Coaching in the moment

Modelling improvisational clowning
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Table of Contents

Part 1: Background – How we got here

The history of our interest in this topic can be traced to a ‘how to become a clown’ course recommended to Penny by Carol Thompson. Her description sounded so interesting that last year Marian Way and Penny attended a 5-day introduction called The Courage to Be presented by clown Vivian Gladwell of Nose to Nose. This is not pie-in-the-face, circus clowning, but rather about participants discovering and portraying their own ‘clown within’ through improvisation.

Marian and Penny loved the clowning and they were also intrigued with how Vivian directed, coached and facilitated people in real time while they were on stage learning to clown. Two things resulted: Marian decided to model Vivian’s general approach to facilitating people to learn clowning, while Penny decided to focus on Vivian’s real-time ‘in-the-moment directing’. So in true Penny fashion, James was ‘persuaded’ (along with Phil Swallow) to attend a two-day Introduction to Clowning course. (Just for fun, take a moment to imagine James with a red nose on!)

Apart from observing Vivian during the course, he kindly agreed to be interviewed (by Marian with us present) so we could get more idea of what went on ‘behind the scenes’ in Vivian’s mind.

As a result, we created a prototype model of Vivian’s ‘In-the-Moment Directing’ which we adapted to training/learning applications other than clowning — starting with developing Symbolic Modelling skills. We have trialed our model at two West Country Clean Language Practice Groups, and presented it at The Developing Group. The group had a chance to experience it for themselves and to get feedback on the model we are creating.

To summerise the modelling process we went through involved:

  1. Being facilitated by Vivian and observing others being facilitated by him.
  2. Interviewing Vivian using Clean Language (conducted by Marian Way).
  3. Analysing of our memory and notes of (1), and an analysis of the transcript of (2).
  4. Creating a prototype model of Vivian ‘directing in the moment’ (in conjunction with Marian).
  5. Creating a prototype model for ‘directing a Symbolic Modelling session in the moment’
  6. Testing (4) on ourselves with Carol, Marian & Phil.
  7. Testing (5) at two practice groups.
  8. Modifying models as a result of (6) and (7)
  9. Presenting results to the Developing Group.
Part 2: Our model of Vivian Gladwell’s directing in-the-moment

What is clowning?

In Vivian’s words (with our emphasis and repeating metaphors highlighted), clowning is:

Inviting pleasure [through] a joyful tension between fiction and reality — and it should get mixed up. The heart of clowning is [portraying the] in and out of things at the same time, without negating the fiction we know we are in.

It is easy to mistake the form [of clowning] for what it’s about. Clowning relies on something happening but [really it’s about the] relationship between clown and audience. What people do on stage is not what it’s about. Jacques Lecoq in the ‘70s put a nose on a student and said “Make us laugh”. It didn’t work. The student looked dejected and people started laughing. That’s a clue to what’s at the heart of clowning. It’s how we feel about what’s happening. The student was desperate, but kept trying. Only when he showed despair did people laugh — when he became authentic and emotionally transparent.

[Clowning is] an opportunity for transparency — an opportunity to get to it. [Usually] we don’t acknowledge how we feel because [we think] it negates what we are trying to do, [or our] image of what should be. More interesting is to show how desperate we are in being who we are.

Our model

We have divided our model of Vivian’s way of ‘directing/coaching a person to learn to clown in real time’ into its external and internal aspects.


Interventions (almost always):

Are very short instructions or statements
Are simple and unambiguous
Are about behaviour
Are encouraging
Are within the logic of the current or a previously enacted scene
Name what’s happening
Give the clown somewhere to go by making an “invitation” or “offer”
Reveal a bigger picture
Direct attention to the dramatic/problematic/comic
Amplify a small aspect of behaviour or the scene
Acknowledge the clown’s difficulty or struggle (but do not rescue)
Don’t interrupt the process
Never negate what’s happening

Examples of general interventions

Yes, yes
Stay there
Stay with it
Keep it going
Do more of that (or just “More”)
Make it bigger
And again
Look at us/them (other clowns)
Tell us
Show us
Express it
You’ve seen something
What is it?
What’s around you?

