Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Clown Critiques

Part Two: Presenting Clown Critiques

By Bruce Johnson

I was graduated by California State University at Long Beach with a BA in Technical Theater. Learning how to present a critique was part of my training. First, because that is an effective educational tool. Second, because we could then apply the process to our own work and continue developing as artists after leaving the educational environment. The critique process is especially beneficial for variety artists because it provides feedback from the audienceís point of view.

Definition

Many people misunderstand the critique process. They think it is critical faultfinding. In reality it is the opposite. When you are doing a critique, your goal is to help them to become the best clown that they can by helping them identify their strengths, suggest possible improvements or alternate approaches, and offering encouragement

I have done critiques on my own, but I find they are most productive when done by a panel. You benefit from several points of view that way, and a comment made by somebody else may inspire an additional idea from you.

Appropriateness.

Don't offer a critique unless is it asked for. People are not always open to an honest evaluation. Don't make negative comments without being invited to do so. Sometimes people will ask, "What did you think?" That may be a request for affirmation instead of for a critique. They may feel hurt and bewildered if you offer suggestions for improvement when they werenít prepared to receive them. You may have a valuable comment to make, but if it is not given in a way that they can accept, they wonít make a change.

A critique is not always appropriate, but compliments are always appropriate and appreciated. You can, and should, compliment people without invitation. After the performance, if there is something I really like I try to let the entertainer know about it.

A critique should be done in person verbally if possible. A negative written comment written may seem more permanent and important then it really is. Also, when doing a critique your tone of voice and expression can do a lot to soften a negative comment.  While critiques are sometimes done in public as part of an educational program, I believe that they are most effective in private, especially if the majority of your comments are about improvements.  On the other hand, praise should be offered in public.

Compliments are often more effective if written. The increased effort on your part indicates greater sincerity. Also, the compliment is preserved so it can continue to offer encouragement to the person who has received it. Circuses and ice shows usually sell programs, and somewhere inside will be an address for the show's general office. You can compliment any entertainer by writing to them in care of the general office. Mail sent there eventually gets forwarded to them.

Be prepared.

Have what you need to communicate your ideas clearly. An idea I got from Vicky "Ruffles" Miller is to print sheets with a basic outline of a face on it for doing makeup critiques. Then you can easily sketch suggested changes. If you use colored pencils or felt pens, you can differentiate between areas of color. Another valuable aid is a mirror so they can see what you mean if you point to something on their face.

When doing a performance critique, have paper to take notes during the act so you wonít forget important points afterwards.

Begin by looking for strengths.

A compliment reassures them that you aren't going to just tear them down. To start with, a negative comment may trigger their defenses and they won't be receptive to what else you have to say. People tend to minimize their strengths, and the most effective thing you can do may be helping them find what they do right.

Ask for their input.

In college, it was common for a critique to start by asking the subject their opinion. This had several advantages. First it helped everyone get used to analyzing their own work. Also, it revealed their concerns. Sometimes they viewed something as a flaw that everyone else liked. Often they were aware of something that wasn't obvious at first, which we could help find a solution for. It was interesting to hear what their goal had been, because sometimes a failed attempt revealed some interesting possibilities. In clowning, people sometimes have a symbolism in mind that doesn't come across, but you can help them find a different way to express that idea.

I was on a makeup/costume critique panel with Jack "Blimpo" Frank, and he would conclude by asking each person, "How do you feel about you?" Sometimes their response was interesting and led to other suggestions. Usually though they would reply that they liked themselves, and their expression was one of surprise to discover that was true. It is important that people feel comfortable within their clown character. If theyíre not comfortable, they aren't free to concentrate on being an entertainer. If they arenít comfortable, the audience won't be comfortable with them either.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially when critiquing a skit. Ask people to clarify why something was done. A critique is a collaborative process. You are there to help them communicate what they want with their audience.

Don't personalize.

When people are being critiqued, they are vulnerable. Keep the focus away from them personally and on the work you are evaluating. Avoid using the word "you" in negative comments. For example, in a skit where they pack a suitcase and then donít take it with them, don't say, "You havenít made it clear why you leave the suitcase behind." Instead, say, "the reason for leaving behind the suitcase isn't clear," or even better, "I didn't understand why the suitcase was left behind."

