Inside Philippe Gaulier's clown school
6 September 2016
n exercise has gone badly wrong at École Philippe Gaulier. “You are thedefinition of a bad student,” croaks the septuagenarian teacher. “This is boring. It is so shit!” Gaulier’s student gawps at him, chastened and gormless, as his classmates laugh cheerfully at his discomfort. It’s a fate that you, I and the rest of the non-ridiculous world might cross continents to avoid. But for those aspiring to be funny, this is the place to be – and Gaulier’s tongue-lashings are an exquisite form of torture.
“I had moments of extreme suffering there,” remembers Phil Burgers, better known for his stage persona, the smouldering silent clown Doctor Brown. “It’s really, really hard. But once you can handle the insults, something inside you cracks and you can begin.”
What began for Burgers at the school led to an Edinburgh comedy award in 2012: his cult popularity is the main reason why “Gaulier-trained” is now a buzzword on many a comic’s publicity. On the Edinburgh fringe, which begins this week, no fewer than 14 comedy acts boast of a Gaulier education, including oddball standup John-Luke Roberts, double act Zach and Viggo, and sketch troupe Plague of Idiots.
But Gaulier’s guru status long predates this purple patch: his alumni include Emma Thompson andSimon McBurney, Helena Bonham Carter andSacha Baron Cohen. “Gaulier,” the Ali G star has said, “is the greatest living teacher of clown and modern theatre, and the funniest man I’ve ever met.” Having started as a student, then a colleague, of the physical theatre maestro Jacques Lecoq, Gaulier has run his own college – in France, then the UK, and now in Étampes, near Paris – for 36 years. He isn’t modest about its virtues. “If you come for a year,” he rasps, “we change your life.”
When I visit on a sunny summer day, his class includes the young British standupElf Lyons, here for a year to study being funny (and to take courses in Greek tragedy, melodrama and Chekhov) at the clown-feet of the master. You can learn a la carte, taking one three-week course at a time, and stay for up to two years. Fees are €2,300 a term and there are no auditions (“because the role of the teacher is to change the person, not to judge them”). Enrolment is first-come, first-served; students are of all ages, but are mainly young and from many countries, although Brits slightly predominate. Some are aspiring comics, but Gaulier’s institute is not just a clown school, far less a place to learn standup. “It is a theatre school,” he growls. “I hate standup comedy. I would never teach something so horrible.”
Gaulier is not a man to mince words, but neither is he the ogre legend implies. This grizzled, straggle-haired goblin of a man couldn’t look or sound more like a “clown guru” if he tried, but there’s humour and warmth behind every blunt statement and volley of abuse (“I don’t give a tiny shit!”). The first class I attend begins with a kissing session: students request bisous from one another, and from Gaulier, to atone for mild wrongdoings. Then Gaulier distributes red noses. This classic prop, he says, lays bare what performers were like as children – and infant playfulness is at the core of his teaching. But first comes a comedy routine, as the old sage demonstrates, with references to Sigmund Freud and much orgasmic groaning, how to insert string into the nose.
There follows an exercise in which red-nosed students “boo!” at the audience. Gaulier then proposes to each a costume tailored to their particular spirit: a church mouse in love with a priest; a character from the Asterix books; Confucius; a Boy Scout. “When they come in on Monday with the costume,” he tells me, “they will feel ridiculous. And ridiculousness is good for a clown. It’s good for everything. To feel ridiculous and sensitive is a part of freedom.”
This is the kernel of Gaulier philosophy: good performers (in comedy or theatre – there’s no difference) are in touch with their own unique absurdity, and have fun celebrating it on stage. Is that something anyone can do? “It’s not difficult to be ridiculous,” he replies, with a great Gallic shrug. “You look at people, and normally after five seconds they are ridiculous.” Maybe, but not everyone is comfortable showing it. “If you are an actor, you shouldn’t be comfortable. If you want to be comfortable, you should be a pharmacist.”
Elf Lyons elaborates: “He always says, ‘We’re doing the best job in the world. If you’re not the happiest person in the world to be on stage, then don’t go on stage.’” Lyons isn’t an actor, nor a clown – she’s a standup. But Gaulier’s teaching has been invaluable, she says, because “it’s about being at ease with the audience. It’s about the joy of pretending. It teaches you simple things like standing still, looking at the audience, not taking yourself seriously, being happy to fail.”
I see plenty of failure in another exercise, which obliges students to sing along to songs in an unfamiliar foreign language – then keep singing, convincingly, after the music stops. It’s an inherently ridiculous activity, and the self-consciousness of some students is hard to witness. But Gaulier watches it beadily, for glimpses of the sensitive child behind the ill-at-ease, inhibited grownup.
“He can penetrate through your bullshit to get to the best thing in you,” Burgers says. “Philippe doesn’t settle for any mediocrity.” It’s a point echoed by Lyons: “Nothing goes past him. Suddenly he’ll ask you a cutting question about yourself, and you realise he’s been watching you the whole time.” Both agree that the school’s attraction isn’t primarily the philosophy – it’s the man. “A lot of his ideas are down on paper,” says Lyons. “You could re-create them elsewhere. But his delivery is phenomenal. It’s like the difference between reading a comedian’s material and seeing his show.”
But if Gaulier enjoys the atmosphere of guru worship that surrounds him in Étampes, it’s mainly because of the opportunities it yields for self-mockery. Squatted gnome-like in front of his class, whacking his tambourine, he is clearly delighted with his own ridiculousness. “A teacher has to make sense,” he burbles at one point, repeating the phrase over and over until it dissolves into gibberish. No one seems intimidated by him and, as for his abusive brand of pedagogy, well, it’s a kind of game, says his colleague and former student Carlo Jacucci. “It is a very serious game, to do with dignity. Because when we play with somebody who is fair and honest and fun we are all dignified.” Or, in Gaulier’s words: “If you do something bad, we love you. But you were bad.”
The teacher is unimpressed with his hip cachet in UK comedy circles. “I don’t teach something fashionable,” Gaulier grumbles. “I teach theatre. You take it and, after, you do whatever you want with it.” Meanwhile, he’ll be here in Étampes, accepting kisses and telling people they’re shit. “I didn’t expect to become a legend,” he says. “It would make my mother happy, but she’s dead. So I don’t care. I did my job, not too bad, but I don’t want to be a legend.”