Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gettin' Schooled in San Francisco

[post 064]

The Clown Conservatory & The Flying Actor Studio

This January I finally got back to San Francisco for a week, my first visit to the west coast in something like seven years; always flying out of the country instead of across it.

Much to see there — friends, family, a beautiful city, a breathtaking coastline — but no visit to the Bay Area would be complete without checking out the local performance scene. San Francisco has one-tenth the population of New York City, but when it comes to the whole physical comedy / circus /new vaudeville / clown scene, it may have us beat. For starters, they've got not one but two — count 'em, two — schools devoted to our favorite art form: the Clown Conservatory (one of several programs offered by the Circus Center) and the Flying Actor Studio, a physical theatre training program under the tutelage of James Donlon and Leonard Pitt. Take that, New York!

A lot of this activity can be traced back to the strong influence of the commedia-style political satire of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded by R.G. Davis (see next post) way back in 1959, and the Pickle Family Circus, launched in 1975 by jugglers Peggy Snider, Larry Pisoni, and Cecil MacKinnon, who as the Pickle Family Jugglers had been working with the SF Mime Troupe at the time. Pisoni had vaudevillian grandparents as well as circus training in New York from Hovey Burgess

I once got Paul Binder, director of the Big Apple Circus, very mad at me for writing in our obscure 1980s clown-theatre newsletter that the Pickle Family Circus was America's only indigenous circus because all of its acts were home-grown. He had a point, some of Big Apple's were too, but not to the extent that Pickle's were.

The Pickle's accomplishments were not insignificant:
• They were living proof of the artistic advantages of the small, intimate one-ring circus format.
• They raised the status of clowning and launched the careers of Larry Pisoni (aka Lorenzo Pickle), Geoff Hoyle (aka Mr. Sniff), and Bill Irwin (aka Willie the Clown). [For more on this, check out Joel Schechter's book, The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy]
• They created a new funding model, touring up and down the west coast under the sponsorship of local not-for-profit organizations.
• They gave juggling more prominence in their show; in those days it was not uncommon to go to a circus and not see a single juggling act.
• They established a circus school in San Francisco.

[ Click here to read my post on Humor Abuse, Lorenzo Pisoni's show about growing up as a child performer on the Pickle Family Circus.]

As a performing unit, the Pickle Family Circus eventually dissolved. It was later replaced by the New Pickle Family Circus, but it has not had the resources to maintain an ongoing ensemble or touring schedule. The school, however, very much survives in the form of the San Francisco Circus Center. Here's their promo video:

The Clown Conservatory

The Clown Conservatory program is directed by Jeff Raz, who was off performing with Cirque du Soleil's Corteo during my visit, but I did have a chance to visit with Paoli Lacy, Dominique Jando, and my first juggling teacher, Judy Finelli. I cannot actually offer any behind-the-scenes revelation about the training there because instead of me watching them, they put me to work talking with students and faculty about this and that. (Okay, it's true, I did just happen to bring along some videos, but that was only because I was afraid that the students — for whom my Clowns book is actually required reading — might ask me questions about it that I wouldn't be able to answer. Not having read the damn thing since I wrote it 35 years ago, I figured I better have something to distract them with.) However, the facilities, teachers, and students were all impressive, and I do look forward to getting back there.

The clown program takes a full academic year, meeting all day three days a week. Judy felt that this wasn't really enough time, though I suppose lacking substantial funding you have to give the students time to eke out a living, no? And besides, know any other full-year clown program in the United States?

Admittedly the more training the better, but I also think that clowning is such an all-encompassing art form that no program, no matter its depth, is going to automatically churn out creative and polished performers. Nor should it. Better to think of clown school the way we used to think of an undergraduate education: it exposes you to all the pieces but you have to put them together yourself, over time, with input from an amazing variety of unforeseeable resources.

But if you're thinking of going to San Francisco, with or without some flowers in your hair, do check out the Clown Conservatory. Here's the basic info from their web site:

The Clown Conservatory accepts students from a variety of performing arts backgrounds who show a strong potential to become professional clowns, whether in the circus ring, on stage, or in other settings (such as clowning in hospitals). Students submit to a selection process and upon acceptance enter the First Year Program (September to June). Weekly classes (three days-a-week) include:
• Core clowning (classic routines, character development, history, performance, creating material, clowns in community)
• Acrobatics
• Circus skills (juggling, stilt-walking, balancing and more)
• Dance
• Mime
• Body awareness
An Advanced Program (September to May) is offered to Clown Conservatory graduates and qualified non-graduates in one of three specialized tracks:
• Clown Ensemble Performing Track – Creating and performing an original production directed by top professionals (acceptance by audition only)
• Social Circus Track – Instruction and hands-on work in hospital clowning, teaching, clown therapy, and other aspects of Social Circus
• Independent Study Track – Additional one-to-one artistic and business coaching for working performers

Evaluation and Performance
Our program directors and faculty evaluate students on a regular basis. Students are offered an opportunity to perform in front of an audience at the end of each session (December and June), and possibly at other times (every five weeks for Clown students) in order to gain performing experience. When they have completed their course of study and are considered ready for professional work, students are given resources and assistance to help them get started in the circus business.

