While engineers looking uncomfortable in their formal wear handed out résumés at the career fair just outside, 20 clowns took turns sweeping the floor of the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus.

Avery DiUbaldo

They sat in a long row on the gray linoleum. Each wore a red plastic nose strung up with a loop of elastic that dangled from his neck or rode high on his forehead like a miner’s lamp. All were students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and for 17 of them, this class — listed dryly in the course guide as “Physical Theater” — was required for their graduation in the spring.

On the far wall, facing them, a black curtain stretched up toward the ceiling; between the clowns and the curtain, four knee-high cubes delineated the corners of an imaginary stage.

Seated in a wooden chair — the only one in the room with arms — was Lancaster-born Malcolm Tulip, professor and ringmaster. He thrust into the air a worn blue-handled broom. “Who wants it?”

A student dressed in black sweatpants and matching T-shirt clambered to her feet and took the broom from his hand. She pulled on her false nose and worried at the elastic which had once been white but was now turned beige with years of flop sweat.

“You’ve never seen this stage before,” Tulip said, “but you need to sweep it, and to sweep it well.”

Nodding, she approached the stage and paused at its invisible threshold. She bowed her head, briefly indistinguishable from a woman in desperate prayer, and then strode forward, broom in hand. She had hardly walked four paces before Tulip shouted: “Breathe!”

She opened her mouth with an audible exhale. A few of her peers in the audience chuckled with relief — a laugh, yes, but not quite the sort a clown is looking for.

Tulip turned to a student seated on his right: “It’s an acting habit of hers,” he said, “keeping her mouth closed like that. It’s not funny.” The students nodded. “She closes her mouth, and she’s dead.”

“Next!”

Her place was taken by a young woman whose white cable-knit sweater billowed over a pair of dark tights. She entered as her predecessor did and began to sweep the floor, slowly at first but with gathering speed, until she was practically striking the ground with manic energy. She glanced at the audience. Silence.

She slowed, made a few abstracted sweeps at the floor, and was still, looking from one end of the stage to the other. Were this not an improvisational exercise, one might think she had forgotten her line.

Finally Tulip called out to her: “Lots of thinking going on, right?”

She nodded. Most students are hesitant to speak while wearing “the nose,” although at this point in their training, it’s probably due less to a deliberate stylistic choice than to an uncertainty as to how they ought to respond. Do they take Tulip’s direction as themselves, the “actor”? Or as their clowns, hazy and shapeless entities whose manner of speech — if they even speak at all — remains undetermined? Graduates of Tulip’s clown class speak uniformly of not having created their clowns but of having “found” them as if they had emerged fully formed from within themselves, costumed, strutting, grimacing.

Tulip gestured for the student to remove her nose. She did. “What were you thinking about?” he asked.

“Whether I was doing a good job?”

“But you weren’t doing anything.”

Helpless and looking rather like a child unmasked while trick-or-treating, the student shrugged her shoulders.

“Look,” Tulip said, rising from his chair and taking the broom from her hand. “You guys are making this too complicated.” He began to sweep. “Just sweep the floor.”

“It’s simple.” He turned on the balls of his feet as he ended one pass across the stage and began another. “It’s about the profundity, the insignificance of the human experience after the dropping of the atom bomb.”

An uncertain laugh floated up from his audience, and he held up a hand. “No — that’s really how this shit started. You sweep here, then you sweep there, then you sweep here, then you sweep there, then you die.” He surveyed the imaginary dust-pile at his feet. “And that’s it.”

In the hour’s closing minutes, Tulip set down the broom at center-stage and returned to his seat. He gestured to a student waiting in the wings, the last to go.

She pulled on her nose and took a few hesitant steps forward. “A wild broom!” Tulip whispered, narrating. “It’s abandoned! It’s all alone! What will it say?”

Playing along, the clown warily tiptoed nearer its quarry. She leaned over, bending at the waist to cock an ear at the broom, and, after a moment’s silence, let out a guffaw as if at a silent punchline.

“Did the broom tell you a dirty joke?”

The clown nodded.

“I don’t believe you!” Tulip cried. “You didn’t listen long enough to hear anything!”

Holding up a finger, the clown bent closer to the broom, listening. She paused. And paused longer still. Then she laughed, and so did everyone else.

Avery DiUbaldo can be reached at diubaldo@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.