Interview took place at Mara’s In Flight Theater Studio at Load of Fun.
All the following conversation was accompanied by lots of hand talking.
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My first deep immersion and understanding of physical theater was leading a branding engagement with 500 Clown (in Chicago). I fell in love with them, their work, their core concept, belief system, culture, and process. In Baltimore I learned of and met Dell’Arte trained actors and am reminded of all that I admired about the physical (versus psychological) approach to acting and theater.
The interview is edited. I omitted many of the names and dates of revered Dell’Arte International leaders and teachers that WW readers wouldn’t know in favor of sharing Dell’Arte spirit.
Dell’Arte International is the work of an extraordinary community of artists located amidst the majestic redwoods and rugged beauty of California’s North Coast. The community output includes: actor training programs, original touring productions of the Dell’Arte Company, a summer festival, youth education programs in local schools, and work in economic/community development.
Mara: I’ve never had a gathering of Dell’Artians in my studio before and I just want to say blessings and I feel it’s really wonderful. And that they are all women Dell’Artians…I just want to put out that I’m very happy to hold you here.
Peter: Who attended the school? (all raise hands) How long were you there?
Tara: 2 and a half years in the MFA program and almost a year working under Steve Tenerelli in the Youth Academy.
Barb: Went for a year as a student back in the 70’s and then I worked with the company in the 80’s off and on and then I went back in 2003 and I was there for 4 years as the Registrar and part of the Dell’Arte Company.
Kolleen: 1 year and still there in spirit.
Mara: I studied there for a year and then I worked with the Youth Program and helped define it at its beginning stages. I was there for 7 years and toured with the company too.
Peter: What is Dell’Arte? Is it an idea, a form of training?
Mara: Here’s what we used to say at auditions. Dell’Arte is the only full-time professional training program that specializes in mask performance and European Circus forms in the United States.
Barb: Since then they’ve changed that to Ensemble Based Physical Theatre.
Kolleen: That’s what it was for me, the notion of ensemble, famiglia. It showed me something that I didn’t think was possible and made me see people in a very different way, and get excited about creation. To get in there and see people, really see who they are and what they bring to the work and cherish that. It really taught me to get through the crap and get to the core and have some fun. We seem to create a lot of great art through that. That’s where it all started for me.
Peter: The mission on the current website reads: Dell’Arte International is the North American Center for theatre training, research and performance of the Actor/Creator. What do they mean by the Actor/Creator?
Mara: It teaches the forms: mask and clown, physical expression. I think the forms lend themselves to the performer who also devises story line or text or script. Some of those roots come from Italian forms where you have to make it very clear with your body because you are in the marketplace. When you create work, you’re creating some sort of narrative no matter what style it is and I think the forms themselves that are part of Dell’Arte lend themselves to this proposal.
Mara: It means devised story or characters that are created, stories that are created not following a script that exists, but creating your own script.
Barbara: It’s also about having a point of view that’s really strong. That you come to the work maybe not knowing how to fully realize it at the start, but that you really have something to say underneath it all. There has to be an underpinning of something to say.
Tara: A place where you stand that’s unique from what the rest of the world that might have to say–what it means for you.
Peter: Are writers and directors unnecessary in Dell’Arte work?
Tara: Collaboration…Whatever you have, you bring to the table and everyone is considered equal and everyone has something to say.
Barbara: They tried this. The Company tried this a long time ago…of everybody having an equal say and there’s no director and…like it would be in any company, it was a disaster. So there usually is, within the context of the piece, and I think within the school too, you say, ok well, someone is the director who has the final say. Everyone can contribute and can say “what about this,” but (to Kolleen) is that still true? I refer to you because you’re the most recent grad…
Kolleen: It’s interesting, when we went to our 2 week Rural Residency at the end of the Professional Training Program and I was chosen as Ensemble Director for my group. That was a really different place to be after a year of other directors. So I was like, well, what does that mean?
Tara: I had a really interesting experience with that because I did my Masters thesis trying to emulate that form that we had been saying…This exists, this exists! You can all do it together, you don’t have to have a director…and I really just bought it, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I’m going to do it for my Masters Thesis, I’m going to show that we can make this happen and then…
I can’t even tell you how my nails were gone and my hair was being pulled out because we really found that it wasn’t… in that structure, we had to cram it together very quickly and that just wasn’t the right scenario for a completely ensemble driven work.
