ZdG Busking Workshop Day One: Welcome to Higher Education, B%$@#es!

We have begun.

It's been about a year-and-a-half since

Zuppa del Giorno

's last official show, in which time we have been quite busy as a company, with two trips to Italy, numerous workshops taught in improvisation and acrobalance, and even the odd public event or publicity stunt here and there. Still, nothing quite compares to doing what the company started out to do: Create original comedies from scratch using commedia dell'arte as a living tradition. I missed it last spring (suspended for a season in order to effectuate more work in Italy) and now we are back with a very ambitious bang. Not only are we doing another wholly original production, but we are:

  • Hiring three new actors on board for it.
  • Collaborating with Marywood University's theatre production department.
  • Casting students from Marywood University's theatre department.
  • Performing the eventual product in two venues: Marywood and The Northeast Theatre.
  • Beginning by teaching a week-long workshop in improvisation, character development and busking to the theatre students, culminating in their performing in La Feste Italiana in downtown Scranton on Labor Day weekend.

It is this last that we began last night in the Mellow Wellness Center (read: gym) on Marywood's campus. For all the teaching and workshops I've done in various areas of theatre in the past five years, this is the first time I've taught one with an emphasis on busking, or public performance. And by "we," I'm actually referring to a very new group of collaborative teachers. There are three of us here, teaching approximately twenty-five students. Myself, Dave Berent (Gochfeld), who appeared in the last Zuppa show,

Operation Opera

, and Geoff Gould, with whom I haven't worked on stage since my first show at TNT,

The Glass Menagerie

. To summarize the significance of all this--Last night, after the first day of school, we spent three-plus hours teaching a workshop that was new to us, and that we are planning and modifying as we continue along.

It went quite well, all things considered. We were all rather nervous about what kind of reception to expect from students who are essentially required to attend this workshop (that's for a few days--thereafter we get to say, "Okay, if you want to continue and perform, stick around. The rest: ciao!"), but we just a few exceptions everyone seemed very eager to risk and learn. And we didn't necessarily make it easy on them. Our concession to their first day back and the mandatory nature of this event was to focus on game-playing, team-building and staying away from lessons or lectures. There were, however, punishments handed out (when games were misplayed, they were made to apologize to the class until it was accepted) and their own feedback--occasionally critical of one another--was encouraged. In addition, Dave did the whole class in character.

Dave has a clown called "The Maestro" who performs around New York with some frequency. Last night he rather merged The Maestro with one of his former teachers of clown,


, complete with costume, mustache and French dialect. The result was a very energetic, high-status, enigmatic man who occasionally took over teaching and kept the students on their toes. I was impressed by how easy this was to accept, for both them and me. Dave and I had discussed putting our own work out for critique during this workshop, but I hadn't imagined a character living an entire class out, and wasn't certain about what was to be gained. It turns out the answer is 'quite a lot,' as the students come to see the differences between us and our characters, and just how livable and continuous that characterization can be, even without lines or blocking.

In terms of our lesson plans, we're incorporating a lot of skills, but trying to base things in improvisation (and some clown) concepts. That is, building habits of listening, responding on impulse, accepting and building on others' ideas, making the other looks good, making physical choices, etc. Yesterday we played several games to build awareness and group mentality, touched on the concept of an "active neutral" state (devoid of character [even your own] but aligned and ready to make choices in an instant) and building a physical character, and we even began with some improvisation exercises. We were impressed with how much we managed to get through, which hopefully bodes well for the rest of the week. The emphasis will gradually shift from core skills to more specific ones having to do with public, improvised performance, such as using one's environment, prop acting and audience involvement.

Each day we will plan anew, based on the previous evening's progress. It's exciting to go back to school in this way, and truly, as a teacher I feel I'm learning as much as--if not more than--our students.