Chewing the Fat

Editor's Note: The following is expanded from a recent, personal email exchange that triggered some specifying thought on my part. I've left it in direct-address form because it's a personal subject, and I believe it will resonate with many more people than I may even have in mind.

You're not fat.

The trouble with the word "fat" is that it inevitably implies certain things about lifestyle, be it laziness, genetic permanence, social status or what-have-you. It's self-limiting, even when said with loving kindness. So, while some may insist it's just bluntly accurate, to my mind the word is way too laden with bias and implication (not to mention far too unspecific) to be of much use as a description. Heck: it's not even a description - it's a state of being, reducing a person to just the actual, biological element: fat.

I have seen things (I have seen such things!!!) in Italy that have convinced me that the difference between a hot person and an ugly one has way more to do with carriage and knowing yourself than it does with fitting a so-called standard of beauty. My personal adviser in all things Italian used to tell me this - that the Italians just knew how to carry themselves - and I assumed he was simply enamored of them in general (and so he is). But once I went there myself, I saw what he meant.

The old, the infirm, the pre-adolescent - nearly everyone there seemed to look me straight in the eye, and present themselves with a complete lack of shame. Even when we say "lack of shame" here in the U.S. of A., we're implying shamelessness. As in - that's a bad thing. Why do we value shame {ahem Puritans} {ahem 1950s} {ahem FEARBASEDOBEDIENCE}? Shame is very ugly and insidious. It's a message too many of us carry around and broadcast: Do not give me what I want; I am unworthy; anything good I receive is a miracle. Ugh. Presenting it as a virtue is one efficacied-up thing about this country, for sure.


The Italians (generalizing here, I realize, but:) The Italians somehow learn to work what they've got, to believe that there are people who will want what they've got, and perhaps they'll never find those people if they don't put it out there all the time. Not showily, and not with tremendous effort - just as a way of being. You don't walk into a room. You WALK INTO a room. A public square isn't something to be gotten across. It's someplace YOU are CROSSING.

We way-Westerners reduce this to saying that sex appeal is about confidence, but that doesn't cover it. A) It's not just confidence, but a larger perspective, and B) it's not only sex appeal! That's just what we put on it! It's bearing, man. It's your moment-to-moment engagement and communication with the world at large.

This is a radical idea for me, in spite of what people who've only known me in my adult life may assume. Sure, maybe a positive attitude and outgoing approach should be easier for me, with my hair/weight/sex/uality. But it isn't. And it isn't easy in part because I can still feel my 14-year-old belly folding around my jeans waist, or rubbing against my gym shirt during "running" the mile, as though it was this morning. The abject shame of that lives, one of those insidious ideas that once imagined can't be entirely eradicated. Should I just get over myself? Yes. Sure I should. I'd love to. And in some moments, I do, and those are awesome moments.

Perhaps the idea would seem less radical, or my feelings would be less inextricably entwined, if it was only the angst of my youth that gave me my perspective. Maybe if it had only been that elementary-aged kid following me as I walked home from high school, daring me to respond by laying every fatness adjective across my soft back that he could think of, maybe if the bullying was all, then I could embrace this release of shame after all. But I also have a mother, who has struggled with herself over her weight her entire life. Who, in photos from her youth was certainly somewhat full-figured, but also beautiful. Who sacrificed her body utterly for the sake of bringing me and my sister into the world, and never gave up trying to "improve" that body afterward through senseless diets. Who detached from her body, and its sensations and responses, so thoroughly that she was amazed in middle age to discover that it had some important information to communicate with her brain about her mood, and her health, and her overall being.

Now too I have watched my wife throw her body on the circumstance of motherhood, watched it transform itself and be wrenched about by doctors, watch it knitting itself back together and watch her work at accepting where it is, where she wants it to be, and where it may not be able to go. I see much more work and will, not to mention intelligence, go into those transformations than ever I was capable of in my small struggles. And I see the grief endured by both women that I love more than almost any other, as the rest of the world casually maligns them, assuming a standard imposed on it by wish fulfillment and power fantasies. People will call them by this word, "fat." I see this, and I see my baby daughter, and I want so much to be so different. Right away, right now.

