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:

This Is Just to Say

I have enjoyed

the actors

that came in

to callbacks

and who

were probably tense


its oddness.

Forgive me

I cannot cast you all

so brave

and so totally awesome.

Short post here just to touch on the callbacks for

our next Zuppa del Giorno show

, the which I'll be directing. They have taken place this week, and after a little more coordinating and ruminating we should have our third performer. This was effectively my first time on the other side of the table in an audition process, and I learned a lot from it (possibly at the expense of the actors involved?), both as someone conducting an audition process and as an actor in said audition. More anon on that. (I'm really racking up the promised 'blog topics here.)

This post is really just to say that everyone who came in was awesome. It was an extremely unconventional callback process, due to the developmental and improvisational nature of the show, and each actor handled it with style. See if this doesn't terrify you: We set out a table of assorted random objects, and had people in two-at-a-time. The game they played was to tell a story between them, with one person verbally telling the story and the other telling it physically. They could use any of the "props," and at any time they could switch positions, yielding their vocal or physical storytelling to the other, or swooping into the other role. And they just kept going until I said, "Scene."

Tough, no? Awful, really, for people psyched to have an opportunity. If I could have come up with any other way to find out what we needed to know, I would have done that. But I wish you could have been there, Dear Reader, because what everyone did was unique and effective and inspiring. So, thanks, Auditioners. I would like to take you all out for milk and cookies.

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.

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 . . .