Mara: You know, you were on to something in that the director’s task in this would be to make that story clear, just like it’s the actor’s task to do that, just from a different viewpoint and you can only get something better by having someone stand and look out.
Tara: In the end was the realization that we have to have someone on the outside constantly to make sure there’s support and I really wish that it was something we had found during my Master’s training.
Peter: The other half of the mission is: We are a committed community of artists who model and share in a sustained ensemble artistic practice.
Barbara: I think that’s the ideal, but I don’t think it works in practical reality. At least not for them.
Kolleen: Explain, Barbara.
Barbara: Ok… it’s kind of about money. It’s nearly impossible in this country to have a company that can train together daily and only focus on making great work without the company members having outside jobs. I think that what they are saying here is that we are a company that over years has worked together and trained together on an ongoing basis. And that’s basically what it is.
Mara: We come from very different times of Dell’Arte, but there is something about Blue Lake…
Mara: About Humboldt County that is actually what I think we’re talking about. That Dell’Arte was founded by Carlo Mazzoni-Clementi who was very influenced by Jacques Lecoq as well as Copeau and he felt that in order to really study these physical forms, you needed to be isolated in a very certain place and have absorption and be a community together that learns together as artists coming together everyday and having the outside world apart.
Kolleen: Or boot camp.
Tara: But not celibate.
Mara: It’s a very profound experience. I think that nothing really happens with out the fact that you are in the middle of the woods and you are looking at this stuff and it is everything. It’s a cellular knowledge and you take risks together and you get deep with your cells and it’s a really, really good idea to do in a place where you can walk around in green fuzzy bathrobes during clown in town…they already think that you’re going to do that.
It’s just very important to be immersed. And later what I have found is this background has led me to a certain immersion and it’s something I feel very strongly about. It’s a beautiful way of living and it’s a luxury to live as an artist like that. The best thing is when you go out, you carry it forward.
Barbara: It’s also that there are cycles. I found in this last go round at Dell’Arte, watching the students go through their things and I was kind of the student advocate too, and some people would come to me when they were flipping out…there were cycles of flip out, before Clown…Clown, sometimes in Melodrama, ok this week, they’re going to start, ok watch out…but…(general laughter)…we weren’t cynical about it like that, but there is a cycle to the work and to the units and what was presented during the year…
Peter: Describe the units.
Barbara: There’s Clown, Commedia and Melodrama and then there’s different other things…But, also you’re living in this place where the salmon run up the river that’s half a mile down the road, and the river floods and everyone is, “oh my God is the bridge going to be washed out!”
It’s tied in to the work. There are cycles within cycles in that really amazing place. It’s really pretty cool.
Peter: Describe to me briefly the training and the units. How does it work?
Kolleen: 10 months for the professional training program (The PTP). Mine started Oct 2nd and we graduated June 13. And you’ve got the first 10 weeks is the Physical Body. We spend a lot of time in nature, we do a Nature Day thing. We work on voice, we work on yoga, we work on dance, tai chi, it’s pretty extensive, on your feet all the time. And we explore a lot of acrobatics and we do an acrobatics presentation at the end right before December break. Then we come back and do Commedia and then another break and then Melodrama and then Clown.
Mara: What was your training, Barb? I’m curious to know.
Barbara: It was a little bit more of a mish-mosh because it was only the second year of the school. It was the beginning of the units, but there were only 12 of us in the class and people would come and go, you didn’t have to be there the whole year. We did commedia and we did clown, but what we did for melodrama was Morrow Casey’s, which is a system for orators and actors in the 1800’s and you had a system of gestures you did that was very codified to describe emotions. You’d learn these gestures and these little speeches that you’d put together to portray emotional states. But Melodrama, the way they teach it, has changed.
And Carlo would get up there… and I was 17 and I came from a really straight theatre place… and Carlo would get up there and I’d just be thinking what the fuck is he talking about?
But…as I continued to perform and continued to make work, so many times, I’d be like, that’s what he meant…as I grew and learned as a performer, his teaching locked in and it was very profound. So that was my training, a lot of hard work mixed with a lot of “what the…?”
