Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gamechanger: Seriously Funny Philippe Gaulier

Philippe Gaulier is one of the world's foremost teachers of clown and its inverse, the bouffon. Author of The Tormentor, he has taught Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Roberto Benigni, Simon Amstell and Complicite's Simon McBurney. I was fortunate enough to study with Mssr. Gaulier last summer, and had the chance to speak with him by Skype on the eve of his first workshop in Los Angeles.

It's good to see you!

Did you see me?!

(Laughs) I sent you a couple of students. I hope you have fun with them!

Not boring?

A little boring... but maybe you help them be not boring!

Ah! Ya-ya-ya! (Laughs)   

I have questions —

Yeah, but it's normal for an interview... If you don't have questions, eh... it's a bit strange!

How did you start to be interested in being an actor or a clown? 

First, I wanted to travel.  That's it.  I did not want to do any job.  I wanted to travel or I wanted to be in the commercial navy — but not military, because I don't like military people... One day, I went to a theatre which was also a school [École Charles Dullin*] in Paris. It was a really great theatre and I thought, It is beautiful, so I did this school. And I was actor. I started when I was 17, 18; for ten years I was actor.  And after, I decided to stop and to do Lecoq school*.  In Lecoq school, everybody said I am really funny and I started to be clown with my friend Pierre Byland. And we were clowns ten years. We played a show and broke 200 plates every night. It was very funny. Voila.

*École Charles Dullin's counted among its students Antonin Artaud, Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau. Julie Taymor, Isla Fisher and Geoffrey Rush were among the many pupils of Jacques Lecoq at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.

When did you start to teach?

Lecoq asked me to teach. By me, I didn't want to teach because I don't like teachers.  But I accepted, and after, people they say, Ah, but you are a good teacher. So...

What do you think is the most valuable thing that Mssr. Lecoq taught you? 

Lecoq was a great, great teacher, and the first year, anytime I wanted to do an exercise, he say, Not you, Gaulier, stay sitting! (Laughs) He was tough like this, but he was waiting for me... he knew, You are not yet on the level of my idea about theatre, but it was good... And after second year, I was good (not with Greek tragedy, because I was always ridiculous with Greek tragedy) but with games, with mask, with commedia dell'arte, with clown. I was an actor. 

When you teach, Monsieur, your teaching is different than Lecoq's?  You have a big philosophical difference? 

Lecoq was a... serious teacher. Oui, serious. Boring not... but serious. Alors, serious... is it boring when someone is serious? Or is he serious because he is a bit boring?  I don't know!  But he was serious... Lecoq, he asked me to teach, The Style of Lecoq, and always I say that this style was a piece of shit, I won't teach this horrible shit! (Laughs) Every student who did Lecoq, we recognized, you know? We saw a show and we say, Ah, but it is Lecoq School... I was really, really furious against that. So, no, we had a lot of... we fight quite a lot, yes. But we stayed friends.

The principle I remember most in studying with you was always to have pleasure in what you do. Is that something that's your philosophy, or Lecoq's?

No, Lecoq was not pleasure, he was Protestant... Pleasure is not specialty of Protestant! No, no. Pleasure?  Bah... the engine of an actor is pleasure. The engine of everybody who stands up is pleasure. If you lose your pleasure, you're depressed and you could commit suicide... So you ask, You're so deep, you discovered pleasure? (Laughs) No, I didn't discover anything. It's not deep at all... it's life! 

Jacques Lecoq

Could talk a little bit about the use of the insult in teaching?

First, it's not an insult. When what you did was a pile of shit, and we say, That is a shit, it means, You can't do anything with that... It doesn't mean, Ah, it's bad, we don't love you, you are outside, you are outcast. No! You are allowed to make a big shit every morning (laughs), but my job is to tell you, With that, we can't do anything; with that, never you will get a contract. 

If you stop having love — or having sympathique — because the student is bad, you, as a teacher, you are a piece of shit, because you choose between the good or the bad! And everyone is allowed to be bad.

For people who live in Paris, you can see on every street the little shit of a dog (laughs). In Paris, we have so many dogs who shit on the corner of the street, so when we say, You are a little shit of a dog, everyone understands better! And we say with a sort of humor, we don't say that in a nasty way. It's a good fun.

Have you ever been to Los Angeles?  


Well, you're in for it, because there's a lot of shit!

