Buffoons and Bouffons

What image does the term ‘buffoon’ conjure for you? Is it a gormless, upper class ponce with very little intelligence? Is it our ludicrous leaders spouting absurdities and displaying ridiculous behaviour? It’s interesting how the word has changed its meaning over the years. The buffoons we refer to these days are social clowns, who make a fool of themselves and get cheap laughs – whether intentionally or not. We have lost the gravitas of this term somewhere along the line.

Watching Joker the other night though, I felt new hope. Here is a bouffon at his finest, in the truest sense of the word. The underdog, not the leader; the outcast who is down trodden and belittled by those in power. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a mesmerising performance. He is at once grotesque and beautiful; obscenely violent and intensely moving. The Joker may take the guise of the clown, but he is no clown. The mask disguises the pain and anger that is mounting at his core, caused by those who reject him, deny him and laugh at him, but the last laugh is his.

The Joker is the classic bouffon – the inverse of the clown – who laughs at his audience as they become increasingly confused and when the time is right for the uprising, he flips the table. He is the voice of those forgotten and thrown out to the slums and his power is that he is never alone, for he is legion: “We are all clowns”.

The bouffon is irrepressible. In the sixteenth century, when poverty was rife, bouffons were visible everywhere, but today we don’t always notice them, for the bouffons are invisible to those who have it all, but they are still here. It is partly our overriding need to be politically correct that causes us to turn a blind eye when a bouffon crosses our path and it is certainly this that has marginalised bouffon as a performance style. Tramps, transgender people, mental illness, dementia-wanderers, downs syndrome drag queens … Bouffons make us feel uncomfortable, whether we like to admit it or not. As an audience, we’re not sure whether we are allowed to look, let alone laugh and we certainly don’t like to become the subject and the butt of the joke.

Joker made me realise that now, more than ever – in our climate of political insanity and with our insanely changing climate – the time is right for the voice of the bouffon to be heard again. The bouffon no longer exists only in the shadows; the bouffon is rising in each of us. The more we feel suppressed, ignored, embittered, begrudged, the more the frustration of a nation is bubbling within; we need to find a way to vent it, before anarchy is unleashed.

Theatre is where this can happen. Theatre has the power to bring about change and there is a place for politics here.  Joan Littlewood’s 1936 Manifesto for the Theatre Union resonates once more:

Confident, fast-paced and very funny

Delighted to say that Stroud Theatre Festival went very well. We had so many people making positive comments:

“Confident, fast-paced and very funny”

“Lots of lovely little well-judged touches”

“A charming and slick show… The skill of the two lead actors, switching between roles, bewitches and beguiles…”

“Amazing! Best money I’ve spent in a long time”

The show, improvised in nature, changes slightly every night which makes it constantly entertaining, challenging – and a tad risky! I am relieved to say that John is fine after an unexpected mishap whilst bottling love (a plaster sorted everything) and the lighting rig got fired back up after cooling down from an overheat! All made for added excitement, improvised gags and extra laughter.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this happen, in particular John Bassett who organised the festival, The Sub Rooms staff and the wonderful, dedicated Jane Broadbent.

We are all buzzing from the launch of the show and looking forward to visiting @loretocollege next week.

Contact us if you would like to book the show at your venue! cheryl@learningthroughtheatre.co.uk

© www.redpiranhaphotography.co.uk

© www.redpiranhaphotography.co.uk

© www.redpiranhaphotography.co.uk

Out of the shed

There is nothing I love more (well almost…) than #laughingmysocks off whilst getting hot and sweaty in the #rehearsalshed!  The shed has become our second home, and something of a haven from the stresses of the outside world; a place where absurdity and hilarity are unleashed, and for the past few months it has been a hive of activity as we have been devising, honing and refining our new commedia dell’arte show, The Breath of Love. It has been my great pleasure to work with three fabulous and highly skilled actors: John Broadbent who has several decades of experience in commedia dell’arte, having trained with Carlo Boso and being co-founder of The Fortunati Commedia Troupe; Mark Reid, an Aussie born clown with extensive physical theatre experience and most recent to join us is James Anderson, a wonderful comic actor, musician and teacher. We are gearing up for our launch on Friday 13th September… it will be lucky for us. I’m not superstitious. Prove me right and get yourself a ticket or three! We will be proudly opening the #StroudTheatreFestival @stroudtheatre – now the biggest theatre festival in Gloucestershire!


