“Theatre is as serious as a child’s game” is the central philosophy behind the teaching of French theatre pedagogue Philippe Gaulier. His school École Internationale de Théâtre Philippe Gaulier trains actors with a strong focus on freedom of spirit and a thirst for play.
The position of theatre usher is a coveted one for many an acting graduate – what better job is there whilst you’re busy auditioning every other day, than getting paid to watch shows!? I usher at a deliciously intimate theatre in Melbourne CBD called fortyfivedownstairs. One of the coolest things about ushering in a venue like fortyfive is getting to not only watch shows, but also work closely alongside several exciting and independent companies!
In February I had the pleasure of ushering on an incredible piece of theatre called This is Eden – a captivatingly dark and gritty one-woman tour-de-force which uses Bouffon to unearth the little-known history of female convicts in Tasmania.
Creator, performer, Green Room Nominee and all-round excellent human, Emily Goddard is a graduate of Philippe Gaulier’s and has been generous enough to share with me some of her experiences of training in France, her subsequent career and the creation of her wildly successful one-woman show This is Eden…
Tell us a bit about your journey and training, Emily!
I guess I always wanted to be a performer. I grew up wanting to be a professional ballerina but then realised I was more interested in playing all the characters than the actual dancing. I got into drama at high school and desperately wanted to go to the VCA. I was put on a waiting list but missed out so I started a Performing Arts/Law Degree which was kind of insane. Funny where life leads you… Then I spoke to John Bolton, who was head of acting at the VCA at the time and said “I have to get out of the country and train if I can’t come here!” He wrote Philippe Gaulier’s name on a piece of paper, I went home and looked it up and was like “Oh my god! I’m gonna go to Paris!” Training there completely flipped my idea of what I thought acting was and I just fell in love with the school and the whole community around it. Since graduating in 2010 I’ve worked on a really diverse range of shows. Last year I did Angels in America, Noises Off and This is Eden. A mad but wonderful mix that overlapped across states and genres…luckily I got to play the valium addict last!
So how does École Philippe Gaulier work?
At the core of Gaulier’s philosophy is “Le Jeu“- French for “The Game”. He believes that fun and pleasure is the most vital thing for an actor. If we don’t have fun, theatre dies and boring theatre is the greatest theatrical crime of all! There’s a misconception that Gaulier is “Clown School” but you study lots of things – Greek tragedy, Neutral mask, Melodrama, Shakespeare, Chekhov, as well as Clown and Bouffon. That said, Clown’s amazing for actors because it teaches you how to be free with failure and how to see the miracles in things that don’t work. As actors we always want to get things right – when you do clowning you have to be wrong. It’s very freeing when you’re allowed to f*ck up! It makes you realise that the gems of beautiful theatre can sometimes come when you’re like, totally in the sh*t! It teaches you that if you’re free and open there’s always some gold in there!
Ok! Give us a quick rundown on This is Eden!
This is Eden is a show about the female convicts at The Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1800s, and their rebellion and survival. It uses Bouffon as it’s main performance style to tell the women’s stories but also to expose the stories of the people who oppressed them. Cascades detained about 5000 of the 25000 female convicts and was a horrific place. Most of the women who were sent there were young, only 2% of them violent criminals and they were really brought over to populate the new colony – at the same time pregnancy was a punishable offence and the infant mortality rate over 40%, significantly higher than the rest of the population. Before my mum found a female convict ancestor and we went on a tour of Cascades, I had no understanding of what these women had experienced. I realised there was a massive hole in my Australian history education. I’d learnt about the First Fleet and that was about it. Anything about the convicts had been very diluted, romanticised and not in any way representative of the horrors they endured. So that was a big impetus to make this show. I felt really angry. Why hadn’t I been taught this? The show is about the female convicts but also in a greater sense it’s about how we engage with our history. It also looks at the parallels between “The Great Transportation Debate” of the 1850s and the present day treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
I think all theatre has the power to alter our mindset. Theatre should be able to connect us! With our past, with our present, with each other. That’s it’s job! Sure, it’s to entertain us – we have to be entertained to actually give a sh*t. And if we’re entertaining and we’re making people laugh at the same time, if we’re challenging them, we’re keeping them on the edge of their seats, we’re making them feel something, then why can’t we also give them a little knock around the head? Because we’re playing a part in this. Every single person is playing a part in the making of our history now. And we have to remember that we are more powerful than we think we are.
What exactly is Bouffon?
Bouffon is a form of grotesque mockery, traditionally where outcasts mock the people who have oppressed them – like an inverted clown. In clowning the audience laughs at the character, in Bouffon the character is laughing at the audience. It can be an incredibly powerful political performance method, commenting on society, our hypocrisy, our inequality, on everything that’s wrong with the world. As a means of actor training, it can stretch you physically, vocally and mentally. Bouffon is very liberating! You’re allowed to be bad, blasphemous and ugly. Right now it feels like it’s really a great time for contemporary Bouffon. There’s so much mess going on in our country and the world, people are getting away with atrocious stuff, and I think as artists the more we can expose and the more we can be free as a society to speak up and mock and make fun, and bring down the power of the people who are causing all this destruction, the better!
Ok, so you’re running some Bouffon workshops – throw us the details!
Myself and Jaime Mears are running a Bouffon workshop this coming Friday and Saturday, April the 13th and 14th! Jaime is a NIDA grad and worked for about ten years in Sydney with STC and different companies there, and then we studied together in Paris. Since then she’s been living and working in Portugal where she’s got her own theatre company and teaches a lot of Bouffon in Portugal, London and Germany. Over two days we’re doing a combination of Le Jeu and Bouffon and exploring devising using Bouffon. It’s for theatre students, theatre teachers, actors, actors who’ve just come out of drama school, actors who have been acting for thirty years! If you want to come and discover something new and explore Bouffon, it’s a workshop for you! There will be others coming up after these dates too so like the This is Eden facebook page for regular updates!
Any advice for young and emerging actors, artists and creatives?
Hmmm… I would say don’t try to be like anyone else. The best actors are the ones who are most alive and free in themselves. And when we try and be like someone else, we lose our own magic. I think it’s about realising that you are the best thing that you have to offer, you don’t need to be more like another person! Your own humanity is your most important tool.
Also, your career will lead you in so many different directions – be open to the surprise and the mystery of that! It’s the hardest part of our job that we don’t always know what we’re going to be doing next. But also that’s our blessing! Some people would kill for that kind of spontaneity in their lives! Society can often tell us that what we’re doing is not important or it’s foolish or childish, or whatever. Because we’re kind of on the outskirts in a way – we’re a little bit Bouffon. We’re going against things by not doing what we’re often taught at school – that you have to do a certain thing or you have to get a certain kind of job to be secure. So when we make a choice that isn’t that, people find it hard to understand or take seriously when we’re starting out. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not valid, actually it’s incredibly important and in a way we have to be on the outskirts so we can look in and we can reflect things back. I think it’s also dangerous to judge ourselves by other people’s standards of success. You have to work out what success is to you personally. Success to me is being involved in work that is important – to do and make theatre that tells stories that can move people in some way. There’s nothing better than doing the job you love and it having the effect you want it to have on people. If someone can say “I now see the world a little bit differently,” that’s success to me. I think it’s important to remember that creativity is bigger than us too, it’s a bigger energy than just a little idea that we’ve got in our mind. It belongs to the world!