Ah, ya-ya-ya!  (Laughs)  

What would you like to bring to the students you teach in LA?

It could be good if we have good fun; lots of clown. I come back from Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia], I was last week, it was fantastic but it was not clown, it was neutral mask and Greek tragedy and it was bouffon, but it was absolutely fantastique what we saw — and every day! So I hope we are going to discover the beauty of the clown, the beauty of the idiot who feels he is funny, but he is not. 

Is that your favorite thing to teach, clown?

Depends on who is the student. Sometimes we teach clown in Montreal... and sometimes it's not a piece of cake!

Do you feel there is any relationship between art (or acting) and spirituality?  Is there any way you feel connection to something greater when you do this work? 

When you do this work, we try to find something beautiful, and something beautiful is when exercise start and we have the feeling, Ah, for this five seconds we saw a miracle! So, if we are not looking for this moment... for something absolutely beautiful... you are not an artist, you are just a seller of theatre recipe. 

Who are your favorite clowns or comedians?  This guy? 

Yeah, of course. This one is fantastique. Because his humanité is fantastique. Because he was totally vacant... He had all the qualities to be great friend of Beckett. Normally, this one is top level of a human being. We see on the face — he's not a piece of shit! 

You and I spoke about The Marx Brothers once, and you mentioned something about the Jewish people having a special spirit. Do you think there is any relationship between people who've known suffering and an ability to be funny or create art?

I know just one thing... When we are in Spain, Italy or Czechoslovakia, we are more light than when we are in Denmark, Norway or Germany. Why, I do not know exactly... But it is true, to suffer so much gives more humor than to be the best son of God... You are half-Jew or total? 


Tonight we are going to eat with Sacha Baron Cohen.

He's amazing!

He is amazing, yeah-yeah-yeah! He doesn't stop!  He has Jew humor, too, eh?

Yeah.  How long ago was the last time you visited? 

He visited us a year ago, or something like that. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as the bouffon, Bruno.

When your students leave, do you miss them at all? Is it hard to see them come and go, or do you just keep moving? 

I am happy when they succeed — really happy, of course! People — you have to meet your life.  You have to live your fantasy!

Thank you for your time, Philippe. 

It was a great pleasure.

You know you really changed my life? 

Thank you. I change the life of people who want to change their life.  I don't change the life of a good German who wants to stay German. I change the life of people who accept to be tramp in the mind.

Philippe Gaulier teaches at Fixt Point ( in Los Angeles now through September 6.  Listen to a bit of Philippe himself here. For more information about Gaulier's year-round courses, visit

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Game Changer: Carrie Manolakos

Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

Born in Syracuse, singer/songwriter Carrie Manolakos attended NYU's CAP 21 program and booked the national tour of Mamma Mia! before graduating. After touring for a year, she completed college, then made her Broadway debut in the role of Sophie.  She later toured with Wicked, which proved to be a very different experience.  As a standby for Elphaba, she spent most of her time in the dressing room. Here, she shares a bit about that journey, how it led to her debut album, Echo, and her cover of Radiohead's Creep, one of the most successful YouTube videos of all time.

Getting to play Elphaba was totally exhilarating when I got to go on. The challenge in being a standby is that you never know when it's going to happen, and sometimes it's six weeks between shows.  As the only standby in the show, it could also feel very isolating — not performing much and being away from home wasn't a great combination for me. But I'm grateful for the hard. The hard is what makes it good.  In fact, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had more time than I have ever had in my entire life and I knew I had to use it somehow. So, I started teaching myself guitar, revisiting piano (which I had played poorly as a child) and writing music. Now I really feel that that's what I'm supposed to be doing. It was such a gift. 

What was the first song you wrote?

The first song, which I don't really ever play, is called "Soar."

"-ar" or "-re"? 

Ooh, "-ar"... but I should write one with "-re"!  It was about spreading your wings and taking flight.

And it hasn't seen the light of day? 

Not really. I played it at one of my very first gigs. 

This is sort of an ineffable question... but where does the voice come from?  Not the singing voice, but the songwriters' voice?

I never thought I had anything to say. It was always sort of a, "Yes Sir, yes Ma'am," fitting-in type of thing, so I never realized I had a voice. But once I started writing music and performing it, I realized that me being myself was the thing people were responding to... Some people really connect with playing a character, something totally different than what they are — I found the opposite to be true. Being myself, a goofball connected to my music, was the best thing I could be doing with my instrument, my training and my voice. I just started writing a song a day when I realized that it's something I actually have to be doing because I have things to say.

