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More than just clowning around

It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday and I am bear crawling in a circle around an acting studio with my favorite professor, 12 other students and a certified clown.

I remind myself that my tuition dollars are going toward this. In actuality, I'm questioning my sanity as the clown tells me the name of his "horse body" and begins slapping awake various body parts: arms, belly, chest, legs. Involuntarily, I start to do the same.

In all transparency, this is not the first time I've found myself in the midst of a six-hour stint of structured game playing on a Saturday morning or, really, any day of the week. This is the life of an acting student.

Our clowning workshop facilitator, Jerome Yorke, has an MFA in ensemble-based physical theatre and currently teaches at the University of Dayton. Jerome the Clown's job is to play games with us in hopes of coaxing out an actor's inner clown. Instead of a briefcase with file folders, he brings a tote bag filled with juggling balls, jump rope and a red nose to work.

I am a cast member in Moliere's farse "Tartuffe," the next mainstage production from Miami's Department of Theatre. Moliere is known for writing plays with high physical comedy that incorporates an exaggerated style of character work known as commedia dell'arte. Thus, Jerome the Clown.

Jerome the Clown was called in to lead our cast in a workshop before the traditional rehearsals begin. Through myriad exercises, scenarios and play, he helps us to find a buoyancy in our bodies that will be useful as we develop the comedic timing in Moliere's language.

Jerome the Clown tells us to listen to our "dantian." There is no English translation, but it generally refers to our internal energy, our soul, perhaps -- the core of our beings. Jerome tells us to reach our arms out in front of us and interlock our fingers, and then gently bring our arms down until our woven fingers are resting at the base of our pelvis. This, he says, is where our dantian lives. We take a moment to feel that power, and then dive into another game.

We play an enthusiastic game of 10-digit high-five, jumping up and yelling "Ho!" when we make hand-to-hand contact with a partner. If you jump up and your partner doesn't, you're out.

The game is thrilling. The intensity grows; there are betrayals, fake-outs and a general feeling of every man for himself. I make it to the final four but then am overconfident in a jump that ultimately leaves me in the dust. I let out a cry of self-pity and walk, crushed, to the edge of the room with the other defeated players to watch the game play out until we have a "Ho!" winner.

What do you, like, even do in your classes? Do you just roll around on the floor and make weird noises?

These are the kinds of questions I get when I tell people that I'm a theatre major. So, like, is it just a lot of make believe? Is it just an hour of meditation? What do you DO?

The answer to these questions is, plainly, yes. Over the past three years at Miami I have spent the majority of my time in class laying on the floor, meditating, contorting my body to do things that perhaps it isn't supposed to be able to do at all. It's a lot of what some call "make believe," a lot of play and pretend. But, through it all, it's a lot of hard work. Harder than anything I have ever done before. Harder than my writing classes, my statistics exam and my microbiology final.

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Why is playing games in an acting studio for six hours on a Saturday so much more difficult than the 15-page history paper I wrote last semester?

Here, I have to be vulnerable. I can't fake my knowledge or bullshit my short-answer portion of the test. Here, I can't use facts or statistics or formulas to solve a problem. My only tools are my body, my experiences, my truth, my feelings and my relationships to the people around me. It's scary, but it's also completely freeing.

Jerome the Clown teaches us how to use our bodies to create characters and make choices onstage that will thrill an audience. He shows us that our work has to be grounded deep below the earth and executed in a way that reaches far above our heads. We imagine ourselves as strong oak trees, taking deep breaths that pull from beneath our feet, from our roots in the dirt, and blow out, reaching up to the clouds above our branches.

It's the last hour of our two-day clowning intensive when Jerome the Clown introduces our final exercise: show-and-tell, the preschool favorite. I grasp my gray ball cap tightly in my hand, awaiting further instruction.

The task is simple: I am to exit the space, re-enter, encounter the audience, approach them, show my object and how to use it and then leave the space. We must complete these steps without a word. And while wearing a red clown nose, of course.

I enter the space, hat in hand, and make eye contact with each audience member. The excitement in my body is reflected in their eager eyes, and I feel for their nonverbal invitation to approach.

Throughout the last two days, Jerome the Clown has consistently reminded us to "find the joy in the game." And boy, did I find it in this exercise.

The audible "oohs" and "ahs" that escape the lips of my audience as I display my hat sends a course of adrenaline through my veins. I stretch my arms upward, holding the hat. As I bring it down to place it on my head, my high bun interferes and brings the activity to a screeching halt.

I pause, place the hat on the ground and remove the rubberband from my hair, exposing my bouncing curls. The audience gasps in delight as I retrieve the hat and try again to complete my task. The cap fits perfectly. The whole room cheers.

I leave the workshop feeling strong. I feel free, confident and just a little silly, as you might expect from a newly trained clown. Although I'm not wearing the red nose anymore, I feel that joyful mask with me now, in each buoyant step that I take home.