Tara: Well, it’s still the same, there’s that poetic whoosh, that haze that comes across you with words…
Mara: In my year we had The Actors Body, we had no nature days or anything like that, but we would do jump rope and falls (general agreement) and all sorts of mime stuff and then we had mask performance. We had a month of neutral mask and 3 months of expression mask, larval mask, and character mask.
Then we took a break, went into Melodrama, into Commedia and then we did a tour of the show. We went to Forks of Salmon, and Southern Humboldt and Orrick and we had gotten grants because it was all isolated places that needed art. And that’s what was fueling Dell’Arte then, this idea of Theatre of Place, Theatre of Community and that’s what I got.
Kollen: It’s an immersion.
Tara: It’s the place, it’s the people.
Barbara: It’s a shared experience. Because that’s the thing. There’s La Famiglia. It’s a network of people all over the world who are part of La Famiglia. And there’s a yahoo group and you can say, I’m going to Bangkok! Hey, anybody there? Can I crash on your couch? And somebody will say, of course, because you’ve been through the same fire. And it is a fire, a crucible.
Peter: On the website, under vision it says: We revel in ferocious play. Ferocious is a great word.
Tara: It’s a pretty indicative word.
Peter: How do you know when your play is ferocious?
Mara: Risky, it’s mystery, you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen…
Kolleen: Hell yeah, it’s scary.
Peter: What does ferocious play feel like?
Peter: What does that mean?
Mara: You’re fully in it.
Barbara: Yeah. Your breath, your blood, everything is going for it. It’s not always like AAARRRGH (big gesture). It can be very still and it can still be ferocious.
Barbara: And fearless. You find that place in yourself where you’re just not afraid. And away you go.
Peter: Afraid of what…failure?
Barbara: Failure…censure, being made fun of…
Barbara: Losing control. Failing
Kolleen: And getting up from that and being, I’m ok.
Tara: It’s the push through failure is what it is. It’s the push through things that are intimidating.
Barbara: It’s the Dare to Suck.
Tara: Dare to suck!
Mara: Whoa, dare to suck.
Kolleen: I like that.
Mara: It’s visceral. They’re asking you to run 100mph, full speed and the door’s right there and you have to stop and are you going to? Well, the other guy just ran into the wall.
Kolleen: And for me, the ferocity came easily for me. I like to work, I like to get in there and be strong and for me it was finding softness and breath and being grounded, but still having that vibration inside.
Mara: Energy in stillness, we used to call it.
Barbara: There was a teacher named Carlos Simioni who came through when I was there from a company called Lume from Brazil and in his training, you would just be moving and moving and moving and then you’d have to stop and be absolutely still and he’d say, “I don’t want to hear your breath. You’d have to control your breath and keep the fire alive.” Keeping that fire all the time.
Tara: You have to keep at the edge of your skin so that it’s hot.
Peter: What happens when Dell’Artian’s do straight theater with people who aren’t ferocious?
Mara: They steal the show.
Tara: And somehow, the show starts to become an ensemble piece. I’ve seen people go in and say, you want to do this with me? Because if you do this with me, then we can do this and then all of a sudden there’s this talk that wasn’t there before. There’s this attitude of being the author of your work that wasn’t there before.
Barbara: And sometimes Directors have to be trained.
(General sounds of agreement)
Peter: How would you do that?
Barbara: Well, I was being facetious, but it’s an acceptance that everybody can have input. I understand you’re still the Director, but I also have things to offer. I’m going to make offers to you. It’s not just you sitting back and you telling me what to do. You just continue to make offers and you make it clear that you’re not challenging their authority, you’re just offering. Saying hey, what about this? No? Ok, how about I do that?
Kolleen: And as far as straight actors I would say, really trusting in the play and really putting something out there that we can just try. Then you’re playing and you’re really trusting and not falling…it all comes back to that.
Peter: Dare to suck.
Tara: Dare to suck. I think that’s the best one.
Barbara: And just learning too, how to do the “yes and”, the improv thing.
Tara: The “yes and”, yes.
Mara: This is also part of being ferocious. Let’s see what works.
Peter: There’s never one right answer.
