To All the Jokers Out There

I don't yet know if it was a killing in any way inspired by the content of the series. It's too early in the news cycle at this point for us to be sure of anything related to the gunning down of 12 people at a midnight premier of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado. As of this writing, it could be religiously motivated terrorism, it could be indiscriminate or a crime of passion. What's difficult to ignore (for those of us millions who know the movies, and the tens of thousands of them who know the comicbooks that contributed to those movies) is that a man took it upon himself to murder an audience for a story that's laced with issues of copycat vigilantism, violence, morality and ethics. Not to mention: Justice.

I can't effectively weigh-in through one post on any of these topics individually (heck: I can barely suss out the distinction between morality and ethics without a self-conscious Google or two) much less the lot of them, entwined. I mean, does justice even exist? Or is it, rather like "honor," one of those old-fashioned ideals that seems a little too black-and-white to a contemporary society? Are our societal ideals rife with concepts that just appeal to our baser natures? Or are they ideals, in earnest, and we just need to keep striving to conceive of them in a truer sense?

There is one thing about which I do have something unique to contribute. Maybe it's wrong-headed, or too soon, but every so often we each and all have a reaction to something going on in our society that we need to work to process. This definitely falls under that category for me.

I was in college by the time Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on their spree in Colorado, but freshly so, and the crime held eerie echoes for me. In early high school, with certain friends, I planned crimes all the time. Those plans never involved murder, but were closely related to new feelings of rage that I didn't know how to handle. I played, and loved, the video game Doom. On the birthday before my freshman year of high school, my mom took me out to get me the black trench-coat I so desperately desired, and I wore it regularly - even in terribly inappropriate climates - right into college.

I also possessed an obsessive love of Batman, the character. I described him as my idol. That may seem unconnected, especially when you hear my rationale for this idolization: That he represents someone who not only survived trauma, but turned it into powerful motivation to excel and strive to make things right. That was an earnest rationale. It just leaves out that I also idolized the character because he could and did powerfully destroy other human beings with his bare (all right: gloved) hands. Is Batman's moral (or ideal) that he take no human life justification enough for his methods of achieving "justice"?

One thing I greatly appreciate about the recent trilogy of Batman movies is that the writers and director seem to be aware of the moral ambiguity of one person deciding what is right, and using violence to achieve that determination. They utilize and glorify that for our entertainment, but I appreciate the awareness nonetheless. After the first film, the media was already drawing comparisons between this Batman and American foreign policy in general, George W. Bush in particular - "You tried to kill my daddy, I'ma come out there with all my wealth and might and end your reign. Means and United Nations be damned." And in The Dark Knight, Batman literally eschews international extradition law. The writers then up the ante in the film's climax, showing our hero as a hunter willing to massively violate the rights of citizens in order to catch his prey. It seems to me they know that this is what they are doing, and that they want us to experience ambiguous feelings about it.

I suppose the great dichotomy between the iconic hero and villain of these stories - Batman and the Joker - can be a confusing one. Both are vigilantes, both rely on fear to achieve their ends, and both are flamboyant as all get-out. One is supposedly moral, the other amoral, but I've already pointed out that their ethics are not nearly as easily distinguished from one another. That leaves us with order versus chaos.

Who doesn't love a little chaos? I suppose for me it's been something of an acquired taste, but it's one I've definitely acquired as a performer and an audience member. Chaos can seem more sincere, frankly. Life does not readily present us with reasons - much less reason - and particularly in the contemporary age there seems little justification for a belief in a greater purpose, much less power. Purpose itself seems a hollow construction, under these circumstances. So, there are those of us who embrace a character bold enough to take that notion to the logical absurdity. There are some who just want to watch the world burn.

I'm not implying that the man who committed these murders was in any way inspired by the character of the Joker. Lord knows, we're likely to have more than one piece of unoriginal news coverage in the coming weeks that points out connections between this criminal and Joker's callousness, or Bane's paraphernalia (never mind that the cosplay an opening night inspires is a perfect cover for someone who already has destructive designs). What I am saying is that these characters have come to represent certain perspectives and behaviors of contemporary Americans, the same way the character of Batman has, or any ongoing archetype. The causation of it can not be sussed out with a few Googles, and odds are that culture in general exists as it has for all of human history: a sort of feedback loop between how we are, and how we portray ourselves in media.

