An Actor’s Disgrace – The Worst Clown in the World

an actor's disgrace

The Worst Clown in The World – An Actor’s Disgrace

Drama school is a place to learn, to experience. To push your boundaries. It is, and it can be excruciatingly painful for the actor… and his or her colleagues.

We’ll get to drama school dancing another time, for now I’ll concentrate on what was undoubtedly an embarrassment to and for clowns.

Wind back. Working as a commis chef in a Michelin starred restaurant in Kent, I began auditioning for drama schools. Got in, arrived full of anticipation.

Milling around and meeting my fellow students for the first time we were all reaching for the stars. We knew, just knew our names would be known, spoken in hushed tones. People would be awestruck. Taken aback by the sheer level of innovative talent we possessed. 

Before all that adulation could enter our world, our introduction to the world of performance outside drama school would be Theatre In Education.

Oh yes, we were going to take a play on the road and perform at schools throughout North London. The glamour!

Tony Chestnut

We were assigned a working actor to help us in the production. He would direct and get us performance ready. His first job? Explain the play and assign us roles. I say explain the play, he gave us the characters and let us improvise the play ourselves. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember the story, or many of the other characters. My brain froze when he mentioned a clown.

“Please don’t make me the clown!”

“Please don’t make me the clown!”

“Please don’t make me the clown!”

Yep, he uttered the words I dreaded, “Simon, you’ll be the clown.”

“Fucking great!” I thought.

“He’s called Tony Chestnut. As in Toe, Knee, Chest, Nut (head). We’ll get some mileage out of that name.”

“Yeah, sure we will. The gift that keeps on giving.” I thought.

So my entry into the world of clowning on stage began. Preparation involved learning tricks with a bowler hat, and to my horror, slapstick.

The original?

Anyone who has ever, or will ever perform any slapstick has my deep admiration.

It’s tough to block out.

Tough to hit the precision required.

Challenging to give a performance while doing so.

And so, Tony Chestnut was born.

A name which will haunt me to my grave and beyond.

Now. I’m not sure of the history, but in actor parlance, I ‘gave’ my Tony Chestnut in the late 80s. A google search for Tony Chestnut (to see whether others had the horror inflicted on them) brought me to a whole world of Tony Chestnut.

Who knew?

Was I the original Tony Chestnut? The Sean Connery of the Tony Chestnut world if you like?

Further research takes me into a rabbit warren of terror.

Tony Chestnut 

I’m pleased that Tony Chestnut has become a force for good. Thank you Learning Station.

Anyway, back to my unfolding nightmare.

Rehearsals, hat tricks and the nagging feeling of discomfort which wouldn’t leave my soul. My fellow cast could smell it, and as any actor knows, that’s a dangerous place to be. An actor’s disgrace.

Slapstick is reliant on the performer, but also their fellow actors. Precision is key throughout. And precision requires commitment to the performance by everyone involved.

As a clown, I was a committed straight man. Sometimes that will work. For me, not so much.

Rehearsals found me trying to hit the props and timing precisely (and failing) to the sound of tumbleweed.

Whilst the precision improved and the audience were more appreciative as we toured. For me this was a fish out of water experience.

What's the Point?

There’s a point to this story – select your roles carefully.

If parts are selected for you the experience can be minimising for you and the audience. Acting is the connection between emotional and physical. If the connection is weak or broken the performance and audience experience is diminished.

The irony in this story is the professional actor who assigned me this role left me with some advice at the end studies. 

“Simon,” he said, “As an actor find a niche, a natural place for you. Work the niche as you develop and gradually move out of it. That’s the best way to success.”

I never clowned professionally again. 

From this side the experience I can thank Tony Chestnut – he taught me some valuable lessons. Lessons that I can pass onto you.

My hope is that the school audiences were not left too traumatised.

For me… well, some dark, stormy nights Tony Chestnut (the Sean Connery issue) will haunt me. He has a manic laugh and a cruel streak. An actor’s disgrace.

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