Jacques Lecoq, Physical Theater, and the Clown


Jacques Lecoq broke the bonds that enchained the body to the text, and developed theater’s own poetry. At his international school, students like Selena McMahan learn how to let their body speak loudly and find their professional way. For Selena, the Way of the Clown turned her into a healer.

What better way to present Jacques Lecoq’s legacy than to have one of his student tell us about her experience at his school? Selena McMahan, an American actress from New York, is offering her insight on the school, and sharing her admiration for a man she never met.

Genesis of a Movement

Body has always been at the heart of Jacques Lecoq’s professional life. Born in December 15, 1921 in Paris, Lecoq begins his career as a sport teacher. He makes his first steps on a theater stage in 1945, directed by Jean Dasté, and discovers there the work on masks, which will become a fundamental part of his pedagogy.  Masks lead him to Italy where for 8 years, he experiences Commedia Dell’Arte and several physical artistic practices.

Lecoq teaching

Once back in France, Lecoq committed himself to teaching and passing on his vision of a theater deeply rooted in physical movement.  In 1956, he founded his own school of theater. But Lecoq kept researching movement. With architect Krikor Belgian, they later -1976- created the research department of the school called L.E.M (Laboratoire d’Etudes du Mouvement) with a goal to make creativity emerge from the contact of the actor with matter. The L.E.M. also questions how to translate simple moves into objects, or architecture.

A Body of Students from all Horizons

Because working on physical theater avoids language as a constraint, the school soon became an international institution. Students from all around the world heard of the new pedagogy and came to receive this precious and innovative teaching. All of them left their countries, their backgrounds and families and gathered as a group, reinforced by the particular situation of being foreigners in Paris. As a response to such commitment, Lecoq represented a very fatherly figure, created an environment of trust and common searching. He was very careful to introduce values in his teaching, the main two being observation, and careful listening (A little of knowledge of French is however required as there is no time for translation during classes). Selena remembers: “He used to say that no matter what you’ll do after this school, you’ll be good at it because you’ll be able to observe and listen properly.” Indeed, part of the training is to learn what coexisting on stage means. Without text, you need to be dedicated to your partner and him to you, so as to create together.

So Loud Speaks the Body

Physical theater helps just that togetherness. It does so by focusing on movement and aiming at the eloquence of the body itself. How to be neutral? How to be a group on stage? How to tell stories without words? Such are the issues this tradition answers.

The  school’s teaching adresses students who have already been trained in drama, have stage experience – at least two years, and are willing to improve their craft as actors, directors, or playwrights. Student come in with a specific purpose and usually return to their countries with a new background and perspective, feeling more complete about their techniques. Selena had entered Lecoq to be a better clown. Yet, even if she did learn very much from her training at Lecoq, her expectations weren’t satisfied: “I’ve learned more about clowns in other places, but at Lecoq I really learned elements that helped me in my “clown-craft”: timing, space and listening.”
But for those who specialize in mime, or clown like Selena, and want to stay in France, things can get really difficult, for the job offers, the recruiting processes and even the way of creating are still governed by traditional text-based theater.

The Clown-Healer

After graduating at Lecoq, Selena created her company Inclownito with fellow students. But soon they met obstacles. First, being a foreign actor in France forced most of them to return to their countries. Selena, for her part, never gave up and the company remains the space in which she can create, experiment, and express herself. Second, Selena is a clown actress, and for her: “Clowing is a higher dimension than theater”. Other schools, like the Samovar school in Paris, are clown schools but their vision is different: “they don’t care that the whole thing is well done, consistant and logical, they just want to make people laugh”.

Consistance and logic as guidelines to creation are part of Lecoq’s legacy. Along with the human values that were so important to him and to those who attend his classes: attention to others, solidarity, benevolence, and the capacity to listen carefully to one another. These values led Selena to another way that enabled her to stay true to her vision of the clown in the professional field: le Rire Médecin. With a lot of former students from Lecoq, she works as a clown in hospitals. Everything, from the performances to the trainings relies on Lecoq’s language and conventions. In this project, she found the best possible way of joining her training and her professional yearnings.

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