The Art and Philosophy of Clowning and Jacques Lecoq’s Seven Levels of Tension

The art and philosophy of clowning


In a lifelong search for meaning, I have found the clown to be the best, all encompassing metaphor for the human condition- an uncompromising mirror to look into for glimpses of the truth. We look at the clown and see ourselves – our hopes, dreams, fears, and virtues, our flaws and our process. Clowns show us how, as a species, we get into trouble- without ever meaning or wanting to- and how we sometimes stumble onto sublime solutions to our problems. The Fool has eyes to see, and heart to recognize. Clowning isn’t something we need to learn so much as something we become aware of in ourselves. Any time that we are curious, playful, or creative, we are in clown mode. When we are in a state of wonder or awe, surprise or amazement, we are in clown. Whenever we have hunches, act on impulse, or digress- we are in clown. Whenever we have strong emotions, we are in clown. The clown lives in the place of laughing and crying at the same time. The art of clowning involves much more than the slapstick and oversized shoes of the traditional circus clown. The character of The Fool is an essential ingredient of human society- a universal archetype found in some form in all cultures and in all times. The Clown is the “puer aeternus”, the eternal child in all of us- the innocent who sees things as they really are and not as convention decrees, who can be counted on to tell us, in the loudest possible voice, that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. It is the part of us that has never grown up, that lives in the heart and in the moment, with no past to regret and future to dread- the part that only wants to play, completely free of responsibility – and yet is willing and able to save the world if necessary. The clown takes everything literally and personally, questioning everything under the sun except itself, blithely flaunting the egg on its face and the heart on its sleeve. With the best of intentions and no thought of failure, it leaps naively into danger- getting knocked down over and over but never failing to get up and try again. It is the embodiment of hope in the face of hopelessness, and possibility in the face of the impossible. It blissfully ignores the obvious and somehow convinces us of the wisdom of folly, and if, as I suspect, we are here to bear witness to the universe, the clown aspect of ourselves provides the best color commentary. Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves- “warts and all”. It offers us respite from our self-doubts and fears, and opens the door to joy. And the best part is, we are all already our clowns. They are here inside us, waiting for us to recognize them so that they can come out and play.

Jan Henderson Director-Fool Moon Productions

The Seven Levels of Tension


Jacques Lecoq developed an approach to acting using seven levels of tension. These changed and developed during his practice and have been further developed by other practitioners. The following suggestions are based on the work of Simon McBurney (Complicite), John Wright (Told by an Idiot) and Christian Darley.

There can of course be as many or as few levels of tension as you like (how long is a piece of string?). This is a guideline, to be adapted. You can train your actors by slowly moving through these states so that they become comfortable with them, then begin to explore them in scenes. The exercise can be repeated many times. Get your characters to move through states of tension in a scene. Play with them.

This is a list of names given to each level of tension, along with a suggestion of a corresponding performance style that could exist in that tension.


1 Exhausted or catatonic. The Jellyfish. There is no tension in the body at all. Begin in a complete state of relaxation. If you have to move or speak, it is a real effort. See what happens when you try to speak.


2 Laid back – the “Californian” (soap opera). Many people live at this level of tension. Everything you say is cool, relaxed, probably lacking in credibility. The casual throw-away line – “I think I’ll go to bed now”.


3 Neutral or the “Economic” (contemporary dance). It is what it is. There is nothing more, nothing less. The right amount. No past or future. You are totally present and aware. It is the state of tension before something happens. Think of a cat sitting comfortably on a wall, ready to leap up if a bird comes near. You move with no story behind your movement.


4 Alert or Curious (farce). Look at things. Sit down. Stand up. Indecision. Think M. Hulot (Jacques Tati) or Mr Bean. Levels 1 – 4 are our everyday states.


Jaques Tati – Mon Oncle (Kitchen Scene)


5 Suspense or the Reactive (19th century melodrama). Is there a bomb in the room? The crisis is about to happen. All the tension is in the body, concentrated between the eyes. An inbreath. There’s a delay to your reaction. The body reacts. John Cleese.

6 Passionate (opera). There is a bomb in the room. The tension has exploded out of the body. Anger, fear, hilarity, despair. It’s difficult to control. You walk into a room and there is a lion sitting there. There is a snake in the shower.

7 Tragic (end of King Lear when Lear is holding Cordelia in his arms). The bomb is about to go off! Body can’t move. Petrified. The body is solid tension.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s