Did that "other" voice ever come up a lot, saying, "Who am I to write a song?"

Oh yeah!  I still know, like, six chords on guitar. I don't actually know what I'm doing, but as I'm writing more and more, my songs are getting more interesting, my piano playing is getting better...  If you had told me four years ago I would be writing songs, I would've laughed in your face. I was like, "Oh, I want somebody to write for me, and I'll just sing it," but then actually doing it on my own... I remember the first moment I went up to my friend and said, "I think I wrote a song."  She was like, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, Can I play it for you?" I remember playing it for her for the first time, realizing I had created something out of nothing instead of interpreting someone else's work, which I had done my whole life.

Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

 You "made a hat."

<Laughs.>  Exactly. 

So there must have been a different kind of... responsibility you felt. 

That's a good word. A long time ago my dad said that I had a responsibility to use the blessings I was given. It was very powerful to discover I could create my own art and do it for myself — that I was the only person I had to say yes to. 

Are you a spiritual person?  I always feel that with great art we're somehow "borrowed."

I do feel like a vessel, which actually takes the weight off my shoulders... It then becomes about doing what I'm born to do, versus what I'm "supposed" to do. I try to think of it as a job, my responsibility every single day, to share what I'm doing with the world... and it's been challenging! 

For a long time, I thought of myself as an artist in terms of getting jobs that gave me some sort of "clout." Like, "Being on Broadway — check." Doing this has totally changed my life, because I feel like an artist in a whole new way.

When that "Creep" video happened, it was the last song of the best night of my life. Somehow, everything was aligned and it was captured on film, and I felt like I actually reinvented myself at that moment. 

Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia

Let's talk about that. 

The wildest thing ever. 

We rehearsed it very little, but there was something in the room... I remember being onstage, really scared to do it, but did it anyway. I like doing things that scare me, because then I start feeling fearless. Actually, the first moment I went onstage to do my own music was THE most frightened I have ever been in my life, ever, and I have done a lot of crazy stuff!

But I was so grateful to everyone in that room for showing up, everything felt right in the world. My heart just like, exploded, and then [my bandmate] Julian was just making stuff up — he didn't know where I was gonna start, I didn't know where he was gonna start. He just landed on a chord, and it was... one of those moments. I remember feeling like my most powerful self, as if the universe just aligned.  And then all I did, literally, was put it on my Facebook.

All of a sudden, I was getting all these messages, "Carrie, you're on Gawker." And then it was the most popular story on Gawker, then it was picked up by the New York Times, Huffington Post, Daily Beast... It was so crazy because it all happened, like, within a week. And I don't have a PR team! I just put it on my Facebook and it happened... I'd put my phone down for ten minutes, and there's be 50 e-mails.  It was the wildest thing that ever happened to me. But it's actually given me a lot of faith in the world, because I didn't have a cute puppy or a naked video. People just liked the song. (N.B., To date, "Creep" has had over 1,100,000 views on YouTube).

I heard Alec Baldwin picked it up on Twitter?

He just started Tweeting, "Carrie Manolakos should be on Girls."  We ended up talking and he connected me to some people, he was so cool, the greatest!  It has been sort of the gift that keeps on giving... like being invited to a different kind of party. 

Is there any kind of shift you might support in people who are looking to step into their power as artists?

First, if you're at your lowest low, there's always some sort of lesson or gift there. When you're stripped of everything you think you are — or what people say that you are —then you find out who you really are.

Second, if your gut is telling you to do something, you cannot wait around for a single person to do anything for you because nobody will. I spent years wanting this and that, and that just does not happen. You have do it for yourself because you wanna do it, and if you're doing good work, if you're at your best, then good stuff happens.

Having this album, the show, having the video explode, it was like the universe saying, "Go ahead, Carrie, keep going." Even though the music business is really hard right now, the messages has been, "Just keep going." And that was the sign I needed.

So it's really about answering the call when it's a whisper, not a scream. 

Yeah... I like that.

On New Year's Eve, Carrie crowned what many people would consider the year-of-a-lifetime joining Phish onstage at Madison Square Garden.  Her upcoming shows include Philadelphia's World Cafe Live on February 5 (click here for tickets) and February 28th at the Cutting Room NYC (here). To learn more about Carrie, visit her website,

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