Maybe we'll all just move to Italy once our lease is up.

Ci vediamo!

So, where does that leave you and I, in our wonderings about body image and making sexy duck faces in Facebook photos? I take all that baggage and the stunning Mediterranean example, and just try to present myself with a little pride, while keeping my self-perception as accurate as possible. That's not the same thing as our "Italian" ideal, but it's the closest I can come so far. When we were in our circus days, training regularly, I used to comfort myself with regard to my physique with the mantra, "It's not about how you look, but what you can do." As I've gotten older, that's no less true, but frustrating at times - because age, dang it, makes me have to work harder to be able to do the same things.

So my suggestion is that you boost what you already occasionally do, depending on circumstances - take an unapologetic approach to presenting yourself to people day-to-day. In fact, I think that's the concerning part for me - hearing you fret over anyone else's perception. Try to let go of your concern about how some one person preconceives your physique. Own it. Focus on your attributes positively, sans B.S. You can't do a thing about what this or any person likes. Like yourself.

Sometimes that's about losing some weight or gaining some strength, so you feel good. But it's always about how you feel, and perceive yourself.

Zuppa: The Next Course

Traditionally, we know what our Zuppa del Giorno show is going to be at least a year in advance, if not more. That seems funny to write, especially with how much I write about the process starting from nothing at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Yet both are true. We never start out with a show, and we always end up with a show, yet at least a year in advance we know what the show is going to be "about." The first would be about updated commedia traditions, the second about the Marx brothers, the third about silent film comedians, etc. One needs to know that much in advance so one can research, and plan, and gather materials for the horrifying moment when one finds oneself in an empty space without a single indication of where to go next, surrounded by folk who have as little clue (and at least as much anxiety) as you do.

In effect, Zuppa has officially now skipped a year. Owing to the ambitious nature of our last original work, and a focus on advancing our study abroad program, In Bocca al Lupo, we took a little break. Recently, however, David Zarko asked us to pool some ideas for the next endeavor into wholly original (or at least creatively stolen) show material. Here is what I emailed him, off the top of my head and verbatim:
  • Mummer's (or guiser's) Play: adaptable to public spaces, most characters performed in disguise or with mask - Wikipedia link. They usually have to do with good versus evil, and involve some element of resurrection. Prepare an original show utilizing style elements; perform in a different space every time. If at ETC, in ballroom, second stage, shop, lobby, abandoned rooms, etc. Scranton, all over, including weirdness like bowling alleys. In Italy, piazzas, but also tourist spots and museums.
  • Show set in a circus. I've resisted this for some time, but we really should attempt it some time. Doesn't have to be circus intensive, but can include stilt-walking and other street-theatre conducive elements.
  • The Great Zuppa Murder Mystery. Classic isolated scenario, names after Scranton locales and exit signs (Lord Dunmore Throop). Either played straight, or played a la coarse theatre -- more a play about players trying to put on a murder-mystery play, but not having their act together. OR, totally meta-: a real murder is supposed to have happened during a performance of a murder-mystery play that is being put on by coarse actors who are incapable of getting anything right.
  • A play about religion. I don't know -- religion is funny. Maybe a play about mythos and superstition, as well, or instead of. Zuppa's vampire play.
  • Another silent show, but based in something besides silent movies. This isn't really an idea. Sorry.
  • Collaborations with mixed media: visual artists, musicians, writers, dancers. The idea being that we highlight the ways in which everyone uses improvisation by performing alongside folks, united by some storytelling commonality.
  • Oh and also: A really real vaudeville show (There were some plans to incorporate a significant vaudeville presence into Prohibitive Standards, but they never crystallized. - ed.). With guest artists.
I'll probably have more ideas over time and, as is perhaps evident, I'm not especially sold on any of these in particular. Zuppa's mission statement when it comes to our original shows (in as much as we have one) is to illustrate the living traditions of the commedia dell'arte that permeate our culture, and inspire our audiences to learn more about that interconnected culture. Hence ideas that hearken to older forms, or hang on the twin cousins of homage and parody.