Kolleen: Or one person’s answer.
Tara: But that’s the Actor/Creator.
Peter: Why Baltimore?
Mara: Creative Alliance…an organization that exists in Baltimore with a certain viewpoint and a multi-disciplinary sort of context. Without Creative Alliance I probably…might have taken a different choice. This was the organization that introduced me to a sort of Baltimore that would become a Baltimore that I would really love and thrive in.
Peter: And why are the rest of you in Baltimore? Did it have anything to do with your training or is it just serendipitous?
(General agreement on Serendipitous)
Tara: I chose to be here. I have family here…My daughter and my husband moved here from Arcata. My daughter, she was 3 months old and we were like ok…pack it up, going to Baltimore. I knew there was going to be a place for me to come here and do what I do in a way that would fell like I could start growing. In Arcata, I wasn’t able to do that, because it was right next to Dell’Arte. I was right there with all these other people who, you know, had all of the things figured out. I really needed to get to a place where I could start growing roots.
Barbara: In 2001 or 2002 I met Trixie Little at an aerial dance festival in Boulder CO. And we kind of hit it off and we started corresponding. I had been to Baltimore before and I liked it, but she was doing all kinds of stuff, like water…I’m trying to remember…
Tara: Fluid Movement.
Barbara: Yes, Fluid Movement, that’s what she was doing and she would send me things about it and I was so intrigued and I had a jeweler friend who lived in Baltimore and when I did the Maryland Ren Fair, we would hang out. And she had a studio in one of the mills and so between hearing about all the stuff Trixie was doing back then and then my friend Jeannie, I thought, there is some cool stuff that happens in Baltimore…it’s kind of cheap and it’s funky and so it was always kind of in the back of my mind as a place to come because it seemed like things could happen here.
Mara: Did you know that this was Trixie’s studio?
Barbara: Yeah, you told me.
Mara: And Barb told me bout Trixie and when I came I looked her up because she did aerial work.
Kolleen: The network of the Dell’Artians… In my exit interview…Dell’Arte was like a whoooa for me, a total blur that I’ve been processing daily since I’ve left.
Tara: Still doing it.
Kolleen: And in my exit interview I got offered this great internship with Clowns Without Borders which is D.C. based, but I was talking to Stephanie Thompson and she said, Do you know Mara? Have you heard of Mara? She’s in Baltimore. And this is where I grew up, in Montgomery County, so I’m sort of equidistant from both cities. So I looked up Mara, started hearing about Tara. You start to see, ok where can I go where there will be some people. As a young artist, that is so invaluable, to be like Hey, let’s get lunch and talk. Let’s meet for dinner and talk. That’s a huge resource as a young person in this work.
Peter: This was also on the website…“foster the importance of independent cultural production to our society’s health.” What does that mean?
Tara: I think it has to do with them thinking that by creating Actor/Creators, they are putting seeds out into the world. Seeds of a new theatre. The physical theatre and ensemble theatre movement is really on the rise right now. I think that they’re trying to link themselves in now to the identity of being seeders of this theatre going out into the world.
Peter: Another phrase I liked, “The value of our work to the field as a laboratory for exploration and development.”
Kolleen: That’s a whole way of living. At least that’s been my experience coming back… It’s not about the art and the work as the artist…it’s a whole way of hey, I see your model and I get that and that’s working for you. I’m interested in trying something totally different. Like a new model for living. And living as an artist, but it’s a whole lifestyle of just trying something new and off the map and not often accepted or acceptable. And that’s part of that ferocity, of taking the risk of ok, I’m sound with my decision to live this way. I’m gonna continue to forge forward and see what I find. The nature of the journey.
Tara: The idea of a laboratory is really powerful. In traditional theatre we get really caught up in, “this is our deadline, and so the director says this and then this, there’s the end.” There’s a clear path, yes, but there’s no room for the windy, there’s no exploration of the things that ignite the visceral senses because there’s just a click-by-click. It’s not the click by click that gives you life and excitement and catches your breath. The things that catch your breath are the things you don’t expect. So the things that you don’t expect, those are the windys and the curls and the things that give you excitement in a piece and very often that’s not caught in the click-by-click.
