By M. Graham Smith
Because of Dell’Arte I am a teacher.
When I was a student at Dell’Arte in my early twenties I knew that I wanted to make Art that would change the world. I sharpened my writing practice to tell stories that motivated change, I rigorously disciplined my body to be the perfect vessel for telling these stories, and I forged relationships with other students with similar goals. We founded a Theatre Company in Philadelphia dedicated to telling transformative stories called Hotel Obligado. I accepted an offer to become part of the Dell’Arte company, acting in, writing, and otherwise generating work that toured the world with social and political agenda. Sometimes these plays were incredibly successful in opening the eyes of an audience to a social cause that was worthy of wider attention; I wrote a play SHADOW OF GIANTS that provided a glimpse of the conflict between working class loggers whose jobs were disappearing, and committed environmental activists willing to put themselves in trees to save them.
I remember touring Europe with the Dell’Arte Company, performing in a version of Paradise Lost where Michael Fields played Satan, and there were three pairs of Adam & Eve, trying to decode the human genome. A central metaphor for the play was the “loss of innocence” of Milton’s poem re-imagined as the 9/11 terrorist attack. At the international festival in Croatia where we performed, critics immediately dismissed this gesture as both naive and narcissistic, given the many precedents for genocides and terrorist attacks throughout the world that America would have to be blind to ignore over the century. That was an interesting lesson to learn in the middle of a press conference. Also, there is something extremely refreshing about finishing one’s bows onstage and then moving directly to a press conference where reviews of the show are read aloud to the cast, before being given a chance to respond to them. Let’s just say it was very different from any opening night tradition in America. But not unwelcome.
There is truly no better way for a young Artist in their early twenties to spend their life than touring the world with potent, provocative material, in the company of other Artists who also want to change the world. I learned so much and savored every performance, every process, every collaborator.
Throughout this time, I would often find myself on a bar stool at the end of the night with the woman who was often my scene partner, who will always be my most powerful teacher, and whose generous and often hilarious wisdom will stay with me forever. Joan Schirle taught me so much on the road and in the studio. During one of those nightcaps she turned to me and asked me if I’d ever considered teaching. And in my youthful naivety, I told her I was much more interested in making Art that would change the world. She paused and then said: “Now that I’ve been teaching for a while, I’ve seen that the ripples I make as a teacher spread much further than the ones I can make through any given performance.”
As a twenty-four year old often does, I dismissed this notion, but it continued to make waves in my brain, until one day, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco asked me if I would teach a brief two day master class in Mask Performance to it’s MFA students. I agreed. And then my life changed.
The realness, the honesty, the discovery, the risk, the vulnerability, and the desire of the students to engage with a transformative experience revealed themselves to me in that class, and nothing has ever been the same. The ripples of growth go further, go deeper and reward everyone who engages.
I’ve never stopped teaching. I still teach at ACT, and now also teach at Berkeley Rep, as well as founding a school of theatre in Barcelona Spain, where I teach Movement and Voice several times a year.
No one is more surprised than I am that teaching rewards my soul not only as much as creating, but often MORE than creating or performing. There’s something I cherish so deeply about the lessons of theatre, that makes every student a better Actor, both in the professional sense, but also in the sense of a human, who must choose actions that best express a desire, a need, or a wish. I see each of my students grow toward knowing their best selves, and communicating that more fully, more precisely, and using those skills to become great lovers, parents, leaders, and perhaps teachers themselves. These ripples of actors living their best lives is perhaps the most crucial part of dreaming our culture forward, so that the world we want is closer every day.
I remember students who through the world of movement recognized they would be physically hesitant forever until they came out to their family and friends as gay. I remember a woman who faced the truth of physical abuse she’d be hiding under the weight of years until she used the opportunity of a movement class to move through the space of her fear to a space of acceptance and recovery and finally confidence and strength. I’ve been humbled and instructed by these powerful transformations, observing action by action the ripples of students becoming the Artists they wanted to be.
As with many of Joan’s great lessons, she planted the seed early, and promised me that some lessons might take time to take root and for me to realize it was blooming. I’m looking forward to all of the other seeds of Dell’arte continuing to bloom throughout a lifetime of practice. I know that there will be many instances of "Because of Dell’arte” to come…
M. Graham Smith is a San Francisco-based Director, Educator and Producer. He is an O’Neill/NNPN National Directing Fellow, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival FAIR Fellow and a Resident Artist at SF’s Crowded Fire. He grew up outside of New York City and has been based in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. He’s directed in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland Oregon, Washington DC, and venues in San Francisco. He directed the West Coast Premiere of JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA in SF and TRUFFALDINO SAYS NO at Shotgun Players, winning Best Director for the Bay Area Critics Circle. Recent credits include the World Premiere of Obie winner Christopher Chen’s HOME INVASION in SF, DEAL WITH THE DRAGON at ACT’s Costume Shop & Edinburgh Fringe, Amy Herzog’s BELLEVILLE at Custom Made and Mia Chung’s YOU FOR ME FOR YOU at Crowded Fire. He spent the last five years as Producer of Aurora Theater’s new play development program and festival The Global Age Project, which launched Martyna Majok’s IRONBOUND, JC Lee’s LUCE, and Allison Moore’s COLLAPSE, among many others. He teaches at A.C.T.'s actor-training programs, Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and at Barcelona’s premiere Meisner Technique program in Spain. You can visit him online at www.MGrahamSmith.com