Don’t Sell Your Pain, Sell Your Pleasure

Phillipe Gualier

Having done a post on Sacha Baron Cohen, possibly the best clown on our big screens today, of course I could not let another day pass without presenting you with a little lecture about acting from legendary teacher, Phillipe Gualier. Their connection is explained in this article from 2001, at the height of Ali G, which is still the name that first pops into my head when I think of Cohen.

What I most admire about Gualier is this idea of play and imagination. It is telling that he says in this clip that the English are boring. Most acting schools in England are based on a Stanislavskian method of realism or naturalism that forces you to identify your own painful experiences in life in order to use them on stage and give a more realistic performance. I don’t think that the clown is all that different, in many ways it is more difficult to get in touch with the clown because we are so used to thinking of acting as a serious business, and having to prove our worth through it that we forget what playing for fun is. We forget that risks don’t necessarily come at the expense of feelings, but for the enjoyment of the spectator. This is where imagination meets fun and pushing the creative juices through the proverbial straw and it comes out of your nose because you are laughing so hard. It hurts, but there’s nothing quite so spectacular.

Wikipedia explains the man in a few words that may prove to be a useful insight.

Philippe Gaulier (born in Paris, 4 March 1943) is a French master clown, pedagogue, and professor of theatre. He is the founder of École Philippe Gaulier, a prestigious French clown school in Etampes, outside Paris. He studied under Jacques Lecoq in the mid 1960s and was an instructor at École Jacques Lecoq in the late 1970s. As well as performing as a clown, he is also a playwright and director. He has published The Tormentor (Le Gégèneur), a book discussing his thoughts on the theatre and containing exercises designed to develop an actor’s skill.

Gaulier is known for performing both clown and bouffon comic genres and is thought by some to be the world’s leading authority on the Bouffon, a comic genre he holds as a sort of inverted Clown, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm.

Approach to training

Gaulier’s methology of teaching is designed to allow the student to discover his own beauty and the pleasure of being on stage. For example, with clown, he helps students uncover their own clown. There are philosophical principles involved, but his training is not mired in technicalities. “I don’t teach a special style; what I teach more is a wonderful spirit. People have to find a way of being beautiful and surprising.” By beauty he means “anyone in the grip of pleasure or freedom”.

In this, his approach notably differs from that of his teacher, the famous late master ‘bouffon’ Jacques Lecoq, who some criticised as being overly doctrinaire. “You can always tell a Lecoq student,” Gaulier states. “Too much emphasis on image.”[1]

Philippe Gaulier’s way into acting (i.e. he also teaches Shakespeare, Chekhov, Melodrama, Farce) is also thoroughly grounded in the principle of Le Jeu – ‘the game’.


According to Gaulier, Bouffon is a genre which originated with the ‘Ugly People’ of France during the French Renaissance. Gaulier said excessively ugly people, lepers, and those with disfiguring scars or deformities were “banished to the swamp.” The exception was during festivals, when the bouffon (or ugly people) were expected to entertain the ‘beautiful people’.

During these performances, the bouffon’s goal was to get away with insulting or disgusting the beautiful people as much as possible. Typically, the bouffon would target their attack on the leaders within the mainstream of society, such as the Government or the Church.

The ideal performance for a bouffon would be one where the audience is wildly entertained, go home, realize that their lives are meaningless and commit suicide. This of course is an theoretic fantasy rather than a plausible outcome.

His teachings, similar to Lecoq, work on a ‘Via Negativa‘ approach wherein he encourages students to find the most successful performance outcome for themselves, by harshly rejecting their technique or creative ideas with insults if he considers the concept to be ‘rubbish‘.

École Philippe Gaulier

Founded in 1980, the École Philippe Gaulier is a theatre workshop based around play or ‘Le Jeu’ being the core of making and performing theatre and promotes the theory that acting is a child’s game played with great pleasure and dexterity that forms a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination.

In 1991, the Arts Council England persuaded Gaulier to move the École Philippe Gaulier to the UK where it was based for eleven years until 2002. In 2005 it reopened back in Sceaux, Hauts-de-Seine until 2011 when it moved again, this time to Étampes which opened there in summer 2011. Former students at the school include the theatre director Simon McBurney, whose company Theatre de Complicite has been influenced by Gaulier’s work, and the actors Emma Thompson, Marcello Magni, Kathryn Hunter, Cal McCrystal and Sacha Baron Cohen.


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