<![CDATA[kittywinter.com - Blog]]>Fri, 05 May 2023 02:28:58 +0100Weebly<![CDATA[Little Red Riding Hood: Stepping in as Wulfrick]]>Mon, 07 Feb 2022 13:46:12 GMThttp://kittywinter.com/blog/little-red-riding-hood-stepping-in-as-wulfrickBetween the studio run and the schools’ tour of Little Red Riding Hood (Middleton, 2021), which I directed for Nottingham Playhouse, both of the cast caught Covid, and we had to rehearse in a swing understudy. During these rehearsals, I stepped into the dual role of Granny and Wulfrick the wolf, while our understudy learned the other actor’s track. 
​I am not an actor, and have never felt particularly comfortable performing. The only role I have ever chosen to perform was in my own company’s show FIVE (WinterWalker, 2019). That role took the form of a non-verbal, semi-improvised clown performance; very different to the scripted character roles I was covering in this context.  I wasn’t therefore expecting to feel any joy or creative flow when standing in as a performer, I was viewing it as a job that needed doing for the benefit of the production.
Stepping in to play Granny felt like performing an acting role. She’s written as a heightened but essentially believable character, with subtext and human emotion in the text and staging. Performing her, even in a rehearsal room with only our stage manager watching, made me feel exposed, self-conscious and uncomfortable. I was acutely aware of not knowing what to do with my body and voice, and I felt how untruthful my performance was. These are all familiar feelings, which accompany any attempt of mine to act.
Playing Wulfrick however felt completely different. He’s written as a far less complex character, with simple wants and needs driving him, mostly because he’s an animal. He’s also played for laughs, and much of the audience’s enjoyment of him is derived from his failures (he keeps eating his friends, or since he’s a predator, making friends with his prey). So in many respects Wulfrick is written as a clownlike character, and I have certainly been directing the original performer, Carolyn Murray, to play him in this way.
Wulfrick mask, designed by Ella Barraclough, built by Alex Hatton
Performing Wulfrick I felt relaxed and happy, and I could see from the responses of my stage manager and the performer I was rehearsing with that my performance was engaging and funny to watch. I wasn’t wearing the physical mask of the costume, but the cartoonish nature of the character felt as if I had a mask-like layer to stand behind. My movement felt stylised but assured, I knew what to do with my body and voice, and I could be flexible and responsive within it. The closest analogy I can find is that I felt as if I were puppeteering my own body, a feeling far closer to my experiences of dancing than acting. And as when I’m puppeteering, playing or moving in an improvisatory situation, I felt completely absorbed, unselfconscious and in the moment. I was also far better able to see, feel and respond to the others in the room with me; this was an open and playful state.

There is much discussion within clown training and theory about the nature of the clown persona, and the need for it to be truthful and personal in order to conjure that same state of immediacy, connection and absorption. In a recent podcast interview clown legend De Castro describes clowning not as a technique but as ‘a state of being’ in which the performer grants themself permission to behave with greater creativity and freedom (Stroud, no date). Gaulier training almost fetishizes the intimacy and exposure of the performer’s innermost psyche within the development of a personal clown, suggesting that ‘the “true self” is revealed through the mask form of clown’ (Purcell Gates, 2011, p. 231). Is it possible however that a mask, whether literal or figurative, can simply be a mask? Something that the performer can stand behind, hide behind, in order to feel less exposed and therefore freer to play?

