Saturday, September 8, 2007

Tension in Commedia and Clown Theater

Just a quick thought this morning; let's begin with a weak generalization. The clown's function in circus or in most of theater is to explore and break the tension built up by acrobats performing feats of tremendous danger or actors digging their teeth into dramatic life and death moments of human drama. The clown's ability to respond to the tension in the room, play with it, belittle it, or what have you, is a major tool in the clown's arsenal for the creation of comedy.

In Clown Theater, or the Commedia, when the preponderance of characters on stage or even all of them are clown characters, who or what is building tension? I suppose there can be inherent tension in a plot, and there is absolutely a useful and wonderful tension created with an audience when the clown simply stops and exists in the space with an audience without a fourth wall of protection. But are these sustainable in the same way a high-wire act or the courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice are?

It would seem to me that in clown theater, clowns create the tension to break the tension to get the laugh, then they need to start all over again. Watching two circus acts has built up 16 minutes of tension in an audience. A clown can come out and play for 5 minutes riding that wave, if an act is well constructed. If what has come before is set-up, punch, set-up, punch, set-up, punch, how does the next clown to arrive on stage in a clown show change the energy in the room in order to provoke surprise at a gut-level?

If anyone out there has any thoughts, I'd be very interested in hearing. I'm going to continue to consider it.

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