So, causation aside, who has the right idea? Are human beings meant more for order, or chaos? Is it all so meaningless that the only true justification for action is how it affects the individual, the self? I acknowledge the possibility. Maybe we're all just too frightened of it to face it.

Maybe. But I'm disgusted, both by the incident early this morning, and the notion in the abstract. What utter selfishness. What a nauseating disregard for or ignorance of anything outside of one's own perception. Little wonder that we are eager to ascribe part of the cause for such actions to youth and/or mental illness - these are the two handiest explanations for such inward-obsessed, disconnected personalities. Regardless of the cause, and even regardless of the question of chaos versus order, even the Jokers of the world must admit that theirs are essentially selfish acts.

I have one argument to make to such people in such a debate, one thing to suggest that they're fools beyond even the kind of fool their worldview suggests they ought to be. If none of it matters, if life is indeed as meaningless and people as insignificant as in your philosophy, why do you have a purpose? Why must you do what you do, be it for personal gratification or illuminating the rest of us to your perspective?

You might just consider the possibility that your commitment to nihilism is best expressed in the same direction as your attention is. On yourself.

Commedia Day

Last Thursday, I failed, and was generously rewarded for it. The manner in which I failed was by opting out of performing with other talented artists for the International Day of Commedia dell'Arte, and I was rewarded by instead sitting in the audience and getting to enjoy multiple fascinating, commedia-inspired performances. It was quite moving, actually, to see such a concentrated example of the commedia dell'arte approached as a living tradition, which is an ethos Zuppa del Giorno has long espoused but rarely heard echoed back so specifically. I should have stepped up, and regret my own rather ironic sense of un-preparedness (is SO a word) to perform an improvised form, but regret nothing about attending the evening.

A couple of acquaintences with whom I've wanted to work --

Brian Foley


Billy Schultz

-- performed and were involved in pulling it all together, in association with

Fiasco Grande Productions

. It was an evening that seemed to aim to inform as much as it entertained, and all within a sort of informal framework of each act presenting itself with little explanation, then that performer hanging around a moment to introduce the next. I appreciated this, because it lent a feeling of inclusion, but it may have made some who were expected a more refined production feel awkward. In particular, I enjoyed a description of the commedia dell'arte given in prelude to the whole thing, by a gentleman named

Stanley Allan Sherman

. Mr. Sherman had that immediacy about his demeanor that is so essential to good commedia, and can be rather intimidating or unpredictable to folks unaccustomed to that sort of ride. He reminded me a bit of our friends Andrea Brugnera and Angelo Crotti, and I wanted to talk to him more. A young student was interviewing him before the show, and I was giddily elated to hear he designed the mask for a famous professional wrestler, Mankind, and that he

based it upon Arlecchino's visage

. Living tradition, indeed.

The evening included commedia tropes, clown routines, satire, buffon and acrobatics, and tons of just lovely silliness. There wasn't much traditional scenario work -- Brian came closest I think with a lovely solo piece reminiscent of the lazzi of perhaps Arlecchino or Pedrolino -- but I was pleasantly surprised to see transformational elements such as masks and wigs. Billy participated in a structured improvisation with a great premise: that of an international competition for paper airplane construction and flight. This was the piece that most reminded me of Zuppa's initial original work, insofar as it was essentially a use of commedia techniques and archetypes in a more contemporary context. I was later blown away by the comical mastery displayed by the


. They ripped it up, stitched it back together and made the whole audience more alive with laughter.

The purpose of this

International Day of Commedia dell'Arte

, as I understand it, is to bring a wider appreciation and understanding of the commedia dell'arte to the world in the hopes of getting it acknowledged as the major cultural influence upon western civilization that it has been. (So, you know: modest goals.) In the US,

Faction of Fools

seems to have taken up the bulk of the mantle of this promotion of "intangible heritage" and is doing an accountable job of mobilising troupes and players into action. It's a bit regrettable that, here on the northeast coast, the day takes place in February, given that outdoor performance would be both historically appropriate and good for advertising. Nevertheless, the day is a great idea that I hope carries ahead full steam into the coming years and toward its eventual aim. The Commedia dell'Arte is alive and well and almost no one seems to know it. I'd like to believe we can change that.

