Because of Dell'Arte... I am a Clown without Borders

Because of Dell' Arte, I am a Clown without Borders

By Erin Leigh Crites (MFA 2010)

Erin Leigh Crites

Erin Leigh Crites

I was always being told that I was too sensitive when I was a child. Too shy. Too worried. I had a hard time relating to other kids. I was always asking questions that nobody cared about, taking interest in global things, rather than local. I even developed insomnia by age 11 because I was worried about the world's conflicts... Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan, these issues of the 90's kept me up at night. And I cried, a lot. I cried because I felt helpless. I was too small. The problems and people were far away but I felt them so intimately. I felt like my heart was always being squeezed by a world unable to listen to its own need. But I couldn't articulate that at 11 years old. I was just a kid with no power surrounded by kids who thought I was weird for caring. I felt like that a lot. Weird for caring. I still do. I felt like I could see things about how people interacted that always left me thinking either, “Aren't there bigger things to worry about?” or “I don't think you all are even listening to each other.”

I didn't know what that meant or how it would manifest in my sense of purpose until after I graduated from Dell'Arte. 

I had never taken a dance class, never moved my body in expressive or dynamic ways other than through sports until I went to Dell'Arte at 23 years old. I remember Ronlin telling me, “just sit and speak,” in my audition because I was really “trying” to be physical... and failing. The thing is, when I sat and just delivered my autobiographical piece, I connected. I connected to myself. I connected to the space, and I connected to Ronlin and Joe. And it was because I was talking about the need to connect to others. About the power of theatrical expression to unite people through imaginative play. Through the creation of an interpersonal feedback loop. 

If there can only be one lesson, it's listening.

Flash forward through three years of training. Failing. Wanting to please others. Failing. Breaking my range of comfort. Failing. “Be Funny!” Failing. You get it, there's a pattern. I wanted to “succeed,” even though I wasn't sure what that meant. Now I know more about the semantics of success for myself. And the key word is, “myself.” My art is my “self,” made manifest. My work and level of success centers around this construct, knowing my “self.” Dell'Arte broke me into a space where I had no choice but to create for me. Pleasing authorities was never going to work. And it's where I first tasted the lesson to please myself first. I am still learning this lesson, still using it as a platform to determine my horizon. I don't have to know my path but I want to know my “self.” And if the training had been based on solo creation rather than ensemble creation, I don't know if I could have made it through all three years. Because I need that interpersonal feedback loop to look deeper into myself.

I need to connect. And listening allows me to connect to others and to myself.  

Maybe Adrián picked up on that. He was a Dell'Arte Alum in Blue Lake performing The Misanthrope. We had a late night conversation about theatre and the reasons we do it and at some point he looked at me and said, “You know, I really think you should go on a Clowns Without Borders trip.” I didn't know anything about the organization but as he continued to describe the work, I was lighting up inside. 

That June of 2010, I graduated. That June of 2010, Adrián... well, he was doing too much good in the world and the dark part of the universe was jealous and took him.

I can't say it any other way, because it doesn't feel fair to describe it any other way. And I barely knew this beacon of light. I offer my respect to anyone who holds him dear.

When I listen and connect to others honestly, trust is a byproduct, no matter how short the interaction.  

I trusted Adrián after one conversation. I emailed Clowns Without Borders after my road trip from Blue Lake, CA back home to Louisville, KY. I had already submitted my application, but now there was urgency. I was filling with that childhood sense of helplessness after hearing about Adrián but now, I had an idea of what to do with that energy. My email had a lot of excitement and a hint of desperation. Diana called me and we spoke for a little while and she empathized with me about the work Adrian had done and why I felt a calling to do it myself. 

“Do you have any preferences on where you would like to travel?”

“Nope, just the next available position. I just need to go.”

The conversation ended with her telling me that all of the trips in the near future had been filled already but that she would keep me on the radar. This felt like an important step and it was. 

That November Diana called and said, “Someone dropped out of the next trip to Haiti, it leaves in two weeks.” 

“I'm in,” I replied. 

My first CWB trip to Haiti in 2010 changed everything. I found a deep resonance, an echo from my childhood self. The lonely, only child that wanted to connect with the world stepped into the lives of the people she worried about in the middle of the night. I was no longer helpless. I no longer felt too small or that the problems were too far away. In fact, the problems themselves dissolved in favor of connecting to the people who remained resilient against them. If I could connect to an individual, it magically lifted the crushing weight of trying to “solve” the global problems that were squeezing my heart as a child. That's how connection through laughter operates. The word levity comes the latin “levitas” which translates to “lightness.” If I can connect with one person at a time, through laughter, we all get lighter. And it doesn't matter how short the interaction is or how “small” my contribution is to the grand scheme of the universe. While the nose is on, I am on, and my soul/sole purpose is to connect. The connections matter. Sharing laughter matters. 

When I listen and connect to others honestly, trust is a byproduct, no matter how short the interaction. Laughter accelerates this process and makes us all lighter.   

Love and Laughter,
Erin Leigh Crites MFA 2010
Board of Directors, Clowns Without Borders
Full Time Professor, Idyllwild Arts Academy
Ensemble Member, Fiasco! Physical Theatre


Erin has a passion for performing, teaching and traveling. Internationally, she has taught clown, ensemble play and circus skills in Haiti, Kenya, and Nicaragua on behalf of the humanitarian aid organization, Clowns Without Borders, originated a role in Nobel Laureate, Dario Fo's, La Storia di Qu for the International Milan Expo and facilitated workshops in mindfulness and empathy for the clown care doctors of Risaterapia in Mexico City. She served as the director of graduate studies and head of movement for the University of Louisville from 2013-2015. She has been teaching on and off for the tony award winning Chicago based company, Lookingglass theatre since 2010, having helped students stage seven productions in the educational series, Summerglass. She has given workshops for organizations such as The Kentucky School for the Blind, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, Hunter College, Broad Shoulders Productions, Theatre 502, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the Youth Performing Arts School and English Volunteers for Change. Currently she teaches full time in the theatre department at Idyllwild Arts Academy where she blends her love of travel and culture into her teaching and directing models for an international population of high school artists. On the weekends, she creates original work in Los Angeles with Fiasco! Physical Theatre alongside other DAI alums Yiouli Archontaki, Moses Norton, and Kent Jenkins. www.fiascophysicaltheatre.com