Attending Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre is the best decision I’ve ever made. It was also one of the worst years of my life. If you ask my parents, I did not enjoy myself while I was there. But they will immediately follow that with, “It was necessary for Amy Virginia to go to Dell’Arte.”
It is my opinion that everyone should attend Dell’Arte at some point in their life, it just needs to be at the right point. Fortunately--and through complete accident--I timed my experience perfectly!
I can only speak from my own perspective, which feels limited, but hopefully will offer some insight: I went straight to Dell’Arte after finishing up undergrad at the University of Kansas. I applied at the very last minute, right before applications were due, because I met a bunch of clowns at a bar in New York City over winter break who convinced me, while feeding me booze, that it was the right decision for me. Up until that moment, I had planned on applying to grad school where I would study linguistics for performance. It was a very drastic turn of events. In retrospect, I understand that if I had moved straight from Kansas to New York, the city would have eaten me alive. While undergrad gave me the foundation that I needed to survive in the heady academic world of downtown theater, as well as a recognition of my own need for community outside of my artistic practice, Dell’Arte helped me develop my style, find my voice, and realize the perspective that I had to offer, while also giving me the desire and the tools to build something.
What do I mean? Well, we were in a constant state of creation. It’s Monday, time to make something new. Because on Friday, you’ll have to show it to a room of judgmental peers, older students, and instructors, who will inevitably tear it apart. This is expected, though, because you are told at the beginning of the year that feedback is offered “via negativa.” So after a year of “make, show, cry, improve, move on, and make again,” you begin to learn a lot about yourself and your creative process. What do you like? What do you not like? Who do you work well with? Because every week, you’re in a new group, that you assign to yourself. In a class of 36 people, I worked with every single person, except for one, because there will always be that one person that is your confidante, nemesis, best friend, roommate, twin soul, antithesis (and don’t worry, she knows who she is), that you don’t quite yet know how to work with. That person will be your most valuable asset. She will offer you the truest critical feedback, and is necessary for your growth as an artist/human. As I’ve continued to seek out collaborators, those qualities are now what I look for. By the end, Dell’Arte has prepared you to work with that person.
Dell’Arte’s teaching methods are unique, as unique as each individual instructor, as well as each individual student, as they edit their methods to meet you where you are. Being the daughter of two teachers and the perennial “favorite student,” the distance that the instructors at Dell’Arte enforced, particularly in the first semester, was hard on me. They want you to grow. The life of a professional artist is lonely. And difficult. And heart breaking. Rarely do you have someone holding your hand, telling you “good job,” or giving you opportunities; you have to learn to make them for yourself. I didn’t actually receive any individual attention until our midyear reviews. I had heard horror stories about them. “Oh, you’ll definitely cry.” “When I had mine, they tore me to pieces.” Etc, etc, etc. When I went in for mine, I was braced for the worst. At that point, I’d learned to crave negative attention. It meant they cared. So imagine my surprise when the instructors leading my review sat down in front of me, looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and said “You’re doing fine.” Well, shit. That was the feedback that I was left with before going into my month of winter break in Fargo. Fuck that. I exercised everyday, grew stronger than I knew I could be, applied all of the lifestyle techniques I’d been learning, and wrote. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, scenes, monologues, stories, whatever. And when I went back, it was with a vengeance, to prove something. This was stupid, but what can I say? I can be stupid sometimes. But it did make me stronger.
I found that the things I was making were getting better. I was learning how I fit into groups, learning how to read a group and see what role I should play. Each group had its own specific dynamic and flow, and the challenge of being able to recognize when I should lead and when I should follow became a favorite observation activity. I quickly understood that not every idea I had was good, but also that I should share what I think, on the off chance that even my bad ideas could spur on something brilliant in someone else. It was a little Sisyphean, in that the task never felt complete. There was always a new group to learn and a new thing to make, but that’s the nature of life and art anyway, now isn’t it?
The year ends with clown-- dear god, clown!-- and then a residency with a rural northern California school, where we worked with children, age 5 to 17, on workshops in writing, dance, acrobatics, comedy, games, and puppetry/mask making. And through the combination of the two, clown and the Rural Residency, I was left with (what I consider) the whole point of the school: That art is a gift that we are able to present to anyone that’s willing to take the time to look at/interact with it. It’s an offering, an extension of the self, and is to be received. I’m not saying it all has to be happy, or hopeful, or uplifting, or some sort of crunchy bullshit. But it should be considered. One should consider the thing that they are making and putting out in the world, and then consider the people that are there to take it in. It is not selfish. And it’s not for you, the performer/the artist, because by putting it out in front of you, you give it up. It stops being yours and becomes theirs.
When I left Dell’Arte, I went to New York with a plan. A very well-thought-out and structured plan. My life was very organized. And over the course of a year, everything came undone. My heart was broken, romantically and artistically. I was alone, no more plan. Poor, and very scared. But then Dell’Arte kicked in. It was suddenly Monday again. Time to find a new group. Someone to collaborate with. Someone that could hear my ideas and make them better. Someone that would be brave with me, throw shit against a wall with me. Someone that would look at what we made and tear it apart so that the next time we made a thing, it would be better. Because at that point, I had been conditioned.
And now? I’m doing alright. For a twenty-eight year old midwestern girl, I have to say I’m pretty happy with my existence. I found that golden collaborator in Patrick Janelle and together we co-founded the company Spring Street Social Society. I also wrote/produced/performed in my first play, “On Fonts,” and just workshopped my second, “The Michael Show,” and put my first full length album, “I’ll Sing You Songs When You Aren’t Around,” out into the world at the end of last year. These are all things that I had no intention of doing before attending Dell’Arte, or even after having attended, but by being open to opportunities and collaboration, and continuing to make make make make make, I have found my way. And continue to be surprised and delighted with what the world puts in front of me.
Okay. I’ll leave you with this. It’s my motto. In that year “post Dell’Arte,” I came up with this mantra to keep me from hurting myself and those around me. Also to keep me going when it felt like everything around me was falling apart. “In all things I do, I must be kind, hopeful, and brave. If you keep those three things in mind, nothing can go too wrong.” It’s what I took out of my experience at Dell’Arte, and if you attend, I hope you find your own mantra to guide you through life. Just remember to be open to whatever shit they throw your way, and don’t take it too, too seriously. After all, it is just clown school.