For Avner the Eccentric, the clown’s traditional role is intermediary – between circus and audience.
– Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva, Editor
Avner Eisenberg began our conversation about circus tradition by sharing the opening of his book (in development), which begins with a discussion of the clown as intermediary between the world of the ring – a space of virtuosity – and the world of the audience – the space of the ordinary. The clown, he contends, is the actor of the circus. And, “The job of the actor,” he begins, “is to make the audience feel things; not to understand or think about things, but to feel!”
To do this the actor must forge a relationship with the spectator that is empathetic rather than sympathetic. Sympathy is understanding and feeling for; empathy is sharing the feeling.
In many ways the clown was born in the circus, where it is hard to have an empathetic relationship with the virtuosic performers who inhabit the ring. We can admire the circus performer, but it is hard to empathize with someone who walks into a cage of lions, stands on the back of a galloping horse, or climbs 30 feet into the air to walk on a sliver of a stretched cable.
So, psychologically, we need an intermediary between the virtuosos of the circus and us, the ordinary citizens of the public. In this we discover the birth of the clown in its deeper psychological role. The clown was born in the role of the member of the audience who wanders into the ring to jump onto the back of a racing steed (often backwards and holding onto the tail for dear life), or climbs “unnoticed” up the ladder to the high wire. He often looks like an “Uncle Louie’ who stopped at the circus on his way home from his job at the local shoe store, or “Aunt Rose” on the way home from shopping.
Kathryn: So, this is very interesting. I was having a conversation about tradition with Dominique Jando –
Avner: I know Dominique.
Kathryn: – and the first thing he wanted to discuss was the ring: how the dynamics of the physical space produce aesthetic forms. You’re talking about the ring as a psychological space, and about how the circus clown is configured as a psychological being in relationship to that space – in relation, above all to the border between audience and performers.
Avner: Let me tell you a story that I tell students. Which is that, before 1850s, nothing on earth could go over land faster than a horse could run. This is something people don’t realize. And what happened, what finishes up in the 1850s, is the industrial revolution, with the advent of the railroad. It was the first time you could move something across the country – and it was the first time you had something to move! Earlier, there were no factories. In fact, as I understand it, before the industrial revolution, the population was not an urban population, it was largely a rural population, centered on family farms. Every farm had a horse: that was the engine of the farm. And one thing that every kid knew? That you don’t stand up on a horse.
Now, the original circuses were horse shows. And these troupes of performers stood up on horses. And you can still see that – it’s the classic circus act, the bareback riders. Not gals in tutus and tights, but a kind of Roman gladiator standing on two horses.
Kathryn: The first serious circus I ever saw was the Moscow Circus, which toured the States when I was a child. I remember nothing – except the act they called “The Cossack Riders.” It was exhilarating. Powerful, young men in gorgeous, exotic costumes, balancing on galloping horses, hanging sidewise, hanging upside down –
Avner: Yes! And to take that back to Dominique’s point: the diameter of the circus ring is precisely the diameter that gives a draft horse – which has a big back that you can stand on – the smoothest gate when it’s cantering around the ring. And to this day, the circus ring is exactly that diameter.
So, then we get into my story, which is that in drama, we need somebody we can identify with. Or else we’re just spectators. We need to have empathy for someone in the play. We go, “Oh god, I’ve had days like that.”
The problem with the circus is that the circus is the world of the virtuoso. And we can’t have empathy for those people. We can have sympathy. We watch, we’re scared, we applaud – and we go home. We don’t want to take them with us.
So there grew up a character who was, in those days, dressed as a farm worker – the word “clown,” as I understand it, comes from a root that means “rustic” – a country bumpkin basically. And this person who seems to be one of us comes out of the audience, into the ring, and climbs up onto the tight rope, or goes into the lion’s cage. I remember watching Tommy Hanneford – I worked on the Hanneford show when I was much younger, just pushing props around – watching him play that character, jumping on a bareback horse backwards, his coat over his head – and then, ultimately, ripping it off, and he had tights on and did beautiful tricks.
