Slava Polunin: The Monologue of a Clown – 8: Method


I seldom come across a question of how to do something. The most important thing is to understand what I want to say. As soon as I understand it, it takes a certain form. Some 10-15 years ago I had to learn how to do it, because I didn’t have enough knowledge. 15 years ago you’ve just got to learn to have a free mind in order to think only of what you want to say, and not how to show it. Now there’s no difference for me between ‘what to do’ and ‘how to say’; it turns me on by itself. Of course, I do analyze something, but I try to do it as late as possible. I am even afraid of analyzing. Usually your discovery is unexpected, and you marvel to yourself: “You don’t say, something I was doing, means that and that ?! That had never occurred to me”. But when you’re trying to do it ‘scientifically’, you produce a carrion.

I read one very beautiful story about Meyerhold. In fact, he gave me everything that has to do with the theatre and directing. For all the techniques I know and use, I’m indebted to him.

His best period for me is the year 1914 when he worked at the studio in Borodinskaya Street; there he was occupied with the essence of the theatre, its magic and ritual based upon commedia del arte. That captured joy of play resulted into that story with the Alexandrine theatre and directing of Don Juan, which, though, had nothing common with that idea of his. At one time Meyerhold enchanted me, and I began to study the tradition of theatre. So, once I read in his book that the power of art depends upon the length of rocker arm, whoch one shoulder is consideration, another is anarchy and freedom. The longer this arm, the more consideration and freedom the artist has at once, the more powerful is then your piece of art. An Artist is the only one who is capable to spread this arm as wide as possible. So, you need to seek harmony but remember: the more you incline to the right, the more you got to stand to the left. It’s impossible to take one direction without taking the opposite at the same time. The cleverer you want to be, the sillier you got to show. You may explore the process, the techniques, but afterwards you got to spit on all this to become free and earnest, natural and impulsive, and not think of how you do this or that. Like, for example, Shalyapin. He was a genius and a fantastic workaholic. He worked at the very minutiae of his part, but sometimes he stopped constraining himself and never knew what would be in the end. He flew into a rage and spread his arm unbelievably. So, the more anarchy, freedom, intuition are there, the better, not forgetting, though, about consideration. Meanwhile, Stanislavsky meant it too.

I often seem to share Stanislavsky’s ‘apartments’ in the sense of a method, especially as far as the Western public is concerned. However, subconsciously I try to avoid his influence. I am more concerned with a ‘playing man’, which often means a disruption of psychology. My understanding of the nature of play is Meyerhold-like, – it’s a performance, a joy, an improvisation, it’s like the decorative volutes. I always say to my actors: “Let’s cut the psychology down, it precipitates us, it makes our rhythm heavy”. And still I feel myself on the way there, regardless. Yet I got acquainted with Stanislavsky through Grotowsky. I found interesting this phenomenon of an artist’s fantastic self-sacrifice during the performance that he had already finished calling so by then. There he fell into hysterics, he revealed his subconscious, even some very intimate parts of it. Once I was told about one actor from the Komissarzhevskaya’ theatre who had starred as Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich and eventually had gone mad. That was a fine lesson to me: I have realized what physical depth an actor can reach, which is mysterious to everyone else; I have seen that he could wear the shoes of his personage and do so till his own end. Once again, this is where one needs intuition and consideration.
I followed Grotowsky to see, whether an actor can perform tragedy, burning himself down and trying his physics. By means of the clownery as the most conditional of the arts, I wanted to reveal the real human pain. And eventually I came to Stanislavsky via Grotowsky. I have realized that psychology and clownery can co-exist. Initially I pinned a photo of Chaplin on the wall, the one with a flower, and then I began looking for similar images in the theatre and cinema. I found a photo of Marseille Marceau as Bip, when he watched a butterfly and fell dead. There were many others who had commemorated this moment of unbearable pain. And I understood that even the clownery has some things that are impossible without psychological filling. I even suspect now that this psychological clownery is a sort of national feature of the Slavic culture. I saw it in the works of Jungo Edwards, of Boleslav Polivka, who were those who steeped forward in the clownery, in their time. Most of those who had seen Jungo’s performance at the Olympics, only noticed its wild joie de vivre, but one can also find it a picture of disruption of a soul, an image of pain. It is reflected in the features, in behaviour. Polivka, with his tender psychological mist, is a pure Stanislavsky. Generally speaking, in the end I saw that I wasn’t alone. But I still avoid a bold identification with Stanislavsky’ system. An actor must possess a secret; there is no need for a full explanation. The actor must be a magician.

