The One Year 2015/2016 Cohort recently performed their final devised piece, Going Down: In the monotony of his daily life, the operator of an elevator is forced to see the same faces day after day. At times, those same faces are transformed not only into entities that reflect life outside elevator, but also reflect certain aspects of his personality. His anxieties, his remorse, and his prevailing innocence drag him and the audience into a world of strange fantasies. A world where the only way is to go down. Sara Plensdorf shared a little about the experience:
The process was very difficult. The six of us are extremely different artists, so creating a show that showcased our individual strengths was a challenge. The plus side to this is that we were able to create material that none of us would have created on our own. I think it’s important to have a diverse group of artists working on a project to get perspectives you wouldn’t have with a group of people who all have the same style. I also learned that a positive, open working environment is essential. Nothing can get done when the energy in the room is tense and when people don’t feel like they can speak freely. It was a great learning experience, and I’m very excited to take what I’ve learned and keep devising!
What excites you most about teaching Clown?
The possibility of finding the power of presence on stage by discovering your own fragility.
What does you hope your students learn from their time with you?
The work with Teatro C’Art should inspire students to believe in the comical aspects of their work and to develop it further. The aim is not so much to stimulate them to be comical but rather to make them aware to always dig deep into their “theatrical living” and to give them the opportunity to listen to the comical truth present in our body and that this depends on the capacity of believing in what we create.
How does Clown training help actors and performers even if they don’t plan to pursue it?
In the first place, Clown deconstructs the theatrical work of the actor and then puts it back together, asking the student to leave their own artistic convictions aside and bring them to work directly (and completely) on the truth on stage. To me this principle is vital in any theatrical work.
MFA Cohort IV had the opportunity to perform their final Commedia dell’Arte piece directed by Fabio Mangolini at the Teatro Virginian. Cohort members Aubrey Clinedinst, Francesco Della-Vittoria, and Nike Redding shared their experiences with us:
What was the title of the your Commedia dell’Arte piece? Can you provide a brief synopsis of the plot/story?
Aubrey: The canovaccio was called “The Triumph of Love” and the plot, as there were 14 of us, was very complex. The main arc was that two Capitanos arrive in town, one looking for Pantalone who is actually a woman disguised as a Capitano and the other looking for the Capitano who then woman is disguised as. Both Capitanos end up interfering with the newly engaged lovers in completely different ways, and madness ensues. In the end, we all get drunk at a bar and everyone gets married to the right person, including myself as Pulcinella to my Capitano.
Francesco: The Canovaccio was titled “Il trionfo dell’amore” (the triumph of love). Involving 14 persons, the plot was quite complicated. As usual in Commedia, the two innamorati (Lelio, son of the Dottore and Lavinia, daughter of Pantalone) want to marry and their parents are organizing the marriage. In town, a Capitano (called Polifemo) arrives with his servant Arlecchino and he is looking for Pantalone because he has a debt with him and the Capitano wants his money. Pantalone meets Polifemo by accident and, not having money, promises him his daughter, who is already engaged with Lelio. When he discovers this, Lelio asks for his father’s help and while they are talking, their servant Zanni tells them to go and ask to a witch he knows for a potion. In the meantime, a second Capitano arrives (Cardone) with his servant Pulcinella wanting to kill Polifemo because of an offense committed some years before. They duel and Cardone loses and discovers that Polifemo is actually a woman, Elvira. Also, the entire story happens around the tavern of the couple Brighella and Marcolfa, the house of Pantalone and the house of the witch. As the story develops, some couples are in love: Lelio and Lavinia, Arlecchino and Smeraldina (servant of Lavinia), Zanni and Trappola (servant of the witch). Polifemo finds a letter of love and, thinking of a letter for him from Pantalone, he declares to the audience (that already knows he’s a girl) that he loves Pantalone for real. Trappola and Zanni steal the enchantment book of the witch and start to cast love spells making a real mess. Everyone now is chasing the witch, but Marcolfa takes control of the situation and asks the witch to fix everything. In the end, every couple gets married: Lelio and Lavinia, Zanni and Trappola, Smeraldina and Arlecchino, Pantalone and Elvira, Cardone and Pulcinella, Marcolfa and Brighella, Dottore and the witch (that reveals her true identity: she’s a noble woman).
