A Master of his Art

by Caspar Schjelbred30/10/2018

 min reading time

My fore­word to Ira Seidenstein’s book Clown Secret – you can order it via your loc­al book­store or on amazon.

A Master of His Art

The first time I met Ira was in spring 2008 at La Fourmi, a café situ­ated right on the edge of Montmartre and the more main­stream ninth arron­disse­ment of Paris. We had e‑mailed briefly the day before. I was curi­ous about what he had sug­ges­ted to us at the Improfessionals, the impro­visa­tion­al theatre com­pany I was part of: a pot­pourri of work­shops on phys­ic­al act­ing, slap­stick and clown. 

I hardly knew any­thing about either of those things then. But there was some­thing about the way Ira presen­ted his work on his web site that intrigued me. It was very upfront. Not someone try­ing to sell him­self. Here was real intel­lec­tu­al and thought pro­vok­ing con­tent clearly based on a long and var­ied career. 

Within a minute from sit­ting down with Ira at the café I had a strong impres­sion that I was in front of a man who really knew what he was talk­ing about. Like for real. And those are two words that are worth emphas­ising when it comes to Ira and his work: for real. 

I can not remem­ber what we talked about. He most cer­tainly asked me more ques­tions than I asked of him. We must have talked about impro­visa­tion. I thought I knew some­thing about it. Which I did. But a week or so later, after a first intro­duct­ory work­shop with Ira, I clearly under­stood that know­ing about some­thing is not at all the same as know­ing it.

In that short three-hour ses­sion my mind reached down and touched base. It was like stand­ing on sol­id ground after being at sea. I finally knew what impro­visa­tion was. Ira spelled it out: make a pause, and in that pause there is a bin­ary choice. Either con­tin­ue what you were doing or make an adjust­ment. It’s one or the other.

That blew my mind. It was so incred­ibly simple and obvi­ous. No one else had told me that before. None of the act­ing or impro­visa­tion teach­ers I had met. Nor was it writ­ten in any of the many books on impro­visa­tion­al theatre I had read. I sur­mised that either they did not know it or they did not care to explain it – and I did not know which was worse. 

At any rate, I knew for sure that this Ira Seidenstein knew some­thing fun­da­ment­al. I felt cer­tain that he was teach­ing us some­thing he really knew. There was no pre­tend­ing. No mys­ti­fic­a­tion. No para­dox­ic­al teach­ing. No bull­shit. Here was someone who laid all the cards on the table right from the start. Someone who cared about what was true. Here was someone I could trust.

I fol­lowed my intu­ition that I needed to learn more from this man. And so I began organ­ising work­shops for him in Paris whenev­er the occa­sion arose. I still had no idea what I was in for or who I was work­ing with. All I knew was: he knows more than I do and there is some­thing very spe­cial about the way he works. 

It was not until January 2010, at the end of the first Quantum Clown Residency in Brisbane, that I under­stood why I had inves­ted myself in Ira’s work and indeed gone all the way to Australia on the oth­er side of the plan­et to attend a prop­er three-week work­shop with him. It was to hon­our my own cre­ativ­ity. As simple as that. As dif­fi­cult as that.

For what does it actu­ally mean to hon­our one’s own cre­ativ­ity? It is some­thing that goes way bey­ond and deep­er than simply being cre­at­ive. Coming up with stuff is not enough. Resolving prob­lems is not evolving. Not as a human being. What I have come to under­stand after ten years of invest­ment in Ira’s work is that hon­our­ing my own cre­ativ­ity means cre­at­ing – or recre­at­ing – myself. It means becom­ing whole. Not being whole (holy), but becom­ing whole, and as such, being of a piece, being of the world, being wholly in the world as it is, being as one is becom­ing in the world.

I remem­ber those sum­mer morn­ings in West End, Brisbane, 2010. The early light, the exot­ic sounds, the warm and humid air, the unusu­al smells. But most of all the feel­ing that I did not want to get out of bed and go to the work­shop. I was afraid. Each and every morn­ing. Because I knew that once I stepped into that space there would be noth­ing to hide behind. Or at least there would be no point in try­ing to. Because Ira sees everything. Nothing in the work­space escapes him. 

For those of us used to main­tain­ing our façades it is very destabil­ising when someone sees right through them all. I was cer­tainly not used to being truly seen. Well of course! When I had nev­er actu­ally shown myself except by chance or mis­take. I had a very clear feel­ing of being at a threshold. I pat­ently knew that there was only one way to go. Forward. I had to get up there and stand before the eyes of the world with noth­ing but myself. I had to face myself. I did not want to. But I did it any­way. Every day.

I returned to Brisbane in January the next four years and Ira would come to Paris once or twice per year. I had begun prac­tising his exer­cises reg­u­larly and even­tu­ally cre­ated my own solo show to try it out in pub­lic. It was dur­ing that peri­od he became my ment­or. Today I am proud to be his main asso­ci­ate and happy to also call him my friend. My under­stand­ing of his work now is that if you really invest your­self fully in it, then it is not his any more, it is yours. 

Over the years, I have observed how not just what Ira does, but what he is, scares some people and makes oth­ers angry. As a teach­er and dir­ect­or – and often even just as a per­son – he offers more than most of us are able or will­ing to deal with: an oppor­tun­ity to deal with ourselves. To feel and to see the world we are in. And to see oth­ers in this world as feel­ing and see­ing: see­ing and feel­ing us. 

Apart from being excep­tion­ally curi­ous and know­ledge­able about both the prac­tise and the tra­di­tions of theatre, clown, cir­cus, and wheth­er it be as teach­er, ment­or, asso­ci­ate, friend – or as here: author – Ira is a remark­able and very funny storyteller.

Enjoy read­ing! You just might learn something.

Caspar Schjelbred

Malmö, August 2018

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