Because of Dell Arte ... I’m a Risk junky.

By Ross Travis

Because of Dell Arte …

Pictured: Ross Travis Photo by: Eric Gillet of Shoot That Klown

Pictured: Ross Travis
Photo by: Eric Gillet of Shoot That Klown

… I’m a Risk junky.

The year before I went to Dell’Arte in 2009, I was taking classes with these mind-bending clowns in Chicago called 500 Clown (there’s actually only three) who have a no-holds-barred relationship with the audience and each other and perform on contraptions that fall out from under them. Their tenets are: Action, Risk, Audience, Humor. Brilliantly simple. One of them (Paul Kalina) had gone to Dell’Arte, so I took the plunge and moved to Blue Lake the next year.

Risk is also one of the tenets of Dell’Arte’s pedagogy: Effort, Risk, Momentum, Joy. And during my time at the school I got to hone my appetite and aptitude for being a danger ranger. My chief interest and joy swiftly became toying, pushing, flicking, prodding, trampling and destroying that ‘sacred space’ between audience and performer - that ubiquitous fourth wall. I also became interested in that moment where nobody in the theatre space - audience and performers alike - is sure of what’s going to happen next. When a performer makes a mistake, is caught by surprise, forgets their line, gets heckled by the audience; when something happens unexpectedly - a moment of pure reality.

I learned at Dell’Arte that another way to find this moment is by playing onstage as an athlete and to approach scenes as games. The risk of failure and how players navigate it is a main reason sports are so popular, that risk is what makes crowds sit forward, choose sides, scream and yell. I used to dream of a day where theatre shows could have the same effect as a football game and take place in a stadium with the audience painting their faces, waving foam fingers and cheering and jeering the actor players. The closest modern theatrical medium I’ve found to this is the circus and that’s where I’ve ended up.

After I left Dell’Arte I was inspired to take my risk adventuring to the next level. I did this in two primary ways. First, while at Dell’Arte, I had read about this obscure form of grotesque physical theatre called Bouffon in Jacques Lecoq’s book The Moving Body. That stuff looked ballsy and right up my alley. So when I got to San Francisco I joined the only company at the time exclusively dedicated to bouffon in the United States and studied the form extensively with master teachers Giovanni Fusetti and Dodi Desanto. I was driven to become as much of an expert at this form as possible. Bouffon - in my mind - is the riskiest theatrical territory because it requires every single tool in an actor’s toolbox often all at the same time. Bouffons, in their pure essence, are beings that can do and be anything; they are funhouse mirror reflections of the world around them, which requires a performer to be hyper aware and empathetic, reflexively sharp, have a large performative skill set, elite physicality, fearlessness of looking stupid, commitment to portraying taboo subject matter and an immense pleasure in seeking out risky situations like a fiend.

Two years ago I started my own company called Antic in a Drain where bouffon has become the heartbeat of my work. These days we don’t wear the stereotypical ‘humps and bumps’ that you’ll see on a lot of bouffons - in my experience it’s more subversive and risky to hide the distortion and I’m interested in using aspects of forms of theatre like bouffon, clown, circus, commedia, etc as means to an end in expressing my own unique vision not as the end all be all vehicle for that vision.

The second way I upped the stakes on my journey to Peril Road was by going to the San Francisco Circus Center where I began an (eight years now) pilgrimage to becoming a specialist in Chinese pole, one of the most risky and difficult of circus apparati. The risk of acrobatics is real physical risk. This year I sprained my left wrist, sprained my right finger and broke my right pinky. In the words of my former coach Master Lu Yi, “Training is bitter but the performance is so sweet.” And it’s true: there is no better feeling than hearing an audience roar when I do one of my drops on pole, the energy is palpable and it makes the endless hours in a room training by myself worth it. I live for taking those risks so the audience can experience them.

Truth be told, a lot of the time the audience is probably feeling it more than me because I’m often working hard to quiet the voices in my head that are questioning my life choices and predicting what might happen if I accidentally miss. This is another aspect of chasing risk, battling the inherent existential voices - my coach Dominic calls them the “Funny Friends” - that tell me I’m going to fail, that I’m not good enough, that it doesn’t make sense to do it that way. And battle them I do, for these Funny Friends are who will disperse the risk, make me fall, and cause me to make the ‘safe’ choice. For years I’ve been practicing the art of tuning out my Funny Friends, or acknowledging them and making fun of their existence; in doing so I risk going against my own reasoning.

