Monsieur Philippe Gaulier is a little bit hunched and a little bit grizzled. He wears a floppy hat over big white hair and an offensively bright tie. His nose tells the story of how much he drinks.
He is a master. ‘You have to be fucking funny,’ he said on the first day. ‘If you are not funny you are not a clown.’
I arrived at the Gare du Nord the day before Gaulier’s summer school began—four hours a day, five days a week for one month in Paris. My pack was heavy with kilos of costumes and props for Christy, who was already in Europe. She was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe next month and I was her mule, bumping and sweating her show gear through the metro to Montmartre. We had booked the apartment online one cold night in a Brunswick sharehouse and now here I was. Halfway down a cobbled hill, three storeys high in sunshine hung a little flag tied to a broomstick: a signature black-and-grey-striped singlet. I laughed aloud and Christy leaned out the window to grin down at me.
‘Welcome home—it’s tiny!’
That first morning, Christy and I left for school with time to get lost. Even when we arrived we weren’t sure we had. We dithered back and forth beside an ugly piece of 1970s architecture. Could this brick building really be the aspiring clown’s take on Oxford University? Finally I found tiny lettering above a white plastic doorbell: ‘École Philippe Gaulier’ and we climbed the five flights of stairs, dusty lino, grimy off-white walls to the slope-ceilinged, papery mess of an office.
I didn’t have cash to pay for the whole month of classes. Michiko, Monsieur Gaulier’s wife and secretary, said she wouldn’t be in the office tomorrow so I should pay him direct, ‘But seal the envelope very strongly because it is dangerous to give him money.’
We joined the others at one end of Gaulier’s top-floor studio, cross-legged on the splintery boards or perched on wooden church pews. We breathed the smell of Paris suburbs through ragged, floating curtains: the dust and muggy summer. Forty of us from five continents taking it in turns to walk out under the rack of old stage lights: the Cirque du Soleil acrobat, the Brazilian clown doctor, the Finnish theatre director and the Kiwi indie performer.
That first day he sent us ‘backstage’ in groups of five or six where we hid behind a piece of scaffolding wrapped in bald velvet. ‘You enter, be happy to be with your audience, then run a circle.’
We each did the ‘silly’ face, the stage walk, the forced presentation. On the first day Gaulier told us we were horrible and to get off the stage.
‘Why do you shuffle like that, like a penguin who is sad about his balls?’
Our classmate turned to exit, his shoulders suddenly loose, his performer’s smile dropped away into disappointment and we laughed at the sweet, vulnerable human he showed us.
‘We like him better when he leaves,’ Gaulier said. And we did.
To be a clown, Gaulier says, the performer must show a naive child version of themselves. Not a character, but the real human who is sensitive and ‘has pleasure to be with the audience’. In each class we managed to get through one, maybe two of his exercises.
‘Come on, seven all together. Dance rock’n’roll, but you have problem. You only saw rock’n’roll dance one time: on the TV with the sound turn down.’
I entered with the rest of my group. I threw my arms and pumped my knees, pulling a grin up my cheeks, straining to look ‘ridiculous’. The audience was out of focus before I remembered to look for eye-contact.
No-one. I searched but everyone was watching someone else. I realised I was so unpleasant to look at everyone had turned away. Ouch.
‘She was so ’orrible, no? That was ’orrible, what you just did.’ He was hunched in his seat, looking at me from eyes buried in spectacles and wiry hair. ‘You were like panicked lettuce.’ He turned to the group. ‘Panicked lettuce!’ Laughter. ‘You want to take her to Oslo and leave her there while you go far, far away to do some shopping, no?’ It was the morning after the Oslo bombing and the laughter jerked out of people.
‘You love her? Or take to Oslo?’ he asked them. ‘Love, or Oslo?’
‘Oslo,’ one or two stuttered out. It was always best to agree with him.
‘You,’ back to me, ‘Panic Lettuce. Don’t push so hard. Be sensitive to your audience.’
I liked being called Panic Lettuce. It felt absurd and somehow true. But in the café I remembered the moment where no-one would look at me and I closed my lips against tears. Christy ordered for us both. ‘Deux cafés crèmes, s’il vous plaît.’ Her awkward French accent, her hand reaching for mine.
Next time I arrived at the école it was as if I had five coffees in my system and whisky burning the back of my throat. The exercise was to stutter stupidly, then look like the audience might give you the Nobel Prize.
‘And if you are not funny, I will tell you.’
We all laughed. As if there was a chance he would hold back.
I clutched at Christy in the wings to say how nervous I was. She held my coat-sleeve and smiled. ‘Don’t push so hard.’
So I entered with my normal walk, face calm, looking out at the audience. There were several friendly eyes out there, bright with little smiles. I looked for Gaulier, behind glasses, under that shag of hair. I took time.
Then I tried the exercise. Nobody laughed. But I could see them better than I ever had. I felt as though they liked me. I tried again. He stopped me.
‘It was bad but good,’ he said. ‘Yesterday was awful with your boy-scout smile. Today you enter with sensitivity.’
Others were not so lucky.
‘Your character, she is not Clown. She is just Orphan. Orphan in a special house for orphan after the war in Afghanistan.’