Nike: Our performance was titled “Trionfo Dell’Amore” (The Triumph of Love). The plot begins with Pantalone agreeing to marry his daughter, Lavinia, to Dottore’s son, Lelio, which should be fine as they are already seemingly in love. The Strega arrives with her servant Trappola, practicing a potion of mind-control. Zanni, Lelio’s servant enters and Trappola and Zanni fall in love. Lelio, chasing after Zanni, is offered a love potion but he refuses as he assumes he doesn’t need it. We are next introduced to Capitano Polifemo and his servant Arlecchino who has come to demand an old debt from Pantalone. Pantalone, who has just barely escaped with Dottore from Brighella and Marcolfa’s tavern unable to pay the bill, tries to settle his debt with the Capitano by offering his daughter Lavinia. When Lelio hears that his fiancée has been promised to a Capitano, he vows revenge. We are in short time introduced to the second Capitano, Capitano Cardone who has come to kill Capitano Polifemo over an old rivalry. In the battle that ensues, Capitano Cordone is defeated and Capitano Polifemo reveals herself to actually be Elvira, long lost lover of Pantalone. Lelio arrives to kill one of the Capitani, attacks Polifemo and is quickly bested. Elvira also reveals herself to be a woman to Arlecchino and Smeraldina who have just declared their love for each other. Enter Trappola and her lover Zanni who have stolen the Strega’s spell book. She casts a spell to make everyone hate each other, the Strega sets it right, all the characters fall into a drunken slumber in Marcofa and Brighella’s tavern, and the Strega performs a marriage ceremony for every character. Lelio marries Lavinia, Marcolfa remarries Brighella, Zanni marries Trappola, Arlecchino marries Smeraldina, Pulcinella marries Capitano Cordone, Pantalone marries Elvira, and Strega marries Dottore. Woo! Even with this “short synopsis” a lot has been left out, such as various lazzi and monologues but these are the points where the main story moves along anyway.
What character(s) / mask(s) did you play. Did you spend a lot of time with this character during your Commedia training?
Aubrey: As I mentioned before, I was Pulcinella, servant of the Capitano Cardone played by Francesco. He was the Capitano who arrived in Arezzo looking for the Capitano that the woman was disguised as, and despite him being the only actual Italian in the cohort, he was playing a German. Honestly, I have been playing a Pulcinella since he was “diagnosed” as my mask 5 years ago here during my undergraduate semester at the ADA, so in my training with Fabio, I tried really hard to play with other masks. However, despite me never touching the Pulcinella mask or telling Fabio about him being “my mask,” when he cast the canovaccio (only the week of the show) he cast me as Pulcinella, because he said that I was a Pulcinella. No escaping him, I guess.
Francesco: I was Cardone, a Capitano. I struggled a bit with this mask: during the previous training I had worked with other characters. So it took me some time to enter the mask and find the body in accordance with it. But on the third day of rehearsal I was more at ease with this character. This speaks also to the long process Fabio shared with us during the previous training: a step-by-step journey into the world of masks, with the use of Commedia masks only at the very end. I would have liked some more time to try all the characters, but it has been a real strong and powerful experience, crowned by the great fun and satisfaction of the final performance.
Nike: I played Pantalone, the miserly father of Lavinia. I actually didn’t train very long with Pantalone but none of us really worked with any one mask for an extensive period before the week before the show. What we worked on more extensively with Fabio was an ability to read a mask by looking at it, and to find our body within any mask in a short period of time. I had worked on a few different variations of an old man leading up to the end of a semester, a Swedish whaler and a mad-weary homeless man, but Pantalone was a new experience to play. I had a lot of fun finding my own Pantalone, who ended up being more of a southern old-timer. Maybe was rich at one time because he got lucky and found oil or won the lottery but ultimately he lives by his wits and tries to dodge his creditors by any means necessary.
What aspects of Commedia do you hope to maintain as you move forward in your work?
Aubrey: The speed of creation and turn around, as we put up this canovaccio in 3 days, really, as well as the study of the grotesque body and acting within this super physical character. Related to this, Fabio taught a very specific skill of “reading” the mask, which is very different in approach from other styles of Commedia where you are told this is how X character is “supposed” to move and can be very blocking. This allowed so much more freedom and allowed us to really match our characters and bodies to the masks we were wearing as opposed to forcing a physicality onto our bodies and masks that might in the end be incongruous. All in all, I love Commedia and hope to bring it along with me as I move forward.
