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.
Website: www.anticinadrain.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anticinadrain/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anticinadrain/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/anticinadrain/

Because of Dell’Arte... I’ve embraced failure.

By Kent Jenkins 

Kent Jenkins

Kent Jenkins

Because of Dell’Arte, I’ve embraced failure.

Woohoo! And let me tell you, it feels great.

Growing up as a dancer, I was constantly judging myself. I would practice jazz, tap and ballet for ten hours a week in front of a mirror, trying to be perfect in form. It built up a sense of self-awareness in myself that became ingrained in my performance style and livelihood.

This was magnified tenfold when I created a YouTube account and began sharing personal music videos with the world. I was a huge fan of the Blue Man Group and had created my own homemade PVC Pipe Instrument to perform Blue Man Group-style renditions of popular medleys for the internet. Mind you, I was in a public high school at this time where self-image was becoming very important to be accepted in the social hierarchy. Growing up in a world that is run by a popularity contest of selfies and numbers-of-likes, I only became more self-conscious of what was needed to become “successful” in both my life and my art.

So after completing my undergraduate degree in Theatre Arts at Loyola Marymount University in Southern California, I continued living in Los Angeles and quickly felt isolated and burnt out from attempting to become something. I don’t even know what it was: a Blue Man? a YouTuber with millions of subscribers? a world famous musician? I was numb and lost, but mainly upset with a sense of failure in my now budding career.

Shortly into this period of my life, I learned of this magical place called Dell’Arte, where none of this artificiality seemed to matter. It was all about the exploration of your own journey as an actor-creator. I was immediately curious and took the leap into the Professional Training Program. And to my pleasure, we did exactly that. On our first day of class, I vividly remember our professor James Peck having us fall into the abyss (an exercise in which you stand looking out at the horizon, outstretch your arms, and then “trust fall” forward into the empty air until you can barely catch yourself under your running legs). I had tears swell up in my eyes. It was one of the most incredibly-awakening experiences because it made me realize the commitment, sacrifice and vulnerability required to dive into our best work at this school and beyond – Teetering on the metaphysical edge of life and death, firkling in the playful in-between.

The rest of our academic year was this intense mental and physical battle for me. Trying to let go of this mental image of who I thought I was vs. who I actually am. This bridge slowly forged over the eight months of our studies until I fully connected it with all of my training in our clown project in the old Carlo Finals. My partners, Ginn Fizz, Gaia Mencagli and I, had an idea for a Clown Tea Party which was lovingly pulled apart by our wonderful directors and classmates. “Play with what is real,” our director Lauren Wilson would remind us.

I initially got upset because of the lack of control. My clown costume was funky, our script was stripped down and many prop ideas were taken away. The setup was vastly unaligned with what I, Kent Jenkins, would have traditionally wanted to create as an “artist.” It initially felt uncomfortable and scary to let go of my pre-conceived notions. But thankfully I trusted the process and my ensemble because it was then onstage that a whole new world of performance unveiled itself to me. Everything could go wrong (i.e. a water spill, a wardrobe malfunction, or a forgotten cue) and it would be the most invigorating thing ever. It was as if the moments of failure or spontaneity became a beautiful fountain of possibilities. And the greatest discovery was that I didn’t hate myself for “failing.” By being present and focused on my partners, I found a profoundly elevated level of joy. And all it took was playing with what was real.

Looks like Lauren was right after all.

Ever since then, I have aimed to seek this higher form of presence in my life. From site-specific installations with Fiasco! Physical Theatre (co-founded by DAI alumni Moses Norton, Erin Leigh Crites, Yiouli Archontaki, Maggie Lally and Lucius Robinson) to my various teaching artist gigs and part-time ice cream scooping job, I have found pleasure in freeing myself of old judgments and self-deprecating habits. And while I continue hoping for the best (as the optimist I am) and anticipating the worst (as the pessimist I can often be), I allow myself to simply enjoy this new balance and flow of curiosity on this journey we call life. To let go of my “perfection” and still see positive growth in my career is all I could ask for. Who knew failing could be so fun?


Kent Jenkins is an entertainer, musician and teaching artist based in Los Angeles, California. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Kent received his BA in Theatre Arts from Loyola Marymount University, studied at the Moscow Art Theatre School and trained at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre (PTP 2016). As an actor-creator, he develops physical theatre shows with Fiasco! Physical Theatre, as well as the award-winning Scherzo Theatre Company. Kent is additionally known worldwide as Snubby J (YouTube, TEDx, America’s Got Talent) and can be found playing his RimbaTubes live at 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. Regardless of form, Kent aims to create work that will spread light into other people’s lives in a meaningful way.

www.youtube.com/snubbyj

www.fiascophysicaltheatre.com

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.

Because of Dell’Arte... Stupid is a good place to start.

by Ariel Lauryn

Picture it: Clown block, a formative time for most Dell’Artians.

