The clown duo of Marceline Kahn and Sylvestre (Josep Ventura) created this comic act more than twenty years ago. Zaza (Didier Armbruster) joined them in 1996 under the new name of Los Excéntricos, and ‘The Singer’, a scene that appears in all their performances, hasn’t changed much since then.
Marceline: I always wanted to be a singer. I thought I could be like Janis Joplin, but I even sing ‘Happy Birthday’ out of tune.
Sylvestre: Indeed she sings badly.
Zaza: But she wanted to sing anyway...
Marceline: ...so we brought to the stage the story of a singer.
Sylvestre: It is the story of a singer accompanied by a classical musician – me – who gets more and more nervous because of her mistakes. He really wants to play correctly along with the diva, who is introduced as a more important person and so has to sing from the top of a podium. Then the third one, Zaza, apparently shares this aim, although he laughs at the other two because he knows it’s not going to work out.
We are totally this way, we really have these characters. I am the son of a watchmaker and am educated in the value of precision; things have to be well done and exact. Then in real life it’s impossible, but still I have this attitude.
Zaza: The clown plays himself. He doesn’t mock anyone else. And I’m a very bad person, seriously! I find other people’s mistakes are very funny, so when Marceline sings out of tune and Sylvestre gets anxious, it’s not a big problem for me, I simply find the situation hilarious. We clowns exaggerate our own defects.
Marceline: You have to be completely free to act this way. Clowning is a research of freedom – or at least it’s been so for me.
Maybe this is why I also wanted to use some typically feminine objects like the vacuum cleaner combined with some feminine elegance in this act. I wanted different marks of femininity to be present and played comically. So the diva, a sort of ideal woman, is in reality a simple woman who is trying to be what she wants to be very hard. She’s awkward, but also willing.
We clearly perform our own characters, we are this way and don’t think much about the classical structure of the clown trio as composed by the whiteface, the auguste and the contra-auguste. Sometimes we even change our roles throughout the different acts of a show. But we do like classical clowns. For example, the levitation of the diva, the ghost, is taken from an act by Annie Fratellini. Anyway, contrary to what the classical clowns did, we do not use a given tempo or roles for action and reaction in our sketches; rather we create situations in which we get freely involved, and then test their effectiveness with the audience. Because in the end a clown must make laughter. If we don’t hear people laughing, if we notice that heavy silence after one of our acts, we know something is wrong. We adjust our tempo along with the audience as we haven’t any artistic director. And in any case, I’m not sure the classical clowns such as Fratellini had thought much about the structure of their acts – maybe instead they performed instinctively, as we do, and analysed it after.
Sylvestre: Well, they had the whiteface, who proposed something, and then the others came to dynamite his or her intentions. Humour came from the conflict, just as in our act.
Marceline: Of course! It’s just that the times have changed. Back then the whiteface represented authority and now there are so many forms of authority that they can’t be easily represented in one single character. But in our acts the laughter comes from the conflicts between us too!
Sylvestre: Our clowns are proactive, they are willing to accomplish something, in this case playing ‘La Vie en Rose’, and they have to deal with their own failings.
Zaza: Yes, our clowns are proactive but also bad people, don’t forget about that! I am bad because I laugh at her, but you, Sylvestre, kill her!
Sylvestre: Right. I’m a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At one point I get so out of control that I turn into a monster. But she revives as a ghost, a comic phantom that overcomes the fact that she died on stage. It’s a sort of redemption and also a parody of this elegant formal world where people will strive to reach their goal at any cost.
Zaza: In the United States this act was censored at the Teatro Zinzanni in Seattle.
Sylvestre: Oh, yes, right! The audience loved ‘The Singer’, but the producers didn’t want to get into legal troubles.
Marceline: People understand the parody because it’s a clown act and as clowns we tell the truth about ourselves, but we also lie. It’s clear I don’t really die; I don’t pretend to make it realistic, so it creates a distance that allows the people to watch their own nature in a non-traumatic way. This is a second level of clowning that regular audiences perfectly understand, but not some producers who find it politically incorrect. But I think the clowns must break the rules as anti-heroes.
Sylvestre: Sure! This is the clown’s duty. We make a parody of human limitations by being the dumbest in the room. People laugh because they see their own limits reflected in someone who is sillier and more ridiculous than them.
Marceline: It is very human and I find it is a way to move ideas forward. Nowadays we admire superheroes, acrobats and trapeze artists, we have always admired them, they’re absolutely brilliant, but our interest in them is completely opposite to the interest we have for clowns. It’s a matter of distance: we admire the superheroes because they do things we common people will never reach, whereas the clown’s performance is a matter of closeness – we show people’s defects, and this can sometimes frighten them.
In our case we show violent emotions, not just pure violence or a criticism of violence. As I said, we work at the level of the conflict and the feelings incited by it. But clowns are always violent somehow – consider an audience laughing at a person who falls from a chair, for example. It has been this way since the beginning of time.
Zaza: This is different, though. In ‘The Singer’, when Marceline falls into the podium it’s an accident, a surprise, and so people laugh, but when Sylvestre kills her then they see the story is taking a bad path and they get intrigued until the situation is solved through her resurrection.
Marceline: In this act we completely break the general acceptance of female figures in theatre, cinema or shows. Women usually have to be pretty; it’s very difficult to see an ugly or badly dressed girl in a film or in an ad, and this is still the case even if this subject has been discussed thousands of times. So we wanted to present a pretty girl at the beginning of the act who finishes completely destroyed at the end. I find it very funny, because we make a parody on what women are still supposed to be or do – dress elegantly, sing well and be admired for it – when, just like me, many women don’t know how to wear a fine dress or walk with high heels or even sing in tune.
Then, of course, the subject of death goes beyond this. We have this in some other acts apart from ‘The Singer’, like in ‘The Magician’, or in a piece with a dancing skeleton marionette manipulated by Sylvestre. Because death is also a reality of life, something to be considered.
Zaza: It’s the definitive human limitation and thus an opportunity for the clown to make laughter. People don’t expect death to appear on stage, so when it comes, perhaps just for one second, half a second, or a small fraction of a second, it’s again a surprise.
Marceline: And I repeat: the clown rises after death, it’s important to mark this. And even then, I am as awkward as before, a stiff ghost.
Zaza: You said before that this trick is taken from former clowns, but also it reminds me of the film Time of the Gypsies by Emir Kusturica. Playing comically with death is a universal idea and very old.
Sylvestre: Yes... People don’t talk much about death, but then it suddenly appears and it’s absurd. It produces the same effect as all the other actions of the clown.
The extracted performance of ‘The Singer’ is taken from a showing at Le Cratère, Scène Nationale d’Alès (France) in 2008.
Marceline, Sylvestre and Zaza were interviewed 27 November 2013 by Cesc Martinez in front of the fireplace of their studio in La Floresta, Sant Cugat del Vallès, near Barcelona. Cesc Martinez is a Catalan linguist, writer and theatre reviewer. He was content coordinator of the Spanish circus magazine Zirkolika, and since 2012 has been the editor of the triple website Puppetring.com / Titeresante.es / Putxinelli.cat focused on puppetry and visual theatre.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.