I feel grateful to Dell’Arte not only for giving me one of the best years of my life but for helping to foster my addiction to physical and emotional risk which has become the cornerstone of my artistic trip. You’ve made me an addict Dell’Arte! Great job! A few years ago I won the Artistic Risk Award at the Vancouver Fringe Festival for my show The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth. That was probably the most meaningful award I’ve received to date because it acknowledged what I’ve been driven to do all these years. None of my artistic heroes are conformists to one particular style. They have unique visions. Because of my training in the styles at Dell’Arte, and my training and experience since, I’ve acquired enough tools and perspective to channel together my favorite aspects of bouffon, clown, circus, commedia, tragedy and melodrama to create an artistic vision that takes the risk of being authentically mine.

Ross Travis is an Actor/Creator, Bouffon, Physical Comedian and Circus Performer specializing in Chinese pole. He recently co-created and performed in Circus Veritas (2017) Inversion: Circus Disobedience (2016) and Salvage (2015) with Kinetic Arts Productions. He has been the ringmaster and Chinese pole artist for Flynn Creek Circus for their 2016 and 2017 seasons. He has toured two seasons with Circus Bella, San Francisco’s premiere one ring circus and has worked with Sweet Can Circus, Velocity Circus, Earth Circus, Vau de Vire Society and Le Cirque Boheme. Ross has co-created and performed in multiple shows with Firefly Theatre and Circus in Edmonton, Canada, including Craniatrium, Panache and Panache: Part Deux. Ross has a performance company called Antic in a Drain which has been touring internationally with The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth; a primate circus extravaganza that takes a satirical bite out of animal/human agency. Antic in a Drain just premiered it’s latest work in the spring of 2017 called Bucko: Whaleman! which shanghaied the audience into a whaling voyage where they became colluders in a destructive plot to kill a record number of whales to harvest their oil for capital gain. Ross' work has received numerous awards including a Theatre Bay Area Award the San Francisco Best of Fringe Award, Theatre Bay Area's Titan Award and the Artistic Risk Award at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Ross works for the Medical Clown Project bringing joy and agency to patients in hospitals in the Bay Area. Ross is a graduate of the Professional Training Program at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, as well as the Professional Acrobatic Program at the San Francisco Circus Center.

Because of Dell'Arte ... I've woken up in Saskatoon!

by Sarah Petersiel (PTP 2003)

Because of Dell'Arte ...  I've woken up in Saskatoon!

Sarah Petersiel

Sarah Petersiel

And Bogotá.

And Aarhus.

And Mexico City. 

And domestic hot spots like Ames, Iowa. 

Drawing a direct line between my time at Dell'Arte and my life now would be easy, even for a dummy. I'm Co-Artistic Director of Under the Table – a small physical comedy ensemble rife (infested?) with DA alums. We've toured a lot, tapping frequently into the family network. Shout-out to Sara Katzoff and her Berkshire Fringe! Shout-out to Tim Cunningham for getting us the in in Norfolk, VA! Shout-out to Michael Fields and his Colombian connections!

For nine years I worked for the Big Apple Circus' Clown Care Unit and am now a hospital clown with Healthy Humor's Red Nose Docs. Clown doctoring is a line of work/passion my classmate Stephanie Roberts turned me onto during our time in the PTP trenches. During a recent hospital shift, a kid shouted at me with glee: “YOU'RE DUMB!!!” Something welled up in me. It was pride.

I'm also a Teaching Artist at the New Victory Theater, where I'm happily pigeon-holed among the physical theatre types. At both Healthy Humor and the New Vic, I work alongside other DA alums. What do I do in my free time? Live with and see shows by and eat food in the shape of: Dell'Artians. I'm not trying to out-DA anybody, just expressin' that the institution has a welcome hold on my life.

So thanks very much Dell'Arte – thanks teachers, classmates, ensemble-mates, fellow alums. While I sometimes dream of being a simple tax preparer and leaving behind the vulnerability and hustle of the theatre world, I'll most likely let that dream die. Dying dreams being the note on which I prefer to end all blog posts, with reiterating my thanks coming in a close second. 

Sarah Petersiel is Co-Artistic Director of Under the Table, “Dr. Eleven” with Healthy Humor's Red Nose Docs, a Teaching Artist at The New Victory Theater, and Dancify That's Official Timekeeper/Grim Reaper. Visit:

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.

Because of Dell'Arte I was recently hired to be Physical Comedy Director for a unique production of Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare's Globe in London.

By Joe Dieffenbacher

Because of Dell'Arte I was recently hired to be Physical Comedy Director for a unique production of Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare's Globe in London. The fact that I am working at such a prestigious theatre - and the circumstances leading up to getting the job - still have me shaking my head in wonder.

