eBook - ePub


The Physical Comedian

Joe Dieffenbacher

  1. 304 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub


The Physical Comedian

Joe Dieffenbacher

Book details
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Table of contents

About This Book

Clown: The Physical Comedian is a detailed and comprehensive workbook for those interested in the art of clowning and physical theatre, including actors, directors, improvisers, stand-up comedians, circus artists, mask performers and devisers of new work. Offering an extensive and hugely diverse compilation of tried-and-tested exercises and games, the book is for students, teachers and practitioners to aid ensemble-building, character development, devising theatre, physicalising text and vocalising movement, plus creating cabaret acts, clown routines and adding physical play to scripted scenes. It offers advice on subjects such as developing presence onstage; increasing strength, flexibility and physical expression; developing partner and trio relationships; understanding the power of the mask; and working with an audience - in particular, turning a performance into a conversation with the audience and increasing the actor's ability to connect with a crowd. The exercises and teachings have been developed in classrooms, workshops and theatres all over the world and the book is packed with insights from the author, who has worked for over 35 years in a wide variety of venues, from intimate performance spaces to large-scale sports stadiums.

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Methuen Drama



A Pharmacist, Helium Balloons, and a Red Nose

One of my earliest and most memorable experiences as a clown started with a red nose. I was working for a place called Huffman’s Alley, run by Kent Huffman, a pharmacist turned party supplier. No, it’s not what you think. He rented and sold costumes and accessories, magic tricks and juggling props, makeup and Halloween masks. He’d also cornered the local market on everything balloon: balloon bouquets, balloon releases, balloons for parties, weddings, corporate events—balloons of every color, shape, and style.
Book title
Figure 1.2 The author’s early days as a clown. Photo credit: Mary Dieffenbacher.
Two weeks into the job I was asked to help hand out balloons at an outdoor event. Kent asked me to dress as a clown to drum-up business. I hadn’t done much in the way of performing—certainly not as a clown—but he reassured me. “Just put on some makeup, a colorful costume, and a red nose. It’s a strong visual—it’ll attract attention! And everybody loves clowns.”
So, I found a red, ping pong ball-sized nose from the store’s stock, and for the costume, chose a black-and-red-striped, 1920s-style bathing suit which ended just below the knees, black tights, white sneakers and a bowler hat. For the makeup, I covered my face with white, drew on black eyebrows, a bit of red around the mouth outlined in black. It was not the usual bright, colorful makeup and garish costume I’d seen on clowns, but I was an introverted kid being asked to draw attention to myself; black, red and white was as colorful as I wanted to get.
At the event, as I stood near a helium tank blowing up balloons, tying them to ribbons and handing them out, I was surprised at how open people were to my “clown.” They were smiling, waving, engaging with me. Suddenly the introvert, who found it hard to connect with people in most social settings, was interacting with everybody! And my natural comic bent—which had always gotten me into trouble at school—was suddenly an advantage, a way for me to play with the crowd. I was the same shy person underneath the costume, makeup, and nose, so what was causing this change, not just in me but in everyone around me?
I chose not to talk. There was so much happening—and so much I wanted to play with—that my brain went into overdrive and my mouth couldn’t keep up. I began to engage with the crowd using just my physicality—and whatever props were at hand—to express myself. This turned into an all-day improv session with me bouncing from one person to another, shaking hands, imitating people, dancing with them, hugging them, trying to steal their drinks, begging for a bite to eat then feeding the offer to someone else, showing off the six juggling tricks and four hat moves I’d mastered … It was a mad rush of emotion and performance as I transformed a space normally used for work and shopping into a playground.
At the end of that long, hot day, I was amazed that I wasn’t exhausted. Instead, I felt invigorated! And perplexed: what happened to the shy kid? Why did I suddenly become so animated, so gregarious? Were all these people ready to play with me simply because I was dressed as a clown? Was that it, the costume and red nose made me a clown? And where had all those ideas, all those invented games come from? I had zero training, not much theater experience, no background in improvisation with an audience. What I did have was a burning need to connect with people, a deep curiosity, and a desire to play. The mask of makeup, costume, and red nose gave me—and the crowd—a license to do just that.
The crowd and I discovered—to use a word that is popular in theater—complicité. In the theater it refers to the ability of actors to come together as an ensemble, to connect with one another so there’s a seamless flow of ideas, emotions, actions and reactions, amongst the members of the group. The dictionary describes it differently:
Complicity involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.
That’s what it felt like that day: we were all engaged in activities that were normally wrong. Adults don’t act that way in public! They don’t get goofy, play games, embrace strangers, dance with people they don’t know.
The feeling I had that day was so strong, I still remember it in my body some thirty-five years later. That day when the whole world (at least in my vicinity) opened up to me. That experience kick-started a lifelong fascination with the clown and led me to question why they encourage play and connection, how they overcome barriers internal and external, how they openly engage with the world around them with a fearlessness that borders on crazy. But are they fearless? Crazy? Or just curious?
Any artist who decides to teach has to spend a great deal of time figuring how to articulate what they’ve learned from experience or do instinctively. They then have to translate their insights into exercises, lesson plans and, ultimately, a method or pedagogy so they can teach what they know to others. When I started doing workshops on clowning, my first thought was “Don’t just teach. Don’t create exercises that students have to ‘get right’. Don’t show them things that only require them to imitate and parrot it back to me.” What I needed to do was create an environment in the classroom that was as close to a live performance as possible. To try and recreate the experience I had on that first outing dressed as a clown.
The exercises in this first section are a combination of vocal and silent communication games that help the players get to know each other and the space they’re working in. They begin the process of connecting the players to each other through vocal and physical play, helping to create and build the ensemble. They encourage complicité and, most importantly, they introduce participants to the open-minded play of the clown.