As to my failure, I paraphrase that towering Capitano Sinatra: Regrets, I've had a few. As much as it was scheduling and insufficient time to prepare (yes - to




) I think it was also a feeling of being quite out of touch with my craft, not having performed in the style since last summer's trip for

In Bocca al Lupo

. This evening rejuvenated that sense of connection, better than I could even have imagined, and has my imagination whirling again with archetypes and acrobatic gags. Who knows what will come of it, but I know that it will be driven forward by two things: the first, to never again be caught unawares for a similar performance opportunity; and the second is this feeling that I just walked into a room and found a panoply of old friends in the form of commedia characters. Thanks for that, everyone.

The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! : A Spectacular Summary

Well, we did it. It may not be topping the charts anymore, but I and some generous friends of mine, we put on a show; a variety show; a "spectacular." On a personal level, it was a really nice adventure for me. I got to produce something I want to see more of in the world, and though it was really my first time producing something completely solo, I got to experience that anxiety (comparable, frankly, only to the anxiety I felt in the week leading up to my wedding) in a familiar environment at ETC. In fact, this was sort of my Zuppa show for the year, as Zuppa del Giorno is on an indefinite hiatus from our show-making. Maybe that explains the anxiety -- I was squeezing two months' worth into about two days.

The greatest disappointment of the show was really a fairly insubstantial, and familiar, one. That is, the audience turn-out and (presumably) corresponding community awareness. I worked quite hard at getting that part of it supported and improved from the theatre's usual struggles yet, given the fact that the event was only $5 with an open bar, have to concede defeat. This short-fall is one thing when you know you're doing something experimental or otherwise unpopular, and much the same thing when the product turns out below expectations for one reason or another. Neither was the case here, though.

My performers...were...AWESOME. Seriously. You should have been there. AWESOME. I can admit to some bias, but really, I am quite cynical when it comes to productions of which I'm a part; especially when I have some creative control beyond the actor's usual lot. I'm here to tell you that unless you were one of the 30 or so members of the audience, you missed out. Fortunately, I'm here to sum it up for you a bit. I may post video in the coming weeks, too, with the performers' permission. In the meantime, some pithy-tude and photography, the latter taken largely by Ms. Alicia Grega-Pikul.

The real process began with the arrival of the performers around 2:00 the day of the show. That gave us approximately four-and-a-half hours in which to look at what we had, what we needed, and string it all together into a pleasing shape. Billy Rogan and I -- with a little very helpful directorial assistance from Heather Stuart -- spent some small time Sunday figuring out the framework that we as MCs would use, but apart from that it was done on the day. Kate Chadwick, Richard and Sheridan Grunn, Patrick Lacey, Billy and I in the room, figuring it all out. The experience was especially solitary because neither the administrator of the second-stage program nor the technical director of the theatre were in town. This made for a kind of hectic weekend of prep for yours truly, but was also truly nice when we nervous jumpers-in (of the head-first variety) got down to brass tacks. Six of us in a space, working. It would have been a mess if I had performers who were especially insecure or needy. Such was not the case. So as people showed me their pieces, other people searched for props, and still others went about experimenting with linking their performances with other folks. And by 6:30, we knew what we were about.

That's a total lie, but not knowing exactly what we were about was part of the idea in the first place. So...

There were pre- and post-show slideshows during the mingling and sipping. The pre-show one was made entirely of sketches of people's visions of the future as they imagined it between 1890 and 1920, which I loved having projected across a shredded ballroom from the 1800s. When we got underway, I said a few introductory words about Scranton and vaudeville, and then introduced Billy, who was late due to mingling with the crowd. Billy and I opened the show by establishing our relationship as guys who had different ideas of wanting the show to be good -- me uptight, he relaxed, which segued nicely into his playing one of his songs to open. We set Billy up so he could move about, but had a nice old easy chair stage left for home base. This worked really nicely, so that he belonged on stage, but didn't have to distract from the more independent performances. Billy's a very versatile and charismatic performer, as both musician and comedian, and I owe a tremendous amount of the show's function to his presence. In fact, you really should be listening to his music while you read this, just for mood's sake.

Hard on the heels of Billy's lyrical opening came Richard's Urbano's Kitchen, in which a rather mad-looking Italian chef unleashes dish after dish upon an unsuspecting restaurant. Richard has the kind of dash that can pull this kind of act off, and that's a rare quality. Essentially, the act consists of him excitedly throwing trash on the audience in the form of yarn spaghetti, paper farfalle and plastic-bag salad. Richard has a way of doing this that compromises none of the anarchic spirit, yet feels somehow inviting, and he had the perfect counterpart in his Vincenzo, a slow-moving old man played by his four-foot son Sheridan. He and Billy were really a one-two punch at the top, relaxing and then getting the audience laughing in turns.

