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International: The fine art of serious clowning

Philippe Gaulier (centre) Philippe Gaulier (centre)
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In a comfortable hall just off a sleepy square in a small town south of Paris, the final touches are being put to Philippe Gaulier’s expanded acting school. It’s busy in the new admin office – the architect has arrived to give things a last once-over, the phone rings to announce a last-minute tranche of money towards the refit, then happy tidings of a new Gaulier grandchild. Professional and personal partner Michiko Miyazaki-Gaulier fights with the key to the new front door, while there’s the clatter of coffee cups as the students mill about on a break.

Gaulier stands in the middle of all it, visibly proud of this new space for his Ecole Philippe Gaulier. “The school started here five years ago and we had to do the administration on the stairs and put the costumes on the stage. So Michiko and I earned a bit of money, paf! We bought the neighbours, and now we have a dressing room and an administration office.”

Where did the cash come from? “Money comes from us, from the school. It’s our money and we are proud of that. We never received a subsidy here and we have never asked for one kopek from the French government. We can say ‘fuck you’. And a free school is always happy to say ‘fuck you’.”

It’s an attitude that helps to explain a man whose school has created a quiet revolution in UK theatre since the 1980s, with former students including Emma Thompson, the founder members of Complicite – Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni – Cal McCrystal, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Told by an Idiot’s John Wright and Roberto Benigni. More recent alumni include Red Bastard (aka Eric Davis), Dr Brown (Phil Burgers) and Trygve Wakenshaw.

The school also has a strong sense of family, as Gaulier points out: “All our teachers were students at the school. They always want to come back to show what they’ve learned. We don’t take teachers from other places. They’re boring and don’t understand the spirit of what’s going on here.”

His own experience has given him insight into that idea of passing on the flame. “I was at Jacques Lecoq’s school before and I was not that bad a teacher later. So after I started my own school, it seems I am still not that bad – so they come.”

Gaulier was born in Paris in 1943 – “when it was full of Germans” – and went straight into theatre after leaving school. “I left my family and I went to theatre school, the Theatre National Populaire. We had good teachers: Gerard Philippe, Alain Cuny. It was a good time.” He then went to train with Jacques Lecoq, staying on to teach at his Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq for a decade.

Leaving Lecoq in 1980, Gaulier set up his own school in Paris, building his courses around ‘le Jeu’ or the ‘Game’.

Gaulier has built his schools around his method of ‘le Jeu’, or ‘the Game’ and encourages his students to learn to play
Gaulier has built his schools around his method of ‘le Jeu’, or ‘the Game’ and encourages his students to learn to play

“We discover the ‘complicite’, we start to be friends, like when we play games like cowboys and Indians when we were kids.” And, as Red Bastard and Dr Brown attest, Gaulier is also big on clown and bouffon, a dual nature that he developed himself as a performer – “I was a clown for 10 years – I did a lot of clown shows”. And the difference between being a clown and a bouffon is a subject close to Gaulier’s heart. “The clown imitates an adult to make us believe now he is an adult. He is like a child, he imitates in order to say, ‘Daddy look at me now that I am an actor’. But he has no opinion about being an actor. The bouffon imitates in order to say this person is a piece of shit. To imitate Jean-Marie Le Pen, to say this one is a horrible person. So the bouffon is intelligent, he parodies to denounce the horrible fascist people. The clown does not understand what he is. He looks like what he does. The bouffon is like Goya’s Black Paintings. Totally different.”

Britain got the chance to discover the Gaulier style close-up when he spent the whole of the 1990s in London after Arts Council England invited him over for what was originally planned to be just one year. He moved from Highbury to Kentish Town and then Cricklewood. After returning to France, he ended up in Etampes, which is to Paris as, say, Woking is to London.

With all those changing spaces, has Gaulier kept the same structure of courses? “No. Here in Etampes we have two rooms to work in. When I was in Cricklewood we had a sort of church, a fantastic open room of about 450 square metres, almost all our present building. But with one room, it’s not easy because we had two or three classes. So, for example, the movement teacher would work with one group, I would come after as he moved to the next group, so it all went faster.”