We are performing right in the centre of town @thesubrooms with shows on Friday at 1pm and 8pm. On Saturday, we have a show at 1.30pm and then we will be running an intensive 2 hour commedia dell’arte workshop – this is a great chance for you to explore the masks, learn about the characters and learn a few slapstick physical gags. Bag yourself a £12 combined show-workshop ticket for that! Our final festival show is on Sunday at 6.30pm. You can book tickets for the shows and the workshop through the #StroudTheatreFestival website (linked to above).  Hope to see you there! Do come and say ‘hi’ afterwards – we love to meet our audiences.

You can now follow our photo stories on Instagram as well: https://www.instagram.com/learningmasks/

by Cheryl Stapleton

Stop the testing, teach life skills!

As my daughter sits her SATS my thoughts go to the value of education… her retention of maths, English grammar, spellings, etc are tested; at secondary school she will be tested again and again, being primed for more exams before she has had time to really try out the range of subjects on offer. I have told her, as a good parent does, “Do your best and that is all I can ask,” but she places herself under stress, wanting to do well to please her teachers: “Miss X will be really cross if I don’t do well though!” Our kids are pushed to succeed in core subjects so that they are successful in life and, of course, these are important, but we all know that it takes more than maths and English qualifications to be successful.

Happy entrepreneurs

I’m sure we could all name some of the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs in the world who have little or no qualifications at all. The thing they all have in common is that they are great communicators who can read people, who can understand what others need and present ideas in a compelling and persuasive way. They also enjoy what they do and are happy.

So I’m jumping on the band wagon to wave the flag for drama in schools: we need to teach our kids how to read, how to write, how to calculate but also how to communicate, how to socialise, negotiate and work with others. But now I am going to be a bit controversial and this might get a few people’s backs up… stop teaching kids texts. They don’t need to know Shakespeare, they don’t need to learn lines or analyse a play script. Don’t get me wrong, there is immense value in all those things and kids should have the option to do them (hey, I regularly run text  linked workshops and I love doing them and hope to continue, but there is more to theatre than play study).

Stop the pressure!

If we are talking about a mass education for every child and appreciating the true value of learning through theatre we should make drama education in schools about real life – and not disguised real life – but real life where the context is crystal clear so that everyone can see the merits of the study: role plays, social situations, negotiations, problem solving, discussion, debates, team work, leadership, family strife, emotional intelligence, relationships, romance, reading non-verbal language, understanding subtext: the nuance, intonation, true meaning.  If we start doing this, drama becomes an essential core subject on every curriculum. No one can suggest it is just for those who want to be actors or have a ‘creative’ career. Exam boards need to stop testing kids under exam pressure, stop insisting they interpret a text they have no real life context for and start equipping them with life skills. I guess what I am saying is the Personal Social Health Education and Drama need to merge: Life Skills perhaps?

Lift the Mask

I teach through masks and you could say that masks take people right out of reality, so why use them? Well, that is the dichotomy of the mask – it hides, yet also reveals; it helps us learn about others and in turn ourselves. We all wear them, just not everyone can lift them.

From the moment we start to build our own social circle separate to our parents, at the age of 4 or 5, we start to create masks: the one for our friends, the one for teachers, the one for our parents. We build these up throughout our teenage years and for some people this goes on through many more years. For some, the masks are so thickly layered they become impossible to strip away. Some don actual masks – make-up, wigs, hair colour, tattoos, piercings – to create a persona to project. How long it takes though to have the confidence to strip those masks away and stand their ‘naked’ as you before everyone. It is one of the biggest struggles we face in life – learning to be comfortable in our own skin.

