The Dumbledore of clowning

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The Dumbledore of clowning
Philippe Gaulier in the rehearsal studio at his school in Étampes, France on Nov. 27, 2021. The French master teacher has worked with stars like Sacha Baron Cohen. But at 78, are his methods, which include insults, outdated? Cedrine Scheidig/The New York Times.

by Jason Zinoman

ÉTAMPES.- It’s unlikely anyone alive has made more clowns cry than Philippe Gaulier.

In a supposedly more sensitive era, hundreds of people regularly travel from all around the world to a small town an hour outside Paris to study clowning with Gaulier, a gruff 78-year-old éminence grise known for his blunt, flamboyantly negative feedback. Wearing a pink tie, beret and stern look over a bushy white beard on a recent tour of the school, he looked the part of the guru — a mischievous one. He pointed at a large photo of himself teaching in China and joked he was “Clown Chairman Mao.”

In his office, sitting across from his wife, Michiko Miyazaki Gaulier, a former student who is now a colleague, he made no apologies for his pugnacious style, saying that students who are not funny have a choice: “You have to change or leave the school. You are boring. If you want to stay boring all your life, you will never be a clown.”

Gaulier has been teaching clowns for about a half-century, but his stature has grown in recent years, becoming an influential and divisive figure of considerable mystique, the Dumbledore of round red noses. The primary reason for his raised profile is the success of Sacha Baron Cohen, a former student, who praised Gaulier on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2016 and described receiving bad reviews from him in a 2021 appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

“I was always interested in comedy, but it was Gaulier who helped me understand how to be funny,” Baron Cohen wrote in the preface to Gaulier’s book “The Tormentor.”

Clowns remain a staple of the circus, but the reach of the ancient art is much wider these days, with a growing theatrical scene as well as performers crossing over into other forms. The alumni network at Gaulier’s school, where many make lifelong connections, is expansive — spanning film and theater (Emma Thompson, Kathryn Hunter), circus and live comedy, with students like Los Angeles comedian Dr. Brown becoming gurus themselves. Another protege, Zach Zucker, is the host of Stamptown, a popular showcase of cutting-edge comics in New York, its name inspired by the town of Gaulier’s school. “He has become the name to drop,” Geoff Sobelle, an acclaimed performer and former student, said about Gaulier’s reputation among clowns.

In a two-hour interview last month, Gaulier, speaking in English, came off less like a teacher than a very funny insult comic, teasing and trash-talking, tossing jabs at everyone from Slava Polunin, a Tony-nominated Russian clown (“For children who has problem to sleep, can be good”) to legendary mime Marcel Marceau (“He’s a maniac with his gestures”). Asked if someone can be funny who didn’t make him laugh, he said it was possible, before turning back to me, gesturing at my clothes: “It’s possible that you with your glasses, your hair, that you are funny,” he said, before the punchline. “And someone really well-dressed is, too. The opposite of you.”

He’s allergic to anything that smacks of pretension, which inevitably inspires one of his favorite expressions: “of my balls,” as in Slava is a “poetic clown of my balls.”

Compared with other clowning teachers, Gaulier said he does not emphasize technique or physical virtuosity. His pedagogy aims for something more intangible, nurturing a childlike spirit, a sense of play on stage. The most important quality in a clown is keeping things light and present, and, as he said with the utmost respect, stupid. Finding “your idiot,” as he calls it, is the essence of clowning, which, unlike comic acting, requires a performer to stick with the same character. “A clown is a special kind of idiot, absolutely different and innocent,” he said. “A marvelous idiot.”

Gaulier said he could put a red nose on anyone and tell how they played as a 7-year-old. Students, who do in fact do exercises in red noses, describe this in gushing terms.

“He liberated me,” said René Bazinet, a highly respected German-Canadian clown who has worked for years with Cirque du Soleil. “In my first year, I had to read a poem, and he kept stopping me, saying, ‘Why are you clearing your throat? Say the poem. Why are you doing this? Why that?’ And one moment, my brain just opened up. His way of attacking the falseness was a relief to me. I was becoming an idiot.”

This process can sometimes sound like a masochistic cleansing ritual. “He just insults his students all day long until they start laughing and their ego gets out of the way,” Bazinet said. “You are taking your ego to the slaughterhouse.”