Ariel Lauryn

Ariel Lauryn

We were told to find a costume up in the racks. I decided “it would be a good challenge for me” not to do the first thing that came to mind. I was determined (I’m a very determined individual) to push myself. One could say that mine would be a concept piece to prove something.  Brilliant.

My first brilliant idea didn’t hit. I was told to go back up to the racks again. And again. And--you get the idea. Nothing was hitting. Over and over and over again. I was feeling desperate and frustrated and incapable (not a good place to start).  

So then I was mad. Insert existential crisis. Of the daily DA variety.

After I had gotten my fury out by running, or screaming at the river, or throwing heavy rocks[1], and after bemoaning my lot, self-assured that, according to all the evidence, I was utterly worthless and didn’t belong and would never get it, I was empty. 

This is a good place. It doesn't seem like it when I am there, but, because I have nothing left to prove, sometimes I can see my immediate surroundings more clearly.  Maybe starkly, but more clearly.

I went back up to the costume racks.

In this empty state, I picked out items that sparked any sort of delight:

1. Oversized Converses.[2]
2. Baggy pants with suspenders.
3. Porkpie hat.[3]
4. Bushy mustache and eyebrows.

I faced the mirror. I started to move, or really, be moved—a prance of sorts, that included the mustache and eyebrows. I laughed—I, Ariel, not the clown, laughed. It was so stupid, so simple; unoriginal—the typical “tramp clown.”  Old hat, if you will.  It was, in fact, that first idea I had abandoned all that time ago (a week ago, but ages in DA time). How lame.  Whatever.  It’s late.  And I have to show up with something.

I showed up the next day wearing this stupid thing that I loved.  The funny thing is, it’s sometimes scary wearing something you love. When you wear something someone else told you to wear, you can hide behind the fact that you are just doing what you were told.  When you wear something that is your idea, but you’ve worn it before and you know it works, you can hide behind that, too. Even when you wear something that is a brand new idea of yours, but you don’t really care about it, you get to say, “Well, I tried something new and that’s brave and original and brilliant.” But when you come out wearing something so simple, seemingly unoriginal, and for whatever reason, you like it, but you cannot justify it…I guess that is vulnerability.

I got up behind the flat, still not knowing what I was going to do. I entered. And it was a hit!  And then it wasn’t.  Because, as soon as people laughed, I tried to do more.  Ronlin Foreman, leading that class, saw this.  He had me start again.  When I simply entered and moved the way the mask led me to move, it was a hit.  When I tried to do something, it was confuddled because I was putting my ideas, my brilliance, in front of the clown.  See, I wanted my ideas to be funny.  My ideas are known, so I can hide behind them.  But I do not know what will come out when I allow The Other to work through me, when I am led rather than doing the leading. I know what my ideas are, but I do not know what will come out when I listen to, and do, what comes to me.  It’s scary, but that is what we want to see. And maybe that is why we want to see it.

Eventually, I got the hang of just going for the ride.  Then I fell, not on purpose, right on my butt.  What a gift! It got a laugh. I looked down, trying not to force the next moment, to let the clown do his thing, but also not just go limp–it’s such an annoyingly fine line.  My mind reeled for what to do next, straining to listen in this loud silent no man’s land of possibility and nothingness.

 Ronlin asked, “What do you say from this place?”

“Ouch.”

As I said it, I thought, “That is so stupid and simple—is that all you could do?” As I was thinking that, people rolled to the floor in guffaws.  For a week after that, people would come up to me, chuckling, and just say “Ouch.” Of course that’s what you’d say after falling on your butt!  Simple as that.  How could I not see that before?

Don’t get me wrong—I am brilliant. Rather, I can be. Rather, I think about things a lot more than might be necessary, in case you couldn’t tell.[4] And I’ve come to love that about myself.  But there’s something pretty wonderful about being Stupid. At a certain point, logic doesn’t make sense anymore. Maybe we don’t always need to see someone be smart.  Maybe we just need to see someone be moved and affected by something outside of oneself, earnestly, without thinking, without proving; to see someone care about something beyond any logic or agenda.  Maybe “stupid” is just caring about something that positively delights you for no reason other than it delights you. And maybe that is enough. At least, it’s a pretty good place to start.  

[1] Thank you, Joe Krienke, for teaching us how to do this without hurting ourselves.
[2] If you didn’t know me before Dell’Arte, I had always wanted Converse shoes, but I never allowed myself to wear them, because they are cheaply made, too expensive for what they are, too trendy, and bad for your feet. If you know me now, you know that is all I wear.
[3] Like Fozzie. Thank you, Alex Blouin, for loaning me yours.
[4] For example, I have re-written this post for hours: Alternate Post Ideas:
Because of Dell’Arte, I delight in paradoxes.
Because of Dell’Arte, I practice the art of Seeing. There is always something more.
Because of Dell’Arte, I see the necessity of The Work.
…I aim to reach the full extent of the gesture.
…I developed a vocabulary for my Voice.
…I ran out of excuses.
…I strive for the impossible, even though I know it is impossible. …I never fear being at a loss for ideas. …I value my own perspective. …I cultivated a joy of moving and a love of my body. …I know the value of dropping everything to have a good cry behind a flat.