Francesco: For sure the work with masks in general, also as a theatre training instrument. The ability of reading the lines of the mask, finding the body in accordance with it and starting to feel and think as that character does, and letting the mask guide you is a really strong experience. And I think it is useful to understand how to build a character, also when you don’t wear a mask.
The other thing I’d like to bring with me is the fun I’ve found. Probably because of the mask and its power, you feel protected, more at ease, more distant from yourself. This gives you more freedom, less self judgement and a lot of fun: the challenge, now, is to bring all this to every theatre performance.
How did the creation of this piece differ from previous, non-Commedia work you’ve done in the past?
Nike: Working on the Commedia final was completely different from the other productions our cohort ensemble has done together, not least because we had a director and a full-length canovaccio (a scene-by-scene hashing out of the script). Most of our work leading up to this was purely student devised and, even with the cabarets, which tended to be hour long shows, our works were patchwork combinations of shorter pieces and skits. The plot was perhaps a bit unwieldy but it was a pleasure to be a part of a contiguous show with a clear beginning, middle, and end. We also had much less time to put this show together. We got our roles on the Tuesday before our weekend performances and didn’t have the full script until a couple days later. The very fact that we were able to pull this off was amazing to witness as a process and I believe the cohort is a much stronger ensemble for having worked through such intense conditions. The fact that this was possible is a testament to the strength of Commedia as a pedagogical tool, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it affects our ensemble’s ability to devise longer pieces in the future.
We sat down with Commedia professor Fabio Mangolini to ask him about his history with Commedia dell’Arte, and his current pedagogy with MFA Cohort IV. Find the full interview below!
How long have you been working with Commedia dell’Arte? What initially drew you to it? What continues to interest you about it?
Well, in a way I passed all my life working with Commedia dell’Arte. Professionally I can say from 1985, when I entered in a company specialized in Commedia in Paris. I was interested in Italian theatrical tradition and later, when I began to play, in the great possibility, and pleasure, that Commedia can offer to an actor. It was the interest for the theatrical mask, for the direct relation with the audience, for the development of the skills I could study when I was at the theatre School in Paris.
Now the interest is enlarged: I find in Commedia the fundamentals elements of the dramaturgy, the creativity of the actor, the extreme rigor of the work and of the actor’s ability. Anyway the pleasure is the same of the beginning.
What are your goals for the MFA students during their Commedia training?
They are different. At first the capacity to be on a stage listening your body, your voice, your partner and finally the audience. It is not easy and I think this lucidity on the stage, this clarity of mind, is useful not only in Commedia. Then the use of the mask. We don’t keep the Commedia masks the first day of training, but only in the last third of the work. Before we learn how do the metamorphose of the body, how to read the signs of a mask, their lines. So we use other masks before, we can call the “human masks” and “character masks”. The goal in this part of the training is to find the “deep truth” into each mask. It is a fundamental moment to enlarge your universe, your imagination playing on a stage. It is wonderful to see actresses and actors completely transformed and unrecognizable. Even the speech universe is new and offered by the mask. The actor only have to follow the mask. Another important objective is to understand the importance of the popular theatre, the grotesque. That’s why I spent all the lessons of Aesthetic and History, in parallel to the Commedia training, to explain the importance of the Popular culture during the Renaissance, the Carnival. Last goal is the dramaturgy: the Canovaccio is a dramaturgical exercise.
Basically my goal is to pass down to the students the idea that Commedia is not a museum or a superficial way to move but is theatre and is a composed art of the actor with special skills as dance, acrobatic, singing, fencing, dramaturgy, sculpting the space with the body and, of course, acting. Only few days ago I was reading on a social network dedicated to Commedia dell’Arte one “director” promising videos on the “real Commedia’s characters’ movements”. I laughed a lot and I really had a good moment! I really think that our students now know that Commedia is something much more complex and I also think I achieved my goals.
How can studying Commedia contribute to the growth of an actor-creator?
I really think that study masked theatre and Commedia is basic for an actor-creator. I tried to give you the reasons before. We can call Commedia an art of allied arts where each is at the service of the performance. That’s why in our program Commedia dell’Arte is at the end of the Second semester, when the students have the tools to put together the elements they studied before in a performance. It is the way to do more complicated steps, later. An actor/creator has to know which are the elements of the creation. Commedia is like a synopsis, a compendium of these elements.