Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dell'Arte Memories

When we were living in Pittsburgh, Margaret came back from a national theatre conference somewhere with a load of brochures and other handouts.  One day I spread them out on my bed and began reading the ones that looked most interesting.  I read about this theatre called Dell'Arte in some place with the lovely name of Blue Lake.  I liked what I read about theatre and community, theatre of place, nurturing and generating new work on the spot.

Margaret and I were both playwrights at the time.  It was more or less how we met.  When in the course of time she interviewed for some teaching jobs in California,  I was rooting for Humboldt: because of the climate, the redwoods and the sea, and the proximity to Indian tribes.  Nearby Dell'Arte was also part of the draw.

It turned out that Dell'Arte was not going to be a creative home for me, and I got a different role to play, as a theatre columnist, which I performed as best I could for the past 9 years. Dell'Arte was a big part of those years.

We started seeing Dell'Arte shows as soon as we got here in the fall of 1996.  I began writing about their shows in 2005.  I laughed, I was dazzled, I was frustrated, I appreciated, I was puzzled, I learned. But after all that time and all those shows, I'm still not sure what I think or feel about devised work or commedia.  Which means I've constantly been challenged and engaged, in the process of learning about these ways of doing theatre, and learning about my own responses.

I've certainly come to know more about and appreciate commedia and its role.
I've learned enough about "devised" or group-created theatre to know I can't understand it from the outside, though I expect the process is different for each project and with each group.

I love the idea (and when I've experienced it, the process) of a seat-of-the-pants group creation that's funny--a cabaret, a burlesque, a series of skits.  One of my dreams was a kind of theatrical That Was the Week That Was every month. But for a sustained, single theatre piece, i.e. a play,  I certainly haven't lost my preference for a playwright.

Of course the playwright's process may well include others. Some, maybe many playwrights work with the director, cast and other creative agents on the production, often reimagining and rewriting parts of the play.  I knew of one wonderful play that began with creative contributions from a class (Becoming Memories by Arthur Giron, which I've seen in three different productions, including one directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso.) And I've seen close up the contributions that actors as well as others can make to a play in process, at the O'Neill Center.

 But I can't help believing that the inchoate quality of some such productions, the missed opportunities for both depth and finish, for a vision is often a result of compromise or just too many cooks.  However, I've felt this not only with devised work, but with some plays that go through the workshop and development process, and come out homogenized or confused, or both.

It may not even be fair to compare devised work with the work of a playwright.  But I get the feeling that the first is fashionable now, crowding out the other.

But on with the shows...

Out there right now is the latest of Dell'Arte's annual Christmas holidays shows.  The performers and co-creators are generally from the Dell'Arte School, directed by Michael Fields, Joan Schirle or Ronlin Foreman.  Over the years I've seen them in at least four venues: the Carlo, the Van Duzer, the Adorni Center and McKinleyville High School.

For Dell'Arte, it keeps them visible in the communities, and gives the school's students some experience before audiences and especially in touring--that process of packing out, setting up, playing the show, breaking it down, packing it back in the truck, and heading for the next venue.  For audiences it is free holiday season entertainment,  near where they live.

I recall The Hunting of the Snark as the most visually impressive, with sets by Jody Sekas and costumes by Lydia Foreman.  This interpretation of the Lewis Carroll poem happened the same year (2007) as Ferndale Rep did a children's show based on the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland.

I remember images and impressions from other shows (one with a lot of doors and people running in and out, for instance.)

  But my favorite is the 2009 show, A Commedia Christmas Carol. That was the Dickens Christmas year, as NCRT did A Christmas Carol and Ferndale Rep did Oliver!

  This show gave us the framework of the familiar Dickens story but with contemporary twists (though none of them were Oliver.)  Scrooge's nephew and his wife, paragons of middle class virtue in Dickens, are spoiled Yuppies.  Most daring and most effective was Tiny Tim, not as a crippled waif, but as afflicted with the contemporary American scourges of obesity and asthma.

