This Is How We Do It

The past week has been a busy one, especially in comparison to the actual clocked hours of teaching last week, never mind my peculiar travel habits for the re-up of

As Far As We Know

. The bulk of the work has been to educate a group of incredibly mixed experience into Zuppa del Giorno's style of theatre . . . and, in the process, remind even ourselves of what it is we do.

That may seem odd. It seems one of the most consistent subjects I bring up on this here 'blog is Zuppa, that ever-adventurous work I've been doing pretty consistently for the past five years. When we're not doing a show, we're planning for one, or teaching workshops, or recruiting students or venturing off to Italy. Yet somehow, in all that hustle and bustle, we've gotten away from our roots--that is, creating a play directly from improvisation on a scenario. In Italy, we devoted much of our energy to incorporating Italian into the scenario.

Operation Opera

was as much about writing the scenario as it was improvising upon it, and

Silent Lives

was similar in that sense, and completely different in the sense that it was a clown show. There are entire technical elements of our original work that I had lost sight of in the rest of the machinations, elements such as David's "Newtonian Impulses" and the ways in which we strip down a scenario to its most basic elements, and strip away language as a communication tool.

So we've all been learning together. It's fascinating to watch the students toil in such unfamiliar territory, probably doing many of the same things wrong and right that I did in 2002. Fascinating, too, to watch how Sam, Erin and Geoff trust in the process so implicitly in spite of being new to it. I suppose acting experience in general (though, perhaps specifically experience with improvisation) helps actors perceive the merit in doing things as thoroughly and gradually as this process demands, in spite of having the intense deadline it does.

And then again, maybe I don't give my fellow actors quite enough credit. It's an amazing group. (And just how have I been so lucky this year as to only work with incredible people?) Which is just to say that the "new" actors to Zuppa's process are very disciplined and talented artists who somehow get it. They just get it. Thank God they do, too, because when your working with people who don't it adds a whole lot more work to an already intensive work process.

So just what is this work what takes me away from my beloved Aviary for so long? How can we have so much to do when we don't even have a scenario related to our play yet? I am so glad you asked! The bible of our little group is a book of

Flaminio Scala's collection of original commedia dell'arte scenarios

. These scenarios provide very little information in the way of dialogue or explanation. They begin with a character breakdown such as you would see at the beginning of any published play, but with no character descriptions as such, since the characters they they would be known by their type to the original actors. Then there is a paragraph or two about "the argument," which describes a little about back history and relationships, though generally not reaching much farther back than a month or so. Finally, there is the scenario itself, which is divided into paragraphs titled after the character or characters concerned in the central action of each. The scenario merely describes the action of the "scene," and provides no explanation as to specific actions of characters or motivations for such, so there's much to be interpreted (including the extensive use of pronouns: does "he" refer to Pantalone or Arlechino this time?). The scenarios don't even say "the two fail to understand one another because _______." They say, "they speak at cross-purposes."

So David will begin by assigning parts (in our case, occasionally assigning two parts to one actor, unconcerned with the supposed sex of the character), then he will read the scenario a few lines at a time, and we actors will fulfill its demands as he reads, rather like the theatre sports game "Typist Narrator." In this round, there's typically very little interpretation, and we can speak whatever dialogue helps us understand the action. The point is to absorb the scenario. After once through, we try again, and again, until we can run through the thing without narration. Then David gets us to run it more and more efficiently, giving us only five minutes to fulfill all the actions, then three, then one. This gets us centered on the action, and away from flourishes and embellishments that may have snuck in after several runs.

Then it gets difficult.

One of the distinctive features of traditional commedia dell'arte is very specific, very full physical characterizations. (This was part of the benefit of working with the students last week on creating grand characters for busking.) One part of effectively using such characterizations is learning to use one's body to communicate as specifically as one might with words. The scenarios lend themselves to this approach in the way they were recorded: no dialogue, only action. The trick, then, is to train oneself to speak with the body as significantly as with words. After learning and stream-lining the scenario, then, we begin on several challenges:

  • Three-Word Phrases - The actors can only speak two-to-three words at a time, and must shave down their free dialogue to what's essential (not to mention learn to really dialogue in order to create more opportunities for each other to use another two or three words).
  • One-Word Dialogue - The actors can only speak one word at a time, which drives them to use their physical life to imbue that word with as much specific meaning as possible. I.e., saying love comes to mean love that wrenches me in confusing directions whilst lifting my heart into my mouth.
  • One-Word/One-Gesture Unification - Closely related to many impulse-passing exercises we warm-up with, this challenge is perhaps the most challenging (well: for me, anyway). The idea is that a scene is about passing energy back and forth, and to do so with as much commitment as possible. This is the challenge that gets us closest to the traditional style of performance. One actor begins it, with his or her body, creating a continuous motion that communicates his or her need until he or she passes it off to the scene partner with a single word punctuating the end of the motion. THEN the actor must suspend in that pose until his or her scene partner passes the changed impulse back in the same manner. (It feels very unnatural to western actors trained in "naturalism," but really it's just a different rhythm to applied to the same concept of unification.)
  • Dance Through - After One-Word/Gesture, this one is typically a relief. Plus, it frees actors to make different, less-obvious choices with their characters and actions. This challenge allows NO language, only physical action, to communicate the story. Music is played throughout (we used Strauss waltzes, but I've enjoyed this with mixes of different types of music as well), and the actors are encouraged to allow the music to inform the manner in which they play the scene. Not only does this relax the actors into using physical choices to communicate, but it helps strip away physical "language," those gestures that have agreed-upon definitions, such as the thumbs-up or flipping someone the bird.

As you might imagine, after going through all these different versions of a scenario, one learns it pretty well. To keep things fresh, we often switch roles around somewhere in all this, so everyone pays very close attention to everyone else's scenes. In this way, we actors really learn the scenario, and not just "our part" in it. (...B.S., B.S., my scene with Arlechino, B.S., B.S., ...) As you may also imagine, this work helps us learn what to expect from one another in general, our strengths and enthusiasms, and builds tremendous ensemble mentality. We also work, amidst all this, on developing an instinct for the "comic three;" not just as a comedy rule, but as a method of tracking an improvisation and patterning the rhythm of interaction. A joke between two people generally has two developing beats and a punchline. If an action repeats, it does so in segments of three(s). And when acting with our scene partner, we receive his or her impulse, suspend and process it a beat, then send it right back out again. Threes are helpful.

I have the benefit or having seen how impressive the results of this groundwork can be. It helps to create a show completely unique and rewarding to a western (and I believe any) audience, and allows us to get very comfortable with that strange crisis of the moment on stage that improvised shows create: What will happen next? The audience doesn't know because we don't specifically know. It's all life. Through this work, however, we know where we are when we float in that uncertainty. Next week we begin developing the scenario with Steve, and we begin that period of rampant change and uncertainty, when sometimes all one wants is for someone else to make a decision and write us a pretty little script. Together, however, we will find the courage to not know what the hell we're doing.