Alumna: Nicholette Routhier and Alumni Company: Uplift Physical Theatre

 By Nicholette Routhier (MFA ’10)

I’m writing from the floor of my yurt on a farm in Menomonie, WI, which feels odd because I don’t have electricity, running water, or the Internet. Before moving to Wisconsin last July, I lived in Blue Lake for almost eight years. I arrived in the fall of 2007 for the PTP; then I matriculated into the MFA; and in 2010, I became the Dell’Arte School Administrator/Registrar.

My path has been unique to me, but it’s a common thread: Dell’Arte alumni pursue unique paths. Even if we arrive with similar visions and goals, after we leave Blue Lake no two paths look alike. I think this originates with Dell’Arte’s admissions process. Sure, it’s an international school, so we have people from lots of different cultures, but we also come with diverse backgrounds and experiences – from theatre to circus to botany. And there’s always some “wild card” – that person who seems to come out of nowhere and yet becomes vital to the ensemble. It’s thanks to this diversity in our PTP and MFA ensembles that we come to know ourselves and leave with a strong sense of who we are. With eight years at Dell’Arte under my belt, I definitely came to know myself. Of course, I didn’t recognize it until after I left, but it became clear when the opportunities kept coming and it took me no time to establish myself in Menomonie.

While at Dell’Arte, the three projects that influenced me the most were my Character Project in the 2nd year, and my Community Based Arts (CBA) project and Thesis project in the 3rd year.

For my Character Project, I created “Albert McFee.” He thrived long after the project’s culmination. You may have heard of him – he hosted over a dozen Dell’Arte Cabarets and events, as well as local burlesque shows, benefits, and shows at the Logger Bar, Arcata Theatre Lounge, and throughout Humboldt County. He was on the local news, newspapers, and the radio. He had a following that required his own Facebook page. (One time, someone invited me to dinner and then asked if I would come as Albert!) He created several comedy acts, wrote two songs, and created three burlesque acts. Albert McFee was one of my greatest successes at Dell’Arte, and I’m forever grateful for that. Right now, he exists in a garment bag in my yurt, but it wouldn’t take much to revive him. He has a life of his own!

For my CBA Project, I collaborated with two members of my MFA ensemble, Julie Douglas and Genesee Spridco, and we partnered with the women of the Emma Center, which provides on-going, holistic healing to women who have experienced trauma. I was extremely passionate about this project and it inspired me to pursue future CBA projects. Last month, I produced, directed and performed in a benefit production of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler alongside five women from the Menomonie community as a part of V Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. I have a deep passion for service in the community and I will continue to produce theatre that reflects that passion.

My thesis project continues to be my most impactful experience at Dell’Arte. I collaborated with Julie Douglas, Elizabeth Colon Nelson and Gabe McKinney. The final product of our piece was an adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People, but the success of our collaboration was rooted in our creative process. We brought together all production elements (i.e. costumes, sets, props, music etc.) from Day 1; we created via “uncensored play,” which is a term I coined to turn off our internal censors and grant our creative “geniuses” full authority; and we brought the audience into our rehearsal process. Since then, I’ve given presentations on our creative process to PTP classes, summer workshop participants, and college students; I conduct workshops rooted in uncensored play; and I practice that creative approach in all of my rehearsal processes.

Today, I am a part of an ensemble that honors our unique Dell’Artian paths: UpLift Physical Theatre. There are nine of us in the ensemble: Joe Krienke (PTP ’95), Andrea Martinez (PTP ’13), Audrey Leclair (PTP ’13), Juliana Frick (PTP ’13), Jerome Yorke Jr. (MFA ’14), Hannah Gaff (PTP ’09, MFA ’15), Alyssa Hughlett (MFA ’15), Moses Norton (MFA ’15), and me. We span five PTP classes and six states/provinces (California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Puerto Rico and Montreal.) Something unique about us is that we have never worked together at the same time. In fact, a few of us have never met in person! We may never perform in one show together, but because of our collective vocabulary and foundation of trust, any combination of us can devise and perform together. Recently, Alyssa, Hannah, Andrea and Moses devised a benefit performance in Bali while participating in the full time Dell’Arte Abroad: Bali program.

Our ensemble formed around three performances. The first was the Spring 2012  New Works Cabaret at Dell’Arte. Joe Krienke and I had been collaborating as acrobatics instructors for a few years by then and we wanted to see what our artistic collaboration would look like. We chose to create a piece of theatre inspired by a “Dramatic Acrobatics” assignment he gave to his acrobatics students at the end of the first 10 weeks. We created a short piece about a man who lost his wife at sea. The audience loved it. We knew we were on to something.