After that it was more music, this time in the form of an a capella performance from Kate. She took the stage gently after a brief introduction from me, and explained her Irish roots before proceeding to sing a favorite Irish folk song of her grandmother's. Kate has a beautiful, strong and well-trained voice, so we can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Beyonce's Grammy-winning Single Ladies. As this pop song rolled out in a grandly nostalgic, traditional style, the audience went to stitches. What was really funny was that it took awhile to get through this pop song in that style, which -- rather than seeming to run long -- made the song and our appreciation of it only feel funnier and funnier. And did Kate crack a single ironic smile? She did not.

After that it was Patrick's turn to take the stage, and Patrick had some very cool things up his sleeve. I set up one of his props -- a kind of glowing crystal ball -- and bantered a bit with Billy as he prepared to play the music he and Patrick had put together just hour before. As he played eerie electric wobbles and loops and...uh...sworls (technical musical term) Patrick emerged from far stage right curtains as an impossibly tall fortune-teller. This was a new mask, and a new piece, and it was thrilling to watch Patrick debut it. The audience was geared up for more comedy, which I think actually made some of them nervous as this seven-foot woman floated to the crystal ball. She looked into it briefly, then began to convulse and collapse, until she was just a heap of fabric on the floor. Then the fabric began to twitch and convulse. Billy's music ceased, and out from under the fabric emerged a transformed creature (a cat, though debate rages on). The audience loved this piece as Patrick did something he does brilliantly, and the crystal ball becomes a cat toy as the piece transforms into something utterly playful. And, for this one, there's already video.

The piece segued directly into one of Billy's songs, a playful number called Perambulate, and after that, it was up to me and Billy to clear the stage. I came out on my stilts to ham it up for a bit and remove the prop while Billy removed the abandoned costume, and then Ms. Kate Chadwick returned, sans introduction (I think; Kate, check my miserable memory) carrying her singin' stool. The stool was a ruse, though. Billy took a seat in his easy chair as she set foot on the dance floor, setting off a click from her heels. My goodness! Tap shoes! How did they get on there? Kate does a little tapping, much to the audience's delight, and then Billy mocks her a bit by thumping out rhythms on his guitar. They get into a comic duel, which gives way into Billy's Ravi Shankar, a very energetic, rhythmic song of his with thumps and ticks that accelerate throughout. They perform a duet. THEY MET THAT AFTERNOON, AND THAT NIGHT, THEY DID A TAP'N'GUITAR DUET. I, for the record, have never, ever done anything to be so lucky as to have these people performing on my program.

Patrick then performed his masked movement piece, Emro Farm, a moving sort of dance that tells the story of a woman living on a farm -- a single place -- for her entire life. It's hard to explain this piece with words, but it's easy to describe the effect it had in the context of the evening. Patrick really grounded the whole affair with his contributions, lending it a chance to be more than just a "spectacular," allowing it to have moments of meaning and reflection that I for one am enormously grateful. Emro Farm is repetitive movement set to beautiful, occasionally melancholy, music, and the final repetition ends in silence. Due entirely to my mismanagement of rehearsal time (all four hours of it), Patrick was interrupted a bit early in this final silent repetition. I think it still worked, however. I was very fond of the transition we found. Sheridan's character, Vincenzo, enters upstage at his glacial pace, stands center and opens up one of the props for the final act: a music box. This gentle interruption of the silence and gravity of Emro Farm was really quite wonderful, and allowed Patrick's character to leave the stage in character, which was essential to the mood he had created.

The last act of the evening ended us on a playful high note, as once again Rich took the stage as Urbano. This time, it was Urbano's Circus, a rollicking puppet show of sorts that mirrored the spirit and content of the whole evening's variety nicely. With his (t)rusty assistant, Urbano wheels out a grocery cart full of eccentric puppet performers who leap (are thrown) through the air, run about (remotely controlled) on the ground and generally act up in their particular routine. It involved audience participation, gleeful imagination and of course Rich's persnickety, anarchic orchestration. He had a wonderful gimmick for it, too, in which Vincenzo would at his command open different electronic greeting cards in front of a microphone for theme music. Flight of the Valkyries never sounded so apt. It wrapped up with an unwrapped "fin" sign -- perfect punctuation on which to end the show and lead us into our curtain call.