I have never been through a lengthy process of birthing a personal clown, in fact in this instance I was stepping in very briefly to a written role, created by another performer. To a non-performer like myself that layer of masking feels like a comforting detachment; this isn’t me playing a role, this is me playing at a role. Or perhaps in that detachment, and in playing a clearly non-naturalistic role, what I’m feeling is greater honesty. I’m not attempting to trick the audience into believing that I am a different human being, feeling real feelings, instead I’m honestly playing at being a wolf. So I have to question the assumption that the clown state must be deeply and uniquely personal; are there other ways into that clown state of being that may feel more accessible to performers from other disciplines, particularly dancers? 
1: Wulfrick mask from Little Red Riding Hood by Sarah Middleton, 2021. Designed by Ella Barraclough, built by Alex Hatton. Photo by Alan Fletcher, shot during rehearsals. From https://nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/events/little-red-riding-hood/

Middleton, S. (2021) ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Nottingham Playhouse.
Purcell Gates, L. (2011) ‘Locating the self: narratives and practices of authenticity in French clown training’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 2(2), pp. 231–242.
Stroud, E. (no date) ‘Clowning with Angela De Castro’. (Clowning Around...). Available at: https://clowningaroundthepodcast.libsyn.com/episode-21-clowning-around-clowning-with-angela-de-castro.
WinterWalker (2019) ‘FIVE’. The Hullabaloo, Darlington.

<![CDATA[Clown from the Hips Down- Thoughts on Clowns’ Legs]]>Wed, 19 Jan 2022 00:00:00 GMThttp://kittywinter.com/blog/clown-from-the-hips-down-thoughts-on-clowns-legsWhat is it that clowns do with their legs, that’s different to what actors or dancers do? Can you spot a clown performer just by looking at their lower body?
Two legs good
The bipedal nature of adult humans is one of the most fundamental features in our sense of self. Walking on two legs sets us apart from animals, it lifts our heads up towards the heavens and frees our hands to hold and make things, to embrace and to fight. The idea of being upright is tied to ideas of being dignified, respectable, an upstanding citizen. It’s also, seen dispassionately, pretty silly. 

Bipedal creatures are top heavy, and slower moving on our two legs than even pretty tiny quadrupeds (Buckley, 2013). We have to use huge portions of our brain power simply to stop ourselves from falling over, it takes us over a year from birth to be able to walk, and several years more to master the contralateral arm swinging that allows us to walk and run with some degree of efficiency 
(Lewsey, 2018). Perhaps it’s this combination of dignity and absurdity that makes standing and walking upright, and the legs that we use to do that, fertile ground for comedy. This is a core idea in physical comedy performer Jos Houben’s acclaimed solo show The Art of Laughter (Houben, 2007). Houben posits that the moment we lose or subvert our upright posture, is the moment that we become ridiculous (watch here).

Clown shoes and baggy trousers
This train of thought around the way clowns use their legs originated in a conversation during Jon Davison’s Clown Studies course with The London Clown School (Davison, 2020). We were looking at clown costume through the ages, and I started to notice a common thread throughout the images and video clips; clown costumes that highlight the legs and feet. 
Joey Grimaldi (1778- 1837) leads the charge, with knee-britches and stockings making his legs appear long, mobile and exposed (R). There’s more than a hint of ballet costume in this very traditional clown look, where legs are likewise extended and elongated, particularly en pointe. Unsurprising perhaps, since both ballet and Grimaldi’s English pantomime nod back to the courtly fashion of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Grimaldi’s very physical, acrobatic performances would also have required unencumbered legs, much like a dancer. 
Fig 1: Joey Grimaldi as Clown
Fig 2: WinterWalker's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (2016)
The britches and stockings combo is such an enduring and iconic image of clown, particularly the more poetic and acrobatic whiteface style, that we can still see echoes of it in modern performance. Its feminised version, with the performer in knee britches, stockings and often a corset, is particularly familiar. My own company’s work, making clown-inspired dance theatre for young audiences, has more than once featured female performers in a variation of this same costume (L). It’s a look with a lot packed in; it’s clearly feminine and reveals the performer’s body, but it’s rendered pretty and childishly innocent, rather than sexual, by its historical connotations. It also places the performance within the visual context of circus, with all its connotations of enjoyment and entertainment, rather than contemporary dance, which can be seen as elite, difficult and highbrow.
Within the early 20th Century circus tradition, the Grimaldi-style clown costume sits alongside the oversized baggy pants and giant shoes of the more clod-hopping Auguste. Within this tradition the legs and feet are distorted, enlarged, rotated and squashed in a great variety of ways. The Fratellini Brothers (R) are here giving a great example of three different but complimentary distortions of conventional Western men’s legs of the same period, usually rendered rigid and straight by sharply-pressed suits. Even further back, Little Titch (Harry Relph, 1867-1928) took the big shoes concept to extraordinary virtuosic lengths (watch here), using them as stilts, percussive slapsticks, and to counterbalance a leaning body; a trick reworked decades later by Michael Jackson.
Fig 3: The Fratellini Brothers
Rebellious dancing legs