Examples related to a specific performance

[Clown looking out of window] What do you see out the window?
Describe what you’ve seen/what you’re doing.
Be what you see.
You’re hot.
You look lost.
His world is getting smaller.
He’s sad. What does he want?
He can’t fit it into his pocket.
He can’t reach the light.
We want to see you; let us see your face.
That’s right, you can’t hold them all.
That’s right, it’s all yours.
It’s hanging down. [An unnoticed piece of string]
It’s alive.
What’s under the cushion?
What are you going to do with the rest of the hats?

From observation and second position modelling we think:

Vivian’s ‘default’ attention is out on stage with a wide focus which zooms in on potential details.

In his peripheral vision/ear/feeling he is monitoring the audience for engagement, laughter, response and ‘transgressions’. [A ‘transgression’ is when the audience feels a certain kind of discomfort at, say, the clown being unkind, or damaging living things or someone else’s property.]

Often part of his body will mirror what the clown is doing (e.g. his hand mirroring a clown stroking a piece of cloth).


Ambiguity and multiple perspectives

While reviewing our notes of Marian’s interview with Vivian we noticed an interesting pattern in his language that we think says something about his approach to getting people to learn to clown.

Vivian seems to maintain an awareness of simultaneous multiple interlocking
relationships and we think this is displayed through the ambiguity around who’s perspective he is describing. For example, when he says “At the beginning is a lot of anxiety and fear” is he referring to the (trainee) clown, to himself or to the audience? And when he speaks from first person “My invisible presence is my relationship to that
space and what people are experiencing,” is he in the role of performer, audience or facilitator?

When he does specify who his comments are about, he often moves freely between at least two perspectives and roles. This ambiguity and the free-flowing changes in perceiver, we believe, are part of what makes him such a great facilitator. In fact, it is part of his attitude to life: “I’m mistrustful of too much certitude.”

In our effort to honour his ambiguity while creating some categories of experience that together provide a model of Vivian’s facilitation, we sometimes quote the same words as examples of different categories in the descriptions given below.

It is important to mention that our modelling (including Marian’s questions) focussed on Vivian when he facilitates a trainee clown while they are clowning. There are many other aspects to what he does — such as exercise design and delivery, facilitating post-performance feedback sessions, etc. — that are not included in our model.

Five Relationships

Below are Vivian’s own words categorised by the relationships we think Vivian is simultaneously monitoring:

1. Clown with audience
2. Clown with self
3. Vivian with clown
4. Vivian with audience
5. Vivian with self
Plus some of his general beliefs.

1. Clown with Audience

My sensitivity to how people are in the relationship [to the audience] guides what I say when people are on stage. Being present to each other. I say “Look at us” when people come on stage. The process happens in the flow between all of us. Looking to see the audience is a holding.

What we most fear — that is what we want to see in clowning. Our instincts make us go the other way [but the clown] lives the images – the audience wants to see them! [For example] if [a trainee clown] is being an egg, and they s“It’s getting hot in here” they think “I don’t want to be boiled” and they move away. Of course an egg doesn’t want to be boiled… but that is what we want to see. The improv demands that the egg should be boiled. You don’t have to like it. You can protest and scream but you cannot move away from the images being offered. You have to live them. It’s a promise. There’s an audience. What a joy to see an egg being boiled!

When [the audience] aren’t listening [and seeing] it will be a difficult improv.

2. Clown with self

[As a clown] You don’t have to like it. You can protest and scream but you cannot move away from the images being offered. You have to live them.

[A clown] acknowledges [a discomfort, difficulty or problem] and plays with it,then it moves beyond. We need to be able to name [i.e. portray] things before we come to terms with them.

[Clowning is] being in the presence of something without judging it. It’s no good with ‘shoulds’.

The struggle [of the clown] is what clowning is about.

One key experience in clowning is connecting to emptiness and failure — to go to a place of emptiness with no aim and not rejecting anything.

In clowning you should live with the consequences of everything said and done. Live fully with consequences of your words and actions. [JL: Is this a form of clowning Karma?]

