Revisiting Pochinko

all photos:

It had been some years.  Many thanks to the ubiquitous Book of the Face, the past has acquired an even more tenacious habit of catching up to one.  Now, the possibility having been circulated for a good year and a bit, fate ejected me free of fancy and footloose in approximately the right neighbourhood; East would meet West in the glorious South,  I’d blow in from the North for a refresher course in the fun stuff.

Some forty years back, I’d jostled discretely in the swarm around our master.  He was good, a generous soul who had accumulated a well of secret ingredients with which we could access desirable tools.  Understandably keen to absorb such treats in our life’s journey; we did.  Our holy rituals felt very much like holy rituals.

Since then I’d been, if not a very, very devout one, a covert disciple. – I jumped when he died, but oceans away, felt no immediate compunction to further his legacy.  Except that I already had… 

My first job in the New Country fell upon me like this:
“Excuse me while I take this phone call.  An as yet impenetrable conversation of a few sentences that added distinctly local colour to an impulsive meeting with a matriarch of the West Country League for Amateur Theatre  : “Oh, that was the Worker’s Illumination Association looking for a clown teacher.  I had to tell them sorry, we hadn’t anyone like that on staff.  You couldn’t, could you?” “Well, yes, I ‘ve got previous. I probably could.” “I’ll phone them back, their office is just across the street.”   Them that have greatness thrust upon them…

mud manFrankly, I lack ambition in this direction, it could be because of childhood trauma inflicted by a birth name that goes awry in a lot of people’s cultural assumptions.  In any case, my pedagogic arch was not lofty; not about to presume an earth shattering contribution when giants in the field were operating elsewhere, I wouldn’t be replicating the solar system during the six or eight courses with alternating adults and kids that the local demand threw my direction.  It would suffice to deliver an elemental approach to clown liberation as handed down to my humble self.  If I at all quoted my sources, I may have justified the madness with an anonymous mention of ‘my teacher’ in a passing sentence.  Otherwise, as is only right for a foreigner fresh off the boat – I said little and badly.  Any cognitive process was a private matter; the journey would not be theoretical.  There have been some triumphs; a moment or two may have furthered the movement.

Some years later the fun got a wallop.   I got exposed to those howling, intrusive types out of France who rudely pepper the poor clown with external demands.  Profoundly anti-everything I held dear from Richard’s friendly bio-organic environmental nurturing approach,  my clown could but run from the playing field thoroughly aghast.

trioBy late September, the slopes of Western Sicily have surrendered their nourishment to this year’s crop – the olives, pomegranates, lemons and grapes need but complete their internal ripening processes before someone should be at hand to pluck them.
Cianciana, the hill town that would host us, was not on all the maps. (Although, due to the particularities of branding, I did notice that the likely smaller village of Corleone in the neighbouring valley repeatedly merited a mention.)  This year a crowd of mostly unknowns to me would gather; ninety-five percent of the correspondence dealt with the whats to bring and hows to get there, the accompanying decree of artistic intention may have passed me by…

The Great Richard Pochinko Workshop of 1974 was perhaps unique.  Two solid months at home base before two weeks fieldwork getting our socks wet as part of the Royal Bros Circus crew.  Clearly North America’s most moth-eaten remnant of the Big Top tradition, our embedding would be a clash of cultures.   At home in the National Arts Centre, our preparation had been somewhat more meditative.  Veterans and newbies alike would explore the colours of mask trance and element baths, gingerly absorbing these layers into our sensitive clown personas.  It was an orchestrated meeting with the self in the safe room before the audience would show up:  the upcoming rude awakening in the centre ring would be indeed a rude awakening.
(Might Paul Saltzman’s film program be on Vimeo/YouTube/NFB archives?) 

I was double booked on my journey; held up in Athens, the currently besieged capital city of one of the many ex-colonial powers that had once claimed Sicily as its turf, it was politic of me to trade one of my standard miracles at the pre-conf practical workshop, if I could skip the drone of the paper givers.  By the time I arrived in Cianciana, two actual working days in, the clown crowd was focussing intently on inner resources.  The day before, an existential crisis of ‘what am I doing here?” had assured that no one would lightly return to such inquiries in the conceivable future. 

We had also been farmed out en masse to a very effective community relations wing –  suddenly three ‘meet the locals’ gigs tumbled vigorously into our collective lap; this might be an experimental exploration of core techniques, but it would be us who were the guinea maskpigs.   A residual question niggled: would I have a genuine rekindling my roots, or had the tree been so consistently grafted as to bare strange fruit indeed?  Nearing completion were a collection of oddly reminiscent distorted mutant masks that could frighten many a small child.

It is a central wisdom of pedagogics that everyone teaches through their own neuroses. Teachers of clown being called upon to be more neurotic than most, it became news to me that there have become more keepers of the Pochinko flame than the obvious suspects of my generation.  It seems my dear master has become a veritable industry with people brandishing not only his System but also his Method.  The wincable wince; then we get all understanding.  If I can contribute anything at this late date, I’d suggest his approach would be better described as a Strategy.

