It is Maundy Thursday, the eve of the holiest day of the year in the Christian calendar (Good Friday). Here in the ancient Roman town of Vic in Catalonia, a procession is taking place. Processions of penitents are the norm across Spain in Holy Week. Wearing face-concealing black or purple pointy hats, dressed as centurions, bearing crosses or flaming torches, waving flags, carrying massive floats adorned with statues of the Madonna, flowers, and candles, they parade through the streets for hours with a steady step-brush of their sandaled feet.
But this procession is a little different. From across the massive sand-strewn expanse of the square comes a dragoon of bouffons, bearing a great blank flag. One of them does indeed have a black pointy hat, but he also has bare legs, big boots and a number of dismembered cuddly toys poking out from under his fur coat. Another has a lizard’s tail and a jester’s hat. There’s egg-box armour, demented beehive hairdos, furry boots, big bottoms, swollen breasts, puffed-out chests. Step-brush, step-brush, step-brush. What do they want with the people of Vic? They are here to make a proclamation! It starts as a re-iteration of key articles from the Declaration of Human Rights in a medley of languages, the buffoons enacting scenes of mock torture much enjoyed by the younger members of the audience. La vida! La libertad! La seguretat! Ha ha ha! It ends with the Oda a la Merda (Ode to Shit) – a satirical Catalan poem on the human condition: ‘Salut, oh merda! Materia que agermana les persones malaltes o be sanes, el ric i el pobre, el savi i l’ignorant.’ (All hail the shit! The stuff that unites the sick and the healthy, the rich and the poor, the wise and the ignorant.’) Shit the great equalizer: even the queen needs to take a shit – and here she comes, resplendent in pink chiffon, armed with her trusty toilet roll. The proclamation over, the buffoons roll up their flag and head off to who-knows-where…
But where did they come from? Bouffons, I have learnt, are born fully-formed. They appear from cracks in the ground, from the backs of broken TV monitors, from the debris of a tsunami or a nuclear disaster. They are not human – in fact, they don’t actually exist at all, they are a product of the audience’s subconscious. The bouffon has no opinions – he or she just knows. The bouffon holds a mirror up to the audience, reflecting their deepest darkest fears. Indeed, the bouffon holds a mirror up to the whole world. This, she says, is what you look like. Aren’t you funny! A bouffon works in the comic register, but is not a clown. We laugh at – or with – the clown’s human folly. The bouffon laughs at us.
The word ‘bouffon’ has come to us as a theatrical term through the work of Jacques Lecoq. The derivation of the word (and indeed of the English word buffoon) is a Latin verb: buffare, to puff, to fill the cheeks with air. Giovanni Fusetti, in an essay called The Ecstasy of Mocking elucidates on the nature of the bouffon: ‘A bouffon exists to mock, to represent elements of his or her society in an amplified, distorted, exaggerated way, therefore provoking laughter or outrage. Their purpose is to have fun mocking humans and therefore they use everything they find.’ However, it is important to note that the bouffon’s satire ‘never touches individual or private themes’. Politics, power, money, finances, morality, war, the army, science, education – these are all fair game. So it is the institutions and cultural mores of humanity that are the targets of the scorn rather than individuals.
The bouffon might exist in his or her own universe, holding our world in the palm of their hand, but behind every bouffon is an actor, and ‘the actor is always in charge’ as Marian Masoliver and Maria Codinachs say repeatedly throughout the week-long Bouffon Workshop which they are co-teaching at The Actors Space (just 20 minutes drive away from Vic, up into the Catalonian hills) in the week before Easter. This becomes almost a mantra throughout the duration of the workshop. For just five days – days which each feel like a lifetime, such a rich amount of experiences are contained in each – this group of fourteen actors have been learning the true meaning of that mantra for the art of the bouffon: how to take on the mantel of the bouffon, to don a whole-body-mask that allows you to say and do the things that your bouffon would say or do, then once the work is done, to lay that mask aside and become yourself again. Sometimes the subjects we are dealing with are difficult – violence, abuse, suicide, torture – but we are reminded again and again that this is theatre, this is play, this is not the present-moment reality for us. We can and must learn to put some space between ourselves and our material, however harrowing that material might be. This is an important concept, reiterated many times over by the team of Lecoq-inspired teachers at The Actors Space. Speaking to Maria and Marian over a lunch break, both teachers relay the belief that ‘the actor needs to be comfortable’ by which they mean comfortable physically and mentally. There needs to be space and distance, Marian says, to ‘play’ the character, not be the character. To play the suffering, not be the suffering. It needs to be a pleasure. But also a pleasure for the audience, Maria says, ‘not a masturbation’ with the actor too focused on his or her own pleasure to worry about anyone else! Indeed, the real ‘actors’ space’, says Marian, is inside the audience’s mind and heart.
