and the patients were like—wow, we didn’t know you could do that! Amazing! Amazing!
So yes, it can work miracles. I watched a beautiful piece of video from Scotland, where it was just a woman with dementia and a female clown, and the clown would take a hat and put it on and say, “I wonder, what hat should I be wearing today? Do you think this agrees with me?” And the woman was blank. “Okay, so you don’t like this one. How about this one? Do you like it? Ah… I don’t think you like it.” And I think it’s on the seventh or ninth hat, she puts it on and all of a sudden this woman, the lights come up and she says,“Yes…” and that’s it.
I still have goose pimples when I talk about this because this was one of the most moving moments in watching and dealing with clown doctors, because as a clown doctor you need so much faith and persistence and patience not to despair. How do we know that it’s going to happen on the ninth hat, and not on the twenty-seventh hat? You need to keep trying. And yet the reward, as little as it is, is so precious and so significant all of a sudden. No one can tell us, because we still know so little about dementia and about Alzheimer’s, if this can have a real effect on the ability to communicate, on the ability to function. Who knows? Maybe this is a way to follow in the future. So that was a revelation for me.
You know, you open with, “You’re not a doctor, you’re not a clown”—I realise that looking back on what interests me is always one thing, theatre that is effective. Because in our life, most theatre is totally insignificant. You go, you like it, you like it very much, you talk about it over dinner post-show, and you forget about it. You send friends, but it didn’t change your life a bit.
And yet, theatre, when it was born, it meant to change your life. It meant to be effective, to have some impact. So you see shamanism—you know when I went to South Korea and I documented this initiation rite, twelve-hour rite, someone asked me, “What brings you here, are you a doctor?” I said, “No, I’m a theatre person” and they said, “This is no theatre, you know.” And I said, “Of course.” But in my heart I thought, “Oh, you’re completely wrong, this is the theatre. This is the only theatre!” Because this is something that changes reality. That by the stupidest thing of pretence… of course, they don’t think it’s character acting. When I say, “She portrays a spirit”, it’s nothing like that.
“She channels a spirit”?
She channels a spirit, she summons the spirit, and when she is in trance, the spirit possesses her. They explained the physicality of it as that her own soul gives way, and that the body is just a vessel, and the spirit gets in the body. The conceptualisation of this is completely different, but I insist: it’s theatre. I saw, for example, that all these shaman disciples can get in trance—there were four of them, I think—and with two I could say within a second that they would be a failure. How, I don’t know anything about shamanism? Well, I know, I read. But I’m a director. I’m a theatre director. And I know an actor. And I know the concentration, the focus, and that’s what I teach. I teach directing I teach acting, that’s my specialty.
My specialty is to be able to discern this, and say, “this is not honest” or “this is not truthful” or “she is not focussed, she is focussing on whether we videotape her.” She was the only one throughout the twelve-hour session who said “no photography please”. And I said, okay, if the big shaman did not mind, the initiate did not mind, only she—she must be very vulnerable, and even defensive. She was a bit aggressive about asking not to take photographs—everybody was videotaping. The minute she said that, I said, “Oh, she’s not focussing on the right thing. She’s focussing on how she’s going to be perceived by others.” Photography or otherwise, we still had our eyes open and looked at her, and she failed.
Often when actors get in the part, they never get out for a long time. It depends on the actor. And we talk about versatility, it’s that you still bring all the souls you have inside, and yet discover another one. And with the shamans it’s the same thing. They know they have a repertoire of spirits, and costumes and everything, but a student of mine who went and recently did her PhD on shamanism in Korea focussed on the stores that sell them the costumes and the props, and she said the owner of one store decided to develop a new spirit. It’s not like she made it up completely, but it was a marginal spirit that was not part of the repertoire. She wanted to sell more costumes and props, so it became the fashion. Now all shamans do this new spirit, which was not in the repertoire.
So many things influence the dynamics, and the shamans too need to explore new terrains, in the repertoire. So it’s very similar to theatre, and my guide in that for a large part was Antonin Artaud, a French poet-actor-director, who wrote The Theatre and its Double, and there he says there’s no reason to do theatre if it’s theatre that doesn’t change reality.
And he calls it cruelty, because he says you need not to be flexible in the sense of flexibility of your standards, of your ethos, of your desires, because both performer and audience, which he calls participant, should be transformed, as he saw in Balinese theatre. But I call him a prophet, because he was hospitalised for most of his adult life in a mental institution, was brought back from Ireland in straight-jacket, identified with the Indians who did peyote and did it with them.
So he was a marginal character, in a way. But the writing he produced—he never managed to do the theatre that he wanted to do—that’s why I call it prophecy, because it’s not to be materialised, it’s just to be like a compass saying “Go there! Go there! This is the right road! Don’t stray, don’t go other ways because they’ll bring you easier success, because it’s entertainment”. This, for me, is really the essence of theatre that can change life.
The nice thing about medical clowning is that it’s the same, not that it’s not a job, but it’s there to change people’s lives, just like shamanism, just like other rituals. And that’s the glory of it, the beauty of it. It comes from the inner faith that theatre was born of, that by making faces and gestures and telling weird stories all together, you can change people’s lives. And that’s beautiful.