Because of Dell'Arte... I found something that worked: PLAY.

By Slater Penney (Class of 2004)

Because of Dell'Arte, I found something that worked: PLAY.

Slater Penney

Slater Penney

I went to Dell'Arte in 2003-2004, which was both the school's and my 30th year. Prior I'd won an Emmy for motion capture (*sniff... No biggie) and failed my Cirque du Soleil clown audition (just shoot me), so I was feeling the right combination of arrogance and humility. My buddy Jaron Hollander was at the same audition, and the combination of craft and character work he was doing made me think it's what I wanted, too. He nailed the audition and was a Dell'Arte grad. Sign me up.

Everyone has their own story suffering under the pressure of "Via Negativa" (life in the negative). We're put under relentless pressure, both in and out of the studio, and we either crush or crack. The premise for the school and the teachers is that we do crack and emerge, raw and wiggling, to walk as our awkward vulnerable selves in the world.

My breakthrough happened 8 weeks into the program. The prompt that week was "1 minute of silence" where you'd had to justify a minute of silence on stage. For the previous 7 weeks, I'd experienced failure after failure after failure.

"This piece is flat."

"That's not funny; it's just a weird person."

"No."

"No."

"No!"

8 weeks of failing, in front of the allies and adversaries that are my classmates. Humiliating. Where's the play?

So the prompt was "1 minute of silence," to be shown on Friday. And my group of six was struggling. We'd all tasted failure, and were stuck in a bog of processing. That week, Critical Al showed "Mephisto" on Wednesday night movies, a German film about an actor trying to reconcile with the rise of Nazi power by claiming to be apolitical. Great film, but what struck me was how awful the overdub was. Really inappropriate tone work and accents. Awful studio foley work. So wrong to see a movie about so serious a subject that's distracted by the overdub.

Wait...

THAT'S it! Let's do an overdub scene! Three people are onstage and three people are off! We'll do their voices and sound effects! And the piece will be about something serious, so that it might be funny! Suddenly the work was fun again: we were laughing, unworried, PLAYFUL.

The piece went well. Our silence onstage was filled with laughter in the audience. I don't remember what we did exactly, so just imagine the best piece you can, go make that piece, and give me credit for inspiring you.

And the resulting critique i will never forget: "This was stupid... But it was so stupid, it worked."

Since then I've continued to look for the PLAY. Where is the play in the piece? Sure, i still fail, but as long as the game still goes on I'm cool with that.


Slater Penney has won an Emmy, appeared on TEDx, and successfully toured locally and internationally. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a BA in Theatre Arts, trained at the Dell'Arte International School Of Physical Theatre, and continues to specialize in ensemble physical theatre. Notable devised productions include The Submarine Show, The Naked Empire Bouffon Company, California Revels, The Bay Area Children's Theatre, and Lunatique Fantastique. Slater is an Actor-Creator, and teaches regularly at the San Francisco Circus Center, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, and the Kinetic Arts Center.