01 December 2009

La Commedia e l'Aula

Dear God, do I ever hope I've written that title right.

Day the last, I taught once again for one of Suzi Takahashi's classes at City College -- a "Movement for Actors" class that consisted of actors and non-actors alike, and I had less than a couple of hours in which to introduce them to the commedia dell'arte, in particular about how it can apply to physical characterization and character archetypes. I type a sentence such as that and it occurs to me that it must sounds dreadfully boring to the average Joe or Jane, one unaccustomed to seeing this work. That's a danger of "studying" commedia -- it all starts to seem academic at best, irrelevant and inaccessible at worst, and these are not adjectives that should ever have anything to do with the form, ever. So I try to avoid study, and focus instead on practice, which is an effective strategy in general for getting young men and women fresh from four days of eating and loafing to be involved.

I love guesting into Suzi's classes, and yesterday was no exception. The students were willing, focused and fun to be around (after a bit of a gradual warm-up period) and I found several applications that will be useful in future workshops. For example, I gave a generic pose for the three basic status types -- a deep stance for zanni, a lifted straight one for innamorati and a bent one for vecchi -- and periodically shouted out one of these types, for which they'd rush to assume the pose. It worked great for keeping them alert, teaching them the classes and getting them thinking physically (in particular because the Italian names had no literal meaning yet, so they could just be immediately associated). Having to abridge my usual material to make good use of time led to some interesting discoveries as well. A quicker pace kept the students from getting too wrapped up in right and wrong, so when it came to creating their own Capitano character they were more apt to drop the form elements they had already learned in favor of observed behavior.

There is something about teaching workshops that really fulfills me, and I often wonder if I would lose some of that feeling if the occasions to teach were more frequent, less special. Certainly there's a lot about regular teaching that a workshop instructor gets to be exempted from: long-term lesson plans, getting to know the students well (by which I mean, by name) and dealing with any amount of administrative concerns. The consequences, too, are mitigated by the brevity, which can also cast a bit of a glow on a workshop teacher as something new and fleeting, to be valued somehow more intensely than the teacher one sees day after day. Yeah, jeez: there's a lot of liberty in being a workshop leader. Yet the thing that gives me a sense of fulfillment more than any tricks I figure out or insights I have has more to do with the students than the class.

What's really amazing about sharing the commedia dell'arte perspective with people is watching them take it in their own way, at their own individual paces, and then suddenly run with it. That's got little to nothing to do with me, or even the material, and everything in the world to do with an individual person finding through the process a spark that lights them up. Maybe it's a moment of "I get it!", or perhaps it's one of "I give myself permission...", but whatever it may be for a given person, you can watch it happen around the classroom like popcorn. Here's where the commedia workshops and the acrobalance ones converge, in this infectious energy that spreads around in different patterns every time, but always results in more trust and bravery, and somehow, a new sense of community. It's really inspiring.

I've had a lot of experiences in the past year that have been seeming to say to me something literal and specific: Make community. That's it. There's a whole lot of different ways to do that, and I'm actively involved in a few of them, from starting up The ACTion Collective with Friend Andrew to working to stay better connected with all my friends, far and wide. Soon there'll be directing a show to add to the community-building pile, with a little luck. From the rehearsal studio to the Internet to visiting home (and other homes) it's a bit of ground to cover. I'm grateful that the small space of a couple of hours in a classroom can be part of that, too.


Patrick said...

This makes me happy. Having seen you in action, I've very glad you have opportunities to teach. You're good at it.

Jeff said...

Thanks, Patrick! Having seen you in action, I can say the same of you. More please.