Brother Ian is old school – he had always been there, he had absorbed the wisdom, he practiced the practice.  He may also be the most intuitive person I’ve ever met.   Intuitives rarely operate with a strategic filter.  They know stuff; it is not necessary to understand the whys and wherefores, things just are.   In clown, he was perpetually astonished; the world happened to him in a flash.  The palms of his hands turned out in pure innocence, we were to share his amazement.  He could not connive; it would be hard to imagine Ian’s pedagogical plot ever thickening – he gives what he has.

We are not the same creature: if you roll a marble into the intuitive Ian machine it would zip through instantaneously to emerge all marvelous and sparkly.  That same marble rolled into me would trigger one of those exceedingly intricate cause and effect contraptions that engineer kinetic artist types float on the YouTube.  My love of resistance, teetering, angle of incidence, expansion, the fiddle, arch of inclusion, friction,  domino theoretics, and disturbed waddling ducks inevitably suck all my attention.  If I get lost on the way, I hardly notice.  Fascinated by the minutiae of pure invention, the whereabouts of our marble by now a forgotten detail, any observable product is simply a by-product of an honest journey; profoundly valuable fun gets had.
Self-diagnosis is risky business: my neurosis was once called ‘paralysis of integrity’ (other phrases have been used) – let us say that from a militant actor’s liberation perspective, I am reluctant to risk muddling and would rather leave well enough with the free supported space to figure things out by themselves.

mud people

I was moderately taken aback at Camp Cianciana.  Freshly plumped down in a chair for my first cup of locally brewed tea, some of the mask pasting types were sent off on a scavenging trip to the clothes cupboards.  To my ears this was shockingly off-handed — a deeply treasured precept of the work I’d learnt was impertinently swept aside.  Can it be that the realities of modern teaching market could dictate ones adaptive neurosis; that the pressure to get things done invites short-cuts?  To my orthodox upbringing this struck me as painfully – for want of a better word – wrong.  Classic Pochikoism proffered a technique that I always held as a pillar of the process:  Objective esthetic considerations for sculpting designer clowns have never been in our immediate cards – the impulsive infatuation with serious bad taste may often be just what we’re looing for; hence the recipe:  ceremoniously enter your mask for the first time, ritually perform your morning ablutions, and only then head off to the shops.   ( Indeed, during my above mentioned earliest teaching foray, one most attentive student so embraced this ritualised approach to discovering ones outfit that she ecstatically returned from amongst the flying elbows at the collective rummage sale absorbed with a most delightful plastic bag. ) When the work offers a path that consistently rewards with miracles — opting for a labour saving compromise seems more churlish than inspired.

My only notes from the time of this rude confrontation reveal a deeply troubled being:  faced with the most presumptuous of exercise titles ever ever- the Ultimatemelons Clown – my bowels baulked.  While an acute, realtime pain in my right buttock didn’t ease matters, some kind of hubristic überimpulse was here promising us a visit from the almighty Gods  — deliverance was nigh.  Something stuck in my receptive matrix…

In truth, the offending phrase may very likely stem from Richard; though of course he wouldn’t put it quite that way.  Chronic four-year olds don’t do hubris.  In the guise of his particular neurosis the sheer glee of opening such a birthday present would have blown to smithereens all my silly little details such as can there morally exist such a creature as absolute ultimateness ?  He would have reveled in the pure delight of the possibility of the possibility. 

On their way to becoming certified terminology other Pochinko observations seem to have met a similar fate:  I had met my table companion before; erudite, effervescent, tactile and female, I was inclined to absorb her retirement plans – save for one detail. Oh, she’d been pursuing clowning á là RP – now she had graduated to ‘Baby Clown’.  This too formed an unwelcome clump in my earhole.  “Richard never said this” bubbled unsaid up inside me.  Save that he did – perhaps more than twice…

Thing is with child rearing, one can tread overly careful.  Modern parents get labelled many things; on a range that includes: fussy, stern, protective, most begin with overly.  Let it here suffice with overly-engaged…  In the hands of the wrong neurosis the ‘baby clown’ approach can intrude upon a lot of tumbling territory.  The horrors of a big North American city daycare facility may not have such common roots with the upbringing of a post-war prairie farm boy.  If Richard said ‘baby clown’ he did so in the persona of a moderately older brother: he was delighted, he was inordinately proud of his sibling, there was no way he was about to change a diaper or offer deeply reasoned child-rearing plans.

As neuroses go, constant delight is singularly palatable.  As a currency of instruction it is hard to do overly gleeful.   Accompanied with curiosity, and the belief that the next breakthrough would be the best yet – he left us alone on our journeys.  I cannot recall a barrage of helpful noise from his direction – more than perhaps comments of short, clear encouragement.  Much as the rule was not to speak in mask nor nose, my recollection is that we were only exceptionally spoken to in mask or nose.  (Similarly, adopting the foreign idea that we had such a fear of open spaces that a directional beacon of drum beats should reassure us that Mummy/Daddy was near, is to risk clogging the airwaves.)

