Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The first thing you forget to do when you find yourself in front of any audience is to breathe.
You see this over and over in workshops. A student steps out onto stage, with or without a red nose, and immediately they seem to glaze over in their eyes and become rigid and staring, not really seeing, tense throughout the body, and certainly unable to react in the moment or flow with the energy of what the audience is offering.
This stiffness and tension originates with breath, or lack of it. Usually the student has their mouth firmly shut and they are literally holding their breath without realising it. It is almost as if they are waiting to see what will happen, tense and nervous with anticipation about what the audience is thinking about them.
The unfortunate but obvious effect of this inadvertent breath holding is that, like all good audiences, we cannot help mirroring what we see on stage in our own bodies. This is apparently the fault of the mirror neurons (more about that in another blog post) which we all have in our brains. If the poor tense performer on stage is holding their breath and full of anxiety, the audience will also unknowingly holding their breath and feel anxious. Nothing will flow from the audience, nothing will be received by the performer, there is no dialogue, no communication, no connection...no clowning (because, as we know, clowning is all about that flow of connection between audience and performer).
Happily, most of the time the student just needs to be reminded to breathe and things immediately improve. The moment the teacher asks them to open their mouth and breathe, you can see the body relax, let out all that nervous energy, and so too the audience breathes and starts to enjoy themselves. Usually there is a good laugh that happens just at that moment. Which demonstrates exactly what laughter is - the sudden and repeated release of breath as a result of a sudden, unexpected and pleasurable change of perception.
However, the problems do not end there, as the cycle will often repeat itself after that first relaxation. Tension creeps back in, the breath gets shorter and the student seems to be waiting for something to happen (the audience too) and therefore nothing happens. Again, the student needs to be reminded to breathe, and again the breath is released and everyone has a laugh.
The problem with this cycle is that it never allows anything to grow or develop, and of course it also relies on the teachers' constant coaching, which will not be there the day you step out onto stage for real. So how can we develop our ability as performers to breathe on stage from the beginning?
The good news is that it's relatively easy to learn good breathing habits, and it all starts, as most new skill acquisition does, with regular practice.
Every day I recommend spending ten to twenty minutes going through a simple routine of breathing exercises, which are designed to facilitate the flow of breath and energy through and around your body. There are six distinct 'flows', which are linked to the six fundamental 'directions' of your clown world (we call these North, South, East, West, Above above, Below below, though they don't necessarily relate literally to the cardinal directions).
For each of the six flows, we visualise breathing in and out through different parts of the body (North, for example, is breathing in through the feet and out through the belly). And there is a simple movement that goes with each flow, which helps to connect the breath to the body.
In turn those six flows relate to different important facets of our clown:
North - appetites, desires, intentions, dreams
South - memory, flexibility, change, letting go of the past
East - emotion, impulse, heart, intuition
West - logic, intelligence, wit, problem solving
Above above - ethereal, heavenly, spiritual, air
Below below - earthly, grounded, strength, nourishment
It's not hard, but to fully get how to do the breathing, it's best to learn in the context of a class or video training, where you can listen to and watch the instruction and be coached.
With regular practice, you will quickly build your breathing 'muscles' so that when you go out in front of an audience (or simply have to speak in public), you will have the awareness and control you need to avoid the awful moment of frozen breath-holding.
But there's also a second (and perhaps even a third) very important benefit to be gained from these good breathing habits. Knowing how to breathe well is not only important when on stage for the clown, but also as part of their creative process, preparation and rehearsal. Breathing consciously into and out of different parts of the body, linked to the six fundamental 'directions' of clowning very quickly and effectively take us into a place of full connection and presence with ourselves and give us access to those deep creative desires and impulses from which we can produce. It awakens and releases the clown spirit, facilitating the necessary abandonment and surrender to the clown guides and energies which will in turn open up the path to deep self-knowledge and self-expression.
Done properly, a clown breathing routine takes us through and kind of inventory of the body and an internal assessment of where we are at today, in this particular moment. It helps us ground and know who we are right now, which in turns helps us figure out where we want to go and how to get there. This places us in the right frame of mind for a creative session, whether we are working on the overall concept for a new piece, or rehearsing the minute detail of some scene or beat in a piece. It also of course helps in any creative process, not just performance but writing, dancing, painting, music, to name a few.
Finally, good breathing has amazing benefits for your physical health and mental wellbeing. This has been known a long time by certain kinds of people (free divers, for example) but is only know becoming more widely accepted and adopted in the mainstream. The health benefits of good breathing include higher oxygen levels in the blood, better water retention in the body, synchronisation of metabolic systems throughout the body, higher energy levels, improved immune response, reduction of anxiety and stress, faster reaction times, and many more. If you are interested there is an excellent book published this year by James Nestor called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, which is well worth reading. In short, very simple breathing habits (such as regular nose breathing) can have really massive impacts on our physical health and how we feel emotionally and mentally.
In my teaching I often talk about the need to connect inwardly and outwardly. The outward connection is especially important when you actually are in front of your audience and need to connect with them. The inward connection is more about the ability to travel into yourself and connect with your deepest clown spirit as a source of creative inspiration, impulse and intuition. Key to this ability to go deep and connect inwardly is...breath (you guessed correctly).
Breath is the key to life and since any creative process is essentially a pouring out of life into a physical form, it cannot happen without that solid foundation of breath. Breath connects us with our inner source of life and external sources of life (nature, other living beings, the earth). It is essential for a long and happy life, whether we want to clown or not. Without proper breath, life cannot happen and neither can clowning.
So, altogether now....breathe in (and don't forget to breathe out).