"Working in the culture mines." I always thought that expression, often spoken with bemusement by Dell’Arte’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields, was kindred in spirit with the kind of Central European pessimism that breeds artists who wear only black and smoke like chimneys. What are we "mining" for? Mining for the pure gold of inspiration, or mining for grants? Or say, mining the day for purpose? Milking the blue sky for rain? Miming for the pure pleasure of it! (And has that ever actually happened to me?) "If it is good, it is mime!" That’s a newly dredged Carlo-ism* that was floated recently in a meeting in the old Oddfellows Hall where the school’s main offices are housed. An apt lineage, as many more truly odd fellows have brightened that hall since it first became the Dell’Arte School of Mime and Comedy in 1975.
I desperately wanted to be a Central European pessimistic artist as a teen, so I wore only black and took up smoking. But a girl like me, with pleasant proportions, a slight lisp, and the optimistic attitude of an American was never going to make it in the Central European art scene.
So, when I finally arrived as a fresh-faced 23-year-old in Blue Lake, it really was a revelation and gift to be told every day at the close of our morning warm-ups by then-School Director Daniel Stein: "There is no one who has more permission than you to create outrageous art." I think it is that spirit, the idea that the training of a creator, not a producer of art products, is an important thing, one to devote time and energy to. I think that is what sets Dell’Arte apart from other theatre training programs.
Sometimes I think: man, I don’t know what I’m doing. I teach Community-based Arts, a field with a pretty impressive amount of scholarship, yet my experience “in the field” seems to hardly scratch the surface. However, I am charged by the possibilities that unfold when an alive human being steps into the unknown, whether it is myself or my students. I would like to excerpt some writing from second-year MFA Candidate Rebecca Finney, who in analyzing her experiences working in Community-based Arts expresses very succinctly why I am compelled to accompany these passionate creators as they move through community wearing their identity as artists on their sleeves:
“I believe art is inherently political. It is inherently social. It is inherently based in action. But it is not merely a means to a social and political ends. Would the artistic world be different if art were valued for its own sake?… As artists we are always struggling so much to find economic relevance for our work that we often grasp at these “other ways” our work can be relevant…But to insinuate that artists must use their art for other aims than creating art has a negative impact on our perception of the role of art and artists in our communities…my interest is in shifting the community’s perspective of the artist and the artist’s perspective of herself toward something that is whole, valuable, and of the community.”
It is an honor to fan the flame of that passion.
I appreciate my time with Dell’Arte. It’s been fourteen years since my classmate Oliver Steck leaned out the second story window of the old Oddfellows Hall and yelled in comic desperation: “Hurry! You’re going to be late to your first day of class!” From student, to PTP alumnus, to student again, to MFA graduate, to ensemble, staff, and now faculty member, I have a hard time admitting to myself that I’ve stuck around for so long. At the 40-year reunion this summer, some of my classmates asked me how life was in Blue Lake, and in that instant I saw all the love for the times we had shared and the belief in the work we had created together, and I thought: sheesh, living in Blue Lake ain’t that fancy all the time.
What is fancy is safe-keeping this opportunity for people from all over the world to experience a deep connection as a community of artists–good ones, bad ones, ugly ones–all a part of a yearly cycle of creators that grow up and into each other, flowering and beautiful in all their aspects, and then disperse again, like so much pollen in the wind.
*Carlo Mazzone Clementi, founding father of the Dell’Arte School, an Italian actor and mime who was a part of the 20th Century rediscovery and renaissance of commedia dell’arte in Europe, and who brought this renaissance to the United States.
Zuzka Sabata is the Arts Engagement Director and on faculty. She teaches Qi Gong, Singing Ensemble, and is faculty lead on the Community-based Arts projects in the MFA program. She is also a 2008 graduate of the MFA program.