Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Peer Reviewed

    Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions


    A performance as research experiment that featured the great clown Richard Tarlton and five other actors famed for their comedy demanded a process that engaged with clowning performance techniques. The research-creation process began a year prior to the final productions with a workshop production entitled An Experiment in Elizabethan Comedy, which grew directly out of my thesis research on the three dominant comic figures of the early modern stage: the morality Vice, the Clown and the Fool. Each of these types appear in the plays of the Queen始s Men in some form. The Experiment was devised to discover what would happen when the comic dramaturgy I had gleaned from the analysis of dramatic texts and historical records was put in the hands of two highly trained contemporary clowns. We were very fortunate to be able to hire two distinguished Canadian clowns, Andy Massingham and Michael Kennard. Not surprisingly, as critic Jon Kaplan put it in Now Magazine: "their physical work brought the material to life in hilarious fashion."

    The delightful discovery for me was that these twenty-first century clowns had a repertoire of physical comedy that readily meshed with the comic dramaturgy my thesis argued was encoded in the texts. The types of the morality Vice, the early modern rustic Clown and the natural and artificial Fool were alien to our Canadian clowns, aside from familiarity through their knowledge of Shakespeare. However Kennard and Massingham had a deep knowledge of the archetypal dynamic between tricksters and dupes that lies behind the Elizabethan comic types. The morality Vice is commonly a trickster who deceives the gullible mankind figure and leads him into a life of sin. The Elizabethan rustic Clown was commonly a dupe and the humor surrounding this new Elizabethan character relied on the incongruity between the rustic's view of the world and the perspective shared by more sophisticated urban characters and the London audience. The Elizabethan rustic Clown became the principal comic figure in the 1580s largely due to the success and consequent influence of Queen's Men comedian Richard Tarlton. Examples of such Clowns reveal that his comic repertoire quickly expanded and, as with Derrick in Famous Victories, the Clown might become the trickster when paired with less ingenious commoner characters such as John Cobbler. David Wiles argues that it was Tarlton's innovation to integrate the rustic simpleton with the festive traditions of the Lord of Misrule and comic repertoire of the trickster Vice (Wiles 11-23). Artificial Fools were performers who mimicked the behavior and adopted the costume of "natural fools" in order to enjoy the protection afforded by the license given to natural fools. "Natural fool" was a term given to any person with severe mental disability in Elizabethan society, some of whom were kept in houses as a form of entertainment. People laughed at them because they did silly things and could not understand the basic premises of social interaction or even of the laws of physics. They were granted license to speak freely because their lack of reason meant that they were morally unaccountable for their words and actions. Professional artificial Fools would tread a fine line between the performance of simplicity that protected them and the execution of their verbal wit (Cockett "Performing Natural Folly"). In the SQM productions we explored this relationship in the performance of Prince Edward's Fool in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. The comedy surrounding all three types of comic character depends upon the incongruity between the character's and the audience's levels of awareness. The Canadian clowns were experts in creating and playing such incongruities.

    The following core lessons learned about clowns from Experiment in Elizabethan Comedy were deeply influential in the development of the SQM productions. In contemporary clown culture, the term clown still refers to both the actor and their stage persona. It has lost the social reference point of Elizabethan England where the term clown also referred to a country rustic, but the theatrical duality of the term remains. I have articulated the following principles in my own language, but they are derived from the workshops run by Kennard and Massingham. Kennard, especially, saw clowning as a spiritual activity and for him the following principles had some of the authority of religious dogma.