Fast forward to the morning of Carlo’s birthday in December 2013… Joe and I sat in awe as we watched Alyssa, Andrea, Audrey, Juliana, Moses, and Christopher Kehoe (MFA ’15) perform their Dramatic Acrobatics assignment. Their piece had skill and depth that superseded any group I could remember. Within a month, Joe asked these folks if they would join us in a new work for the Mad River Festival that summer.  All but Christopher joined us and so began our journey together.

During that time, we researched other acrobatics-based ensembles, such as Les 7 Doigts de la Main. We noticed that our collective training at Dell’Arte, our physical storytelling and ability to understand the forces underlying the acrobatics (i.e. push/pull; effort/momentum; explosion/release) set us apart from these ensembles. That’s when we coined our work “acrobatic theatre.”

That summer, we premiered Between the Lines to sold out houses. With a late-night slot in the Carlo Theatre, we had no idea how well we would be received. I’ll never forget the charivari on opening night: We took our bow, the energetic music started, and the audience collectively exploded out of their seats like a wave! They stood and clapped to the music as we tumbled and danced. They were still standing and clapping after we left the theatre, and we weren’t sure whether or not we should go back on stage! I had never experienced anything like it before. The next day, we learned that we’d received an extension to perform another weekend, and that weekend practically sold out. We were on top of the world!

It wasn’t long before Joe had booked us another late-night slot in the Mad River Festival the following summer. By this time, Juliana, Andrea and Audrey had settled into the Bay Area, Puerto Rico and Montreal, respectively, and Dell’Arte wasn’t able to fund their travel to rehearse and perform with us. Alyssa, Moses, Joe and I were still in Blue Lake, and we asked Hannah Gaff and Jerome Yorke Jr. to join us.  We started rehearsing and training together in the fall to aid us in expanding our acrobatic skill vocabulary and reduce injury. (I don’t have time in this blog to go into the injuries from the previous summer, but let’s just say that all of us were on the mend by the end of the run. Injuries ranged from a sprained ankle to a broken rib.) I think it worked – the majority of our injuries were minor and post-show recovery seemed speedy for all of us. Unfortunately, Joe suffered an injury that took him out of the run of the show. That was rough for me, as he was my main acrobatic partner, but he became our “outside eye” and designed all of the music, which allowed the rest of us to focus on devising and training the show. The new piece was called Taken Away and, again, the run was well attended and appreciated.

Today, Hannah, Alyssa and Moses are in their third year at Dell’Arte and the rest of us have gone our separate ways. Being an ensemble rooted in such a physical dynamic, it was hard to imagine how we would be able to continue working together, but thanks to modern technology, we’re still going strong.

About a month ago, Juliana and I traveled to Blue Lake to rehearse with the folks at Dell’Arte and the rest of our ensemble joined us via Google Hangouts. Because of the time we put in during those three flagship performances, we were able to jump right back into the dynamic of our ensemble with no hesitation. We rehearsed for 15 hours in a 36-hour period of time and we were safe, productive, and creatively fruitful. It was awesome!

We’re now planning a 2015 summer tour, which will include the Dell’Arte Alumni Reunion and the Minnesota Fringe. We have a few new faces in the mix: Jared Mongeau (AEP ’16) will join us in our Alumni Reunion show and Christopher will be back to produce us in the Minnesota Fringe! We’re finding our footing with the business side of becoming an ensemble. We’re developing ensemble agreements and designating roles. We’re navigating through email as our primary means of communication. It’s a big learning curve, but we’re meeting it with grace.

In about a month, I’ll be moving into a tipi in the woods to help mentor a student for a year through ReWild University, where I am currently an instructor. I love that I can do just that – live a life immersed in nature and mentor people on uncovering their own true nature, while at the same time, create and perform with people with equally adventurous and passion-filled lives. This is the power of Dell’Arte and I’m deeply grateful.

Photo: Arnista Photography. Moses Norton (MFA '15), Nicholette Routhier (in the air - MFA '10) and Hannah Gaff (MFA '15) from "Taken Away" at the 2014 Dell'Arte Mad River Festival.

Photo: Arnista Photography. Moses Norton (MFA '15), Nicholette Routhier (in the air - MFA '10) and Hannah Gaff (MFA '15) from "Taken Away" at the 2014 Dell'Arte Mad River Festival.