A possible answer to the question of what clowns do with their legs, as opposed to dancers or actors, may lie in the connectedness of the body as a whole. In Western performance dance, there is a general principle of harmony, of the body moving as one fluid shape, emphasising through line from limbs to torso and out again. Rudolf Laban has much to say on the subject of harmony, imagining the human body existing and moving within perfect invisible mathematical shapes (Newlove and Dalby, 2004) . In classical ballet, this sense of line and extension is at its zenith, with dancers spending years training for perfection of through-line, particularly in arabasque positions.  

​Actors too often seek a sense of connectedness and harmony in their movement. There are many anecdotal examples of actors building a character from the shoes up, Alexander Skarsgård was interviewed by The Guardian on the subject recently (Skarsgård and Harper, 2019). Others find a character’s walk as a way into a role. I do a lot of work with actors on this as a movement director: creating a consistent and cohesive physicality helps define a character onstage, particularly when the actor is playing multiple roles. And for the most part, the limbs and torso all work together to paint that picture.

Clowns and comedy performers seem to have a more fractious relationship with their legs. There’s often a sense of disconnect, as if the legs have a mind of their own or are being controlled by some external force. There’s perhaps an echo here of the innocent amazement that a tiny baby has, watching her own arms and legs flail around, unaware that she’s responsible for them.
This disconnection is particularly apparent when we look at eccentric dance in its early 20th century heyday and beyond; from Little Titch’s big boots, through Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s bowler-hatted Egyptian sand dancers, and Groucho Marx’s ubiquitous leg-hitch move, the legs are doing one thing while the face is telling us something else. According to Davison (2020), veteran eccentric dancer and teacher Barry Grantham describes this phenomenon as the performer having eccentric legs while acting with the face and torso. 
The most extraordinary of the eccentric dancers was surely Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975) whose long-limbed and articulate body dancing in perfect disconnection with itself made her appear as if she had a brain in each limb, like an octopus. She also walked a fascinating line between the comic and the sexy- her most iconic dance was performed in a tutu of bananas and not much else (watch here). Her goofy facial expressions with crossed eyes and puffed out cheeks seemed to undercut the showgirl costuming and context of her performances, giving a sense (whether constructed or not) that she was dancing for her own enjoyment rather than the titillation of her audience. This somehow seems much more anarchic and empowered than many of the contemporary music stars whose acts follow in Baker’s wake; however magnificent Beyonce might be, she’s never to my knowledge blown raspberries at her audience!
A classic film example is Ray Bolger’s loose-limbed and off-balance performance as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939). His extraordinary dance sequence to the song If I Only had a Brain was cut from the cinema release but came to light some decades later (watch here). As well as some gloriously daft in-camera effects and wirework, it features Bolger sliding into out of box splits as if completely boneless and weightless, and performing high-leaping barrel turns and landing on the sides of his feet, which appear only loosely connected to his ankles. Throughout all this virtuoso athleticism, his face retains an expression of cheerful confusion, as if his body were being puppeteered from the outside, rather than controlled by his actual human brain.
Moving beyond the music hall and of the early days of cinema, and still we see dancers in popular culture forms doing weird stuff with their legs. Look Krumping or Clowning, the hip hop dance styles pioneered by Tommy the Clown (Thomas Johnson), and there yet again we see the same unruly and disconnected legs (watch here). The styles, much like Bolger’s scarecrow, play with weight, gravity and optical illusion, and again give the feeling that the dancers’ legs are being externally controlled, or possibly have a mind of their own. 
