Phillipe Gaulier. Photo: Amy Gibson Photography
Seventy year-old Philippe Gaulier is sort of an actor’s trade secret. He barely publicises himself, designs his own website and poster, and runs a school on the fringes of suburban Paris with just his wife.
Yet the who’s who in the international theatre scene swear by him. In his decades as a teacher, he’s taught international sensations like Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson … and those are just the Hollywood stars. His students come from far and wide, hailing from Ecuador to Italy, Japan, China and even Singapore.
Actors in Singapore have a chance a meet him right here. He’s been coming annually to Singapore to give five-day master classes on different aspects of acting, such as clown and melodrama. This year, he comes to teach bouffon (a fancy French term for the "Theatre of the Oppressed").
“We discovered bouffon at the Lecoq school in ’71, in a way by chance. We had a really boring student who kept moving meaninglessly, so we tied a rope round his body to stop him from moving so much. That way, we turned him into a handicapped person, and he became a bouffon,” Gaulier said in an interview with inSing in his Parisian studio.
Bouffon is essentially theatre as performed by the exiled of society: the deformed, the lepers, what Gaulier calls “people at whom the finger of scorn is pointed to say, go to the ghetto!” “To be bouffons you need to have outcasts,” he continues. “In France now, it’s all the poor people, all the immigrants. Mad people, they are also outcasts. Before it was the Jews, the gay people they were also outcasts. Many people can be outcasts.”
But you need more than a social outcast character to be a bouffon. “You need to appreciate the pleasure of blasphemy,” says Gaulier with relish. Bouffons use their moments in the limelight to turn on their oppressors (known as ‘bastards’) by viciously mocking them.
You may have guessed by now that Gaulier isn’t your conventional Chen-Liping style teacher. He’s known for reducing students to tears, using (semi-gentle, but still painful) force, and insulting students with absolutely no holds barred, albeit hilariously. Just check out the various websites by various ex-students, including the closed Facebook Group ‘Philippe Gaulier hit me with a stick’, detailing his less orthodox methods, including burning remarks to students such as “you are like the fart of a homosexual hairdresser’s dog.”
“I don’t remember any of the things I’ve said to anyone,” says Gaulier, a smile sneaking in under his bristly white beard. “I don’t say nasty things. I say funny things. If you are not funny, you are not polite.”
He turns more serious, “I don’t want to be a classic teacher. I teach as I am and after a time, people accept that. Often teachers put on a face, to teach something technical. What I teach is the pleasure of life, the pleasure of the game. I don’t want to put on a face. I respect when you are bad but I must tell you that you are bad. I am not pissed off; you will improve later. If people are not happy, they leave the school ... but I haven’t seen so many students leaving.”
“The problem with many people is, the private person either tries to put on something onstage, to play bad comedy or street comedy, and on the stage you need to be much more beautiful than a pharmacist who prescribes aspirin. When you go onstage and are in the spotlight, you need to show a special beauty, humanity and vulnerability so that people can see your soul, something magical. People are beautiful but because they push too much, with some idea of what they want to look like, we don’t see anything beautiful. So I say they are horrible.”
And this elusive vulnerability and humanity, or ‘beauty’ that Gaulier speaks of, can be attained in many ways, including by being a bouffon, which might see you having limbs tied up, your teeth blacked with makeup, padding stuffed into your clothing to create deformities, and so on.
If you are attending the master class, don’t worry about having to prepare or study beforehand. Just remember — leave your ego with the door, and as Gaulier would advise, “Come to the class with your pleasure of life and not with your love for theatre.”
Venue: Goodman Arts Centre, 90 Goodman Rd | Tel: 63372525 | https://en.practice.org.sg/philippe-gaulier-master-class-2013/