Ariel Lauryn (MFA 14) is a Brooklyn based Actor-Creator-Puppeteer. She has performed with The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show  (Acorn Theater), The Talking Band, Columbia Stages, LES Shakespeare, The Ume Group, and Puppet Kitchen Productions. Her DA Thesis, Whether We Like It or Not (created with Lucy Shelby) has been at Flint and Tinder (The Tank), Mad River Festival (DA), the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and CSSSA.  Through and in between, she creates works ranging from slapstick shorts (Dixon Place, Bindlestiff Variety Show) to a web series, Illuminutty, to puppet pieces (Puppet Playlist), and coaches monologues on the side. She builds puppets, to boot!  (Best random job: Virtual Tour Guide of The Jurassic World Exhibit by Imagine Exhibitions.) She runs the IG account of The Physical Comedy Lab: @nycphysicalcomedylab www.ariellauryn.com

Because of Dell’Arte I learned vulnerability.

Maggie Cino

Maggie Cino

By Maggie Cino

Because of Dell’Arte I learned vulnerability.

I am currently a Senior Producer for The Moth, a storytelling organization based out of New York City.  On the surface, what I do every day looks like the antithesis of what is taught at Dell’Arte.  It’s one person onstage speaking directly into a microphone with very little movement.  The person is not speaking gibberish, is not imaginatively improvising, and is not doing anything overtly political. They are telling a true, personal story in the most simple and unadorned way possible.  It is my job to find people with interesting life stories, some of whom have never been on a stage before, and help them to stand in front of sometimes thousands of people with the confidence that what they have to say is worthwhile. 

Dell’Arte is where I first learned to do this work.

Dell’Arte works to peel back everything about the person onstage that isn’t real.  It’s a disturbing, harrowing and often confusing process.  As a student I was certainly over identified with my blocks.  I didn’t understand at times that I was holding onto anything; let alone how to let go.  But this process of working to drop everything unnecessary and open myself up to the work, and being able to witness my classmates go through the same process, forms the foundation of the story directing I now do every day.

People up on a stage telling a personal story and a clown have a tremendous amount in common. Both have to rely on their singular presence to captivate an audience.  Both need to tell the truth and follow their interest.  Both rely on the bounce - the ability, no matter how dark things get, to in the next moment find a new way, a new path and a new understanding.  And both need to be vulnerable.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the word “vulnerable” in the context of storytelling, clown work, and life.  And where I’ve landed is:  the ability to be true to your feelings and experience, no matter how inconvenient or illogical those might be. 

Vulnerability is not weakness.  Weakness is fragility without strength.  We might rally to protect someone weak but we don’t fundamentally trust him or her.    There is ferocity to vulnerability, because it involves following your truth no matter how scary as well as the courage to share that feeling with a person, collaborator or an audience of people who have power over you. After all, they might judge you for loving something silly or shy away from you for sharing something difficult!  

But vulnerability recognizes the danger in too much strength.  A clown or a storyteller who does not admit fault becomes monotonous, or they set themselves up for the very derision they are trying to avoid.  In life, a friend who can’t admit when they’ve done something wrong probably won’t be a friend for much longer.

And most importantly vulnerability is a practice, not a state of being.  It is the choice to drop defenses and be true to your curiosity and passion.  To trust that your joy or your truth is something that another person will join you in celebrating, and also trusting that sorrow is important and that people want the catharsis of sharing it.  Because in the end, trying to connect and failing is morally stronger and more aesthetically compelling than protecting yourself from hurt.  And as a performer, it’s the hardest thing of all:  trusting that honest communication is enough and there is no need to manipulate a response.  And if it doesn’t connect, it’s okay, because the next moment is coming and there is always something new to share. 

The comprehensive way Dell’Arte training applies to all live performance and most of life is something I am very grateful for!


MAGGIE CINO is a Senior Producer for the Peabody and MACEI award-winning organization, The Moth.  She is also a writer (and former actor) based out of New York City.  Warm Enough for Swimming, her full length play about family and the financial crisis, was a semi-finalist for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights conference; a successful production was part of FringeNYC and the FringeNYC Encore Series.  The full script is published by IndieTheaterNow and excerpts appear in Best Men's Stage Monologues 2015 and Best Women's Stage Monologues 2015.  She also won the FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award in Playwriting for her full length play, Decompression. Her one woman short, Ascending Bodily, is published by the New York Theater Experience, and her contribution to Piper McKenzie's Dainty Cadaver project This Is a Brick is published in the Midway Journal.   She was nominated for the Doric Wilson Independent Playwrighting Award and was a 2015 Indie Theater Person of the Year.