So what do you think, Gentle Reader? Seriously -- Which of these ideas would you like to see our merry, rotating band of "creactors" make a whole new show of? Or, better yet: What are your ideas...?

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 . . .



In Bocca al Lupo is a non-stop program. On their three-week course, the students have only two free days. They also have two days of gita scholastici which add the time up to two full weekends, in which we go see shows and visit towns and regions they otherwise might not, but that's as much as to say that it's a required activity. They need context for their huge undertaking, and we all need that kind of time outside the rehearsal or class rooms to really develop a personal bond. After all, a sense of ensemble is critically essential to the final project.

We had a week to plan and prepare and, quite frankly, relax before they arrived. They hit the ground running, however. The very next day, after their flight got in, they began language classes at Lingua Si and master classes in commedia dell'arte with Angelo Crotti in a converted convent. I can attest to the fact that the language classes are mentally taxing, and as far as Angelo's classes go, well . . . any Crotti class you can limp away from is a good one. They did brilliantly. There were some breakdowns, but no dramas, and by the end of the week, everyone had forgotten their aching gams, bid Angelo a bitter-sweet adieu, and managed to speak enough Italian to make sense of their little world in Orvieto.

So we moved them to Aquapendente and took away their language classes.

In Aquapendente our artistic home is Teatro Boni, a beautiful little classical theatre complete with velvet seats and crystal chandelier. Boni is where the students began their master classes with Andrea Brugnera, who emphasizes a more internal approach to character creation and story-telling. It's at this time that we also introduced them to the scenario they would be learning and performing—in Italian—and began that work. The trade-off for not having Angelo's physical demands during this time is that we begin regular “conditioning,” as I've come to call it. At the end of every day, after master classes and rehearsal, for a half an hour, I get to lead the students through strength and endurance exercises. I'd be lying if I said I didn't relish this. Some part of me misses working with a circus troupe, still.

This period is a complex one in many ways. One of the objectives is to encourage the students to learn improvisation as not just a useful skill in dealing with problems, but a preferable one. So, even as we're asking them to memorize a story and do things “right,” we're also trying to encourage thinking (or perhaps more appropriately, feeling) spontaneously and in a spirit of discovery. This ripples through everything we do, including trying to locate parking on a group trip. It's frightening. Everyone reacts differently. Most people struggle to get a grip on something concrete, to get it “right.” They ask for a written copy of the scenario, which we never provide, as it's important to learn the story through one's body and connections with others. They aim for consistency in on-stage exchanges, and we do what we can to shake them out of these. They come to rely on certain routines (such as the conditioning) and we viciously disrupt them.

It's also a complex time because we are becoming an ensemble. Relationships that are akin to a family are nascent, and manifest in both helpful and unhelpful ways (when your priority is improvisation and doing, terms like "good" and "bad" prove decidedly unhelpful). Not only are the students living and working together, and in the process attempting to avoid falling into reality television cliches, but we as teachers are becoming their directors and - in my and Heather's cases - fellow actors. We all have to depend on one another and, even as we're getting past the polite or glamorous demeanor of first encounters, the idea of treating everyone you work with as an inspired poet and artist turns from a nice idea into an essential survival tool.

In the third and final week, I invariably wonder to myself, Can it really have been only two weeks? Yet the performances loom and there seems still to be a million things to decide and discover. People despair and laugh uncontrollably and have personal revelations, and none of it helps us feel any more prepared for our first audience. The students have their second brush-up Italian lesson while we teachers hasten to pay rent on theatres and generally determine what use of rehearsal time will be most useful. And then whoosh, flash, bang: It's over. Over two or three days, all our fruition and reversed expectations. And we part ways. And it seems impossible that we are indeed going to go separate ways, much less that we've known each other for only a few weeks, and not most of our lives.

The students this year were absolutely amazing, and a privilege to work with. I'll have much more write specifically about their work and the particular experience in the coming days. Until then, I simply savor the glow of it all. While working on a show, it often seems impossible, even when it's with a script, and in English. The feeling after you pull it off, especially when you pull it off well . . . well. Suffice it to say the night never feels so refreshing in the piazza, and the gelato never so sweet.