Learning with masks is a way to stride over these personal barriers and to step up with a confidence we didn’t know we had, say the things we have always wanted to say and interact in a way that maybe scared us previously. I have personally witnessed the immense power of using masks to overcome personal difficulties – children with autism who have never looked anyone in the eye, who put on a mask and hold a parents gaze for the first time; individuals who are shy and afraid to speak, donning a mask and finding a voice they never knew they had. Once we experience these moments and have unlocked ourselves, there is then the potential to unlock them further and begin to lift the masks.

What is the true value of learning through theatre then?

  • develop self confidence
  • learn how you can communicate effectively – to convey information, to persuade, to negotiate, to sell, to engage
  • learn how to socialise and understand others effectively – even when they don’t have the words for the feeling
  • develop self-respect – know who you are and be comfortable with that

How will we make sure future generations are healthy, happy and successful?

  1. stop putting kids under stress to achieve
  2. teach them about good nutrition and how to remove processed food from their diet completely
  3. teach them to respect and protect the people and the planet
  4. teach them to communicate effectively and work with others to achieve their dreams
  5. teach them self-respect and show them happiness.

I believe drama must become a core subject in every school – not because I feel we need to prepare young people for our creative industries, but because every young person needs to learn to how socialise effectively, how to communicate and how to have self-respect.

What is the origin of Bouffon?

Bouffon dates back to Roman times where it was a very popular form of comedy. Nowadays, we are not supposed to laugh at people who are ‘different’.  It’s cruel. But bouffon is in a league of it’s own; bouffon creates a fake grotesquery: characters that are so outrageously bizarre that they can’t relate to anything or anyone real. No one is offended because these absurdly contorted actors do not bear any immediate semblance to any human that we recognise; they are at too extreme. But, we still feel uncomfortable to be around someone who has an appearance like this……


Philippe Gaulier, the maestro of bouffon, explains the history thus:

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Swing of Pulcinella - WGA22397

“The Bouffon is a crippled out cast, a lame person, a legless or one-armed cripple, a dwarf, a midget, a whore, a homosexual, a witch, a heretical priest, a madman.  He has not been chosen by the gods.  He has been chased into the swamps and ghettos by the children of god in fact, who have seized the opportunity to announce that in view of the bouffon’s physical and moral ugliness, the father could not be a great artist of international fame.  So his father was the opposite of God, his father was the devil Lucifer. The Bouffon was elected son of the devil and he was happy about this.  He was happy to be the son of the first Tempter and of the first women seduced: Eve.  In the Bouffon workshop we learn to be a big person who enjoys being small, with a special additional pleasure enjoyed by those people: the blasphemy.”

Bouffons are the descendants of Pulcinella, made famous through the commedia dell’arte. Pulcinella is the stock archetype of the bouffon: a personification of the grotesque; too ugly and deformed to fit in. He has a deep mistrust of authority, resents the beautiful ones and is out for revenge on those who have made him the mutant he is, with the hump on his back and pot belly.

Medieval carnival witnessed troops of Pulcinella with humped backs, beak noses and tall white hats mocking crowds, up to mischief and entertaining with their misdemeanours.   There is a story that Pulcinella was a hunch back who was tricked by witches who promised to remove his hump.  Instead, they cursed him with a second hump on his belly. Once a year, at the ‘Feast of Fools’, it is said that, the outcasts were invited back inside the city walls so that the ‘beautiful ones’ could feel superior and look down on these misfit miscreants. Rules were turned upside down and an outcast was crowned King of Fools.

I found this lovely piece in The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review from 1847. It tells the story of Pulcinello, the bitter, aggressive bouffon who came to fame through the commedia dell’arte in the 16th century. This perfectly sums up the tragedy of this bouffon character, heartbroken and rejected:

The Feast of Fools was celebrated annually on January 1st throughout Europe and particularly France from 13th century right through to the 16th century. It was a day when Christian morals were abandoned and the people were allowed to create parodies of church rituals and openly mock the clergymen and the church. The origins of the festival are thought to date back further than the Christian church to ancient Rome and the pagan festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the harvest god, Saturn. Bet you didn’t know that Saturn was worshipped as a God!