We said goodbye, I on my stilts, and I took off my hat as I bowed, unleashing a torrent of ping-pong and bouncy balls on the unsuspecting audience and performers. Billy played a new composition on which he's working, and the evening segued into chat and another slide show, this one of black-and-white photos of strange human endeavors. The balls may have been a slight misstep on my part, as a certain segment of the audience decided to begin a bit of a war with them (resulting of course in my getting absolutely BEANED in the temple by a bouncy ball) but the mood seemed entirely jovial and it was nice to have everyone lingering afterward -- a sure sign of a job well done, as far as I'm concerned.

Attendance expectations aside and owing nearly entirely to my performers, I feel it was a resounding success. I hope the participants feel the same. Probably the most resounding lesson I take away from the experience is that when producing this kind of show, the performers are all -- get good ones, and then make them as absolutely supported as possible, on stage and off. They will be amazing. Spectacular, one could say....

In Defense of la Commedia dell'Arte

A disclaimer: I do not claim to be any sort of authority on the art and history of the traditional Italian commedia dell'arte.

An opinion: No one is, really. Not anymore. There simply weren't enough written records kept (indeed, this contributed to the genre's definition) and the oral tradition is -- by its nature -- subject to evolution in any and all aspects.

A philosophical theory: Commedia dell'arte theatre exists as we make it, and is defined by a method and process more than by specific style elements or traditional strictures. It is in essence a living tradition, one that influences and is influenced by the life and art that surrounds it.

Allora. I feel that there exists in my community here in the United States (and possibly all over the western hemisphere, but I write to what I know) a prejudice against the commedia dell'arte. Perhaps it's futile to address this possibility, given how small a percentage of the population has any idea what the commedia dell'arte is, even in concept, but I'm a theatre artist. Futile pursuits are what I was born to pursue. Plus, it riles me somewhat that the people who are aware of the commedia dell'arte are somehow unaware of its nature. (Just look at this riling on my forearms. And that's only the part that shows!) The Cd'A (went there - for the Twitter crowd) has gotten a bad rap.

Rep? Rap. Rap? A rep, rap, the reppie the reppie to the rep rep rap and I don't stop.

I've had two profound experiences with the genre and its practitioners in the past year, and both have fueled my desire to set the record a bit straighter, but especially the latter. First, in January we began two months' work on a commedia dell'arte and clown production called The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. In this production we worked with two Italian artists, Angelo Crotti and Andrea Brugnera, and learned much about how the commedia dell'arte informed all of their work. Most recently, our study-abroad, cutural-immersion extravaganza, In Bocca al Lupo, concluded its 2009 program, in which the students received training from both these artists as well as we members of Zuppa del Giorno, and performed an original Scala scenario, semi-improvised, in Italian, in two Italian towns. This program is one that always yields surprising, dramatic results; this year, for me, it proved to be tremendously inspirational.

The problem with some people's perception of the commedia dell'arte is, in my opinion, that they perceive it to be juvenile, gross and pandering to the public. There are other factors involved that typical western audiences can have trouble digesting -- the use of masks, the lack of script -- but primarily the problem seems to lie in the commedia dell'arte being stuck with a stigma of being the lowest common denominator in theatre . . . both in terms of content and execution. And, worse yet, this perception is perpetuated by numerous well-intentioned(?) artists. I recall a performance I saw a couple of years ago in which a prop of fake linked sausages was performing with more truth than almost all of the other actors. Shakespeare suffers from similar widespread abuse -- people basing their work on their experience of the form rather than on an understanding of the function. The difference is, with commedia dell'arte theatre there's no one reminding you and insisting that it's really quite good when done well. Well, there's me, today, and there's this guy, pretty much always. And many others, but nothing like the masses of famous Shakespeare scholars and advocates.