If as Paul Bouissac’s semiotic analysis suggests, the clown is often out of step with social and cultural norms, operating in the realms of transgression (Bouissac, 2015), what more fundamental expression of this idea could there be than the sense of being out of step with your own body? There’s a sense of anarchy in these rebellious legs, prodding at the taboo of out-of-controlness that we see and fear in drunkenness or madness, for example. Legs, or rather the body parts between and atop them, also hint at the more obvious taboos of sex and excretion, two well-worn but ever-popular sources of comedy material.
Funny feet
One of the clowns featured in Bouissac’s book is Portuguese circus performer César Dias, a fourth-generation circus performer whose act builds on long-established traditions. One of his most popular entrees is as a Vegas-style lounge singer performing the song My Way (watch here). Dias’s clown persona is visually pared back; he doesn’t perform in a red nose; in fact the only piece of clown ‘wrongness’ in his costume for this number is his too-short trousers. Through the course of the act, as Dias struggles with the microphone and stand, his trousers drop, revealing red satin heart-covered boxer shorts and sock suspenders. In the rearranging of clothing that ensues, the bottom of his jacket is left poking out of his flies, and if that wasn’t quite phallic enough, he then discovers that the microphone is also down his trousers. He performs the remainder of the song with the mic cable threaded through his crotch, adding injury to insult in true clown fashion as he walks too far from where the cable is plugged in and appears to cheese-wire his testicles. The genital connotations of this part of the act are clear, but in fact only Dias’s legs are ever bared; the nakedness of this usually clothed body part and the suggestive shape of the microphone, are enough to bring the taboo to mind without risking censure from a family audience. It’s interesting to note that despite Dias being conventionally attractive, there’s no sense that the element of bared flesh in this act is designed to titillate. Exposed men’s legs, the act prompts us to understand, are funny, not sexy.
So what of exposed women’s legs? Clown comedian Julia Masli’s award-winning 2019 show Legs (with the Duncan Brothers) is a surreal meditation on the body part. In one section Masli makes characters out of her legs with sunglasses and drawn-on mouths, pulls a condom over one leg (which of course snaps), bangs her knees together suggestively, and then enacts giving birth to a doll’s leg. Masli seems to acknowledge the cultural expectation that her long, bare, female legs will have sexual connotations; there are wolf whistles from the audience when she first enters, wearing a fur coat and short shorts; and this section both acknowledges and subverts that expectation by suggesting a sexual act but with wonderful grotesque silliness. Masli’s more recent video collaboration (watch here) with Scandinavian clown Viggo Venn pays tribute to the joy and health benefits of squatting (Masli and Venn, 2020). Clearly an hour-long show wasn’t enough to fully cover the comic possibilities of legs. 
Sometimes however the joy that clowns find is in hiding or disguising rather than exposing their legs. In clown superstar Slava Polunin’s international hit production Snowshow, the central Yellow Clown’s costume is soft, billowing, and features an extremely dropped crotch. This gives the character a cartoon-like silhouette and allows Polunin and the others who have since inherited the role to create physical optical illusions. In an understated dance number to the sentimental song Blue Canary (watch here) the Yellow Clown drops into a deep squat (Julia Masli would approve) to waddle in time with the two taller Green Clowns who flank him, and performs stiff jumps where his legs appear to be pulled into his body on elastic. Even when hidden here, it’s the clown’s legs providing the visual surprise that appears to catch the unsuspecting clown out, and that’s what triggers the audience’s laugh. 
So What?
From this collection of evidence, we can argue that perhaps clowns do have an unusual relationship with their legs, and that it’s part of what makes an audience laugh. The laugh could come from the surprise of a visual illusion when a performer’s legs seem to operate of their own accord or outside the usual laws of gravity, or it could come from the boundaries of the taboo, or the subverting of a sexualised male gaze. Perhaps though there’s just something fundamentally absurd about legs, and our insistence as a species on balancing precariously on just two of them, while declaring our own sublime dignity and intellectual supremacy.    
References and Bibliography