Saturnalia took place in mid-December and was the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas. It was the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season. All class distinctions and laws were temporarily suspended during the festival. It is believed that The Feast of Fools was an adaptation of this pagan celebration.

If we define it further, we could say that it is a brief social revolution in which those with power, wealth and dignity were usurped by the common people.

Whether King Lear’s fool or the Victorian misshapen ‘freak’, the fascination with the grotesque and ‘unnatural’ remained; for centuries the public’s voyeuristic tendencies have kept the bouffon vibrantly alive for the audience. The image of the bouffon as the underdog or the embodiment of evil is a recurring theme throughout literature and art: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, Robert Louis Stevenson personifies evil as ugly and mutated in Jekyll and Hyde, in art we can turn to the works of Breugel, Bosch and Picasso, to name but a few. Today, we still see the bouffon on stage and screen in the grotesque characterisations of, for example, Sacha Baron Cohen; in comedies that celebrate gallows humour, like Blackadder; in the extravagant drag of the late Divine and the more recent transvestite, Down’s syndrome drag of  Drag Syndrome.

Nowadays we live in a society that is more aware of political correctness and how laughing at the those less fortunate is unacceptable but there is still a place for bouffon as an antidote to the diseases that grip our society today: consumerism, capitalism, Trumpism… Brexit …  It is arguable that we desperately need a little unproductive, carefree play and festivity to unleash and admonish the demons.

Perhaps the Balinese have got it right. The ancient dance-drama, Topeng, is a satirical form that is still played today, wearing half masks in Bali, originating in around AD 840.  The clown characters of this theatrical form, known as bondres, parody the idiosyncrasies and disabilities of the local villagers using slapstick humour, obscenities and grotesque half masks that feature hair-lips, buck teeth and other facial deformities. The audience delight in these parodies of villagers who they recognise from their community; no offence is taken – in fact it is an honour to be pastiched in this way by the highly skilled performers for whom there is a deep respect.

It is said that black comedy has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors… “to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.” It is good to face your demons from time to time. Bouffon has a cathartic, purging effect, I find. Plus it makes me laugh like a banshee.

If you’d like to see some photos from my most recent bouffon workshop, click here.


The Doctor’s remedies, lotions and cure-alls!

Be it the Stitch,
Or the Itch,
The Grumps, Mumps or Twitch,
The Physician is here,
Proffering cure-alls most queer.

The Doctor has been on the streets of Nailsworth today pedalling his wares and offering potions, lotions and finest remedies for all ailments, aches, shakes and quakes. Together with his (not so) able assistant Zan Pollo, they found a crowd – rather randomly – at #RecordStoreDay2019 @SanctuaryVinyl

Selling cure-alls is merely a secondary ruse to draw his public into the knowledge that he is the keeper of one of life’s greatest secrets: he is on the cusp of galvanising the essential elements into an elixir that can bring the dead back to life . Already hailed as the greatest physician, scientist and self-proclaimed alchemist he will soon be noted globally as the Great Rejuvenator!

The character of the Doctor began to appear in commedia dell’arte in response to the proliferation of charlatan mountebanks who were setting up impromptu stalls in every market place of Renaissance Italy. At this time, many new breakthroughs and discoveries in science and medicine were being made and the public were keen to purchase the newly available remedies for every known ailment. This presented an opportunity for the quack, self-proclaimed ‘physicians’ to profit from the public’s want, luring them in with elaborate spectacle and theatrical demonstrations, using stooges purposefully placed in the crowd. A market place full of fakes, replicas and rip-offs? Times haven’t changed that much.

The Doctor of commedia dell’arte is based on these unscrupulous profiteers, the only difference being that the audience are encouraged to quickly see him for what he is: a pompous buffoon with little credibility. It is through the comic relationships with his servants, through the absurd investigations and riotous operations that we appreciate the Doctor as a primary source of comedy in the scenarios; he is the straight man to the fool; Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel.