Offer solutions.

Don't just identify problems. They may not know what to do if you say, "Your costume needs to be punched up more." You help them more if you say, "Edging your lapels and tails with black bias tape will make them stand out more and the costume seem more theatrical.

Indicate relative value.

Your subject will tend to attach the same importance to all of your comments although they really vary in importance. If they give anything more importance, it will tend to be negative comments.

There are times when an immediate change is needed. For example, somebody wore a pair of pants that were a wild pattern with several colors, which clashed severely with the rest of their costume. The pants were a great detriment and I suggested that as soon as possible they change to a solid color pair that balanced their costume and allowed their plaid vest to stand out as an accent.

Other suggestions are just an alternative that might eventually be tried. For example, I once commented to somebody that it might be a nice touch to make the pockets on their coat the same color as their lapels. The pockets they had were okay, but I thought the change might be an improvement. It would be wrong for them to feel they had to make a new coat right away. When making that type of suggestion, I try to make it clear by saying, "this is just a minor point..." or "the next time you make a costume.."

Don't overwhelm.

Try not to discourage your subject by suggesting too much. If there are many possible improvements, pick a few to focus on. Comment on what you consider is the highest priority. Also, suggest something that is easy to change so they can make quick progress and see improvement. The process of becoming a good clown is a long one. You don't have to be an instant fix solving all their problems the first time. It is more important that you get them moving in the right direction. Somebody else can make the next corrections. This is a process known as "successive approximation." You may not be entirely correct but each time you come closer to the target and you know which direction to go to get even closer.

Offer at least one suggestion for improvement.

No matter how good somebody is, there is always room to grow. The better somebody is, the more specific and detailed you can become. One clown had a nicely balanced costume in red, black and yellow color scheme but it seemed a little plain so we began looking for accents to create more interest. An idea we came up with that they liked was to replace the yellow thread holding on their yellow buttons with red thread so the buttons would have a big red X in their center.

Pay attention to details.

Details can make a big difference. A tramp clown had a character that was poor, but proud, pretending to a higher status in society. He wore an old tuxedo shirt that was appropriate to the character but clashed with the rest of his costume because it didn't appear old enough.

He didn't want to cut holes in it or cover it with patches because he didn't think his character would find such a shirt acceptable. The solution was to fray the collar a little and to replace the buttons with mismatched ones. That was enough to make it work.

Give reasons.

Don't expect your subject to accept all your comments uncritically. Give them a basis for evaluating the merit of your ideas.

Also, by showing them the thought process you follow, they can begin to learn to do the same thing themselves. For example, a Whiteface clown wore a white costume trimmed with pastel yellow, including a white ruff edged with yellow ribbon. Their wig was also yellow. This meant that everything blended together because it was about the same value, especially after the yellow started to fade. Their face seemed washed out because it blended with their costume. I explained that a costume should frame your face directing attention to your expressions that are important in communicating with your audience. I suggested changing the neck ruff to a dark yellow edged in black, substituting a black hat for their white one, and using a piece of material left over from the ruff to make a matching hat band. The next time I saw this clown, they had changed to a red and white color scheme, and had used a red ruff trimmed in black plus a red hat with black band. The greater contrast between their costume and their whiteface made their face seem much brighter.

Identify personal opinion.

Indicate whether something is generally agreed upon or just your personal opinion. For example, most instructors teach that you should leave your upper lip white to help separate it visually from your nose, and because your upper lip doesn't move much as you change expressions so leaving it white focuses attention on your more mobile lower lip. If I am suggesting that to people, I'll say something like, "It is a general rule..." (There are some exceptions to that rule. I personally don't like the "kissy" lips, but Lorle "Sweetheart" Buehl and Marti "Minnie" Vastibinder use them effectively and I like their makeup.) I personally have not liked most of the gloves with cut off tips that I've seen worn by Tramp clowns, but I know many instructors advocate them. If I comment on Tramp gloves, I always start by saying, "this is just my opinion..."