The Actors Space is run by Marian Masoliver and Simon Edwards. Both are graduates of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq, but have many other strings to their respective bows – Marian as a performer with legendary Catalan company La Fura del Baus and with Kneehigh; Simon as a renowned teacher and director, travelling the world to work as a coach for comic actors working on stage or screen, directing, or delivering lectures. The Actors Space has, over the years, become a renowned international centre of theatre and film, providing high quality training for actors, directors, writers, teachers and students of dramatic art. It is housed in a beautiful old farmhouse nestling in the gorgeous Catalan hills, yet only an hour or so from Barcelona. Most of the courses at The Actors Space are taught by Marian and Simon – occasionally (as in this case) inviting in a guest teacher. Maria Codinachs is a friend and colleague from the Lecoq days and beyond. Since graduating from Ecole Jacques Lecoq in 1988, she has performed and taught throughout Europe (with an increasing emphasis on the teaching, which she feels is her calling in life, dedicating herself to ‘opening the creativity of others.’) She now mostly works in her native Catalonia, teaching a range of physical theatre skills – including neutral mask, Commedia, and bouffon – mostly at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona. ‘This is my holiday’ she says with a twinkle about teaching in Easter Week at The Actors Space!
From the very first session of the very first day, it is clear that both Maria and Marian are skilled teachers with a wealth of wonderful material to share. Each day is split into four sessions, three taught and one the ‘auto-cours’ in which work is prepared in small groups to show to the others on the following day. Some of the work is general Lecoq-inspired exercises – pushing and pulling the space with body parts, evoking the journey of the child, bringing the essence of an object (a corkscrew, say) into the physical body – and some are more specific to the study of bouffon. Cruelty for example – in day one it is straight in at the deep end with an exercise in lopping off heads and legs of imaginary enemies. Students are also, right from the first day, given tasks to work on in small groups, for presentation the next day. I’m here not just as a rapporteur but as a participant, and in my first ‘auto-cours’ I am paired with two others to create a science-gone-wrong scene about a botched experiment in robotics. We are urged in these first forays into devising bouffon to allow the politics of the playground into the game.
By day two, we’ve moved into visualising and making our bouffon characters – drawing our bouffon, adding key words to other people’s drawings, bringing the drawing and the words into physical action, and finally making our first tentative attempts to create our bouffon character using foam to exaggerate body parts, and finding costume items that we can adapt. For our second auto-cours, we are placed in a different ‘family group’ and sent out to create a short site-responsive piece based on fairy tales, set in the beautiful grounds of the house. We have by now amassed a long list of concepts and ideas that we are working with. ‘Cruelty’ has been joined by: rhythm, the energy of the chorus, stylised movement, impulse, working in gangs. Later in the week we embrace ‘power’ and ‘seduction’.
As the week progresses, we spend a fair amount of each day in our ever-evolving bouffon costumes. As we learn more about our bouffon, things are added or subtracted or modified. My one starts as a kind of twisted version of a floozy clown character I’ve developed in other times and places, but she soon shifts to something rather different; a kind of monsterish over-sexualised child-star. In my notebook, I’ve written of her birth: ‘…a Venus born not from the waves but from the back of airwaves, a creature that crawls out of a cracked TV screen. A cross between Miley Cyrus and Shirley Temple…’
Maria and Marian take turns leading sessions, but sometimes teach side-by-side, working with a complicity which they both call ‘rare and special’. We work on choral sound-making, ensemble physical actions, and eventually with given texts. Nothing is sacred: Nelson Mandela’s speeches, Harold Pinter’s address to the Nobel committee, the Declaration of Human Rights. All are plundered, mocked, deconstructed.
We are once again split into new ‘family groups’, and on day four present pieces based on a mix of the Declaration of Human Rights, a set of Nursery Rhymes, and the Catalan Oda a la Merda. These groups and their chosen texts get taken forward into the final day’s work. Following numerous reworkings and some much-appreciated direction from Maria and Marian, the day ends with the early evening presentations in the town square of Vic…
Having spent a week living and working so intensely with a group of fellow performers, it is naturally hard to say goodbye. Easing the pain a little is the knowledge that the Actors Space prides itself on being a holding space for the many members of the international theatre, film and performance community who have passed through its doors – there’s a ‘members’ section of their website for the posting of bibliographies and further notes, and the teachers are always willing to answer burning questions that come up after the workshop has finished. Maria and Marian’s Bouffon Workshop Easter 2014 was, surprisingly, the first-ever bouffon workshop at the Actors Space – but all agreed that it was a great success, so it will hopefully be repeated. In the meantime, there is their usual strong summer programme of clown, acting for stage or screen, and directing workshops on offer (see below).
A final note, as we leave the beautiful hills of Catalonia: Marian and Maria both strongly endorse Lecoq’s view that his teachings are not a ‘method’. ‘Keep the research going’ they say, ‘make it your own’. As I move off from this idyllic retreat back into my regular world, I feel that all that I’ve learnt is travelling with me – and that my bouffon is in there somewhere, waiting to burst out whenever she might be needed…
The Actors Space Bouffon Workshop took place 12–18 April 2014, led by Maria Codinachs and Marian Masoliver.
Summer School Workshops 2014 at The Actors Space:
The Creative Actor: 16–28 July 2014
Screen Acting: 3–11 August 2014
The Art of Comedy: 17–29 August 2014
Directing Performance: 6–12 August 2014
Free accommodation for students and people on a low income.
For more information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maria Codinachs teaches at Institut del Teatre in Barcelona: www.institutdelteatre.cat
Photos by Pep Aligué