We had a diverse group of students for In Bocca al Lupo this year, just as we did the first time we ran the program, in 2006 -- from undergrad theatre students to middle-aged non-actors, and even one professional actor who was close to my age (but even she is from Australia, where absolutely everything is strange and backward and strange). As if sadists, we threw them into intensive classes the day after their plane arrived: hours of Italian immersion class and then they were introduced to Angelo Crotti, who promptly worked our bodies so hard that the next day you couldn't help but feel that you were somehow being punished, perhaps for being so complacent a human being as to not regularly imitate the walk of an alligator for at least ten minutes every day. Heather and I attended all these classes with the students (though we had trained with Angelo extensively before, how could we turn down the opportunity to do so again?) and experienced first hand their struggles and responses. As we began to see, from the very first day, this was not a group that shrunk from challenge.

After intensive physical training and an introduction to the characters and mask work, Angelo ended his (too) few days with us by creating an on-the-spot scenario. It was a little like taking a trip inside his brain, and I know I was often struggling to keep up, so I can only imagine what my fellow actors thought of it. It was fascinating, though, because we got to superimpose Angelo's years of experience on our own relative ignorance, and try to reconcile the two. Watch as gli studenti -- Maureen Arscott, Beth Burkhauser, Marti Cate, Gemma Cavoli, Brian Jones, Becky Lighthizer, Carolyn Ruggiero, Heather Stuart and Addam Wawrzonek -- learn from a master:

Forgive our efforts at acting and mask work (for most of us, it is the first time for both or either, and everyone's just trying to do as they were asked here) but, more importantly, watch the glimpses of Angelo's work the lesson affords. The only thing lacking here is him in mask, which is an incredibly effective thing. It works when he does it because he can be believed. With all the artifice and style and for all the funny fun he's having, he can be believed. Angelo is not, perhaps, the most gentle of teachers. Yet as we reached the end of our time with him, the lessons he repeated were less to do with Arlecchino's stance or needing to put more energy into it, and more and more to do with a repeated imperative: "You must believe in what you are doing."

Angelo's other big axiom, oft repeated while we were working on R&J, is "all is for the audience." This is one that I tend to shy away from a bit, because I've been trained on some instinctive level to perceive working for the audience as pandering. What's interesting is the way in which this axiom can easily be perverted in the same way the commedia dell'arte style can, by putting emphasis on form over function. Ergo, pandering. Of course, as with most things, we have to practice the form over and over again before understanding the function. My understanding of what Angelo means, as far as I've gotten with it, is that the actor must be absolutely generous with the audience in this work. The form is to keep the mask presented forward; the function, to not only maintain the connection with the audience, but make that connection as strong and inclusive as possible.

Fast forward now, through two weeks' continued training and rehearsal, through more Italian lessons and great exercises from Andrea in character development and creation, through innumerable personal experiences (good and bad [sorry: helpful and less-helpful]), through even an initial performance of our scenario (The Two Faithful Notaries) in which we hit all the important plot points with clarity, yet somehow failed to create actual theatre. Fast forward to our second and final performance, in Orvieto. For whatever reason, we had an audience of five adults, one toddler. We held the curtain for about thirty minutes in hopes of more (not unexpected, that: Italy, after all), which is a tough time for actors in general, but especially difficult prior to an intensely physical, comic performance. At last we parted the curtains for our tiny audience.

You know that question about trees in forests and the existential quandary of an unwitnessed fall?

It was a brilliant show. Brilliant. I venture to say everyone of us learned from it and surprised ourselves. It felt to me more like the work that we set out to do with Zuppa del Giorno than even many of our own shows have. There's video of it, but I don't have it and I suspect it's pretty terrible (yes, even worse than my handheld digital camera work) and besides, video always leaves out the best thing about live performance: the direct, real-time communication with an audience. So you'll just have to believe me about how everyone, across the board, ultimately found the show together, and brought characters to life instead of simply getting them "right," and improvised golden bits of true comedy, and lived all the wants and needs and instinctive responses out loud, and on a grand, beautifully physical scale. You have to believe me because it's true, and because that belief is what I've been carrying around with me since I returned to the US of A, and it will make you smile like I do just to think of it.

At its best, the commedia dell'arte offers all the most enjoyable parts of theatre, dance, stand-up, circus (and a little you-name-it, always) in a format that is utterly inviting and inclusive. There's two sides to every coin, of course, and as one of the first recorded commercially motivated theatre genres it can be terrible. We can make it formal beyond repair, or pandering to laughter and coinage, or simply a mess. That's very easy to do. When we make it great, however, there's nothing like it. There are many contributing factors to such greatness. Lots and lots of technical work and training ought to go into any performer taking it on. It's a very difficult form, in my opinion, and as with circus part of the trick is in making it look easy. Most important of all of that, however, is belief. Believing in what you're doing and feeling, the audience's belief in you and your belief in them, and believing in the commedia dell'arte itself.