Today was a warm up for our new show: The Breath of True Love. The show will be touring to schools nationwide accompanied by a commedia dell’arte workshop for students. If you would like to know more, click here.

Achieving Stage Presence

Movement expressionism is useful, as a rehearsal tool, no matter what style of acting you work with. Using levels of exaggeration frees the actor to allow expression to pass through their body and, I believe, is the key to presence on stage. This is just one of the techniques we work with at Learning Through Theatre that our students find particularly useful and liberating:

The Levels of Exaggeration

This is inspired by Lecoq’s 7 Levels of Tension. We have developed this to support the study of Expressionism to explore the distorted grotesques that often feature in expressionist plays.

Level 1 – Neutral – an absence of character

Level 2 – Naturalism – everyday, internalised

Level 3 – The Twitch – bursting out, sudden spasms, repeated gestures (on the way down, this happens more naturally as you try to reign the animal in!)

Level 4 – Heightened – highly expressive; farcical; intensified character with animal-like qualities

Level 5 – Exaggerated – strange, absurd, melodramatic; human-animal

Level 6 – Grotesque – shocking; distorted; primal, animalistic, wild

Level 7 – Mie – a freeze frame; snap into position of extreme tension

There is another element that in itself is not a ‘level of tension’ but is an amplification of a tension state: ‘Slo-mo’; a heightened slow motion movement that can be thrown in at any level. The slo-mo must sustain the intensity of tension at that level. A director might call for an actor to ‘snap’ suddenly into a mie following slow-mo and then back to any given level (e.g. level 5… slo-mo … level 4)

Considering what animal a character could be likened to is an ideal starting point. Work up to level 6 where the animal qualities come to the forefront; the character becomes less human, more animal; the voice loses articulation and becomes ‘wild’. Once you have been up through the levels, go back down; the experience of returning to level 2 is greatly intensified; there is a tangible energy and power contained behind the eyes: the actor is utterly present in the moment. Don’t just take our word for it:

Naked Berkoff!

Well, naked of a mask, I should say… it’s becoming increasingly common these days to find me sans masque, delving into the glorious grotesque characterisations that epitomise Berkoff’s style of theatre. I’m warming up right now for another intensive workshop on Expressionist Theatre, as I get ready to travel south in a few weeks to East Sussex to my wonderful hosts @OffTheText. This one is for teachers – a fantastically fun CPD! Fancy joining us? You can find out more and book on our Acting and Professional Development Page.

It is great to be able to push participants to extremes: they are always surprised by the range their voices can cover and the expressionistic abilities of their own bodies. When pushed to explore the outer limits of the expressive potential of their bodies, faces and voices, performers start to reach the essence of what Steven Berkoff’s deliciously grotesque, expressionist theatre is all about. Great fun has been had playing with extracts from Berkoff’s plays looking at how all the techniques come together. Here’s some photos from recent workshops and a short clip of an extract from Berkoff’s ‘Kvetch‘:

New show in the pipeline

My goodness it has been a hectic term. I have been in Henley, London, Warwickshire, Devon, Manchester, Birmingham and Gloucestershire delivering workshops at universities, schools, colleges and of course, two intensive full day masterclasses at The Actors’ Workshop in Bristol, plus I am delighted to also be teaching at Circomedia in Bristol now. Phew! I have to say, I am glad of a Christmas break, but loving the contact with such a variety of students.

I have been testing the water with samples of a new show that is in the offing, in its trial format as a one woman commedia troupe (!) and the feedback so far is very positive.

I am keen to incorporate a performance presentation element (ideally with two performers) into future commedia dell’ arte workshops as I find it helps participants enormously to be able to see the required energy, style and pace of commedia in action; it propels participants of a workshop to a far stronger starting position once they have this knowledge.

“We got to learn how a real practitioner worked in commedia and seeing it performed in front of me was way more understandable than just reading about it academically”

(UCL SELCS student)

“There is really no substitute when teaching commedia dell’arte to seeing it enacted live.”

Dr L. Sampson (Reader in Early Modern Italian Studies, UCL Italian Department)