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.
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.