Monday nights. That’s the first thing I think of when I remember my time at Dell’Arte. Monday night Bits and Pieces—every week we had to create something to perform in front of the entire Dell’Arte faculty and student body. It was a crucible in which we had to muster every true and creative impulse, let go of every inhibiting and procrastinating block, and actually make a short performance of value—and (oy vey) usually with a small group of other people. When I look back, it was these Monday night Bits and Pieces, more than the mask and mime technique, more than the acrobatics and clown work, more than the commedia and melodrama, that prepared me for my future life as an actor-creator. My whole career of devising new work, through both ensemble creation and working alone, and of interpreting written texts as well, was shaped by those Monday nights.
One particular Monday afternoon (it was during the clowning segment, I think) I had gone in to Arcata for something that I no longer remember, and I somehow missed my ride back. I ended up walking all the way back to Blue Lake, and at a clipped pace too, because I was due to perform in a Bits and Pieces piece that evening. I ran through the piece in my imagination dozens of times as I walked—what we had worked out in rehearsal, what we were leaving to improvisation—until I reached H Street. I literally walked in off the street, up the Oddfellows Hall steps, and into the piece that my partners were nervously preparing to begin without me. Although I don’t recommend the practice, my long walk was the extreme extension of what we were being asked to do at Dell’Arte: follow a path of rigorous preparation, up to the edge of the abyss, the moment of creation—then jump. See your partners, don’t look back, react, create, don’t be afraid of falling on your face (don’t worry, you will).
When I was young, I wanted to be a great realistic actor, doing Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. By my third year of college, however, I had fallen in love with experimental theater, and in particular, the work of Jerzy Grotowski. I saw in Grotowski’s work the rigor and precision that I found lacking in the little contact I had had with the professional world of realistic theater. I wanted to touch something essential in my art, be the conduit for it, through precise investigation in rehearsal, without having to produce instant results. And I wanted something concrete to hold on to—a physical, practical, doable approach in the work room, that at that time I didn’t find existing among realistic theater practitioners—it all seemed a matter of chance. But I also loved American Vaudeville, clowning, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello. As my graduation approached, Dell’Arte appeared in my field of vision, and somehow fulfilled in one package my desires for experimental work, rigorous training, and comedy (in fact, the school I entered in 1985 was still called The Dell’Arte School of Mime and Comedy, though the name changed by graduation).
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Dell’Arte was a place where I began to develop the ability to pursue my own artistic interests. After graduation from the Physical Theatre Program in 1986 (there was no MFA program at the time), I returned to New York and founded the Mustard Seed Theater Lab. We indulged in a kind of dark, intellectual, at times perverse, vaudeville, and broke apart after three years. I sought out Grotowski, studied privately with Ryszard Cieslak of the Polish Lab Theatre, took lessons with Richard Armstrong of the Roy Hart Theatre, enrolled in the Michael Chekhov studio. I eventually moved to Akron, Ohio to join the New World Performance Laboratory, led by Jim Slowiak, a long-time assistant to Jerzy Grotowski. I was a full-time company member for seven years and I continue to collaborate with NWPL on projects. And it was during my time with NWPL that I started working on the piece that I am performing at the DAI Reunion, I Dreamed of Rats.
I Dreamed of Rats is a solo work that I have performed on and off for the past 18 years. It has become my artistic love, my most defining work thus far. For a period of time I used it as my daily training, my structure for investigating a sequence of detailed physical actions—as a way of understanding the nature of physical action more generally. With Rats, I’ve ended up doing what one newspaper critic called “intelligent physical comedy” (see below). Perfect! Some alchemy of my work has synthesized my interests in disciplined training, experimental theater, Stanislavski, and silent movies. “Intelligent physical comedy”—it’s like I’ve invented a new genre. But it is, and could only be, uniquely mine. I consider this alchemy, which found its beginnings at Dell’Arte, one of the best things that could have happened to me—a realization of impulses which for thirty years I have been working to get out of the way of, and allow to happen.
I am also a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner (GCFP) and my current work is in the relationship between action, energetic flow, and acting for the theatre. Specifically, I am looking at the intersection of Konstantin Stanislavski’s “physical action”, the work of somatic awareness and unblocking of Moshe Feldenkrais, and the work of Austrian physician Wilhelm Reich. I believe these three areas of work have deep and significant points of contact, and I am researching their application to actor training and creative work. I share this work in a workshop that I lead called “Action and Energetic Flow.”
Incidentally, I also do serious stuff (“intelligent physical seriousness”?) and my interest in theatrical realism has reignited. I am back again doing Shaw, Albee, Ariel Dorfman. So things have come full circle, and with a richness that I did not anticipate. And I couldn’t have done it without those Monday nights.
Here is a review of I Dreamed of Rats from the Cleveland Plain Dealer: http://my.en.com/~herone/Rats.html. But I hope you come and see it in person at the DAI 40th Reunion Celebration. I look forward to meeting you there!