Joe Dieffenbacher

Joe Dieffenbacher

My last year teaching at Dell'Arte was 1998. I taught Maskmaking and Performance, lead the Clown style block, taught Slapstick-Acrobatics throughout the entire school year, worked on lazzi and physical comedy during the Commedia block as well as coaching in the final show. It was also my third year of teaching full-time and many things came together for me in regards to my understanding of the work and how to articulate it to students. Plus the fact that it was my last year brought a poignancy to every single hour of every single class.

It was an amazing crop of students, many of whom have gone onto great success (I run into a few of them whenever they tour on this side of the ocean). One of them is Shenoah Allen, one half of the highly acclaimed and madly hilarious Pajama Men comedy duo. I taught Shenoah when he was nineteen, coming to class every day wearing his pajamas. He struggled with the work and what he wanted to do with it, but showed a passion for it which encouraged me to give him the lead role in the final student Clown production. That year I also performed my show, "PEEL (When the Id Comes Marching In)," a complicated piece I had been developing during my years at DA. Shenoah loved the show and how it brought together many of the things he was struggling with at Dell'Arte. We talked about it all, said goodbye at the end of the year, and many years later, after I had moved to Oxford, England, he showed up performing at the Soho Theatre in London with the Pajama Men.

I went to to see the show and was blown away. I laughed hard at a brilliant comedy creation and enjoyed catching up with him after the performance. I thought back on our time at DA - the things both of us struggled with in Art and Life and how our careers (and lives) had evolved - and was deeply happy. From a small town in northern California to one of the top theatres in London for comedy acts, there was Shenoah - still in his pajamas! - making a success of it.

It's one of the things I love about this work and part of the gospel of Dell'Arte: though part of a community, you are responsible for making your art (and your life). You must engage with the struggle, wrestle the demons and argue with the muses. You must approach the work with the mindset that everything has potential. Wearing pajamas to class could come across as laziness, “He can't even bother to get dressed!” And then someone turns it into an imaginative theatrical device, a sales gimmick, a badge of honor, business attire, work clothes. An act of imagination, invention, playfulness and yes, perhaps laziness. Everything has potential! (even laziness).

The Pajama Men played in London every winter for five years. I missed the last four, spreading the gospel as Director of Clown Conservatory at Circus Center-San Francisco. Last year I decided to let it go to spend more time working in Europe and be home with my lovely wife, Minna (whom I met at DA). So I was in the UK last winter and went to see the Pajama Men again. Shenoah introduced me to his wife, Caroline Byrne who was newly hired to direct a production of Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare's Globe. She had asked Shenoah to help her with comedy duos - he's in one, he must know all there is to know! Instead, he told her, "You need to talk to Joe." Luckily, by sheer fate, I was home this past winter. Caroline and I met at the National Theatre in London (that same night Minna and I went to see another DA grad, Kathleen "Mooky" Cornish perform in the hit show, La Soirée at the Southbank Centre), had a chat about physical comedy, Shakespeare and Shrew, and an hour later she offered me a job.

I was a bit stunned: I thought she wanted to meet to get some advice, I never dreamed a job was in the offing. The whole long, crazy route that led to myself and Caroline even meeting in the first place! The fact that this scrappy clown / physical comedian was being asked to direct slapstick, lazzi and physical comedy in a production of Shakespeare at such a prestigious theatre ... My mind raced all the way back to my time at Dell'Arte, in particular performing with Los Payasos Mendigos, always feeling a little like an outcast from "legitimate theatre" yet knowing the physical was what made live theatre unique, what truly thrilled audiences and actors alike.

The job at the Globe was like a gift from the comedy Gods & Goddesses, dropping bombs of accident and chaos but also ones of joyful play and well-earned opportunity; a series of chance meetings over lifetimes combined with over thirty years of disciplined study and focused play. I believe chance has a nose for those who are committed, that luck is drawn towards dedication. The so-called "lucky break" is transformed into something wonderful by those who - through hard work and imagination - are able to make full use of it. All the shit you had to put up with could just remain a big stinky pile of manure, or it could become a steamy-rich pile of compost that eventually feeds you, if you prepare the soil beforehand. The digging deep is hard, dirty work. But nothing grows without it. It's toil and determination married to an act of faith because without the study you wouldn't know how to handle the luck when it comes.

