Acting vs. Clowning

One of the purposes of this blog is differentiate comedic acting, clowning, from the acting of “legitimate” theatre. I have had a crazy curiosity about how physical comedians work, while I am completely indifferent to acting classes given by stage actors with lengthy resumes of dramatic work. The world of animated film spans the exact same territory as live action does, with short silly works that have no dialog to feature films with heartfelt performances.

Last year I saw the stage play of Moliere’s “Scapin” featuring the great Bill Irwin. While cleaning house, I found the program, and flipped through it. In the picture above, that is Bill Irwin on the left, and Geoff Hoyle on the right.  The program includes an interview by Dan Rubin. Here is a little bit that addresses just what I’m talking about.


Like a Supreme Court Justice, I know it when I see it. Some people operate at a magnitude of storytelling that is slightly different from that of a straight ahead actor who is serving a text. There’s just something about when a really terrific clown does something. It has a different depth of meaning. I hope to be able to do both, acting and clowning. I hope I haven’t lost either set of muscles – that I can be a complete team player actor one minute and something slightly different from that the next minute, depending on what’s called for.
How do you define who is an actor, and who is a clown? I don’t know except to say that the demands of the crafts are different in this way: usually clowning involves somehow acknowledging a live audience (or camera audience) somehow directly relating to them.

Charlie Chaplin did just that. He very much played to the audience/camera. Some people might say too much.  I would love to have some comments that bring up cartoon characters who also do that, playing to the camera.  Obviously Bugs Bunny and Daffy did it, were there others?

2 thoughts on “Acting vs. Clowning”

  1. I’m in the middle of this actor / clown conundrum right now. I’m playing the First Gravedigger in HAMLET in Central Park. (Not the big Public Theatre extravaganza but a small theater company off W. 77th.) For me, the lines clearly show Shakespeare writing for a clown who’s addressing the audience, sorting out with them the moral puzzle of why Ophelia, a suicide, gets a Christian burial.

    But the director saw it otherwise, wanting me to fold myself more into the team of actors and ignore the audience. Because he’s the director, I followed his vision. But – shh, don’t tell him — INSIDE I’m talkin’ to the crowd.

    • Thanks David. First hand experience like yours is invaluable. I think actors are sometimes more conscious of the audience, and sometimes less. Some immerse themselves in character and focus on relating to the other actors. Other’s project outward more. Is that what you’re saying?


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