Not Just Clowning Around

Masterclass teacherChristopher Bayes


Theatre professor Christopher Bayes wants students to get their funny on.

In mid-February 2020 he came across the country from the Yale School of Drama to give a “clowning workshop,” a masterclass in improvisation and physical comedy to USD theatre students.

Students in USD’s Master of Fine Arts in Acting (MFA) program began their session with an actors’ warm-up, stretching and rolling their heads and shoulders, gradually loosening up their arms and legs, until they were shouting and running wild around the room like six-year-olds at recess. Seeing the group letting loose made Bayes’ face light up in anticipation.

Over the next few hours, the wiry and intense 59-year-old, a revered figure in graduate theatre, led them through a variety of exercises such as the “funniest thing in the world,” where students pretended that something was so funny that they couldn’t actually explain it or “buh” in which the students passed the sound, along with a gesture, to those on either side of them. All was undertaken in an effort to encourage creativity, imagination and playfulness.

USD students in a masterclass taught by famed theatre professor Christopher Bayes.

USD students in a masterclass taught by famed theatre professor Christopher Bayes.

“I love to see the possibility of the actor surprising himself with his own talent, rather than just leading with the part of the talent he or she has confidence in,” Bayes said.

MFA Director Jesse Perez, notes that when people hear the term “clown workshop” they think, “What are they going to do? A stand-up routine or put on red noses?” What people don’t understand is that a red nose is a circus icon but also “is the world’s smallest mask,” he explains. “You put it on, and all of a sudden it takes you somewhere else.”

Over the years, Bayes has worked with a number of students who went on to become stars, including Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o and Oscar Isaac. Students who’ve found success on stage or screen say that “Chris Bayes helped me get here,” says Perez, who studied with him at The Juilliard School, worked with him at Yale and has been a friend and colleague ever since.

Bayes’ workshops at USD attracted not just graduate and undergraduate theatre students but also professors, other students and even members of the general public. Along with actors, he also works with businesses to help employees collaborate and communicate more successfully.

Working with Bayes was an “amazing” experience, says Haley Ward, an environmental studies major and theatre minor. “He likes to push you, to get you out of your comfort zone,” but in a good way, she says. “I know all of these tools that I’m adding to my tool belt will help me in the future.”

The Old Globe and USD Shiley Graduate Theatre Program is “known in the industry as one of a few domestic programs specifically focused on Shakespeare performance,” says MFA student Summer Broyhill, who’s studying with Bayes for the second time after his first visit to USD last fall.

“It’s so important that contemporary approaches to Shakespeare’s work feel immediate and authentic,” she adds. “Chris’ unique gift is to coach each student into exploring the most forgotten parts of their deepest and most authentic selves.”

Perez, who’s now in his second year directing the nationally ranked MFA program,  hopes he’ll be able to bring Bayes back on regular basis in the future. “Having him here takes the program to another level.” — Liz Harman

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