​Bouissac, P. (2015) The Semiotics of Clowns and Clowning: Rituals of Transgression and the Theory of Laughter. London: Bloomsbury.
Buckley, C.E. (2013) ‘Speed is Relative (Human and Animal Running Speeds): Are you a Cheetah, a Chicken, or a Snail?’, Faculty and Staff Publications- Milner Library, Illinois State University, 46.
Cesar Dias MY WAY- comedy act [YouTube] (2017). Switzerland. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmGBQY1Np-Y.
Davison, J. (2020) ‘Clown Studies Course: History, Theory and Analysis of Clown’. Online, September.
Fleming, V. (1939) The Wizard of Oz [Film]. MGM.
Fleming, V. and Haley, J. (1985) Wizard of Oz Outtake, from ‘That’s Dancing!’ [YouTube]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qFIuy_7Z0g.
Hall, J. (2017) Little Titch- Big Boot Dance (1900) [YouTube]. J R H Films. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFB4oHajwGw.
Houben, J. (2007) ‘The Art of Laughter’. Battersea Arts Centre, London.
Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance [YouTube] (2008). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmw5eGh888Y.
La verticalité par Jos Houben, L’Art du Rire - La Scala Paris [YouTube] (2020). Available at: https://youtu.be/y4cp6g_gFCk.
Lewsey, J. (2018) ‘Your Child’s Walking Timeline’, babycentre.co.uk.
Masli, J. and Venn, V. (2020) Julia Masli and Viggo Venn: Masters of Squat [YouTube]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKLJXOfJmr4&t=6s.
Newlove, J. and Dalby, J. (2004) Laban for All. London: Nick Hern Books.
Skarsgård, A. and Harper, L. (2019) ‘Alexander Skarsgård: “I spend hours thinking: ‘What kind of shoes would this guy wear?’”’, The Guardian, 1 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/oct/01/alexander-skarsgard-i-spend-hours-thinking-what-kind-of-shoes-would-this-guy-wear (Accessed: 12 January 2022).
Slava’s Snowshow Théâtre Monfort Paris [YouTube] (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Oc72-gVtOg.
What is Clown Walking? [YouTube] (2020). OfficialTsquadTV. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zT8_yoYirNw.
1: Joey Grimaldi as Clown, from http://www.historyofcircus.com/circus-origin/joseph-grimaldi/
2: Lizzie Muncey and Maisie Whitehead in WinterWalker’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, 2016. Photo by Tim Cross, ©WinterWalker
3: Book Cover of Les Fratellini, Trois clowns légendaires by Michel Serrault and Pierre-Robert Levy, from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fratellini-Trois-clowns-légendaires/dp/2742713638

<![CDATA['Ha Ha, You're an Idiot' : Audience participation in performance for young audiences]]>Thu, 14 Oct 2021 23:00:00 GMThttp://kittywinter.com/blog/ha-ha-youre-an-idiot-audience-participation-in-performance-for-young-audiencesThere is a commonly-held assumption that theatre and performance for children must be interactive; it’s often phrased as ‘joining in the fun’. However, through observation of audiences, of my own son, and anecdotally from friends and colleagues, it seems many children aren’t as uncritically keen on audience participation as the received wisdom dictates.
In summer 2021, I took my 5-year-old son Rufus to see Get Happy, a joyfully anarchic non-narrative, clown-based show for family audiences by Told by an Idiot. Not long before, we had also been to see Marty and the Party, a lovely devised show for early years audiences by Milk Presents, at Derby Theatre. In both cases, there were moments where characters encouraged children in the audience to copy actions and sounds that they were performing onstage. And in both cases, although the performers made the offer gently and playfully, Rufus was made deeply uncomfortable by the expectation to join in. A conversation with him afterwards went like this:

K:     You didn’t look like you wanted to join in with the actions, why not? 
R:     Because I felt like everyone was looking at me and going ‘ha ha, you’re an idiot’.

