For an artist, vulnerability is everything

  • David Shiner
  • 14. 03. 2021


                                                                                                                                                                    courtesy of David Shiner                                                                     


For an artist, vulnerability is everything



Who better to speak to about vulnerability than a clown? And David Shiner is certainly one of the best there is. For those not so acquainted with the clown art, it may be revealing to discover that the goal of a clown is not (only) to make us laugh, but also to feel and think about our own life. The great clowns use their skills and art to connect us to universal human qualities, and it seems the more life experience and understanding the clown has, the richer the clowning experience is for their audience. So, it seems appropriate to hear what David Shiner has to say about vulnerability. After his solo work, playing and directing at Cirque du Soleil, and having so much success with shows he created and performed in with Bill Irwin, his understanding of the work is deepening as he is ‘dropping the bucket deeper and deeper’, to dive into the mystery. And for him, vulnerability is one of the most important and resourceful qualities an artist can have.


SHINER: Vulnerability, in an artist's creative life, is everything. It's the beginning and end of everything. Especially for an actor it's all about communication and connecting. Without vulnerability, the depth of communication and connection remains superficial, it doesn't go as deep as it could. Vulnerability is the quality of openness, the ability to allow yourself not only the things that make you feel good or happy, but also to allow the things that make you feel hurt.


AoN: As artists we start with training in certain skills. In that training and our focus on attaining the skill we can unknowingly move away from depth, so the skill applied has a superficial impact, without depth and meaning.


"Vulnerability always outweighs technique. Powerful stage presence is a direct consequence of deep vulnerability."


Shiner: Vulnerability is the motor behind all the technique we’ve learned. It drives all of it, and is an essential quality. As I see and experience actors working I can tell which actors are more in touch with vulnerability. Some rely on technique, and they may have a good style of movement or their technique is strong and effective, but without vulnerability the performance is not impactful. Vulnerability always outweighs technique. Powerful stage presence is a direct consequence of deep vulnerability. If you have vulnerability you can walk on stage and are already interesting.

We do not need to bring all of our pain, that is not wise, but some of it, well that is essential to the beauty of clown work. The clown works in both worlds simultaneously, with great joy and great sorrow, and that’s what makes it so interesting and compelling to experience if done well.


AoN: It sounds a bit like ‘taking just the right amount of medicine’ - too much is harmful, and not enough doesn’t work? When vulnerability becomes hypersensitivity and immobilizes us it is not supporting us creatively, it is not friendly…?


Shiner: It becomes negative because it is something we want to be in control of.  

We want to experience a deeper sense of who we are as artists because that gives us the ability to be in more challenging roles and be really powerful in those roles. It is a delicate balance. I never encourage anybody to go all out at once, because you can’t, taking smaller incremental steps is more powerful.

As I became older I realized I needed to be connecting with myself more, not lost in this egocentric place where it is all about me, with a lens of ‘what can I get from people?’. Now it’s the reverse, ‘what can I give without condition?’. Because the greatest joy is giving because you always get something back, and even if you don’t you don’t care because you have experienced joy in giving.

As artists that’s what we’re doing, we’re giving to the audience, we are giving ourselves. We are offering pieces of ourselves to them. If there is deep enough vulnerability then it becomes collective. We are truly connecting, they are all on the same wavelength. Whether they are conscious of it or not it doesn’t matter. That’s real connectivity, real connection between the artist and the audience.

That is the main goal for me, in terms of vulnerability, to deeply connect with my audience.


                                                                                                                                                                       courtesy of David Shiner



AoN: So, it is not only about vulnerability of the artist towards the self, but also towards others, like empathy?


Shiner: Exactly, it is empathy, compassion, tenderness, all those beautiful qualities that we have. Those qualities, that level of compassion, empathy, caring and love, can be very powerful because they are infinite, limitless.

I didn’t really learn to love my wife until I was willing to face everything that was standing in the way of a deeply personal loving relationship; my fear, my anger, my egocentricity, my narcissism and all that stuff.

For me, the road to vulnerability is surrender. Surrendering parts of myself, letting my walls down, opening up, facing my fear of what could happen and embracing the moment.


