An interview with Chris Bayes

J. Michael Miller Talks to Chris Bayes

July 13, 2012


CHRIS BAYES began his theater career with the internationally acclaimed Theatre de la Jeune Lune where he worked for five years as an actor, director, composer, designer and artistic associate. In 1989 he joined the acting company of the Guthrie Theater where he appeared in over twenty productions. In New York, he has directed at the Juilliard School;  New York University’s Graduate Acting Program; at both NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing and Fordham University. Additionally, he has staged several original productions at P.S. 122, at HERE, at the President Company Theatorium, at Touchstone Theater, at the New York International Clown Festival, The Public Theater and The Flea.

Outside of New York, his directing credits include the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D. C., Intiman Theater in Seattle, Court Theater in Chicago, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Yale Repertory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theater, and Trinity Repertory Theater. He was part of the creative team for the Broadway and National Touring productions of THE 39 STEPS for which he created additional movement and served as Movement Director.

He has taught classes and workshops internationally at Cirque Du Soliel, Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Big Apple Circus, Interlochen Arts Center, Vassar College, Stella Adler Conservatory, Bard College, Fordham University, University of Texas Graduate Acting and Directing Programs, National Shakespeare Conservatory, University of Minnesota Graduate Acting Program, the Guthrie Theater, Iowa State University and Theater de la Jeune Lune.

He has served on the faculty of the Juilliard Drama School, the Actor’s Center (founding faculty & master teacher of physical comedy/clown), Yale School of Drama, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab, the Academy of Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington D.C., New York University’s Graduate Acting Program and Tisch School of the Arts, and at the Brown/Trinity Consortium in Providence, RI. where he was Head of Movement and Physical Theater from 2004-06.  In 2006, however, he threw caution to the wind, packed up his family and all of his nonsense and headed back to New York City. He is currently a Professor and Head of Physical Acting at the Yale School of Drama.

Michael Miller and your Editor caught up with Chris on a lunch break from a clown class he was teaching at Anne Bogart’s studio where he was holding a workshop. Frankly, with all of the above accomplishments, I don’t see how he has time to sleep. He is a man somewhere in mid-life wearing a Stanley Kowalski undershirt, with long hair, scholarly glasses and incredibly intense, alive, playful eyes. He was very welcoming to us. He managed a sandwich and some chips as we spoke. Michael – who has known and worked with Chris for fifteen years – did the interview. (Ed.)

CHRIS BAYES: Shoot. Let’s do it.

J. MICHAEL MILLER: What childhood trauma led you to clown?

CB: I first began to discover the world of the clown when I was at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. I think it was 1984

JMM: How did you get there?

CB: I went to undergrad at Macalester College in St. Paul. Stuck around a little bit in Mineapolis. Was doing some auditioning. And I just auditioned for them one day out of the blue because I was auditioning for everybody.

JMM: Auditioning as an actor? Not as a clown?

CB: No, no, no. My early training was in Uta Hagen stuff. Stanislavsky. When I was in high school I went to HB studios my final semester. But I was kind of vaguely unsatisfied somehow. I always felt I was a bit of a phony. I couldn’t quite convince myself of some of the imaginary circumstances somehow. It all felt like a little bit of a lie. And then I stared working at Jeune Lune. I had started to work more physically. I did a Japanese Noh piece just before I started working with them. And I discovered when I started working with them they had a whole other set of tools that I knew nothing about. They were introducing me into this highly theatrical form. It was very playful and yet also quite beautiful. It could be tragic, it could be lyrical, it could be violent. It could be hilarious but in a completely non-psychological way, in a very theatrical way. And all of a sudden, the theatrical architecture, the actor/audience relationship began to make sense to me. I wasn’t pretending that they weren’t there, that I was in my own apartment, doing something odd. But I am actually making something, cooking something for the people who are in the room. And that made sense to me. I said, oh, that’s why the theatres are built like this. They all sit together in the dark and we run around up here. And then the artistic directors began to do workshops in clown work. They had trained together at the Lecoq school. And those of us who were in the company who hadn’t done that work were introduced to it in the workshop. And the first time we did clown, it blew my mind.

Because all of a sudden, for the first time really, I felt complete ownership of my work. There’s a moment of disaster, there’s a moment of chaos, there’s a kind of crazy playfulness but you’re not relying on the text, there’s no playwright in the room. There’s no director there. There’s nobody telling you what costume you’re going to wear. It was the most prehistoric actor/audience relationship that I’ve ever experienced. And something completely changed in my work from thereon out. From that sense of ownership and immediacy and playfulness I began to investigate more commedia stuff, which is the next level. It’s sort of as if the clowns, God forbid, ever grow up and learn about sex and rock and roll but less poetic.