Besides Meyerhold with his depth of understanding, I had a lot of other crushes. I came across Artaud and his book Theatre and its Double (Le Theatre et son double), which had sent me to the magical theatre. Same thing goes for Decroux, a teacher to both Marceau and Barreau. His book gave me a lot, including the idea of minimalism that I appreciate a lot. It happened in the yeas when nobody talked about minimalism yet. What Decroux said, was generally this: let’s get rid of all theatrical garbage, for we know not how to use it, and begin all a-new. We take a naked man onto a bare stage and let him do a step. Later another step will follow. Then we allow him to wear knickers, but at first we got to decide which exactly knickers: of what style, form and colour. Then we let him do one more step and say a letter ‘A’. And let him live with this ‘A’ for a year. We have so much, but we are not keen on using it. This idea of Decroux became basic to me. The stage must be as empty as possible. One should only put something on it when he is absolutely sure in its necessity. Every object must become a symbol. As Eisenstein said, every thing has its life, its secret, character, its soul; our purpose is to reveal it. A chair has its own idea, and if we do not show it, we cannot put the chair on the stage.

In the works of Brecht I came across a parable, another nice thing. The construction of all Brecht’s plays is very complicated, but in the end it’s a mere parable, and I found it very good. Of course, we cannot reach to the Bible, but it’s a fixed idea. All Bible is a story of something simple, like a donkey, a stick, or a road. But generation after generation reads it for ages, finding something especially for itself. Simplicity is as important for the clownery as associations. Symptomatically, Eluard, a Surrealist and aesthete, wrote: “The last shelter for a complex soul – a simple clownery”. Just think about it. If the synopsis of the play is a simple story, like, how one had beaten you with a stick, or how you’ve fallen over your own shoe, it’s easy for everyone to understand. The next question though, is what lies underneath this story, how many layers of sense you have made into it.

What I love about Chaplin is how he managed to touch all social classes with his films. A boy with an ice cream laughs at him. An old woman sympathizes with a hero who is offended by many. A girl is moved by how touching he is, how deep his love is. Chaplin baked a pie of ten layers and gave everyone a piece. I took it as a law for myself. If we want our work to be understandable, we have to remember about spectators’ tastes: some like it salty, and some – sour, and we need to take it all into an account and try to bake a puff pastry. Every single thing must have an infinite meaning. Take an apple as an example: it means seduction for a lover, home for a worm, taste for a gourmet, or a perfect round form for an artist. Or a maple leaf: mostly it’s a symbol of Canada, but for a yardman it’s dirt, for a tram-driver it’s a danger, and for a child it’s a toy. You can find up to 20 or 30 meanings of any object, fill it with innumerable associations. Same thing you need to do with the theatrical space; the level of imagery must be simple and infinitive at once. At the Olympics one asked me: “Well, you’ve made a Fools’ Ship, and sailed on her somewhere… What did you mean to say?” I said: “I don’t know. It’s you who adds the content to an image, not me. I do one half of the way; the second you do yourself”. One spectator told me: “Yes, the ship has gone, together with our Russian soul, she crossed the horizon, and a fiery curtain fell behind her. You have showed us Apocalypse”. But it was him who pictured Apocalypse to himself. Another said: “Finally, now you’ve brought these insanes here, and we’re having a festival”. Everyone has his own view. We create a certain image, and people find in it whatever is possible, – either what they can find, or what they need at this very moment.

There was a following scene in one of my performances. One man was running around, while another was trying to stop him hitting his head with a case. The first is very quick, the second is slow, it’s as if he says: “Wait, sit down, let’s share a drink, for what’s sake you keep running?” When we performed it in Russia, everyone sympathized the slow. The Americans preferred the quick: “That’s a nice dude”, they said, “he has such energy, such vigour, and he’s doing right”. Then one day I tagged a label ‘Taxi’ on to the quick’s head. They have rolled in the aisles with laughter! But the artistic feature disappeared. There was but a simple joke, which everyone forgot soon. Since then I do not use ‘Taxi’ labels in my performances. The director should not tell everything about an image, but let a spectator finish this phrase with his own words. The spectator gets the biggest joy from his own creative work, not ours. If you provoke his creative force, and then leave him in the moment when he is ready to follow you, then the most interesting thing begins. My biggest joy is to create our fantasies together with the audience.

Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.



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