When that person walks into the ring, we go: “Gasp! Oh, my God, don’t, you’ll kill yourself!” Instead of (when we see someone in tights with spangles ), “Ok, show me your stuff.” And that is so satisfying emotionally.
But it takes a certain lack of inhibition, to step into a dangerous circus ring like that. And symbolically, the thing that removes inhibition is alcohol. And the symbol of alcohol? Is the red nose.
Kathryn: That’s where the red nose comes from?
Avner: Now, I know it’s not true – but it’s what I believe. I have a passage about this in my book:
Why would someone leave the safety of the stalls to enter the danger zone of the circus ring? This belies a certain lack of inhibition. Inhibition keeps us safe. And what is the symbolic remover of inhibition in our culture? Alcohol. Through history the town drunk has been a figure of guarded respect; a symbol of freedom; a defier of authority. (This, of course, all came before the recognition of alcoholism as the horribly destructive disease that it is.)
….The symbol of alcoholism, and thus the lack of inhibition, is the red nose. The red nose also allows a canny, wise and appropriately inhibited adult to regain the uninhibited innocence of the baby. The red nose does double duty in symbolizing both the lack of inhibition of the inebriated and the untested innocence of the babe.
Until recently, the town drunk, the clochard, was a very beloved character. Think of Otis from the old Andy Williams show. You’ll laugh just hearing this: he was the town drunk, and he had his own key to the jail. So he could get in.
So those are the psychological underpinnings of the clown: at once a stand in for the fearless circus artist and the fearful ordinary member of the public.
Kathryn: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot in preparing this issue of CirCommons – and this subject comes up in a big way in my conversation with Dominique Jando – is the tremendous change happening in concepts of circus. Some of that change is positive, some negative. Arguably, the negative changes stem from practitioners confusing interdisciplinarity with a kind of de-skilling. Dominique suggests that by taking circus into theatre, we’ve lost the spatial possibilities for the kind of virtuosity which is the essence of traditional circus practices.
But the clown is a mobile element within the circus world. The clown moves between the ring and the house – and beyond. The clown’s been an awful lot of places besides the circus. So perhaps from a clowning perspective, this idea of disciplinary purity doesn’t have the same meaning. I’m wondering if you can speak to that a little bit.
Avner: Well first of all, I start all my workshops and lectures by noting that “clown” is a four-letter word. So is puppeteer. A lot of baggage. I recently went to my first clown convention.
Kathryn: That sounds like a scary thing.
Avner: The World Clown Convention. It’s mostly avocational clowns. Church-based clowning. They do a lot of really good work. But it’s kind of unskilled. There’s a lot of emphasis on costume and make-up. As one person put it – he came to me after my talk – “I’ve got my costume, and I’ve got my make-up. But how do I get an act?”
So I had to give a sort of a keynote address at this convention, and I had dinner with some of the board of directors, and I said, “So how do you define clown?” And they sort of went, “werhhhhhhhhhh.” They didn’t have a cogent definition. So I took my cue from the Supreme Court. I stood up and I said – remember, a lot of these are Christian clowns – “Clowning is a lot like pornography. (Pause.) You can’t define it. But you know it when you see it.”
Kathryn: Did your Christian clowns find that funny?
Avner: They were shocked at the beginning, and then it let them off the hook. It was a good example of humor based on ambiguity. So – going back to the psychological needs that we have for the clown character … I think from Dominique’s point of view, he’s standing inside the circus ring looking out. And I’m standing outside. The circus ring is just one of the places that this character exists. It certainly exists in the old cowboy movies. It exists in Shakespeare.
So what is it that’s special about clowns? They are allowed – and in fact need – to do things that we’re not allowed to do. I was listening to an interview with Larry David. He’s in New York, he’s doing a Broadway play. You can find the interview – it’s brilliant. He says, “Well that guy, on ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’ – that guy is fearless. He doesn’t recognize social fear.” Somebody does something, and he stands up and says, “You can’t do that here!” We wouldn’t do that. We all think it, we’d like to get up and say it – he gets up and says it for us.