So it was contemporary, full of verbal as well as physical humor, and it was commedia, for Scrooge is a version of the ancient character type, the Miser.  And while it was not entirely faithful to the spirit of Dickens' tale, it gained by both resemblances and contrasts, and it pleased both children and adults on different levels.  This is perhaps different from saying it was a family show--I suppose some others were better at being that.

Throughout the year there might be another Dell'Arte Company show locally, they might tour, or simply be involved in other projects.  The School produces shows as projects from courses in clown work, melodrama, tragedy and so on.  In the spring are the culminating shows, the Finals and the Thesis Projects.

I've previewed and reviewed a number of these shows over this years.  For the purposes of this retrospective, I'm most interested in what simply comes to mind, without refreshing my memory by looking back at what I wrote about these shows, though doing so does tend to organize the fragments and images I spontaneously recall.

I remember the excitement, the ambition of Between Two Winters, a project in tragedy that had enough legs to travel.  I remember vividly the lovely story of Annie Edison Taylor, the first woman to deliberately tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel, as one of the 2012 Thesis shows.

Many shows seemed like lesser variations on themes of Beckett, Kafka, etc. or constructed from a checklist of physical theatre skills, or elaborate illustrations of a complex and heartfelt idea that only the participants and their friends understand.  In other words, student work.

Occasionally however something original and whole emerged, and this happened just last spring with 'Night Mother, a Comedy.  The characters were believable, not caricatures, and the situation was fresh.  They reacted to each other, they changed or revealed other aspects of themselves.  But at the same time, there were familiar comic bits and tropes and basic situations. The performers were excellent.  It was a real play and a very funny one.

Not everything on stage has to be "a play" in that sense.  Using physical movement, visual design, sound and music, and words, a piece can be created with beautiful parts, images and impressions, that relate to each other and the whole, and to an  effect that is both cumulative and unified.  Care must be taken not to disturb it with anything that pushes the audience out of the experience; this is usually a narrative problem.

 But it is something else that Dell'Arte does--most recently with Elisabeth's Book, played last spring and summer.  This piece made very strong and lasting impressions.

Then there are the big, sprawling summer shows.  Unique on the North Coast, the Dell'Arte Company is a theatrical presence elsewhere in California and especially in Europe where it is artistically respected.  But the parent Company always returns for the outdoor show that begins the annual Mad River Festival.  There its relationship with a broad local audience is renewed.

My own favorite as the most successful evenings of theatre among these shows I've seen remains Blue Lake: The Opera.  But the most significant must be the Mary Jane shows.  There had been a long silence about Humboldt County's most important cash crop, which the first show broke in a big way.  Dell'Arte took a real chance doing it, and I believe they knew it.  But by the second, darker version, the engagement was firmly made, and the topic opened up more generally.  Now there's to be a movie combining the theatrical elements with documentary.  It's the apotheosis of theatre of place.

Dell'Arte is also remarkable for the other theatrical groups it has spawned, and though they've spread out across the country and the world, many have visited (some more than once) with productions.

Dell'Arte is also unique for its continuity, and the continuous contributions of its principals, most notably Michael Fields and Joan Schirle.  I wrote about the extraordinary year that Michael had in 2013 (once I had the title "Plenty of Fields," the column was inevitable), at HSU and beyond as well as at Dell'Arte.  But that's just one year among many.  His presence, inspiration and his work have been of inestimable value to North Coast stage for many years.

The same can be said of Joan Schirle, whose contributions to Dell'Arte and North Coast theatre have been profound.

She brought Mary Jane to life and infused those shows with continuous energy.  Her performance was also the occasion of my favorite Stage Matters lines: Surely Schirle should eschew sleuthing and choose chanteusing.  I know, easy for me to say.

 I am particularly grateful to Joan for including me in the anniversary readings of  It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis that celebrated the great unknown triumph of the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s.  She helped organize a national series of readings, and gave me a part at Dell'Arte.  So now I've looked out from that Carlo stage as well as looked into it.

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