If you don’t deal with [something] beforehand you have to deal with it on stage.

People [can] have a sense that they didn’t do anything but it worked.

3. Vivian with Clown

I establish learning not by giving out facts to learn, but making a space safe — with warmth in a group. The process is carried with not just structure, but warmth. You learn more from trust that people have in sharing difficulties so they become an open reference. My role as facilitator ties in with making sure the space is safe.

My presence is when someone is improvising on stage. My invisible presence is my relationship to that space and what people are experiencing. Being in the presence of something without judging it. It’s no good with ‘shoulds’.

The person comes in. It’s the first time we see the person. There is magic with the nose. The first thing is looking and establishing the limits. I sense [if] the person is carrying [something] mysterious. I see their eyes. You know whether they have an idea. I’m trying to hold [them] — making sure it doesn’t go too quickly. The first few minutes are [for] acknowledging and receiving. My concern is it doesn’t happen too quickly [that they are] just receiving the world. I get a sense of enjoyment and pleasure [that they are] receiving the world.

I am watching people on stage when they are present to us and themselves. I will never tire of that magical moment. When it is working it’s there. Then it’s about holding, because people go too quickly out of that stage into doing. I say “Stay there, just stay there and look at us.” A tension rises in the room — the openness in the world you are asking for is something that catches your attention, that calls you. I am constantly looking out for this in the improv. If they see the chair and look away, I point out to them they have seen something. Everything calls out from that. The next step, you can’t ignore it. The next step is the chair. It isn’t planned, but you have to acknowledge the chair is present now.

At first we try not to be too present. I don’t feel I am ever absent. I’m holding the space. ‘Caring doesn’t bring anything new into life, but holds what’s already present.’ It ties in with warmth. You’re there, looking, and looking is holding. Holding is the heart of what clowning [and clown facilitation] is about.

I accompany someone through the process.

There are moments I don’t intervene at all — usually at the beginning. As it goes on [there is] more structure and interference.

A great danger is a wish to rescue people. You watch them struggle and you know that the struggle is what clowning is about. You have to judge whether a level of discomfort is so overwhelming they can’t cope with it. There can be a danger how much people reveal of themselves. It’s tempting to rescue. How long do you let it go on? If you rescue them, then you are not allowing them to go to the space where nothing happens. My intervention is not to rescue. Usually we don’t rescue
unless there is physical danger.

I intervene to protect that space. I do that by making [the clown] aware of the discomfort they are feeling. [If they can] acknowledge and play with it, then it moves beyond.

You don’t ask people how they feel on stage. [The audience should be able to] interpret it.

Your role is to keep the space safe. It ties in with the warmth. The space is safe in many different ways, [e.g.] Physical. Don’t hurt yourself or others, and don’t break anything.

When that is looked after, making sure people are seen. I think the most painful for people is not to be seen. If the space is safe people are seen and people see each other. I know when people aren’t listening it will be a difficult improv. I have warning lights and an alarm bell — if I don’t intervene then the improv will be painful to watch and painful for the [clown]. I’m equally responsible for both aspects.

Reminding people the sort of problems and traps they inadvertently get into and out of. In life we might backtrack but in clowning you should live with the consequences of everything said and done — live fully with consequences of words and actions. That may require me reminding them of what they have said and done. e.g. “Remember there are crocodiles in the river”. It would be very boring if there were no crocodiles in the river.

4. Vivian with Audience

At the beginning is a lot of anxiety and fear. My role is to be sure everyone is ok. The audience is a sounding box and needs to be fully present. I make sure safety happens by the audience respecting rules and what’s going to happen. I look at the audience and sense [their reactions].

I’m talking about the relationship [of the audience and clown] and making sure it’s not dysfunctional — that we are all present to the process. It’s a conviction I am totally convinced about.

I check in with the audience to see how they are responding. Are they gripped?

I’m aware of [the audience], even when I’m not looking at them. I carry that sense, not consciously. I have a feeling and I know when it’s wrong [for the audience]. Sometimes I don’t know what’s wrong ’til later — sometimes weeks or months later. I work by carrying a sense that it has to be ok in the audience for it to be ok on stage. If something is not going well in the audience it’s going to be difficult on stage.