    • Clowns never ignore the audience. They always exist in the actuality of the stage, in theatrical time and space, rather than fictional time and space. Clowns are always aware that they are performing. The division between the clown actor and the clown character is reduced or even eliminated in performance. The clown (both actor and persona) performs with a constant awareness of the audience as real people present in the room with them – a perspective that ultimately makes the fourth wall of psychological realism seem silly in comparison.
    • Clowns are naïve. This is especially although not exclusively true of the dupes. They commit fully to whatever is happening. Their focus is short-term and immediate. Their limited perspective becomes funny because it is incongruous with the audience始s broader view of the world or the situation. There is no room for subtext, or for irony, except for the dramatic irony created by tricksters. Clowns make simple, direct performance choices and play them to the full.
    • Clowns rely on improvisatory impulses. These impulses must be true, sincere and spontaneous (even when they drive rehearsed action). The impulses arise prior to conscious decision-making. They are grounded in the clowns始 bodies and their training enables them to exaggerate physical reactions in a way that is comical because it still feels spontaneous and authentic. When the connection to the impulse is lost then the physical comedy appears forced and artificial.
    • Clowns must respond immediately to what is happening around them. They can never ignore the reality of events on the stage. If someone in the audience coughs, they hear them and react. If a prop accidentally falls over, they do not pretend not to have noticed, but use it as a means to generate more comedy. They are never required to preserve the illusion of the fictional action because for them there is no illusion, or for that matter any fiction.
    • Clowns have childlike emotions. This does not mean their emotions are superficial, less deep, or less sincere than adult emotions; it means that their emotions are extremely intense, take over their whole body, and can change quickly. Imagine a crying child who is presented with an ice cream and immediately stops crying. Such sudden shifts played out in the bodies of adult performers are funny and are a staple of clowning.
    • Clowns have a deep repertoire of physical business to draw on, an arsenal of double-takes, false exits, pratfalls, and slapstick violence that they have practiced to the point that they pull them instinctively in performance or use them to collaboratively and quickly develop extended routines of physical comedy. Massingham and Kennard referred to such business as lazzi, a term derived from Commedia dell始Arte and subsequently adopted by the SQM company.
    • Clown routines have their own logic and the logic is important. While clowns do things an everyday person would not, their ridiculous actions are motivated by their equally ridiculous personas and the quirky ways they understand the world. A good clown routine will be strung together in a series of beats, connected by a cause and effect, that makes the sequence logical to the audience even while it is ridiculous.

    Two of the SQM company, Jason Gray and Matthew Krist, also participated in the Experiment and one of our master actors, Alon Nashman, was also trained in contemporary clown. Nashman was hired to play the principal comic roles that we suspect were played by Richard Tarlton and took a lead in the SQM clowning work, assisted ably by Gray and Krist who were often paired with him in comic double acts: Gray was John Cobbler to Nashman始s Derrick in Famous Victories, and Krist played Rafe with Nashman始s Miles in Friar Bacon. Through Nashman始s leadership, and with my encouragement, the influence of the clown training spread throughout the company.

    Nashman was the perfect actor for the project because in addition to his clown training he has long experience working in classical theatre, experience that privileged the text as the principle authority in his creative work as an actor. Nashman therefore had a deep understanding of the absurd logic that is intrinsic to intensive, physical clown work but could marry that logic to the evidence in the text that either explicitly or implicitly pointed to physical and emotional clown comedy. The breadth of his training meant that for the most part the comic business he created supplemented and complemented the text, characters, and the scenes, rather than developing humor for its own sake with no consideration of the action or intent of the play that surrounds it, as can often be the case. The physical comedy he created for the brazen head scene in Friar Bacon and for the Constables始 first scene in Famous Victories are strong examples of his influence on the company. The odd scene between Derrick and John Cobbler at the end of Famous Victories is another great example of Nashman始s working process but in this instance, his commitment to creating a logic of the action of the scene worked in conflict with what I felt was the Queen始s Men始s commitment to variety of entertainment. The performance annotations track the creative process behind the development of the physical comedy and alert the reader to the textual inspirations for it, or conversely to identify moments when our clowns were led by the creative license afforded to them, or by imperatives derived from their modern training.

    Hamlet, of course, famously criticized the clowns for speaking "more than is set down for them" (3.2.39) and the inventiveness of our comedians perhaps overstepped Hamlet始s boundary at times. For the most part I feel, the Dane would have been very satisfied with Nashman始s respect for what was set down on the page, but one reviewer, having acknowledged that Nashman was a "virtuoso" clown, did note "that he sometimes seemed to be playing in a different rhythm from the others, with more curlicues and pauses" (Cushman "Play"). The idea that the clown should be integrated in the action of the play as a whole is, however, an imposition on a dramaturgy that does not uphold principles of unity, or divisions of genre. Hamlet始s complaint implies that the submission of clowning to other aesthetic priorities was not normal practice. The videos of the productions give record of Nashman始s work and the opportunity for future assessment of the role of clowns in Queen始s Men plays.