Kolleen: And there’s no room for breath in the click-by-click. There’s no room to breath and be like, Oh, what’s that?
Mara: Well, there it is again, ferociousness. Click-by-click does not have any potential for ferocity. You have to be ferocious.
Tara: You have to be disciplined…
Mara: Mystery and indirect get bad press.
Barbara: Just to link to what everyone is saying, if you think about the idea of how…there is a thing too…at least in my experience of Dell’Arte, there is a thing about legacy. In that, there is the history of the forms, there’s Carlo who brought them further and he studied with masters and this legacy goes back so far and there is that sense of…you can be that fearless because you’re standing on the shoulders of these amazing people. And you have to acknowledge that and where the roots are coming up. That tree is very tall and we’re on top of the redwood and it’s surging up from the ground and all those people who came before. And the pedagogy is completely being redefined all the time. There’s always subtle various tweaks every year, but it has… it has a connection to hundreds of years of people performing and training and they are conscious of that. At least they were when I was there.
Tara: Thank you for saying that.
Kolleen: You go to Carlo’s grave now.
Tara: Yeah, yeah.
Kolleen: You go to his grave and you walk together, you carry light in your hand, you carry candles and you walk together through the darkness of this sleepy little town, through the mountains, up the hill, to Carlo’s grave and you drink Carlo Rossi wine and you bring garlic for Carlo, and sausage.
Barbara: And salami.
Kolleen: Yeah, and you sing the song and you feel like you are part of something really big.
Barbara: We tell stories, pour wine on his grave…
Tara: And you go back to the theater and you party really hard.
Kolleen: I partied HARD at Dell’Arte. I got there being like I’m going to do a good job and I’m going to be a good student and I’m going to learn everything and then I was like Oh, this isn’t fun and I’m going to go crazy so let’s party really hard and let’s love these people really hard and work really hard and create fun art. It’s a big part of it. That Saturday and Sunday is a big part of it.
Tara: The momentum that you build up in yourself has got to go somewhere.
Kolleen: You party together that night and talk about it and process it.
Peter: Also part of the manifesto is the seriousness of comedy. I’ve heard that one a couple of times.
Walk me through that. Tell me what that means to you guys.
Barbara: It’s hard work. It’s timing. You know, people think, you see these stand ups and they get up and those people work really hard on their routines…you work timing, you work…it’s more than just falling down.
Tara: It’s service. You’re serving the audience. Whereas you know like some theatre…straight theatre where you go in and there’s a fourth wall. And there’s that sense of we’re doing what we’re doing because that’s what we rehearsed 3 times…and there’s a safety and there’s a sense of it doesn’t matter who you’re beholden to. You’re just beholden to one another and the director. But with comedy, you’re beholden to them. You’re serving them so everything that you do has to be served to them, the audience. You have to stay in touch with them. You’re doing all this that you would have done in straight theatre as well as staying in touch with the audience and then juggling a reality between the two.
Kolleen: And being alive and comfortable enough in everything that you’ve played and worked on together and sculpted together, so that if something totally changes, you can keep your feet on the ground, and breathe and go with it and maybe you have 10 new minutes of this clown piece, that just…happened. But it was the best shit in there. Because you did all this play…the importance of play. You did all that so you could be alive enough to experience that opportunity as it came in to you.
Mara: It’s the closest thing to aerial work because you’re constantly sifting through gravity and a character that lives in gravity. It’s the gravity of the clown that causes certain things to happen, it’s the gravity that is the state of being, this idea of toying with it, playing with it, partnering with it, it gets you down, it brings you up and it was a really big force in creating aerial work for me.
Barbara: To find your innocence again. Because in comedy, there always is an element of innocence in it, I think. And we are trained to be cynical as we grow older, it’s like grrr, I know all this stuff, it’s like a defense, and when you are innocent, it all falls away. You have to be open, there can’t be any guards or walls or anything. You just have to be open to everything.
Mara: You can’t fake it.
Barbara: Because it’s a real state.
Tara: Because it’s a real relationship with the audience.
Mara: Truth, truth, truth. It will fuck you up too.
Kolleen: You’re right there. You’re just totally exposed.
Peter: Is that where the power of it lies, in that vulnerability?