I know [the audience] has to feel ok. I don’t know [how I know but] I know when it’s not ok — [if] people are talking [or there is an] unresolved matter in the air. I have an alarm bell — if I don’t intervene then the improv will be painful to watch and painful for the [clown]. I’m equally responsible for both aspects.

5. Vivian with self

I’m always present. I feel it as a sense of excitement. I’m not distracted by other thoughts in my head. A general sense of well-being, being in the process, in a sense of expectation. I joke to make things light. If you take this work too seriously it can destroy it.

I feel it [the excitement] is everywhere. The group.The person getting ready.

I’m holding the whole process. When I feel someone’s not in it, when I feel someone is withdrawing from the process, it’s quite painful.

When someone in the group doesn’t like me I’m completely thrown off course and often I have to [resolve] it to be able to continue.

I know someone might not get over the process. I carry that. [Where?] outside of me. Not very far beyond the room, encompassing the group.

I am very sensitive to polarities [e.g. Clowning is:

– a bringing together and a distancing process
– in and out of things at the same time
– a joyful tension between fiction and reality.

Everything about my body reveals what I am feeling. I would be worried by a facilitator who didn’t betray anything of what they were feeling while the improv was going on.

Missed opportunities for transparency, opportunities to get to it [are brought to the feedback session].

General Beliefs

I believe who we become is largely how we are seen, especially when we start life. Eye contact is what makes that child. What is it when you are not looking? One of the greatest tragedies (as a child) is when you are not seen.

Just to be seen is a big, big thing. Just being seen is so, so important. Clowning reveals that.

I am touched by how some people’s tragedy can be totally invisible to you. There are questions I carry about how sensitive are we to others.

At heart you practice principles of allowing people to become themselves. [That] makes people trust life – then they can open to other experiences.

If the purpose of life is about becoming fully ourselves — a lot [of time] is spent in the opposite direction.

I’m mistrustful of too much certitude.

I’m a great believer in mistakes and how we welcome and acknowledge what
goes wrong. How I acknowledge joyfully how something can go safely wrong. How people can misunderstand. I’m interested in how people can misunderstand games. If you try and get things right, you’re stuck. I love the creativity in getting things wrong.

It goes to the very heart of how I fall in love. I believe in being very sensitive to who is seeing — am I seen. There’s something around being seen with good will – a warmth around.

It’s difficult for us to believe it’s enough for us to just be here in this world. It’s other people who have to tell you that.

Part 3: Explanation using Systems Theory

Our Thesis

Vivian has acquired a knowledge of a pattern called ‘Clowning’. This particular form of clowning can involve a considerable range of behaviours. The common characteristic is that they invoke or maintain a clowning relationship with the audience.

Vivian has acquired his knowledge of clowning by long experience of observing what he and others do and by noticing what works, i.e. by seeing enough examples of the effects of clowning that he can now detect a behaviour that is likely to promote the clowning relationship. This acquisition must have been a reflective process as the effects can only be known after the behaviour. In the case of clowning the effects happen within seconds in the audience reaction, or minutes in a potential situation unfolding.

As a clown coach, Vivian makes ‘offers’ to the clown on stage with the aim of encouraging those behaviours that match the pattern (“Make it bigger”) or that have the potential for matching the pattern (“Become what you see”).

A TOTE (Ref. Dilts) is a kind of “difference engine” (Ref. Minsky) that relies on noticing a gap or incongruity between the goal and the present state. Whereas Vivian appears to use a matching process that notices the goal existing in a small way in the present state, or the potential for the goal in the present state/behaviour.

A ‘difference engine’ involves a sustaining (negative) feedback loop which reduces a gap by either returning things to a norm or achieving a new desired outcome. For instance, “We’re moving away from where we need to be so let’s go back” and “We’re not where we need to be, so let’s go forward” are both examples of a negative feedback loop in operation. Using negative feedback is a top-down approach because although you may not know what you need to do to get somewhere, the desired result is known in advance.