5 things you need to know about Philippe Gaulier

 1. Gaulier’s teachings are based on his concept of ‘Le Jeu’ or the ‘Game’ – finding the joy of performing – while also in the vein of Lecoq by using the ‘via negativa’ or ‘negative way’, ie, encouraging students to find their own way through negative criticism.

2. Courses at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier are spread in workshops across two years (October-June, and there is also a teaching year), and the intake is up to 90 students each year.

3. The first year covers the Game, neutral mask (as created by Jacques Copeau) and Greek tragedy, mask play (Basel carnival and commedia dell’arte), melodrama, Shakespeare and Chekhov, and writing and devising a show. Each workshop lasts four or five weeks.

4. In the second year courses vary. A typical year includes clown, bouffon, vaudeville, Shakespeare and Chekhov, writing and devising a show. Each workshop lasts about 12 weeks.

5. Since 1980 the school has visited and taught all over the world, and now concentrates on cities such as London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Berlin and Toronto.

As for method, did Gaulier take a lot of Lecoq with him?

“No, no. It’s not the same at all. When I was a teacher at Lecoq I didn’t practise what he did. On some points I was okay but on many I wasn’t, and that sometimes got Lecoq pissed off. But I did not want to accept his style, I did not like it. So after 10 years there I said, ‘I’m going to do my own school,’ but if you see my students you’ll also see they have so many different styles that you can’t say they come from Philippe Gaulier’s school. I am happy with that. I don’t give a style to my students. I want to give freedom, not my style.”

The secret to that individuality lies in playing ‘le Jeu’.

“I think the Game is a great pleasure. Even if we play a scene where ‘my grandfather’s died’, it should be a great pleasure to play. But when a teacher with a method that comes from Stanislavski, Strasberg or the others says you have to look inside you to feel the pain when your grandfather died… Well, I don’t like psychologists in theatre. I don’t teach sick theatre, I teach beautiful theatre that’s alive.”

The other side of the Game, however, is that Gaulier teaches through relentless negative criticism. If he thinks you’re rubbish, he’ll let you know instantly, although in most cases the resolution is a positive one. “Everybody thinks it’s good to be good. I tell students that you are allowed to be bad. It’s good to be bad. Everybody was bad at some time. So in this school you are allowed to be bad. But you will be bad a lot and I’m not going to be your nursemaid. In fact, it’s a good tunnel for you to discover something. Stay bad and at the end there is something.”

And that something is? “Freedom. It was in my case, too. When I was a student at Lecoq’s school, for the first year I always said to Lecoq that I wanted to do the exercises, and Lecoq always said: ‘Not you, Gaulier!’ One year! And then in the second year I found I was free as a performer. So don’t complain. You have to be happy to be bad because it’s a good way to discover.”

Just as there isn’t a typical Gaulier graduate, there isn’t a typical Gaulier student. They have always come from all around the world, and currently there are performers from places as diverse as Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Germany, Canada, Ireland and the UK. “People come because they know I am not classical. I don’t sell the same salad as my colleagues. I hate that sort of thing.”

The application process is also refreshingly different: “Name, cheque. No letter of recommendation and no photo or showreel. If I don’t like you, if you are not polite, I kick you out. That’s it. And everybody progresses.”

As for his opinions on the state of theatre in general, Gaulier mischievously denies that he has any. “No. It’s not my job. I can see beautiful theatre and I can see shit theatre, and that’s okay – my opinion does not help anybody. It’s what I teach that helps people.”

Philippe Gaulier timeline

1943: Born in Paris, France

1965-67: Studied at the Theatre National Populaire before moving to the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

1960s: Worked as a clown and bouffon.

1971: Became Lecoq’s assistant and taught at the school.

1980: Left the Lecoq school and founded Ecole Philippe Gaulier in an atelier in the 17th arrondissement, Paris.

1991: Invited by Arts Council England to move the school to the UK.

2002: Moved to Montreuil, France.

2005: Set up school in Sceaux, south of Paris.

2007: Published The Tormentor (Le Gegeneur), a book of his thoughts and exercises on the business.

2011: Moved to Etampes.


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