Contrary to popular (American) opinion. the "dell'arte" in "Commedia dell'Arte" does not in fact refer to art. At least, not in the sense the word has come to be used in most of the rest of the western world. The term actually describes the professional aspect of this form. It was one of the first recorded theatrical forms to transcend from rite, ritual or plain event into commerce, into a salable product. The "dell'Arte" also makes a tie between the theatre and the community by in effect introducing a guild mentality to theatre troupes. As the efforts became more regular and more commercial, actors formed troupes--or guilds, if you will--thereby joining the ranks of other professions in 16th century Italy. This is an apt parallel to my activities this week. Under the auspices of the newly-rebranded and resident-company-enriched Electric Theatre Company, I'm leading, along with Friends Heather Stuart and Dave Gochfeld, an intensive workshop in commedia dell'arte for the theatre students of Marywood University.
We did something similar last year--and have many of the same students back--as a part of ETC's "Portal Project" in collaboration with Marywood. However, last year's workshops simply emphasized the creation of original characters and improvisations for public performance; this year we're armed with our experiences with Angelo Crotti and a big pile of reference books, and the emphasis is on providing a very pragmatic, concise overview of the commedia dell'arte as a living tradition. This week will culminate in a few public, staged yet semi-improvised, performances of a Scala scenario for the visiting public of Scranton's annual Festa Italiana on Sunday and Monday (an event I must sadly miss, as obligations necessitate my leaving town Friday night). So in a week, we give them all they need in terms of history and techniques, learn and rehearse a show, and open and close the whole endeavor. And if you think that's hard for us, keep in mind that for the students it's their first week back at school after the summer break.
It's been a great week. Any incipient panic of the seeming impossibility of our task has been balanced out by the excitement of learning more and more about what we're teaching as we go along, and by the students' complete and selfless dedication to the work. They really are an incredible group to be working with. We have about 25 of them, and of those, a full 21 are electing to perform in the final product. That's a lot of roles to cast in a classic commedia dell'arte scenario (only one in our book lays claim to that many specific characters), so we're looking at possibilities for incorporating porters, musicians and police into various lazzi. In fact, at this point we've got a lot to decide about setting, logistics of the space and timing in general, things that don't even have a thing to do with the work we're doing in class . . . apart from how critical they are to informing the students' expectations as performers, of course. But what's that, really, in the grand scheme?
Yesterday afternoon, while I was trying to determine the best format for a 'blog devoted to details of catching my performances and workshops (coming soon to a link list near this entry), I got a call from the talent management agency I freelance with, Dream Weavers Management. They wanted to know if I could make an audition at 5:20 that evening in New York. My agent on this particular possibility was talking a blue streak about details, and before I could find a breath-space within which to insert the information that I was in another state on paying work, I heard that in was for a commercial filming in Canada, and looking to pay a non-union actor $10,000. Gulp. This is small potatoes compared to the residuals an actor ought to get for years from (what I assume must have been) a nationally syndicated commercial. But let's not kid ourselves--that would be the biggest paycheck yours truly ever garnered for plying his humble craft. I was, in a sense, saved by the beep. My agent had a call come in on the other line and promised to call me back. In the pause, a handful of minutes, I quickly reviewed my options. I could conceivably make it back to New York in time for the audition. My agent called me back, and before she could get going again, I informed her I was out of state and that I was afraid I couldn't make it. She said she understood, hoped for next time, and quickly hung up to get on with calling the rest of her mid-thirties white males.
I'm a professional actor. And that was the right choice.