Some photos of the Circus Center:

Above with Paoli Lacy. Below with Judy Finelli and Dr. Nora Bell

No, we're not back in the Haight in '68; that last photo is of clown students doing contact improv.

Finally, if you're anywhere near SF, get on the Circus Center's mailing list because they sponsor a lot of performances in the bay area, including a clown cabaret at The Climate Theater on the first Monday of the month. Here's what went on earlier this week:

LOVE is in the air this month- and it's funny! Join emcee Jeff Raz, straight off of his tour with Cirque du Soleil's "Corteo", advanced students from Tony Award-winning ACT, scenes from the "Monkey King, a Circus Adventure", graduates from Dell’Arte International, our resident pranksters, Pi, the Physical Comedy Troupe and some very special guests (who may or may not be from a BIG circus, opening soon in San Jose, whose name we cannot mention). Marco Martinez-Galarce’s video art and some students from the Class of 2010 will be making their Clown Cabaret debut; Clown Cabaret Favorites The Stringsters and Jonah, Fae and Calvin of Wuqiao Festival fame will be back, bringing some of their own love.

See what you're missing?

Update (only 2 days later): "Coastal Carolina University, in association with the Clown Conservatory of San Francisco Circus Center, has just been approved to offer an accredited BFA degree in Physical Theater, the first in the nation!... We are currently recruiting students to begin in the fall of 2010, graduating in the spring of 2014. Students will spend the first 3 years at Coastal Carolina University in a rigorous BFA program, which includes movement, acting, technical theatre, and general education requirements, with a faculty member from the Clown Conservatory in residence for one semester during the sophomore and junior years, and will spend the entire 4th year as first-year students at the Clown Conservatory. As students of Coastal Carolina University, students will be eligible for federal financial aid and student loan packages, and will receive a NAST accredited BFA degree upon graduation."

The Flying Actor Studio

Right in the heart of downtown San Francisco you will find a handsome and spacious studio that houses what is probably the town's newest professional performance training center, the Flying Actors Studio, opened this past fall by James Donlon and Leonard Pitt. The focus of the training is physical theatre, defined broadly enough to include "movement, mime, mask, clown, circus arts, improvisation, voice, and new performance.
" They are offering a 28-week professional conservatory program, already up and running, with classes 30 hours per week, as well as shorter courses open to the general public.

Once again your intrepid reporter came away with no eyewitness account of training in progress because they used my arrival as an excuse to stop working and sit down and have a discussion with me. Luckily, animator Jonathon Lyons has already provided this blog with a guest post about an introductory class he took at the studio this past fall. I can report that the students I chatted with for a couple of hours were already quite knowledgeable and bright and seemed to be exploring some very interesting performance areas. I look forward to seeing their work!

Other than the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre, almost 300 miles north in Blue Lake, California, I don't know of another conservatory program in the United States devoted exclusively to physical theatre training. As James Donlon was pointing out to me, there are several university graduate theatre programs with excellent physical theatre training. He should know, having taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Yale School of Drama, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. The difference, however, is that those graduate programs are all geared toward integrating physical training into more text-based theatre, whereas the Flying Actor Studio also encourages the creation of original work whose roots are as much in the body as in the word.

It's great to see these two highly accomplished artists, both now in their 60s, forsake the easy life and launch such an ambitious enterprise, and one I'm sure they won't exactly get rich from. The breadth of their experience is staggering. Just a few highlights: Leonard Pitt was a student of Etienne Decroux in Paris, studied mask theater and carving in Bali and performed with the Balinese in their villages and temple festivals, and was movement consultant for the film Jurassic Park. James Donlon has toured internationally to wide acclaim, has taught at several prestigious institutions, was a teacher of Bill Irwin at Ringling Brothers Clown College, and has been a coach for several Oscar-winning actors. Click here for the complete scoop. You can see why I couldn't resist telling the students how lucky they were to be able to work with them and plug into all the tradition they represent.

A few photos:

With James Donlon (l.) and Leonard Pitt (r.) .

Physical Comedy in Real Life
So... I'm staying in our home-exchange house in West Portal, about to head downtown to visit the Flying Actor Studio. I like to bike around cities I visit, and I've mapped out the route in great detail. I'm excited about this, hills be damned! I've been told there's a bike in the basement I can borrow, but it turns out the tires are flat and there's no pump. No problem, I wheel the bike to a gas station six blocks away and pump up the tires. The air holds, the tires seem good. I hop on the bike and start pedaling. The pedals spin around very rapidly, as if I'm in a super-low gear... only I notice I'm not going anywhere. I hop off the bike and look down: no chain.

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