds out his hands and I soft-toss him another orange. He drops it, laughs, picks it up and throws it back for me to juggle. He screams with delight. We throw back and forth, the boy dropping every throw and me juggling.
Finally, I bring the orange back into my pattern and I look up to see Dad beaming, the storekeeper giving a big thumbs up from behind the register, and the other four or five customers staring at me. Another 360-degree turn, this time I catch the orange with a flourish, and the corner store erupts in applause.
I give the boy an orange, take a little bow and–thrilled, but a little embarrassed–bring my basket to the checkout. The storekeeper doesn’t make me pay for the oranges, and as I’m leaving, Dad yells: “Thank you. You made our day.” The boy is trying to juggle his orange as I turn the corner to home.
The next day at school, the Director is excited to hear my story. “When you dropped that orange, you created the possibility for a connection with the boy. The boy sees an orange coming to him and is thrilled. He thinks ‘My turn to play!’ and throws it back to you, which is the start of something beautiful.
“That drop wasn’t a mistake,” he continues, “a moment when we see that you are less than perfect, a chink in the armor of a professional juggler. That moment is a chance to connect: a Golden Mistake. Clowns live or die by Golden Mistakes. And it takes hours of rehearsal for a clown to be ready to make mistakes golden. My formula is one hundred hours of rehearsal for every minute of material onstage.”
He pauses to let that number sink in. I do the math; even if you were working forty hours a week, by this formula it would take three months to make a five-minute clown routine.
“I know my formula sounds crazy to you. It is crazy. Clowns are a little crazy–but not for the reasons most people think. We’re crazy to work so hard to make such short acts. We rehearse and rehearse and try to be perfect so that we can be fully aware onstage, moment to moment. A professional clown should go into every show both well-rehearsed and prepared for Golden Mistakes. You need to say to yourself, when something goes wrong, I have the chance to make my show get even better than what I rehearsed; I have the chance to make a unique and beautiful connection with these people, right now, right here.
“A clown is both a workhorse and a hummingbird.”
Jeff Raz is a theatre artist based out of Alameda, California, originally from Berkeley, California. He is a 1980 graduate of the Professional Training Program (PTP) at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, and performed with The Dell’Arte Company in 1980 & 1981. Jeff is Co-Founder of The Clown Conservatory in San Francisco, California. Connect with Jeff at jeffraz.com and on Facebook.