A colleague recently asked me for some opening exercises to do with a clown class. The class would include folks with a variety of challenges, from the usual "I don't like being vulnerable/connecting deeply with other people" to learning challenges to challenges that accompany Down's Syndrome.
What an awesome question and amazing project!
There are sooooo many terrific and deep clown things to use and do -- it's such an ancient, myriad, mulitplexed thing, with lots of forms and frames that even its practice in a workshop setting can change how one is and feels in the world. I have included below to 'openers' that are great for many workshops-not just clowning, not just theatre.
Moving in space, taking chances, being in someone else's movement and out-of-the-box problem solving are excellent opportunities for many situations. Be sure to include open reflection questions at the end of every other exercise, so the experience can become cognated ("What did you notice? What else did you notice? It could be about something you saw, something you felt ... What did you see? How did you feel? What changed?", etc). VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) styled questions work best!
Name and movement circle -- you go first. You say your name and do a movement -- it can be silly or a daily move ment (like brushing your teeth). Everyone copies (including saying the name), and must commit. Then the next person goes, and everyone copies them. If someone shrugs and says "I don't know" on their turn, I just go with that and have it be fun and perfect. On every third (sometimes second, sometimes fourth) person, you lead everyone in performing the "dance" of all of the name/movements done so far, in the reverse order (so you are last). The cumulative-ness is fun, everyone has a supported chance to be ridiculous, everyone tries on someone else's movement style and people learn others' names.
Another early fun one is People to People/Name to Name. As with all games and exercises, explain it ahead!
Everyone gets a partner. You are the caller. You first call out Name to Name, and everyone makes up a silly name (it can be something like "door" or "rug" -- use those as examples for your folks) and does a silly hand shake. Then they have a conversation as this new silly person with their partner (so both people are being silly). Suggest asking each other about favorite clown foods or silly pets. Then you call out two body parts, like "pointer finger to knee cap."
Both members of the partnership must put all their pointer fingers on their partners kneecaps. You call out anther pair of body pats, like "hair to elbow-pit." The partners switch to touching their elbow-pits to their partners' hair (both doing both). Do one or two more, then call out "people to people!" They have till you count backwards from five (go fast, but keep everyone successful!) to get a new partner. You call out "Name to Name, and they can keep the same silly character or do a new one. You might want to decide what is best for them and regulate it.
After they have done a couple rounds of this, walk up to a crazy shaped pair (they must hold each pose till you call out two new body parts) and say, "Oh my gosh! What happened? How did you get like that here in clown land?" They will really look at themselves. Give them a second, and if they need it, give a fun helpful question/prompt (like "Was there glue involved?" "Is this a new olympic sport?" "Are you a crocodile?") Do maybe one other group.
On the next round, do a few more groups. Ask a group that seems further along the road, "What happened before this?" as part of your question. When it seems like enough rounds have happened so that people have all had a chance to name something that happened, and folks are with a good partner, have them stay with that partner and choose one of the silly poses one of them ended up in and decide what happened. They then create a scene (or for your guys, three tableaux---one for beginning, one for middle, one for end, which should be the People to People pose) of the very, very short story of how they got there!
This is great for growing physical comfort, stretching risk taking and trust, creating clown moments and so much more. And don't forget to have the reflection time ("What did you notice? What did you see? How did you feel?" etc)
Have fun, and if you have questions, or would like some more exercise ideas, let me know!