My point? Just to draw a little attention to what I consider to still be a rather neglected and abused form. Maybe also to say: Make gooder art, everyone. The things we create aren't always magic, but on those occasions when they are . . . hoo-boy . . .

Class Act


You've probably been 'blogging for too long when you start to feel, with every post title, "I must have used THIS pun before...."


I have a lot of semi-traumatic memories of school. I say semi-traumatic because, in spite of how very very real they were to me at the time, in light of some more adult tragedies it seems inapt to apply the same word. Still and all -- without that perspective and with the fiery, passionate, all-or-nothing stakes of youth -- some of these events were rather defining for me. I was thinking of one of the less traumatic (possibly even redemptive of...something...) ones this morning as I hurriedly recorded my lines for tomorrow's film gig in the hopes of absorbing them through audio osmosis. In a history class in what I recall as being my junior year of high school, I gave a presentation on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and afterward a guy who had given me a hard time in the past rather announced to the class, "Hey, you were acting. That was just like when you act." Somehow I had the presence of mind not to feel injured by this call-out (it was definitely an effort to draw negative attention to me) and I calmly responded, "Yeah, I was. I can do that." And sat down. And the class continued, my would-be persecutor left scratching his head a bit at why acting was allowed in class.

Yesterday I returned to Hunter College to teach

an Intro. to Theatre class

about the (living) history of commedia dell'arte. I've taught similar classes at Hunter before, though always a shorter class with more students, and to date always with my commedia partner-in-crime,

Heather Stuart

. This was, in other words, something of a new experience for me. Oh, and in addition to these circumstances, it was my first time really teaching solo for a class of desk-bound students -- generally non-actors who hadn't any expressed interest in getting out of the seats to try the work on for size. I was made a little nervous by it. (Ironically, I got three potential

In Bocca al Lupo

-ers out of them, but I couldn't have known that was a possibility ahead of time.) As far as I was concerned, I was there to lecture. In my own, inimitable style.

Said "inimitable style" involves quite a bit of amateurish waffling and tangential thinking.

The class went well, actually, I think. The teacher, Sascha Just, was complimentary afterward. Most of the people seemed to be engaged most of the time, and I certainly never ran out of things to talk about. There were gaffs, and the lesson plan needs more work for certain, but in balance I'd say it was a success. I was pleasantly surprised by some techniques I implemented that were half-planned, half-spun-out-on-the-spot; rather like working from a scenario. I asked the students periodically to imagine themselves in the shoes of a commedia dell'arte troupe of the 1500s; not in a "picture-this" way, but more actively, using modern equivalents and inviting them to draw images without requiring that they do so. This worked to wake them from note-taking stupors, and also helped us find a common ground when I got cyclical or tangential in whatever aspect I was covering at a given moment. "Where was I? Back to the piazza...." I also had the idea to tell them to interrupt me whenever they had a question or a reaction. They didn't take me up on this too much, but a little, and I was pleased with how it kept things lively and served to illustrate the level of interaction traditional commedia had with its unpretentious audiences.

I was acting. I was very much putting on a show. In another interesting parallel, though, it reminded me of the first time I used mask work in performance. This was not in a commedia context, per se, but it did involve a similar half-mask style. I was suddenly divorced from a powerful component of my acting -- my facial expressions. I had to relearn what read to an audience, which gestures and intonations would connect without facial cues, and I can assure you that it was a rocky start to demonstrating that particular skill. Hopefully I've improved since. Hopefully, too, I'll learn more and more about teaching a class in an actual classroom, as opposed to a theatre, or movement studio. I couldn't jump about too much there, and it affected everything from my method of description to changes in my overall energy pattern. I had quite a patter kept up; definitely could have afforded a bit more relaxation, but by the same token I believe my enthusiasm for the subject was welcome.

I left feeling very gratified. In a way, finding this new way of expressing the essentials of commedia dell'arte renewed my excitement for it, which will be very valuable indeed in the coming month. My enthusiasm while teaching in Italy will be genuine. I won't even have to act!

Er, wait . . .