JMM: Then you left Jeune Lune to join the Guthrie in the acting company, as an actor. And you were there about three years.

CB: Seven seasons.

JMM: Seven seasons. My God. Why did you leave?

CB: I kind of felt like I was becoming a different kind of artist, something was just moving.  I had been an actor for about fifteen years. And I got a little bit tired of being bossed around. I got a little tired of being told what to do, you know? And I was working with amazing, amazing people – Robert Woodruff, Garland Wright, JoAnne Akalaitis, Doug Hughes – and all these awesome people and we’re doing cool shows but I became a little bit dissatisfied with how I was asked to contribute to the conversation. I wanted to be the painter more than the paint. I wanted to investigate that. And that’s one of the reasons I think I also became more interested in teaching because in order to be a teacher you’re forced to articulate what you think is important about the work and find exercises that can illuminate that. And being forced to articulate what you think is important about theatre helps you find your own voice. So in a way, being a teacher actually helped me be a better artist.  I began to see on a daily basis people investigating what works, what doesn’t work. Seeing, oh, it can go so much further than this, or it can be so small, it can be tiny and yet be gorgeous or whatever it wants to be. And, somehow I just ended up being so blessed, so lucky. Michael Kahn was really the first one who spotted me as a teacher. I had been teaching a lot in Minneapolis and I was going to move to New York and I went to see Michael. And I did a sample class for Moni [Moni Yakim, movement teacher at Juilliard, Ed.]  and Moni said “OK” and Michael brought me back and I did another sample class for him. They weren’t really sure what they were looking for. They were looking for someone who could do physical comedy, circus, blah, blah, blah, but not specifically “Clown”. Then I come through the door with this insane approach to it, this kind of total chaos. And Michael hired me to be on the faculty of Juilliard. And that allowed me to go downtown to NYU and knock on their door and say, “you know, I just got a job up at Juilliard. Can I get a job here, too?” If I hadn’t had that job at Juilliard, I’m not sure I would have gotten in the door downtown or in your front door Michael. Because I got something in the mail from you about The Actors Center. You had talked to Harold Stone, at Juilliard right?

JMM: Harold Stone called me and said I had to pay attention. This was when I was just putting the faculty together. And he said, this is somebody you’ve got to see. And it seems to me that what you were going through at that time was very much because of the frustration you were feeling as an actor at The Guthrie. You felt divided from the audience. Because the way you played as an actor was playing to the other actor rather than involving the audience in your discoveries and your problems. There you were playing in that great thrust stage which takes you right to the audience but which you weren’t supposed to acknowledge.

CB: No, you weren’t allowed  to even though you’re in the midst of them.

JMM: Isn’t that a part of what the clown has as a structure in his work? To engage with the audience?

CB: That’s why the theatrical architecture is the way it is. I think that’s part of it. I was doing plays I wasn’t particularly interested in. But I was also involved with some awesome work. So it was a mixed thing. I just thought, I don’t really want to do that anymore.

JMM: And that turned your life around.

CB: Yeah. Totally changed. Boom. I moved to New York and an entirely different life.

JMM: So then we met. And I was able to offer you a Fox Fellowship to go abroad and see some other major acting teachers. How did that experience turn out?

CB: Well, I got to spend six weeks with Phillipe Gaulier. He’s a tough character. He speaks brilliantly about theatre, what theatre can be, about the pleasure of the actor. I did three weeks of clown with him and then three weeks of bouffon and Shakespeare together, for some weird  reason. But it was also a way for me to go back to the source of a lot of the stuff I’d been learning because Phillipe Gaulier was also a teacher at the Leqoc school when the Jeune Lune guys were there. And I’d already been teaching for a while, at The Actors Center, at Yale, at NYU Grad and Juilliard, and so for me to go back to the source of that and open my heart as a performer was difficult for me. But it recharged some of the possibilities that I saw in my teaching, brought some musical elements in. But also on the other hand, it taught me some things not to do because I think American actors have a very different relationship to their teachers and to the training that they pursue than the Europeans do. And the whole world of Via Negativa that Lecoq’s training was based on, that Gaulier’s training was based on, is “No”. It’s based on NO. “I’m not going to explain to you how to do it because then it would be mine. I want you to find your own way.” But it’s based on the negative. It’s a negative form of teaching. Which doesn’t work in the States. Doesn’t work here at all. People will riot. “I paid $30,000 to come to this school and all I get from you is No? That’s bullshit.” It feels sometimes that it can be about the financial relationship between the student and the teacher. Not all. But there is a bit of that.