Differentiate between entertainment and competition.

Unfortunately, the criteria for competition and entertainment are not always the same. I try to encourage creativity, but competition judges are often more conservative and slower to recognize new trends. For example, although originality is supposed to be a consideration, Tramp winners are usually those who display the least creativity and imitate Emmett Kelly the closest. In one case, a Tramp competitor was marked down because his tattered pants and coat were blue instead of black.

When I was part of a critique panel scheduled by an alley before a competition, one of the Whiteface clowns wore red gloves, which I thought were perfect with her costume. I told her that I loved her gloves, but that I knew one of the people who would be judging deducts points if a Whiteface clown wears gloves that aren't white. She decided that it wasn't worth it to buy a new pair of gloves just for competition, and that judge did mark her down for wearing red gloves. Later she told me that she gets a lot of good response from kids because of her red gloves and she has developed several jokes based on them. She feels that is more important then winning a trophy. I agree with her, but it would have been a disservice to her if I hadn't allowed her to make that decision. Some people take competition very seriously and look for any little detail that might give them an edge over others. The rules and guidelines for each competition vary, so if you are doing a critique in preparation for competition, be sure you know the guidelines for that particular competition.

Be open to new ideas.

Guard against your own bias. There have been several times somebody has done something I normally donít like, but for them, it works. I've seen some wonderful things during a critique session that I had never considered. Don't rely on pat answers or preconceived notions. Be creative. One lady wore a dress with a turned down collar. She was a Whiteface and had a long neck. She needed an accent near her face to draw attention to it and to visually shorten her neck. Going to a dickey or ruff wouldn't have worked with the rest of her costume. We finally came up with the idea of wearing a black velvet choker with a cameo. I have never seen a clown wear one, but it would solve her problem, make her distinctive, fit the tone of her costume, and seemed symbolic of her character. It was an idea I would never have created without being inspired by her problem. When everyone is open to new ideas and supportive of each other, wonderful advances in art can occur.

Another time a participant told me that the second time I had done a critique for them I had commented that I liked something I didnít like the first time. I told them it was a new idea that took me a little time to get used to.

Summarize.

People remember the beginning and end of something the most so to help them retain what is important briefly repeat your key points. This is your chance to put things in perspective. If you have made several suggestions for details emphasize that your general reaction really is positive. Don't let the number of suggestions give them more weight in the impression your subject retains of themselves. You might say something like, "your costume overall is wonderful. The basic concept works very well. Your use of color is well balanced and puts the emphasis where it should be. The only suggestions I have are for minor details ... Very well done."

Follow Up.

If you get the chance, comment on their improvement later. I've been fortunate to see many people I've critiqued at another conference or performance. If I can remember what we talked about before I always try to comment on it, such as saying, "those pants are much nicer then your old pair." Some people will seek me out after I've critiqued them once for additional comments. This gives me a chance to encourage them by praising them for what they have accomplished, and if necessary do the next successive approximation. This also encourages me because I can see that the critique process really does work, and that people are benefiting from my suggestions.

Summary

The examples I've used have dealt mainly with appearance because that is a little easier to explain in writing. The critique process is even more valuable in performance because it provides an opportunity to learn how it appears from the audience's viewpoint.

Somebody not involved in the creation and rehearsal process can give you a fresh perspective on the clarity of your work. Entertainment is a form of communication, and somebody new can tell you if what youíre doing is understandable.

Critiques are a valuable tool for improving the entertainment value of our art. As an entertainer, having a critique done of your work will improve what you do. As an instructor, doing a critique is an effective educational method.

If you are invited to do a critique remember: A critique is not always appropriate, but compliments always are.  Be prepared. Begin by looking for strengths. Ask for their input. Don't personalize. Offer solutions. Indicate relative value. Don't overwhelm. Offer at least one suggestion for improvement. Pay attention to details. Give reasons. Identify your own personal opinion. Differentiate between entertainment and competition. Summarize. Follow Up.

Copyright © 1992 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

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