Instead, the bulk of Pochinko approach was front end. Not recipes and technical tricks, but preparation.  For those of us who arrived somewhat post-infancy from the adherent discipline of acting this was inherently logical.  Character work was best refined internally, growth was organic.  Respecting everyone’s developmental curve in an esthetic that held that own discovery was infinitely more valuable than responses to result-oriented prods. The value that so permeated our sessions was a profound faith in the process.   Process was everything: assemble your tools, check your alignment, and head boldly off upon the voyage; rewards would be forthcoming.

oddrei Of course, this may have reflected the working conditions at the Ottawa gathering of ’74: we were a large group (27+?), more than several showed signs of adulthood, 70 hour weeks were the norm – teaching could only be approached tribally  The group worked in sync: mass suggestion and collective ritual, assembly line individual work, interwoven private moments.  If we dispersed, it was to gather nourishment for the whole.  The quietest moments were filled with the endless communing of paste brush with paper as we constructed our string of six concentric masks.

Our current workshop couldn’t be so meditative.  Squeezed into that thin slice of time between when the daily bake finally allowed you to both think and stand upright and when the global lighting system disappeared beyond the Sicilian hills, we had about two and a half hours for concerted cavorting with the Gods.  The rest of our desirable internalising of the elements of all creation would bounce directly off each person’s catalog of childhood memories:  steep dusty hills, freshly fallen fruit, grazing herders and their beasts, fish in the swimming pond, the business ends of oh so many biting insects, and vista, vista, vista.  Immersed in all this, we had little need to conjurer up a magic space.


As I received it, the approach to clown through mask had a simple formula: stimulate elemental connections with the forces of life, invoke shamanistic trance openness, indulge in the presented whims offered us by the greatest mask of all – the audience.

New to the cognoscenti since my previous exposure was a switch in mythologies governing the six mask progression: the classic philosophical  Mediterranean quartet of four elemental elements had been replaced by a sextet of directional forces from the hereditary thought trails of the first N. Americans.  I had missed out on this re-wiring and the days of fasting, chanting and dance that no doubt accompany this.  I’d bravely brave a refresher course, but the Cianciana work proved less a measured exposure to inspirational ideas, and more an immersion in raw playing time.

photo: sara tilley

photo: sara tilley

If truth be told, I had descended with a vague lust for rekindlement. The premise of the workshop may have been a cost/gains analysis of the wisdom of compressing the meticulous process of exploring  multi-facets of the self into a quick-meal of six-in-one.  Other more pressing matters may have intervened, but Pochinkoists know their neutral and new beginnings, a renewed connection could take many forms.

The clowns met a lot of people often:  clowns on street, clowns wading through rows of preschoolers, clowns as circus gladiators battling off the hordes.  It would provide a breathtakingly brave learning curve for some.  Others relied on the pathetic old hat; the age old glue of clown life remaining as always rhythm, gag structure and spatial choreography. Permeating our final scheduled performance that politely coincided with a very fullish moon that later that night blossomed into a seldom fabulous lunar eclipse, was a bravery and commitment to subject oneself to the ‘audience mask’ of tribal passion.  It became a dangerous meeting of bare hands and the mob; this in a land where many a grape had been thrown before now.  That we emerged triumphant seems all part of the process.

Conversation with Ian Wallace in the taxi on the way to the beach, final day:
Was it so that we were taught that in the tradition we sought to emulate, the wooden mask was carved into a living tree, and that once removed, the tree was ritually sealed with sap: its continued growth vital to the power of the soul carved out of it,  – or had I been feeding impressionable co-workers an attractive myth?. — OH yes, this was a tenet of that we adopted – hence
you made youpepplesr mask of clay that I’d hand dug in the ravine. — AH, so my impulse to cast a mask of onion skin responds to our tradition, for although I once reveled in a mask of food wrap and masking tape, my prejudice in favour of all-organic materials reflects this – hence the choice of aquarelle over acrylic, and my eschewing plastic noses in favour of starting all groups with an opening sewing circle for creating self-styled cloth noses   Hmmm Interesting – said Ian: I must make sure to get this in the book. 

A colleague took me aside to confer about her recently completed class.  She had once been the best kind of course participant:  one that remembers her old teacher and recruits him for a fully paid adult position at a stage in life where a year among the salaried, teaching things I care deeply about, wouldn’t hurt a bit.  I was plodding around in Shakespeare, she had her group approaching clown.  Her triumphant story was about an exercise involving a spatial voyage through three imaginary worlds to a place where one finds a magic object that one then returns with through the same three worlds.  I expressed something like understanding or approval; she wanted something more.  She asked if I recognised it, but drew a blank: apparently she’d done this with me some fifteen years previously.  The marble dropped.

clown beach


About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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