Mara: I think the power is in the universality of that innocence. All of a sudden you’re with a whole bunch of people in an animated place that is very real.
Barbara: There are clown characters who are very full of façade, but they always fall. And it’s that moment of falling, of exposure, the coup de foudre…there’s that moment of, uh…the audience sees me…
Peter: What are you doing next? Where are you taking this training and world view?
Tara: I’m working here in Mara’s studio and we are doing The Larval Project, that’s the title of it right now and when we get there, it will be 9-10 original larval masks that are full face larval…in a piece with 5 actor/creators and 2 musicians and they will be short works that examine the masks in a familiar and unfamiliar realm. The exploration will be understanding the masks and what their characteristics are and how they exist in a space and their rhythms, their moves, their shapes, their personality on a stage as a shape. And then understanding what world they can live in that tells a story. That’s going to happen at Theatre Project in the end of August.
Peter: Barb, what are you up to?
Barbara: I’m working on a play that’s…written and directed by Peter Davis called Breadwinners, which opens in the end of May and performed in this studio. Then I’m going up to the Sterling Renaissance Festival to play a mad noblewoman and direct a commedia, and then I’m going to come back to Baltimore…my last go-round at Dell’Arte was a great laboratory for work that I wrote on my own and some that I did with Giulio Perrone and I want to revisit some of the stuff that I wrote and bring it forward and produce it.
Kolleen: I’m doing a lot of work with Clowns Without Borders.
Peter: What’s that?
Kolleen: The mission statement is: Spreading joy and laughter to children in zones of crisis. I’ve been teaching clown in Anacostia regularly and I was part of the Atlas Intersections festival. I’m madly falling in love with teaching, it’s like a torrid love affair that just found me, so that’s great. I’ve been experiencing that mission statement locally in our zones of crisis here in all kinds of ways, administratively and volunteer based teaching and some street theatre kind of stuff. And I’m about to experience it internationally by going to Indonesia with them for 23 days. We’re doing 30 shows throughout Jakarta and on a very remote island called Mintowi and in orphanages in Jakarta.
Mara: I am going into the final phase of a new show that I’m writing and performing with Arachne Aerial Arts. that goes up Sept 29th in Reston, VA.
I am looking into bookings and creating press materials for Naomi’s Flight and talking with people in Toronto about doing it there and trying to get into this Festival in Albuquerque. Going to be at Theatre Project for That Which Returns, the ensemble piece in the first 2 weekends of Nov and then Naomi’s Flight is there in Feb. And planning the Aerial Festival for next June. A brand new piece with Tim Scofield with a huge new sculpture.
Peter: Can’t wait to see it.
Kolleen: I would like to say that I really found myself through Dell’Arte. I showed up having no idea who I was at 25. It found me and so I answered it and I went there with a very supportive partner and a very supportive ensemble and handed myself over to that and since I’ve left there, I continually find myself more and more on a very personal level and it’s sort of like I had shunned myself as an artist for so many years. Being in Los Angeles doing the cog in a wheel thing, hard core judgment…I was there for 5 years. When I showed up a Dell’Arte I just was like, ok, I’m here. And I went there ready to work, which is what I know how to do and instead, besides the work, I had a lot of fun and I found myself and I found fun again. And I found Clown which I couldn’t have found if I hadn’t found fun. It was interesting to see people change and grow and the more they seemed to find themselves the more they found themselves as artists. It was beautiful to watch that transformation. I romanticize it because I just came from there and it will be interesting to see how that changes over the years.
Barbara: It’s an experience that continues to unfold for me, as a performer, as an artist and as a person. I think because it inoculated me so young.
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Here’s what I’ve learned. Even though I write and direct plays, I believe that the final authority for the story, in performance, rests with the actor rather than the director or writer. The audience trusts them. If the actor believes, so will the audience. While I may create the narrative and the world of the play, the actor signifies the meaning of it. Working with actors who “dare to suck” in rehearsal is priceless. My role is to give them permission to follow their intuition without inhibition. It seems risky at first but if you stick with it, the universe starts sending them Intuition A-Game, and things start falling into place quickly. In performance, about three-quarters of the way through a show, actor and audience start feeling and breathing as one. As Kolleen once told me about clowning, “That shit will move mountains!”