Christopher Bayes and the Art of Physical Comedy

CHRISTOPHER BAYES is an absolute expert in playfulness. Bringing his knowledge of clowning and comedy to theatres and schools around the globe, Chris has shared his desire for a theater with much less formula—and much more imagination and nonsense—with countless actors wearing the many hats of performer, professor, director, designer, and composer. He is currently Professor and Head of Physical Acting at the Yale School of Drama.
During rehearsal, Court staffer Shelby Krick watched Chris and Artistic Director Charles Newell empower actors to use techniques brought in through games an exploration to add movement, life, and physical comedy to One Man, Two Guvnors. Afterwards, she had the chance to sit down with Chris to talk about this great fun he brought to Court Theatre.

Talk to me a bit about what you’ve been working on in rehearsal this weekend.

I’m here trying to help the company come together and find lots of energy. It’s kinesthetic, it’s playful, and we’re finding abandon in all of this chaos. There’s been lots of singing and laughing to open up our bodies and to learn to respond without cleverness. It’s been big, stupid fun. Even after just three days, I can see that everyone is really working with great courage and abandon and doing really well. We began exploring feelings like fear, anger and despair in order to be able to play freely. We try to give value to places of mystery, to get the actors out of their comfort zones and out of a familiar place of working. This can be really difficult for experienced actors like this group, who have been working for a long time, but they’ve done amazingly well. Allen Gilmore has been a beautiful example for the group—he and I have a long work history, and he is always able to take it to that one step beyond. There is no branch too thin for Allen!

What is it that draws you to Commedia?

I have some great connection to 16th and 17th century theatre, and I don’t know why. Molière, Goldoni… it’s the actor-authors, or the authors inspired by actors, that inspire me. Goldoni’s text was based on the actors’ improvisations: this beautiful, filterless appetite for fun that he later grounded.

Traditionally, actors are usually the last to be invited to the party. By the time they get to rehearsal, everything is designed already and we basically tell them what to do. [With works inspired by actors,] we are trying to give them ownership of the work, which helps them defend it while they’re on stage. When their ideas are given value, we can ask them to play with abandon. Without that ownership of their work, there is more room fear.

Commedia and clowning, which are two areas I have great experience in, are direct conversations between the actors and the audience. In comedy, triumph and disaster are equal. If no one laughs at a joke, that opens the door for a hilarious tragedy. The way that Charlie is approaching this production, these actors are multitasking all the time. They’re playing music and underscoring so that they can support their colleagues and involve each other in new ways on stage.  There are physical jokes that allow them to play to their strengths with confidence but also we can be ambitious and push everything much further. We’re making this beautiful present, made by hand for you, fresh every night.

You’ve worked with our Artistic Director Charles Newell before. How did you two meet, and how is it working with Court again?

Charlie and I have known each other for about 25 years. We met when I was in the company at Guthrie Theater, and Charlie was the resident director [for the History Cycle]. Then Scapin came along [with Bart Sher at Intiman Theater in Seattle] and we brought the co-production to that little space in the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. A few years later, Charlie asked me to do Endgame, and Allen Gilmore was with me for that. It’s been lovely to be back, I do love Chicago.

Do you have a great piece of comedic advice for us?

A piece of comedic advice? Always look for the game. And then try to play that game fully. There is no better game than the one that you are already playing. When you stop playing the game, or you start looking for a different game to play, the actor-critic takes over and the innocence and playfulness is gone. You start looking for a solution to the comedic problem, when you should really just be enjoying the problem. Because once you solve one problem, you just have to find another one anyway.

You’re back here in May for a master class in clowning, which you say will allow actors to “pursue the clown in all of its messy and hilarious beauty.” Tell us what actors can expect from that experience.

The master class in May will be five hours of chaos, in pursuit of the world of the clown. The class will be based on the work I have done at the Yale School of Drama and Juilliard Drama School for the last 20 years. I’m looking forward to being able to reconnect with Chicago’s actors. The class is open to everybody—from the brand new actors to the most experienced. We will be able to investigate together what makes each person uniquely funny. It’ll be an archaeological dig to find that … and it’ll be full of life. It’s going to be so fun.

Chicago actors, you too can train with the Christopher Bayes, commedia dell'arte and movement consultant for Court's produciton of One Man, Two Guvnors.  

Description: Jump into your like a little flower...rediscover your playful spirit and the simple pleasure and ferocious generosity of performance. In this workshop we pursue the clown together in all of its messy and hilarious beauty. Your relationship to all other forms of drama will be enriched by the openness and reckless abandon that the clown requires. 

When: Monday, May 16,  12pm - 5pm
Where: Court Theatre Reherasal Hall, 5608 S Stony Island, Chicago
Instructor: Christopher Bayes
Fee: $125
Registration and information:  Email Virginia at  or call (917) 533-1924.

Photos by Joe Mazza/brave lux, inc