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.

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)

Antonio Fava is coming to town!

A great opportunity is coming up, thanks to my friends at #Fourth Monkey who are hosting #CommediaMaestro, #AntonioFava. Fava will lead a four day intensive workshop (29th Oct-1st Nov), as well as perform a run of his new production “Pesteccorna/Pestes Y Cuernos” (Poxes and Horns) in which Fava himself is performing. Fava has taught me so much and is one of my greatest sources of inspiration – surely, you don’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see the great man in action? There’s an early booking offer so check it out this weekend to get the reduced rate on the workshop (book by Oct 2nd). Here’s a link to all the info and booking: http://www.fourthmonkey.co.uk/book-tickets/

Out with a bang!

What an end to a great, fun show today at #Beaudesertpark. #TroubleInnParadise has been non-stop laughter from beginning to end and even today we were finding new comedy and gags. True improvisational spirit; keeping it fresh; #commediadellarte lives! Huge thanks to Alex and Mark for their graft, passion, energy and commitment, and also to Hannah, who stepped up when we most needed her, and to Caroline, who gave me the drive to make this happen and took breaking a leg a little too literally… Without you, there’d be no Trouble Inn Paradise! Onwards my friends to the next project – it’s already underway! 

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Photos © Domonic White www.suscito.co.uk

A final outing Inn Paradise 

Looking forward to an energetic morning at #BeaudesertParkSchool tomorrow. It’s been a journey not free of trouble with ‘Trouble Inn Paradise’ with a broken knee and change of characters, as well as several changes of actors, but laughter has been shared in bucket loads and today we’re rehearsing for our final show in the run. It’s been a blast! What next? Well we’ve already started devising. More news to come soon! 

Workshops for GCSE and A Level studies

Here’s an idea for next academic year to help you and your students get to grips with set texts and find confidence in physical theatre: I’ve just updated the Education Workshops page with workshops on Accidental Death of An Anarchist, The Servant of Two Masters and Berkoff’s Expressionist Theatre. I have loved working on the specific detail of these texts this year to bring them to life with students.  And getting stuck into Berkoff and expressionism has unleashed a whole new raft of ideas to share. I can’t wait to share them with you! Book me in early to benefit from this year’s workshop prices 🙂

Another fantastic day of Commedia dell’Arte!

Thanks to a wonderful group of performers for a brilliant, high energy day of Commedia dell’Arte last Saturday. I always love to work with new people as I find I learn so much from you. The day brought together academics, actors, teachers and others seeking a new experience in a fantastic mix that resulted in funny, engaging scenes, hilarious characterisation and fervent discussion. The true art of comedy can be discovered when we play the stock characters in performance and explore the relationship with the audience. As was observed by several performers on Saturday, it is difficult to predict how donning the mask and stepping out from behind the backdrop will transform you; you become someone else in a way that can take both you and the audience by surprise. A pleasure to observe.

There is never enough time in a day though! There is much more to explore and so many more characters to learn about … so watch this space for the follow workshop!