Clowning Around with Dostoevsky

by Fiona Bell

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.


Last summer, in the beginning of August, during an extremely hot spell, I did an intensive clown course at Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre. Following the pedagogy of French clown Jacques Lecoq (not a prank name, I promise!), we performed in the “neutral mask” and then graduated to red-nose clowning. Only after attaining a neutral, balanced embodiment could we experiment with imbalanced, ridiculous embodiments: clown.

Once, after a long day of slapping my classmates’ butts and jumping around like a gremlin, my thoughts went to Dostoevsky. Training to fall down, hit people, and overreact, I’d never felt more like one of his characters. The next day, consciously channeling the frantic Underground Man and the stumbling Raskolnikov, I finally got my classmates to laugh.

Since then, I’ve led several Dostoevsky-themed clown workshops with students at Yale. Molly Brunson generously allowed me to direct her undergraduate class, “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” in an hour-long workshop. Students mimed Goliadkin’s frenzied money counting, the Underground Man’s silent sidewalk duel on Nevsky, and—thrillingly—Raskolnikov’s murder of Aliona Ivanovna. Though bashful at first, students came to enjoy making each other laugh. Suddenly everyone was the class clown.

For the student so focused on making intelligent comments in class, it’s jarring and possibly liberating to receive the following praise: “Wow, that was really stupid!” A healthy dose of clown would benefit most university courses for this reason. But clown offers something special to students of Dostoevsky. Foundational to both clown and Dostoevsky’s work is an insistence on the limits of reason. Lecoq’s famous teaching might also be attributed to the Russian writer: “Most of all, you need not to have ideas.”  

While students may intellectually appreciate Dostoevsky’s critique of cerebral characters, in sedentary seminar discussions, aren’t they taught to behave just like them? Are Dostoevsky classrooms, ironically, producing a bunch of Ivans? We need a clown intervention, an approach that turns the student, at least momentarily, into Dostoevsky’s most prized character: the fool.

In this post, I’ll outline a one-hour lesson plan that instructors can try out in their Dostoevsky courses. The goal is to encourage students’ energies to flow from their brains into their bodies. Clown is a theater practice that privileges the physical over the verbal, improvisation over rehearsal, and play over seriousness. As contemporary clown teacher Giovanni Fusetti says: “Intelligence is limited. Stupidity is infinite.” Consider yourself Stupidity Coordinator for a day.

Before the Session

Book a studio space where the entire class can walk around comfortably. Ask students in advance to wear loose clothing and to bring their own props and silly clothes/accessories. Bring your own props, too. I’ve used folding chairs, foam rollers, exercise bands, hats, scarves, hula hoops, baskets, and paper bags. If your budget allows, buy some red noses—they completely eliminate the possibility of taking yourself seriously. On the day, welcome students and invite them to explore the ridiculous side of the texts you’re reading together.

Intro: Loosening Up (10 minutes)

At the beginning of the session, you’ll approximate the “neutral mask” stage of Lecoq training: encouraging students to feel comfortable and in control of their bodies, so that they’ll be able to perform imbalance later. The other goal of the first 10 minutes is to get students more comfortable with one another.

Directions:

Walk around the studio and find your natural “bubble,” the space that your body takes up as you walk. Make your bubble bigger—swing your arms and take bigger strides. Then, make your bubble smaller, as if you’re moving through a tight cave. Go back to your natural bubble size. Start to look around the space and notice each other. Now take up a light jog, and when you encounter someone, stop and high-five them energetically with both hands. Then, keep running until you encounter someone else.

Exploring Tension Levels (10 minutes):

Lecoq described the body’s seven levels of tension, ranging from a catatonic state to complete muscle engagement. Most clowns exist in the lower and upper ranges: either sluggish or frantic. By guiding students through the seven levels, you give them a physical vocabulary to draw from when embodying Dostoevsky characters later.  

Directions:

Continue walking through the room. We’re going to experiment with different tension levels in your body: levels 1 through 7. We’ll begin with level 1: no tension at all. A catatonic state. No muscle is activated. Are you able to stand? If not, lie down. Imagine you’re a jellyfish. Next, level 2: casual, laid back. Maybe you’ve just spent the whole day at the beach and you’re tired from the sun in a pleasant way. Now, try level 3: efficient movement. You’re moving steadily, but expending only the amount of energy you need to walk. Next, level 4: you’re curious about the space, more alert. Notice things across the room and go to them to get a closer look. Level 5: you’re not just curious, you’re suspicious. You suspect a crisis is about to happen, and you need to discover the cause, somewhere in this room, before it’s too late. Level 6: even higher tension—there is definitely a crisis, and you’re freaking out. Level 7: complete tension. Every muscle in your body is engaged: your feet, legs, arms, hands, your jaw. You are petrified. Now, relax.

Dostoevskian études (15 minutes):

Now you’ll transition into Dostoevsky’s world with a series of small scenes. I’ll outline a few below, but you can also make up other ones based on the texts you’re reading. Students may recognize these scenarios from what they’ve read, but they’re not yet playing any specific character. Encourage them to consider what tension level they’re using.

Directions:

  • Form two lines, one on either side of the room. Use some props to designate a thin walkway between the two sides of the room. Now, everyone in Line 1 is a general; everyone in Line 2 is a lowly clerk; the walkway is Nevsky Prospect. One person from each line crosses and they pass one another. Maybe they bump into each other. Are they in a hurry? What is each person’s tension level? Keep the lines moving so that there are always two people on the runway. When everyone has gone, the groups switch, so that the clerks become generals. Repeat once more.
  • Form two lines so that everyone is facing someone from the opposite line. Line 1 people move, while Line 2 stays put. Each pair will exchange bows, and then move on. To begin with, bow very slightly, as if you have only the slightest regard for the person across from you. With each succeeding person, grow more and more deferential. Maybe you prostrate on the ground. By the time you reach the end of the line, you should be bowing as if begging for your life.

Scenes from Dostoevsky (15 minutes):

In this final exercise, students will adapt a scene from Dostoevsky into a short clown performance. Crime and Punishment has several great moments: the man on the street who laughs at Raskolnikov’s hat in the opening chapter, the murder, and Raskolnikov’s final prostration on Haymarket Square, which no one takes seriously. The murder scene allows students to play with the physicality of old age, and to experience Raskolnikov’s ineptitude as a murderer. It also raises interesting questions about performing violence in a comic mode. No matter where you draw your excerpts from, remember that it can be more generative to turn tragedy into farce, than to perform a scene that already reads as comic. The shorter the passage, the better.

Directions:

Ask students to put all their props in a pile, and then to form pairs or groups of three. Have them each choose some props, and give them red noses if you have them. Give each group a handout of a passage from Dostoevsky. Have them pick out key verbs and adverbs from the text, and then put the paper down and spend 5 minutes rehearsing the scene in clown: using big gestures and overreactions to emphasize the scene’s absurdity. Encourage them to use props, to sing or dance, and to be as stupid as possible. After the time has elapsed, have each group perform their scene for the class.

Concluding discussion (10 minutes):

Ask students to form a circle and discuss the experience. Some possible questions:

  • Did anything surprise you about this experience?
  • What made you laugh? Why, do you think?
  • What made you uncomfortable? Why?
  • How did it feel to perform violence, or to watch others perform violence?
  • Will you read Dostoevsky differently now? If so, how?

Thank you for reading! Please reach out with any questions or thoughts, and let me know if you lead something like this.



Fiona Bell is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, where she writes on Russian literature and theater. Fiona is the winner of the 2021-22 North American Dostoevsky Society Graduate Student Essay Contest. Learn more about her work here.

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