AoN: It seems that integrity which comes from knowing oneself goes hand in hand with that healthy vulnerability that can be a door to the empathy, compassion, tenderness you spoke of.  So doesn’t it become overwhelming?


Shiner: Our overwhelming fear, that kind of fear where we don’t know what we’re afraid of - this is the unconscious surfacing. The most powerful emotions we humans have are empathy, compassion, tenderness, joy, deeply caring about others. Caring for our own suffering and also caring for suffering that we see in others.

In clowning, it is all about suffering, that’s all the clown does; a lost soul trying to make the best of it. And that is why the audience loves the character so much, because we are all in a rollercoaster. We have good days and we have really fucked up days, that can last for months. And that’s what we all experience, it is the collective experience of living.

With that kind of awareness, there is an automatic empathy, awareness and compassion for your audience because we are all in the same boat going to through the same shitstorm. So, no one is really separate, it is an illusion we are separate.  Each of us is doing different things in terms of work or family, but in the bigger picture we are all in the same boat and that is the beauty of it.

If it happens that an artist understands that, the performance can take in and convey so much depth the audience goes out saying ‘Holy shit, that was powerful!’. Whether they are conscious of what was really going on it doesn’t matter, because you can connect to their unconscious, into their soul and into their heart, without them even being aware of it. And those are the performances they cannot forget. Because you are basically showing them an aspect of themselves. We become a mirror to each other, we are suddenly on the same level. Then we are truly communicating, truly connecting. If there are no words, no dialogue or if we are telling a story in a play, it doesn’t matter. It is about the humanity of the character and how you play that character, whether it is an evil, sad or beautiful character, it is the same vulnerability.  


AoN: The habit and the instinct to protect myself from being vulnerable is persistent so how can I support the training of a different reflex?


"In clowning, it is all about suffering, that’s all the clown does; a lost soul trying to make the best of it. And that is why the audience loves the character so much, because we are all in a rollercoaster."


SHINER: On one level it is very healthy to protect ourselves. It is important, otherwise everything would be rushing in and we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. It is a gradual process of taking small steps. Keeping a diary, for example, of what my mind is saying to me, blocking me.  How was my day today? Was I present, easy to get along with, open?  What bothered me today?  Did someone look at me and make me angry?  To look at yourself is always a question of self-observance. Where am I, how do I feel? Because most of the time we are in a certain denial about everything, because all we want is comfort. We all want comfort, we just want it to be cool and easy, to sail through. But that is not how it works.

I practice meditation. Meditation really slows you down and you become aware, much more than you are normally aware. Sometimes when it is a really deep meditation, I need to calm myself down because it is so still, so quiet. Mind is not used to that, it always wants to be busy and occupied, racing around.

In my own experience, it is about breaking whole concepts of who I am. Because I am not who I was thirty years ago. Thirty years ago I was my father, a spitting image of him. Until one day I realized I need to kill him, destroy him, within myself, to find myself.

Everyone is on a different quest. But I think, at the end of the day, we are all walking towards the same destination and that is self-awareness. At the end of the day all there is, is self-awareness. How aware am I, not only of my joy, but my depression, rage, narcissism, selfishness, egocentric habits?  How aware am I about things I don’t like about myself, or things I like about myself? What is my destination? I want to go towards it and I am going to work for it.

When I started, I was in a deep, dark black hole that I had to crawl out of. That gave me much of the extra strength that I now have, along with the knowledge of how delicate we are and how much support, love and tenderness we need with each other and how deep our emotions go.


AoN: It seems the good side of crisis is that what you thought was real, solid and unquestionable suddenly becomes a big question mark. Whatever you were taught, in crisis it all becomes super relative.


Shiner: Self-awareness is a painful and scary journey, but there is a huge light at the end of the tunnel. We are surrendering old ingrained concepts that no longer have meaning for us, they don’t work anymore. So we are slowly reconstructing the new self, that has a much stronger foundation; more depth, more power, more presence, all the really great stuff.

We, as artist need to feel we are expressing the best of ourselves - then it becomes a glorious job.


                                                                                                 courtesy of David Shiner