For me, Dell'Arte is less a school and more like a complex, multi-storied, messy art supply shop: a lot of the things on sale you're not sure what to do with, the salespeople are helpful but they don't know everything, and there are plenty of times you have to fend for yourself and engage in a solo struggle to figure out what to do with the things you find in the shop. I’m just so glad it is there, that so many have dedicated so much of their time and energy into making it live and breathe. When I think about how difficult it is to thrive as an artist in America, Dell’Arte stands out as a singular achievement. I appreciate Dell'Arte when I think about how rare it is for actortraining to incorporate lessons in how to use the physical and the visual in developing a character and telling a story - the God of the Script & the Spoken Word dominates all - if only he would shut-up once in awhile! When I think about the joy it has brought to thousands in northern California via it's many DA-devised shows, and thousands more all over the world who get to witness the play and influence of its graduates, I remain ever grateful for the gifts it continues to bring to my Art and my Life.

luck & laughter,

Joe Dieffenbacher is known for his stage, street and cabaret work under the name nakupelle. He was Director of Clown Conservatory-San Francisco, Master Teacher at the Dell'Arte School, has taught at Belfast Community Circus, Northern Ireland, Teater Studion, Stockholm, Sweden, Wuqiao International Circus Festival, Shijiazhuang, China, Circus Factory, Cork, Ireland, and ACT-San Francisco. He’s collaborated with British pop sensations, Take That, and featured in the Closing Ceremonies for London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. He’s directed Physical Comedy at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, commedia dell’arte at Coastal Carolina University, and collaborated with artists and ensembles all over the world developing original material for stage, street, cabaret and circus.

Because of Dell’Arte I ended up becoming the artistic director of the largest New Year’s Eve Festival in Rhode Island...

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I jokingly like to say that I’m one of the most educated clowns in America (barring certain elected officials)  I have degrees from one Ivy League school, one master’s program (now an MFA degree), one entrepreneurship program, two acting conservatories, two clown training programs Ringling Clown College, Dell’arte, and master classes with a number of theatrical luminaries, including Dario Fo, Avner Eisenberg, Ctibor Turba, and Tony Montanaro.  Oh yes, and the Boston School of Bartending.

In 2003 I’d completed a lot of this education, and I was working as asolo clown and performer.  In my home state, I was a regular performer for First Night Providence, the New Year’s Eve Festival.  It was one of the few gigs I still did in Rhode Island.

In late September of 2003, First Night announced that they could not go forward with the event as planned.  A group of artists got together to see if there was something that we could do.  I was one of those artists. We agreed to plan our own festival which we called Bright Night Providence. Partially because I owned a computer and was willing to work on spec, and mostly because of the skills in production and performance that I gained at Dell’Arte, I became the lead instigator of the project. 

Starting on October 15,2003 with nothing, we managed to put on a festival on December 31, 2003 that featured over 125 performers, 12 different stages, had a budget of $100,000 and included two fireworks displays.  Nearly 60,000 people enjoyed one of our free events, (And we sold nearly 6000 tickets to our all-you-can-see extravaganza) That artist-run festival was about half the size of the previous year’s festival, but was about 1/5 of the budget, and the money was raised in 1/4 of the time. Nothing burned down, nobody was maimed or killed, and we didn’t lose our shirts.  In fact each group that performed with us got a bonus above and beyond their contract.

I ended up running the festival for 10 years, before my family needs made me take a step back from the Festival. (By then I was living in NY, and running a local artist-run festival from 200 miles away was having a draining effect on me.)  During every season but one, we managed to pay every artist contracted more than their contract. (And that was the year that it snowed 8 inches on our festivalat minus 4 degrees, and our turnout was 50% lighter than anticipated.  We still managed to pay everybody their contract!)

It was the skills I learned at Dell’arte that allowed me to be successful at the festival. 

• As the organizer of the wood-chopping brigade (yes, when I went to Dell’arte you had to chop the wood for the fire—there was no central heat) I knew how to schedule people fairly and with precision.

• At our first artist meetings, I knew what questions to ask because I had produced a ton of my own shows and performed at a ton of festivals.

 • Having helped produce our Dell’arte final tour through the Redwood Forest (The Better To Eat You With, directed by Jeff Raz) I knew about budgets, and publicity, and tech requirements.

 • And because of Life Repair Wednesday’s and the dozens of collaborative soirees we produced I knew how to negotiate with other artists, and make decisions that were aimed at creating a win/win/win situation for the artists, for the festival, and for the public.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had a lot of education as a performer, but I really believe that it was what I learned at Dell’Arte that helped make my work with the festival successful.

Thank you Dell’arte!

Adam Gertsacov
Dell’arte 1990-91.
Commedia Master Class with Carlo, Joan & Arne Summer 1995
Corporeal Mime Master Class with Daniel Stein Summer 1997

ADAM GERTSACOV is the most educated clown in America (barring certain elected officials.) He wears many hats, including those of a professional clown, an author and publisher, a P.T. Barnum impersonator, a flea circus impresario, a dad blogger, and the esteemed hat of the Clown Laureate of Greenbelt, Maryland. Adam was the founding Festival Director for Bright Night Providence. He currently lives in Chicago, IL.