And this starts to be a more encompassing notion of clown that takes in the court jester, the king’s fool, who’s allowed to tell the truth to the king. He’s the only person that’s allowed to tell the truth. So maybe clown is not necessarily based in alcoholism, but it certainly tends to be based in deformity. I think that’s a lot of the root of Lecoq’s invention of the bouffon. It’s the person who has nothing to lose, so they tell the truth. Not trying to impress us. The bouffon says, “‘Mother’? ‘Apple pie?’ Jesus! That guy’s crazy!” Whereas in melodrama, we watch the character go, “Oh, yes, I know…”
The clown’s position is always: “That’s interesting. I know what to do.” I view clowning as a series of problems to solve. And you have to know that your solution will work. Your position is, “wow – that’s even more interesting than I thought.” That’s where the optimism of the clown comes in. It’s a little bit like neutral mask: there’s no anticipation of failure, there’s a kind of blind anticipation of success. One of the things that I often get into with students is, you don’t get points for pretending to be incompetent. You get points for pretending to be competent. When you really have no idea what you’re doing.
“Can you drive this car?”
“No problem. How do I start?”
Avner Eisenberg enjoyed a generic childhood in Atlanta, Georgia. As a kid his passions were snakes and juggling. He wanted to be a doctor, but after a year as an honors chemistry and biology major his parents forced him into performing. Applying the art of juggling to education, Avner attended four universities moving counter-clockwise around the United States, ultimately earning a BA in theatre from the University of Washington. He studied in Paris with Jacques Lecoq for two years and, while street performing in Paris, was arrested for buffoonery in public. On returning to the United States Avner taught at Carlo Mazzone Clementi’s Dell’Arte School of Physical Comedy in California. He is greatly indebted to these two men: “Lecoq, who taught me everything I know, and Carlo who taught me the rest.”
As a film actor, Avner is best known for his portrayal of The Jewel, the scene-stealing holy man, in The Jewel of the Nile. His numerous theatre credits include leading roles in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (Lincoln Center, 1987) and Ghetto (Circle in the Square, 1989), as well as his one-man show, Avner the Eccentric, a hit of the 1984–1985 Broadway season. Avner’s new show, Exceptions to Gravity, defies the barriers of language and culture and has toured extensively all over the US and abroad. Avner frequently plays regional theaters including Arena Stage, Trinity Rep, Actor’s Theater of Louisville, The Empty Space, Indiana Rep, The Goodman Theater, Portland Stage, Merrimack Rep, Virginia Stage Company, Dallas Theater Center, Seacoast Rep, San Jose Rep, Theatre Fontaine (Paris), and Teatro Alfil (Madrid). Regularly featured on television specials throughout the world, he is also a frequent featured performer at comedy, magic and theatre festivals, including The Edinburgh Festival, where he won the New Faces of 1991 Award. Avner garnered special jury awards at The International Festival du Cirque in Monte Carlo, Arosa International Humor Festival, Barcelona International Clown Festival, Leipzig Lach Messe, and the St Gervais International Theater Festival, and was a finalist for the Perrier Award, the Israel Festival, and the Montreal International Comedy Festival. In 2002, Avner was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.
Avner teachers master classes in clowning and Eccentric Performing in the United States, France, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Japan and Spain. He has developed silent theatre skills as a therapeutic tool and teaches workshops for students and professionals in healthcare, education and counseling, as well as theatre. A certified Ericksonian Hypnotist, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming Master Practitioner, Avner specializes in performer related issues of all kinds. He is artistic director of Phyzgig, an annual festival of physical comedy, past President of the Board of the Celebration Barn Theater, and on the advisory board of The Circus Conservatory of America. Avner has been a practitioner of Aikido for many years and holds the rank of shodan, first degree black belt. He lives on an island off the coast of Maine and would really rather be sailing.