Former students inevitably have stories of bruising feedback, usually told with the affection of grizzled war veterans. Kendall Cornell, who leads an all-female clown troupe, Clowns Ex Machina, recalled a lot of tears but also a “mind-blowing” experience that taught her things she didn’t learn in other classes. There’s even a Facebook group that collects insults called “Philippe Gaulier Hit Me With a Stick.”

The criticisms include “You sound like overcooked spaghetti in a pressure cooker” and “You are a very good clown for my grandmother.” He frequently focuses on the eyes. “If you are funny,” he told me, “you have funny eyes.”

Gaulier is even stingy with compliments for his most successful alumni. Asked about Baron Cohen as a student, he said, “Nice boy. Tall.” Pressed for more, he added, “He’s a guy who when he understands something, he’s going to sell it. That’s enough.”

When he was 8, Gaulier, who grew up in Paris near a circus, was kicked out of school for punching his gymnastics teacher. Seven decades later, he has no regrets. “He was a bastard,” he said, explaining that the instructor made students march like in the army. “I hate the military. Teachers, too.”

His ambition was to be a tragic actor, but every time he tried to do serious work in drama school, he said with resignation, everyone laughed. This led him to a class with renowned mime and master teacher Jacques Lecoq, whose pioneering training was rooted in clowning, improvisation and mask work. Gaulier became a performer who, with his partner, Pierre Byland, had a hit clown show, during which he broke 200 plates every night.

Simon McBurney, leader of acclaimed theater company Complicite, took classes with both master teachers and described them as a study in contrasts: “Philippe was more rebellious and disobedient and outrageous than Jacques,” he said. “Jacques sat back. What interested him is how you find your voice. Ultimately, Philippe is interested in play, and working with him makes you unafraid of any audience. He will play the unstinting teacher who reflects back what you’re doing.”

Gaulier left Lecoq and started his own school in 1980, a move he said cooled his relationship with his teacher. (Zach Galifianakis has said that Gaulier and his school were an inspiration for his TV show “Baskets.”) He described issues over money — “Lecoq was a miser” — but also more existential issues. “If you read Freud, he says you have to kill your father,” Gaulier said, “so I did it.”

Lecoq died in 1999, and while his school continues, you see it cited less often in bios in theatrical programs and interviews as the reputation of Gaulier has grown.

Gaulier has received pushback for his harshly negative teaching, usually during class, but two years ago, a former student turned clown teacher, Deanna Fleysher, wrote a blog post arguing that his style did not work for many people, particularly women and those from marginalized communities. “Let’s just call it what it is: macho, abusive, bootcamp-style sadism befitting frat houses and old-school military training,” she wrote. “It’s not teaching, it’s bullying.”

Fleysher was inspired to write after meeting funny female Gaulier students who didn’t think they were good. “I didn’t write this for Gaulier,” she told me. “I was trying to tell a younger generation of teachers that this doesn’t work for some clowns.”

Gaulier bristles at this argument, saying his teaching works as well with women as it does with men, and his feedback is never intended to wound. He said he spoke with affection when telling people they weren’t funny. “It’s a game between the teacher and the student,” he added. “Some people don’t understand this.” Then he paused to emphasize that his classes were full.

For the first time in our conversation, the clown got deadly serious. “I repeat, it’s full. I don’t say, ‘It’s full, shut up,’” he said, the mischievousness creeping back in. “Almost.”

Building up steam, he shifted to a more unexpected defense: “Second point: Do you know Hillary Clinton? She asked to come here to discuss with me about the clown.” Miyazaki Gaulier explained that Clinton was planning to travel to Étampes in February unless the pandemic disrupted plans. Gaulier added, “She’s coming here. For a guy so nasty.” (A Clinton spokesperson did not return requests for comment.)

As he gets older, Gaulier has been teaching fewer classes and traveling less, saying he has thought about retirement. He added that he didn’t care what happened to this school, earning a sigh from his wife.

As for his legacy, he emphasized that he wanted to be remembered for teaching comedy done with lightness. “In a bad school, the teacher underlines with a red color,” he said, shaking his head. “Always light. Even if you kill someone.” Then, as if he were teaching the art of murder in the most concise way possible, he instructed firmly: “Light.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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