On the other hand a ‘matching engine’ involves an escalating (positive) feedback loop which results in more (or less) of something, hence widening the gap with the original state. For example, ”I’m enjoying this walk so let’s keep going”. Using positive feedback is a more

bottom-up approach because although you know you’re going to keep doingna class of behaviour, you don’t know where it will take you. (And, if you do it enough, you will eventually cross a threshold into a qualitatively different world.)

One way to conceive of what is happening in the clowning acquisition process facilitated by Vivian is to consider it as a Darwinian selection process (Ref. Dennett).

All Darwinian processes need:

  • A reproductive/copying mechanism

  • Some variability in that process (this creates novelty)

  • More offspring than are necessary (this provides a selectional pressure: those with the ‘best fit’ survive to reproduce the most offspring)

The above can be translated into a clown acquisition process:

  • The clown’s conscious and unconscious memory is the copying mechanism which reproduces clowning behaviour.
  • Memory is not perfect and the environment will be different, both of which provide an element of chance and hence newness.
  • Clowns have access to many more behaviours than the few that actually get selected. Vivian’s offers determine ‘best fit’ and so these behaviours get copied most often. This means more of them survive during the performance and via the clown’s memory, more survive in future performances. When the clown utilises these offers, they eliminate other behaviours or options.

Vivian’s offers provide a selectional pressure in a number of ways:

  • He’s the expert
  • Clowns soon get the message that accepting his offers helps. [And believe us, when you’re on stage they are a Godsend.]
  • The clown and other participants see that his offers work.

Other selection pressures come from the desire of the clown to do well and the reaction of the audience.

What determines best-fit is the model in Vivian’s neurology of ‘What clowning is’. Remember, this is not a model of behaviour but of the class of behaviours which establish and maintain the clowning relationship with the audience. And, as the clown selects more behaviours that match the model, so they themselves develop a model of ‘How to clown’. Then they can apply their own selection process and establish their own self-sustaining (positive) feedback loop with the
audience’s reaction.

In summary, trainee clowns learn to internalise Vivian’s decision-making model.

This approach will not be suitable for learning all activities, but it should be suitable for those skills that require continually choosing from lots of options while responding to feedback in the moment.


Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1996).

Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, (2000)

Marvin Minsky, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (2006).

Part 4. Adapted model for coaching Symbolic Modelling in-the-moment

While we admired Vivian’s bottom-up approach to learning to clown, we also saw how a similar model could be used in the development of Symbolic Modelling skills.

Parallels between clowning and Symbolic Modelling:

Scene created by clownClient’s metaphor landscape
Audience’s reactionClient’s reaction to their metaphor landscape

Two applications came easily to mind:

To give a novice Symbolic Modeller a chance to experience how the process flows and unfolds from the position of facilitator (rather than observer of a demonstration).

To give more experienced Symbolic Modellers the opportunity to experience how someone else, equally experienced, manages the process. We would expect this would encourage the facilitator to notice their own patterns of facilitation and to enjoy the benefits of doing it someone else’s way.

Both of these applications involve a Director/Coach giving offers to the Facilitator who is working with a Client.

Your aim as director is:

To offer the facilitator a place to go. Your purpose is to guide them to facilitate the client to attend to somewhere in their Landscape. It is not to tell the facilitator what question to ask or to do the process for them. It is to coach the facilitator by directing their attention.

To insert comments in such a way that the facilitation is continuous and the facilitator maintains attention on the flow of the client’s information (and not on you). If a physical intervention is appropriate (e.g. encouraging the facilitator to sit back) it needs to cause minimal disruption to the client-facilitator process. In the version of the model where the facilitator does not know when or how often the director will make a comment (so they will need to be considering their own direction in case none is given.) The timing of your intervention is particularly important.

To take into account the facilitator’s training and experience so that the director’s comments are in the facilitator’s “zone of proximal development”, i.e. within their next step (e.g. Where are they on the Dreyfus’ ‘Novice to Expert’ model?). Therefore do not use jargon that the facilitator is not familiar with.