JMM: But you’ve told me that what this teaching is all about is to get back to the place before there was a No. Before we understood No.

CB: The unsocialized creature. Yes. What would you be like in this room in your body in this second if you’d never been told “No”.

JMM: That’s the clown. Clowns are nascent people.

CB: There’s a kind of crazy legacy of the country bumpkin, the simpleton, the naïve kind of poetically inspired creature. There’s lots of different schools of thought about it. Lots of different ways to pursue it. I mean Cirque Du Soliel’s clowns are more…  they call them eccentrics. They’re clowns of the circus. They’re not there really to function as a theater clown functions but as a kind of distraction while you put the tiger cage up. And to sell some stuff to kids. But there’s something about the world of the clown and the world particularly of the red nose that has this kind of beautiful legacy and when people see it and see it played properly, it somehow makes sense. And again, in a kind of prehistoric sense, it makes sense to babies. And not the pom-pom, big shoes kind of clown but the real naïve, beautiful ones. All of a sudden that little baby or that little kid realizes that you’re a companion for them. You’re part of their clan. You’re just bigger. You have the possibility of this fantastic world of the imagination. It’s pretty magical. When I first started showing my kids, they’d freak out for a second. They’d go: “No, no, no!! – no, come back! Again!” Because they saw something in the possibility of that little mask that they understand. You can’t articulate it really, but it’s there. And I think that as adults we also recognize something in the world of the clown that’s a bit bittersweet because we see an actor being able to do something in such a beautiful way with a part of themselves that we have personally betrayed – by growing up. We all betray our enthusiasm at some point. We betray our innocence at some point. Sooner and sooner it seems kids do that, because they want to grow up so fast. They want to be cool. They don’t want to feel vulnerable. And we all do it. Everybody does it. But the clown doesn’t do that. It’s a rediscovery of enthusiasm and playfulness, I think.

JMM: Every time I watch anybody with a clown nose, it doesn’t matter how well I know them, suddenly there is a kind of innocence. Their whole persona changes because it doesn’t belong, it’s outside, it’s red. What is that?

CB: You know, LeCoq always called it the smallest mask in the world. And I think it is a kind of mask but it works in the reverse way that a commedia mask or a larval mask or a neutral mask works which is to cover, to spotlight the physicality. The red nose actually uncovers, I think, or is a kind of bulls-eye to the face.

JMM: Yes.

CB: So we see everything that happens in your eyes, everything that you feel and that you think. Because it softens your brain. It forces you to support that little mask to the extent that something beautiful is going to be revealed. And when you see that mask being played properly, you laugh at it. Because what that actor is doing is impossible. You’ve just revealed something gorgeous, right?

JMM: Well, you just said, it exposes you. It doesn’t take you away like a full mask. It exposes you.

CB: Yeah. That’s why it’s powerful and that’s why it’s so personal. And that’s why it’s so terrifying. But that’s also the way to rediscover your generator. And I hate to try to pin it down too much because it feels like you’re putting a butterfly on a corkboard. You know what I mean? If you try to define it too much you kind of kill it a little bit. It loses its mystery. But in a sense, it’s a process of rediscovery of the unsocialized self. And that’s where the clown comes in. You rediscover you playfulness, your musicality, your voice and your body without filter, without fear, without self-consciousness, without the need to get it right, to just listen, and at the same time, since its at the core of the person, you find your own unique way of entering the comic world. It’s not math and it’s not formula. It’s actually something that’s unique to each individual. Each individual has a clown. They have one. And from that clown, which is not character – it’s clown – from the clown comes thousands of character because it’s coming from you. But there’s one clown.

JMM: How do you get people to understand that there’s only one clown in them?

CB: It can very hard to get to because it’s a two-fold process. One is a process of building up the muscles of your personal ability to be expressive physically/vocally and also trying to relax the muscles of the organized, responsible adult that get in the way. The polite, the appropriate muscle, the muscle that wants to be cool, all those muscles – and each gender has its own specific issues – but try to release and relax those muscles that prevent you from being open. To be able to listen, to let go of your need to solve the problem of the comic world, to get it right. There’s a lot of exercises to do that. We really start with getting the body ready for the clown to bubble up. Half the work is building up to that. Then we introduce the nose, we introduce the different ways of trying to uncover, we try to find what their name might be, the way that they can live in their body, fully, and support that little mask. I think people understand when they see it. It’s very difficult to talk about – the moments of poetry and great beauty and magic in the process of letting that little creature come out.

