In my warm-up routine for teaching commedia dell'arte characters and physical characterization, we spend most of our focus on two things: warming up the spine and isolating parts of the body for specificity. This guy's video may have to become a part of the multimedia model for the class:


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:

Ich Bin Ein Scrantonian

The view from inside my Scranton office.
Editor's note: The following is an entry that I wrote last Thursday.  Normally I would update it and post it as written today, but I can't seem to make any time for 'blog posts lately, so I'm breaking with convention, leaving it as it is and posting it to yesterday's date.  (I am no longer in Scranton; my caffeine intake has since subsided, somewhat.)  This is in the hopes that I can write today about what I really want to write about, but we'll just see how that goes, shall we?  Without further ado:

Today I've spent five straight hours sitting in a coffee shop off of the Scranton town square, plugging away at this and that on my laptop.  In that time, I've had various meetings with people, both planned and unplanned, in person and over the internet.  I've occasionally engaged in some of my usual time-wasting computer activities - a little Facebook, a bit of tearing through Google Reader items - but by-and-large I have been at work.  My work, not anybody else's, and that's delightful.  I think my rear end is going to give up and walk out soon, with or without me, but there'll be plenty of time for movement and making up for that tonight when I return to the reason I'm here in the first place: to once again teach commedia dell'arte to and stage a scenario with the good theatre students of Marywood University.

I've been here since Monday, and in that time have been preoccupied with adjusting my body clock to our teaching schedule.  The students have classes until the evening, so our "extra-curricular" mandatory activity takes place between the hours of 8:30 and 11:00 at night.  Poor Heather has to be up early in the morning as well, to work her day job and attend her newly acquired graduate studies, but I have the luxury of simply sleeping until 10:00 am.  And frankly, if I did not, this bird would not fly.  I am not a night person.  Even with my adjusted sleep schedule it's a trial.  I make bad decisions past about 9:00 pm, and under normal circumstances they're confined to junk food and succumbing to my onychophagia, but this week these poor decisions extend to dramaturgy and personal safety.  Fortunately for me, la commedia dell'arte tends to thrive on regrettable choices.

There's something really lovely about the people I work with here in Northeastern Pennsylvania (or "NEPA," a nice analogue to my accustomed "NoVa").  It's as though everyone understands that what we're doing is what we're doing, and not that thing we're doing now that will hopefully result in something later that will contribute to that big break or that huge pay-off down the road.  Plus there are no subways.  But I digress.  All I'm trying to say is that focusing on work is a lovely, lovely thing that I very badly needed, in spite of all the work I've gotten to do in NYC lately.  I'm exercised and inspired and healthy, and generally happy in a way that can be easy to forget as I stride my way down the Avenue of the Americas to this, that or the other.

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.