To give direction so that the facilitator does not have to think (much) about what they need to do to accept your offer. Watch out for ambiguity, e.g. client says “I want to trust more”, director comments “Develop more”!!

To monitor your rapport with the facilitator; and the facilitator’s rapport with the client; and the client’s rapport with their metaphor landscape. Body matching may help at times, but not too much as you need to keep a good proportion of your attention outside the client-facilitator process. Remember Vivian says: “Your role is to keep the space safe … for everyone”.

Not to praise, correct or give the facilitator the right thing to do. It is to give their system a chance to experience following a different path (e.g. saying ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘Keep going’ carry less judgement that ‘Good’.).

Not to foster dependence on the director. This is particularly so in the version of the model where the director makes interventions every time the client finishes processing. Do not give the facilitator specific questions to ask so they will have to make a choice about how to implement your offer. On the other hand, it is not a quiz and the facilitator should not be trying to guess what is in your head; therefore saying “Specialist Question” is not that helpful because this gives the facilitator too many options to pick from.

Not to rescue the facilitator or make the process more efficient or to give the client a good experience. It is for the facilitator to learn about the process, how they facilitate, and to experience a different way to facilitate. For example, facilitator turns to you as director and says “I need help”, rather than reply “ Ask what would you like to have happen?”, say “Pick something and keep going”.

Not to provide interpretations, e.g. “Bring him out, he’s getting lost in it.”

Initial Placement

It is probably best not to sit in the eye-line of the facilitator as they may be inclined to look at you. You could ask the facilitator where they would like you to sit. However you need to focus on the facilitator-client process, and this may be best done by looking at the facilitator and client from the side. Even though this process is a supervisory/training process and not primarily for the client, you may have to take into account the lines-of-sight of the client when deciding where to sit. So, some negotiation may be necessary.

Clean Directing

The purpose of directing is for the facilitator to pay attention to something and then to do something (e.g. ask a question) related to where their attention has been, e.g.:

Stay with …
(Your question wasn’t answered.) Ask it again.
Slow down.
Look at the symbol / their space.
There’s a problem / remedy / outcome / resource.
That’s a metaphor / Necessary Condition.
That’s [or client’s words] a concept / relationship / feeling.
Now there’s a change.
Keep developing [client’s words].
Develop that …
Go for that attribute (or client’s word).
Pay attention to that …
Ask the symbol.
Where is it?
Location …
Locate it.
How does that affect [symbol name]?
Pull back / Move time back.
Relate to their outcome.
Let’s get a sequence.
[Repeat implicit metaphor]
Ask its intention
Go back to …
[Nonverbal, e.g. Sh-h-h-h or Finger to lips = don’t interrupt.]
Go for the [nonverbal] movement.
Bring it to a close.
[Repeat client’s words (marking out some with emphasis)] .

Example of an intervention:

Facilitator: And what would you like to have happen?

Client: I’d like to revisit a really calm place I haven’t visited for a while.

Facilitator: [Reflects back.]

Director: “Place”

Facilitator: And is there anything else about that really calm place?

Client It seems like a really long way away right now.

Director: Stay with location.

Facilitator: And whereabouts is that place when it’s a really long way away right now?

Client: Over there [gestures] and I don’t know why I don’t go there more often.

Director: Stay “over there” [gestures].

Facilitator: And what kind of place is that place over there?

Client: It’s where I need to be, but something stops me.

Director: Locate “something”.

Facilitator And whereabouts is that something that stops you?

Client: In the middle of my chest [touches chest]. At my core.

Director: Develop what’s there.

Director’s comments during one 10-minute facilitator-client practice session
(where offers were given intermittently):

Shorten question
“Coming through intellect”
Stay with whole metaphor
Intention of “colander”
Develop “missing ingredient”
Yes, yes.
Keep tracking back.
“Two streams come together”
Yes, yes.
Draw this to a close.

Director’s comments during another facilitator-client practice session:

Develop that symbol
Relate to original outcome
Move time forward
Mature it
Move time forward
Recap and bring in the body

These notes were first presented at The Developing Group, 6 October 2007.

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