Clowning Around with Dan Kennedy

Pointing out his big nose and bald head, ASC actor Dan Kennedy calls himself a born clown, but his years of training in Australia and Russia probably helped. Kenedy recently taught a workshop on clowning techniques for the ASC, and I couldn’t resist stopping in to learn some techniques from the master.

Those of you who’ve made it to this season’s production of Taming of the Shrew have got to see Kennedy’s clowning at Christopher Sly in the induction, which Kennedy describes as the hardest two minutes of the season. “You never know who’s going to be out there or what they’re going to do,” he says. Clowning isn’t exactly a lost art, but it is less frequently taught in universities than the method acting techniques that have come to define the art form in the 20th century. Method acting is all about subtlety, and clowning is all about exaggeration.

“Feel the top of your forehead where you still have control of your wrinkles,” Kennedy says. “That’s where your eyebrows go.” Kennedy’s philosophy of clowning is that clowns do what normal people do, except they do it in much bigger ways. Clown makeup allows a clown to be seen hundreds of feet away in the big top, but it also allows them to create exaggerated reactions to the world around them.

Toward this end, Kennedy has us break into pairs. One of us walks around the space as normally as possible, while the other observes, and then picks a few things about our walk to exaggerate; then we try to copy our partner’s exaggerations of ourselves. The results vary between the very big and the very small, but herein lie the bases of the clown characters that we will develop. From here we go on to do something similar with our faces, and this is where the class of clowns begin to take on their types: happy, sad, dopey, or frightening.

Another important aspect of Kennedy’s clown technique: “to a clown, everything’s new.” Kennedy encourages his class to take simple props: sticks, ropes, fans, and pinwheels, and try to figure out what they are. Translated into the action of a clown, this means what they can be used for. Watching the clown experiment with the possibilities of a simple, every day object is a great source of humor, and one clown’s discoveries can inform another’s. If a clown decides that a stick is a sword, another might decide that two sticks are a shield.

Here Kennedy passes out clown noses to the class, asking us to close our eyes and imagine the characters we’ve created. “The people who do this take their work very seriously,” Kennedy says. “To anyone who’s done any mask work, the mask isn’t a toy, you don’t stick your fingers through the eyes; you treat it like a character.” Clowns may do ridiculous things, but it’s hard work, and the conclusion of the workshop makes a great object lesson out of that. Using music to create a clown dance for us to play in, five minutes feels like longer. Others have more success finding their inner clown, than I do, but that doesn’t bother me too much. “Really learning how to do this takes years and years,” Kennedy says at the beginning of the workshop. “I’m going to give you the introduction to the sort of things they do.”

So maybe I’m not ready to be a clown, but thanks to Dan Kennedy, the attendees of this workshop have a better idea about the process of one of the funniest actors in the ASC’s resident company.