In this game, the players introduce themselves to the group by name, accenting the introductions with gesture and movement. Participants present themselves in a playful manner; it’s also a simple way to associate words with movement.
Variation 1—With moves The players stand in a circle. Starting player says her name then repeats it doing a movement or pose for each syllable. For example, “Tina Smith” is broken into three syllables and three movements. She repeats this, going slowly: as she does, the group imitates her movements and calls out the syllables of her name. They repeat this three more times, speeding up each repetition. This pattern continues around the circle, each player creating a movement sequence to go with the syllables of their name and leading the group through it.
Variation 2—With cheese The players roam. When they make eye contact with another person, they smile and say, “Hello!” to each other, come together and shake hands. First player who points at their partner starts the dialogue:
David It’s you!
Amica Yes. It’s me! Amica Punter.
David Amica Punter! Good ol’ Amica Punter.
Amica Yeah, that’s me. Good ol’ Amica Punter. And you!
David Yes. It’s me! David Bantor.
Amica David Bantor! Good ol’ David Bantor. Great to see you David Bantor.
David And you, Amica Punter! See you later Amica Punter!
Amica Great to meet you David Bantor! See you later David Bantor!
The players repeat the dialogue with everyone they meet. The text doesn’t have to be exact: the objective is to greet each other in an overly friendly way, introduce and repeat each other’s name as often as possible.
Variation 3—With Tag This uses the game of Tag to help the players learn each other’s names. One player is the Chaser. He tries to tag others. When he gets close to a player, she calls out the name of another player. The Chaser immediately runs after the player whose name has been called. If the Chaser tags any player before they yell another name, they become the Chaser.


This game gets the players moving and warmed up at the start of a class or rehearsal, or any time the focus or energy of the group is flagging. It requires that they learn specific movements then recall them accurately as variations are added and the game gets faster.
Variation 1—Chase The players form a circle. The adviser starts: she hops in the air and turns to her left, landing with her feet wide, as if a duck is running through her legs. She bends over as she watches the imaginary duck go through, does a hop so she’s facing front again and looks to her ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Series Page
  5. Title Page
  6. Contents
  7. List of Illustrations
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Preface
  10. Introduction
  11. The Fundamentals
  12. Challenges and Obstacles
  13. 1 Hello: A Pharmacist, Helium Balloons, and a Red Nose
  14. 2 Energy: The Telepathic Renaissance Fool
  15. 3 The Talking Body: Silence on the Streets
  16. 4 Prop Play: The Prop Whisperer
  17. 5 Curiosity: Odd Fellows
  18. 6 Clown Solos: Catching a Salad on Your Face
  19. 7 Clown Duos: The Wet Towel Intervention
  20. 8 Clown Trios: Boss, Negotiator, Fool
  21. 9 Clown Ensembles: Fractious Fun
  22. 10 The Rules, the Script, the Game, the Play: Welcome to the Playroom
  23. 11 The Mask of the Clown
  24. 12 The Skillful Clown
  25. 13 Getting Serious About Your Funny
  26. 14 Devising for Clown and Physical Comedy
  27. Bibliography
  28. Inspirations
  29. Index
  30. Copyright