PHIL (couldn’t help myself): Did you say getting to know what their name might be? They name their own clown?

CB: I name them. I ask them if they know what it is. I ask them, what’s your name? They try something on. And I say no, no. Your name is Stinky Tuesday. I have a whole list of names for each clown. I have books and books of names from over the years. And I’ll work with a person for forty-five minutes sometimes just to find their clown name. And they’re just sweatin’ it. It’s pretty awesome when you find just the right one.

JMM: How many of them stay with their clown name?

CB: It’s a kind of a big deal. Once you get your clown name, it’s a kind of rite of passage. I think it’s a bigger deal that any of them realized. To be tracked down. I sort of have to go on a safari sometimes and get them. You want your name to be Keg Party Boomer or some shit. That’s not your fucking name. Your name is Tight Little Underpants Girl. Your name is Sleepy Frances Puddle. Your name is this or that. To try to reveal – there’s always the name that you have and the name you wish you had. And that’s what I always say to them: the clown is not what you want it to be, the clown is never ever what you need it to be or hope that it is. It is what it is – and the audience will tell you when they see it. Because we’ll laugh. Because if we’re not laughing, it’s bullshit. (I don’t say bullshit to them, I say bullshit to you.) It’s just posing, it’s just desperate flailing away. It’s something that’s not connected. It’s not tethered to the self. It’s tethered to an idea  or need to succeed in the exercise. I don’t give a shit if they succeed in the exercise. If they don’t grow, it’s not interesting. If they don’t learn something, it’s not interesting.  If you can do the exercise already it’s boring. But if you have to struggle a bit and discover something about yourself, that’s interesting.

JMM: It’s like all teaching, isn’t it? You don’t know it until you get there. And you’re asking them to identify themselves in a very specific way that will lead to all kinds of other things and that’s really difficult.

CB: Very much so and it takes a lot of courage to do it. What’s interesting and sort of intriguing, too, is, I say to them, you know, there’s a part of your talent that you have confidence in, there’s a part of your talent that you like, that you feel you can invest in. It may be the part of your talent that helps you get work. Or makes you feel sexy. Or makes you feel strong. I’m not interested for a second in any of that part of your talent. That’s known territory so there’s no surprises. That’s just a defense. What’s on the other side? What’s the mystery that wants to get out? Not just the part of your talent that you like but all of your talent. There’s certain muscles you feel, oh, I like that muscle. I like that muscle there. But what about this muscle? What about that muscle? What if there’s talent in all of it? Not just in the one you lead with.

JMM: And there’s freedom in all that.

CB: So much freedom. Because in the world of the clown, if you’re good – hurray.  If you’re bad, and you admit you’re bad – then we laugh and then…you’re good.  If you pretend you’re very good when you’re bad, we hate you a little bit. If you stay on the stage continuing to do that, we get to hate you more. But if you can admit that something went badly and can have a little tragedy and cry a little bit about it, then we fall in love with you. Because we see you doing something that as an audience we are unable to do – which is be as expressive in your tragedy as you are in your triumph.

JMM: But we also identify with you because you’ve hit a place where we don’t go.

CB: We understand it. It makes sense to us. But we’re a little bit jealous that you can be that beautiful in the midst of your disaster.

JMM: You now teach everywhere and have taught everywhere. So you’ve seen student of all kinds and from all kinds of programs and now at Yale.

CB: I just got my Professorship.

JMM: Congratulations.

CB: Thanks.

JMM: So what do you say to those students the first time you meet them? Most of them have come there because they’re going to be film stars some day soon. They must be a bit wary. How does that dynamic work for you?

CB: I think that they talk amongst themselves. They say, “What’s that guy like? What am I in store for?” And some of them are horror stories and some of them think: “I can’t wait.” Some of them come for that. Because they want to do more physical work. Because they want to investigate. I think they come to Yale, not because they want to be film stars, though that may be part of it. I think they come because they feel there’s something extraordinary going on there now – with Ron and Walton and the whole faculty… and with me. Maybe.

JMM: Don’t you think there’s an understanding among people who want to do this work that it’s almost impossible to earn a living in the theatre anymore? I’m talking about the relevance of what you’re doing. And I’m just wondering how you lead them in.

CB: I think there’s different shades. I think secretly they may think it’s a good career move to go to The Yale School of Drama. Of course it is. But I think they also secretly want to be changed forever.

JMM: They are fortunate to have you there to take their hand.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 and is filed under Food for Thought. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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