Marywood on the Green

My first introduction to the concept of a "greenshow" was through my second professional theatre job, at the Porthouse summer theatre.  I haven't been back in a while, so I don't know if they still do this, but in my time there a great mass of the more minor players would be expected to learn songs and devise routines to entertain the audience who came early to enjoy a picnic dinner on the green between the parking lot and the stage.  This in many ways was my first introduction to variety performance, and at the time I had absolutely no idea that variety would play such a significant role in my creative development as an adult.  Just about all of my busking, clowning, circus and self-generated work stems in some way from that first experience - a connection I only recognized just now, while writing.  So naturally I was thrilled when Heather suggested that for this year's Portal Project initiative with the theatre students of Marywood University we divide the group of nearly 30 into some working on the commedia dell'arte scenario, and others devising a greenshow.

I've written in the past (see 9/2/08 & 8/28/07) about my experiences teaching this week-long commedia dell'arte intensive.  Last year, regrettably, it followed too hard and fast on our time in Italy and I had to give it a pass in favor of maintaining my day job (yes - irony is ironic).  I was eager to return this year, and the whole thing felt fresh to me once again, particularly in regard to all the new faces I would be meeting.  I confess I was a little apprehensive about the loss of many graduates who started out with us back in 2007, but that anxiety proved entirely unfounded - somewhere between my and Heather's greater experience and deeper understanding, and the students' willingness to focus and commit to the work we found the experience to be one of our most efficient and successful.  Safe to say, too, that everyone had a lot of fun.

The key to this success, I think, was in getting to working directly on the scenario sooner.  In the past we spent more days on general training on improvisation, stylistic elements and concept, not arriving at a scenario until the Friday or sometimes even the Saturday before a Monday performance.  This time I found the team problem-solving involved in working from a scenario does a lot of the training for us, creating situations and challenges that end up being far more interesting (not to mention well-motivated) than anything we can prepare them for in hypothetical exercises.  It was a near-perfect balance, spending a couple of days on character and improvisation, one on physical lazzi (could have used a bit more time there, I confess) and then three-or-so hours to memorize the scenario and ten more to develop and refine it.  We came out strong, with the perfect amount of fear, I think.

In a sense, the real challenge we set for ourselves this year was the greenshow, rather than the scenario.  Heather was responsible for both the challenge and the success of that portion of the endeavor.  She has an impressive talent for not just randomly applying a routine to performers, but recognizing in them a possibility for a routine already lying in wait within their personalities or styles.  This is part of what makes her such a brilliant clown, her ability to read people (including herself) and comprehend unspoken personae.  Our greenshow ended up consisting of a couple of clownish acts, a group of acrobats, a group of musicians, a tie-in relationship with the conclusion of the scenario (Heather's brilliance again) and all of it encircled by an MC character who also provided a prologue to the scenario.  The greenshow established the space, warmed up the crowd and was integrated into the scenario by way of concept and a couple of character references.

All the performers were amazing, and I believe everyone grew a little through the process.  They had two shows, at noon and 2:00 respectively.  The first was pretty sparsely attended and had some of the earmarks of the struggle to discover that last scene member: the audience.  They did well enough, though, and by the end of the first show they had definitely learned a lot about what was going to work.  They won the audience they had over, in spite of the dialogue being nigh inaudible over some terribly insistent generic "Italian music" blaring from the nearby clocktower, and after some lunch we regrouped at the theatre for our second run.  We gave them some advice for the second show, but I don't think they needed it.  In the second show, the audience was far more substantial, the greenshow-ers took bigger risks and the scenario-ists (is SO a word) made fuller, clearer physical choices.  We all still had to contend with blaring, generic music, but they compensated beautifully and really knocked it out of the park.

I had a tremendous time working with this group again, and it fortifies my desire to teach more often.  These were, to be frank, practically ideal circumstances (apart from the lateness of the hours).  It's exceptional when one gets the chance to work with a fellow ensemble member as a co-teacher, and have as students a group so focused on strengthening their sense of ensemble and overall improvement.  Two incidents in particular however stood out for me toward the end of this week, neither of which had anything directly to do with these circumstances.  They had to do with something larger.

The first of these was introducing the students to an idea we at Zuppa have used from our very first show: the musical run. In this style of run, we play an ever-changing mix of music during a run of the scenario involving no speaking.  The players thereby run through a very complex sequence of action using only their bodies to communicate that progress, plus they must continually listen to whatever music happens to be playing as they enter and synchronize their tempo, mood and choices to it.  It's inordinately helpful, but exhausting and can be a difficult concept to grasp.  Frustration is easy to find here.  Yet, just before their first showing, the players took to quite naturally, and seemed to really enjoy it.  This seeming was later proven for me when we were between the two shows, all rather full of food and feeling the week behind us, and I gave them the option of resting or doing another musical run.  They enthusiastically leaped into that second musical run, and came out of it grinning like mad.

The second was a more abstract result, and the result of another brilliant idea from Heather.  That is, a way to warm both the scenario people and the greenshow folks up together.  Eccolo: