It's Saturday morning, a little after 10 o'clock, and I'm standing in a circle of 14 strangers, counting with my eyes closed. I'm in class at the Manitou Art Theater, having been instructed by Courtney Cunningham to count from one to 20 with my compatriots, one person at a time, in no particular order. When any two of us say the same number at the same time, we have to start again.
Cunningham's in Manitou Springs to perform her original one-woman show, Burden of Poof, also at the MAT. In it, she plays a tragically neurotic clown, Poofy du Vey, who prances around in a pink dress.
Also part of her duties: teaching this class. It's a requirement that Jim Jackson, the theater's artistic director, has added to the duties of each act he's brought to town this year. Cunningham's is the third class in the series. Earlier this year, playwright Barry Smith, in town to perform his American Squatter show, held a writing seminar; actress Gemma Wilcox coached a class on solo performance.
When Cunningham is on-stage performing her live show to a paying crowd, it's possible that you might consider her act a bit obnoxious. She parades around in a tutu and feathered tiara, stiff and uncomfortable in her motions, unable to find anyone in the audience who is willing to kiss her.
Those kissing qualms are just a part of Cunningham's performance: She picks a man from the front row and, for the next 20 minutes, they go back and forth as Poofy tries to kiss him.
Performing such a sequence, Jackson explains, isn't as easy as one might imagine.
"Technically, it's a tough thing to do," he says. "Audience members ... tend to want to sit back and fold their arms and judge."
But Jackson says that, as a clown, Cunningham possesses the unique ability to coax people onstage. Jackson, a clown himself, says that's what makes clown performance really special: the ability to generate immediate happenstance comedy.
By asking his performers to also teach a class, he hopes to spread such skills to the local acting community. According to the brochure, Cunningham's "Comic Character Through Clown" should help me and my fellow classmates "create the seeds of a comic character."
"We're hoping the workshops will fuel people who approach us about doing their own shows here," Jackson says.
The next in the series will be taught by Jackson himself. It's about presenting yourself on stage and coincides with the next MAT show, Ten Minutes Max, in which performers have 10 minutes each to give a performance.
Clowns aren't funny
In an interview before we get started, Cunningham says I can review the class as long as I accept her stipulations:
1. I can't provide too many details. "A lot of the experience is going into the classroom and saying, "I've never heard about this before,'" she says.
2. I have to go in pretending I'm not going to write an article, so I'm "intimate with what's happening."
3. I can't take notes.
I agree. If anything, I'm intrigued by her stipulations.
Also adding to the intrigue is Cunningham's training: She calls it sacred clowning.
According to Cunningham, clowns in native cultures around the world are held in high esteem, like shamans. In these cultures, the clown's purpose is to show people how they're presenting themselves, to act as societal mirrors.
Clowning, Cunningham says, isn't about being funny.
"I'm not from that clown school of thought," she says. "People are innately funny. They just don't know how to laugh at themselves."
Cunningham explains the basic tenet of sacred clowning as using vulnerability and honesty to get people to laugh at themselves.
"When you talk about how ridiculous you are, people can relate to that," she says. "When you're admitting to being human and imperfect, people go, "Me too.'"
The first exercise after introductions is the counting. Others involve walking or running across the stage sometimes with eyes closed and, again, one at a time.
The final one has us gathered at the front of the theater. We each stand on stage, behind a chair, with our backs to our classmates. After a minute, we sit in the chair and use another minute to make eye contact with every single person in the room.
It's true that there's a magic that happens in the exercises. Clowning really seems to be about being fully aware of other people and being fully aware of how they're perceiving you.
Looking in the mirror
It's clear Cunningham uses the elements of communication and self-presentation to create her character Poofy. At one point in her performance, Poofy gives an audience member a to-do list and asks her to read it. Poofy, in turn, does whatever the audience member asks her to.
The woman Poofy chooses sounds demanding, like a stern teacher. Later, Poofy picks another woman out of the audience to dance with her on stage. And, of course, there's the fellow from the kissing scenario.
It turns out she plucks the perfect participant for each role. There's a simple guide to her selections: If a person has his or her arms crossed, she doesn't pick them.
"I don't want to embarrass someone," she says. "Ultimately, I'm looking for someone who'll play with me."
That honesty comes into Poofy's character. There's something wonderful about how neurotic she is. A recurring item on the to-do list is to kiss someone. As with many people, Poofy's neurosis revolves around her love life.
During class, when I sit on the chair, Cunningham and my classmates peg me perfectly.
"You think too much," Cunningham observes.
"I wanted you to breathe," a classmate offers.
"You're so self-conscious," points out another (albeit kindly).
I'd have been mortified, had I not just seen these people run around barefoot with their eyes closed. Instead, I felt comfortable with myself, on stage and off. And for Cunningham and Jackson, that's exactly the point.
Masters at the MAT: Workshops for the Creatively Curious
Manitou Art Theater, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs
Saturdays (Feb. 16, March 15, April 19, April 26), 10 a.m. to noon.
Tickets: $30; call 685-4729 or visit themat.org for information and special promotions.