A few weeks ago, I got back home from Puglia in southern Italy. I had gone with my partner Chris for a week of “intercultural clowning” to La Luna Nel Pozzo – The Moon in the Well – a centre for the study and practice of theatre skills run by Robert McNeer and his wife Pia Wachter.
When I say “clowning” I do NOT mean circus clowning with pratfalls, slapstick and painted faces. The clowning tradition we followed was that of the naive, sensitive, open-hearted fool: a red-nosed innocent, constantly amazed, sometimes frightened, and frequently delighted by the accidents and vicissitudes of life.
This kind of fooling is completely improvised: there is no script and no rehearsal. You might be alone on stage, you might be with other clowns. The stage might be bare or there might be props. You might simply cross from side to side, pausing only to stop and look at the audience, or there might be a structure (a suggested situation) to play into.
The essence of such clowning (first developed for the theatre by the great French physical actor Jacques Lecoq) is presence. You learn how doing less is doing more, how to say yes to whatever happens, how to pay exquisite attention to others, how everything is important but nothing really matters, how to let go of your ego and simply “be” on stage even when you don’t know what you are doing. It’s a wonderful training for would-be performers and storytellers.
Actually it’s more than that: it’s a wonderful training for life. In many ways, the archetype of the fool represents the best of us, manifesting our highest potential by bringing us low. Let me show you what I mean by telling you the story that inspired Robert and Pia when they named their centre.
Once, a foolish man went out into his garden at night to draw some water from the well. As he looked over the edge, he saw the moon in the well far below him. He did not realise it was just the moon’s reflection shimmering on the surface of the water.
“Oh, you poor moon, how did you get trapped in my well?” he called out.
He waited for the moon to answer but all that came back was the echo of his own voice. He was horror-struck: the moon must be in a very bad way if she could not even speak.
“Don’t worry moon,” he yelled. “I will save you.”
He grabbed hold of the rope and threw down the metal bucket to fish it out. At first, the moon seemed to disappear as the bucket splashed around but soon it filled with water and he could see the moon clearly again, this time framed by the rim of the bucket.
“Caught you,” he said. “I’ll soon get you out.”
He pulled on the rope and the bucket of water slowly began to rise, swaying and banging on the side of the well as it did so. After a few feet it caught on a stone and stuck fast. The man heaved and heaved but it would not budge. Sweat poured from his brow, his muscles ached and his eyes bulged with effort but he would not give up.
“I never know the moon was so heavy,” he said to himself.
Using all his weight and strength he gave the rope one last enormous heave. The bucket suddenly released itself and flew up causing the man to fall flat on his back and knock himself dizzy.
As he slowly came to, he could see the moon – big and round – floating in the starry sky above him. Tears of joy welled up in his eyes to see the moon back where she belonged.
“O, moon,” he said. “I’m so glad I was able to save you.”
It was an extraordinary week: life as it should be lived. So, thank you to our teachers Robert and Chris for your skill and ingenuity and for holding us as we laughed, cried and played under the Italian sun (and moon); thank you to my fellow British and Italian clowns for your friendship and generosity – especially to Vinnie, whose special way of being in the world taught us so much; and thank you to La Luna nel Pozzo – a place of creativity, connection and healing – long may you prosper.