‘You are too noisy on your feet. When you walk on the stage we think you are German army arriving in Paris in 1940.’
We laughed in bursts and shouts. Laughed at the broad horror of the world and a single person’s humiliation. Laughed with a revealed love for the performer who dared show us her humanity: the sudden vulnerable eyes, the soft beginning-smile of someone who sees she might, despite all, be wanted.
Gaulier showed us parts of each other to fall in love with. So we did. Whole cavalcades of us went out for dinner together, under the wing of the Quebecker who translated into English for us while the Argentine translated into Portuguese for the Brazilians. The requisite cheap dinners were never as good as our cheap ripe-camembert lunches. We snuck into the Cité universitaire cafeteria for chips and burgers or ate bad steak tartare in Barbès where the gendarme warned us, ‘This is not a touristic area.’
We danced up the escalators and filled up the streets and the boys did their slapstick moves. We were like a crew of teenagers: boisterous and absurd and taking up too much space. The art museums of Paris are open some evenings and we rode the metro together, piling through turnstiles to get lost in the statues and flirt momentarily in front of canvases.
Rodin permeates. I found myself alone in front of Count Ugolino again and again huge, crawling, trapped in his prison. At first I thought Ugolino’s children were alive when he ate them. I hated Rodin for perpetuating that horror until I read the plaque. Ugolino called his children’s names for three days after they died. Only then did he feed on their little bodies.
In that moment I connected Rodin with Monsieur Gaulier and a memory of a writing class: ‘Chase your characters up trees and throw rocks at them,’ Cate Kennedy said and really, Rodin did more than that. He ripped and tore his subjects. Gaulier rips and tears at his students but he is not looking for Ugolinos.
A Singaporean girl stood before us in her neat girl-scout costume, feet together and black hair shining under her beret. He dismissed all seven clowns from the stage but she refused to leave, refused to sit beside us on the floor to watch the next person try.
‘What must I do?’
‘For sure not that.’
‘Monsieur Gaulier, what must I do?’
He said, ‘For sure not what you are doing now.’
‘But what must I do?’
He told her to change into my costume. I shuffled out of it and handed her the pieces: the great, black gorilla coat and hairy black boots. He asked someone to mess the hair around her face.
She said some lines and still wasn’t funny.
He asked for a bottle of tap water and told me to tip it over her head. So I did. Standing beside her on the stage, my hand holding a bottle of humiliation above her, I poured runnels of water over her tangly hair and down the gorilla fur.
She said more lines. No-one laughed.
He waved at me to pour more water. Not funny.
He asked her to walk towards him slowly, which she did until she was so close he could reach for her hand. He kissed it saying, ‘You are so beautiful. You are so beautiful. Look now at your friends.’ She turned just slightly, looking at us, but barely. A red nose, a gorilla costume and a little girl in tears behind a curtain of wet hair.
She was so heartbreaking and comical. He kept kissing her hand ‘You, you, you are beautiful. You are so beautiful when you are ridiculous. Now look at your friends.’
As her vulnerable eyes met ours we laughed.
‘We love you but not your character. Your character is not beautiful. We don’t see you when we see your character.’
She looked at us and we laughed in that way a parent adoring a crying child will laugh. (I know it. I know it. I’ve been the adult and the child.)
‘You feel ridiculous and everybody love you.’
He was right.
Towards the end of the month I had a rare solitary moment, a pause before going dancing with my new friends in an African bar in Barbès. Paris had settled into a blue-grey dusk and I walked slowly among the evening buildings, pale with neat shadows across them. I went to the Musée d’Orsay and fell still in front of Degas.
Looking at his ballerinas I didn’t see the pink-and-frills voyeurism of women’s bodies I’d always imagined. Instead I saw the capturing of performers before they perform. A moment of professional-in-training. A monument of respect to the labour no-one sees. It made me love Degas. I stood there, falling in love quietly with a canvas of tutus.
That night, leaving the bar, I walked beside Christy, through the three-in-the-morning Paris streets, dance-sweat drying on my skin, talking in the dark. We opened new ideas for shows, laughed about clowns on the dance-floor and tried to articulate what Gaulier had taught us.
‘Someone said that two years after studying with Gaulier, you only just start to understand what he was saying.’ Christy grinned in anticipation under a rue des Martyrs streetlamp. ‘I wonder what we’ll understand, in two years time?’
It’s been two years now. This month, Christy and I are lugging our set between a four-tonne hire-truck and a series of small theatres in regional Victoria: Colac, Casterton, Hamilton, Heyward. We don’t have a road crew. We do up bolts and carry the heavy things ourselves. We are getting up at dawn to drive another hundred kilometres, set up lights and sound for four hours, do an acrobatic show then load the truck and drive on. Christy spent months on the phone and sending emails to make it happen.
I am thinking of Degas and the labour no-one sees. I am standing under the stage lights, listening for the laughter. Gaulier is in my head saying, ‘When they laugh, write it down in your head. When they laugh, your clown is close to your body.’
When they laugh I am grateful. Grateful to Gaulier for his words in my head, grateful to Christy, who held my hand, and grateful to my audience, who are still teaching me how to be a clown.