That seems pretty clear, and pretty damning to me. We shouldn’t be asking audiences (of any age, but particularly children) to do something that they feel exposed or ashamed by doing. Children are constantly asked to copy others, often performing acts that they, the child, are less skilful at that the person they are copying (at school, in dance, sports and other extracurricular activities.) The feeling of failing to match the standard of their example must be a familiar and unpleasant one that intelligent children will not enjoy. Why the hell would we seek to replicate that experience when we have invited children into a theatre as our audience?

I picked up this conversation with writer Sarah Middleton, when we were starting work on Little Red Riding Hood for Nottingham Playhouse (she writing, me directing). Sarah had observed this same response from her niece, and it became clear that not only did the request from the stage to join in with a performance act make the children uncomfortable in the moment, they then continued to worry that it was going to happen again. If one of the theoretical purposes of audience participation is to keep children engaged in the performance, then distracting them out of their engagement and enjoyment of the show by making them worry that they’re about to be asked to do something embarrassing is really counterproductive. Not to mention that it’s also lazy theatre-making! A well made show shouldn’t have to demand physical actions from the audience in order to hold their attention.

Rufus and I then talked a bit further about the interactive elements he did enjoy. These were:

The bit where we threw balls at the clown.
- The bit where the clown didn’t know where the ketchup was, and we told him, and then it         moved before he could get it.

- The bit where the puppet couldn’t find her boyfriend, and we told her where he’d gone.

In all these examples, the audience knows more than the onstage character, and is therefore in a position of higher status. Surely one of the central joys of watching clowning for adult audiences is an appreciation of another’s stupidity, seen from the comfortable position of not being that stupid yourself. Why should child audiences be treated differently? These examples also didn’t require the children to perform any actions or vocalisations that they hadn’t created or decided on for themselves. They could choose whether to pick up a ball and where to throw it, and they could choose whether and how to respond to an onstage problem or question. They also allowed the children to feel that they were helping to advance the story or playful moment, engaging them within the world of the performance, rather than distracting them out of it. These moments gave the children agency, removed the imbalance of child/adult skill level, and gave them status over an adult. These, surely, are far more positive takeaways than a lingering fear of everyone looking at you and going ‘ha ha you’re an idiot’.

Putting it into practice

Following our conversation, Sarah and I agreed on a set of guidelines for audience participation in Little Red Riding Hood. We think it should:

  • Give the audience the choice of if and how they want to respond
  • Progress the story, not distract the audience out of it
  • Place the audience in a position of higher status than the character

The interactive moments we're currently planning are these:

- A request for suggestions from Granny- what are people scared of in the woods?
(Giving agency and status, advancing the story)
A request for suggestions from Lil- what could Wulfrick eat that isn’t an animal?
(Giving agency and status, advancing the story)
A similar one from Granny- what should we put in a pie? Which will then be referred back to and represented by a prop pie with lots of clearly different sections, so the children can see a representation of their various suggestions.
​(Giving agency, advancing the story and seeing your contribution valued).
A request for physical help from Lil- can everyone help her pull Granny out of Wulfrick’s belly?
This is a borderline one, as it does require the children to perform an action requested by a character onstage.  However, we hope that because it’s framed as a request for help with something Lil cannot do herself (giving agency and status) and the action itself isn’t proscribed (they can pull however they like, or not) it should sit on the right side of the embarrassment/engagement scale.

We'll see how the moments land when the show goes into performance, in the Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse, and perhaps even more vitally, on its tour of primary schools in the New Year. 


Research Questions