    The introduction of contemporary clowning to our process had deep and far-reaching impact on the SQM productions. It encouraged an open and improvisatory approach to rehearsal and performance. The actors learned to work on their feet, following their impulses, responding to happy accidents, and discovering creative opportunities. The resulting performances retained a higher level of contingency than can be the case when working in a more traditional rehearsal process. There was a powerful sense that anything could happen in the performative moment because the creative agency given to the actors meant that it could, and often it did. Actors started to look for ways to surprise the audience, inventing new business throughout the run of performances. Paul Hopkins, as King Henry in Famous Victories, paused in the middle of the battle of Agincourt to take a drink of beer from an audience member始s glass. My favorite example occurred in the final performance of Friar Bacon when a feather fell out of the hat of one of the actors.

    Insert clip

    As noted, clowns must respond impulsively to the reality of the performance and, rather than ignore the feather, Krist and Nashman improvised a piece of additional comic business. The business has no relevance to the scene or the play but was true to the demands of the performative moment.

    Such theatrical improvisations could arise in a conventional modern production but the company始s training in clown made it more likely. The heightened degree of contingency in the SQM process gave the productions an enhanced feeling of liveness, the sense of the performance as performance rather than representation. The actors learnt to commit naively to the local needs of the moment rather than worrying about its significance to the play as a whole. They started to make simple and direct choices that could quickly animate the text, trusting to a lack of irony rather than seeking out complexity, celebrating local variety rather than looking to integrate actions and smooth them into a coherent whole. In moments of high drama, the emotions were deep and sincere but even they gradually took on some of the transitory quality of clowning. There was a sense in the final performances that all the characters were clowns. They all existed principally in the live world of the theater, rather than the world once removed: the represented world of the play.

    15Direct Address

    One of the most influential consequences of our exploration of clowning was that it encouraged the actors to engage directly with the audience. Our Canadian clowns in their clown personas were unaware that they were actors on a stage and behaved as if they were just sharing a room with the audience. This attitude runs directly counter to stage realism, the dominant aesthetic of our times, and the pervasive twentieth century actor's concept of the fourth wall – the idea that actors should imagine a fourth wall across the front of the stage rather than acknowledge the presence of the audience. Although this concept has been challenged by much recent theatrical practice (see Escolme), it is still extremely influential. Massingham, Kennard, and Nashman's approach, in contrast, aligned itself perfectly with my understanding of early modern theater and its success encouraged me to attempt to flip our conventional practice on its head. In realism, actors address other actors on the stage; what if the opposite was the default mode of performance for our productions? What if actors primarily addressed the audience and it was unusual for them to address lines to each other?

    In rehearsal, therefore, I encouraged the actors to imagine that every line was spoken to the audience. This was straightforward for soliloquies when their characters were alone on stage, but much more difficult in scenes of extended dialogue. Their natural inclination, especially for the less experienced actors, was to address each other and to look at each other. As rehearsals and the performances progressed, the actors became increasingly adept at opening up their work to the audience. Dialogue scenes started to work as a competition for audience allegiance, with each character persuading the audience as well as other characters of their point of view. The actors would also sometimes implicitly cast the audience as characters in the play: they might be treated as assembled courtiers or the English army, for example.

    Another factor here was that both the stage and the audience shared a universal lighting state, and therefore the audience was fully visible to the actors – an experience that was new to many of them. In these conditions it was important to encourage the actors to do more than talk in the audience's general direction. They had to develop the courage to look them right in the eye and talk to them, not an easy task. The consequence of all this was not unexpected. It diluted the division between stage and audience and made the performances highly interactive. Most importantly for me, however, it made me acutely aware that this division is a hierarchy in our society, in which the stage has the dominant position. The political affect of the SQM productions on a fundamental level was far more egalitarian. In my annotations I note particular instances where the interaction defined the production choices and affected the politics of the action.