Last Thursday, I failed, and was generously rewarded for it. The manner in which I failed was by opting out of performing with other talented artists for the International Day of Commedia dell'Arte, and I was rewarded by instead sitting in the audience and getting to enjoy multiple fascinating, commedia-inspired performances. It was quite moving, actually, to see such a concentrated example of the commedia dell'arte approached as a living tradition, which is an ethos Zuppa del Giorno has long espoused but rarely heard echoed back so specifically. I should have stepped up, and regret my own rather ironic sense of un-preparedness (is SO a word) to perform an improvised form, but regret nothing about attending the evening.
A couple of acquaintences with whom I've wanted to work -- Brian Foley and Billy Schultz -- performed and were involved in pulling it all together, in association with Fiasco Grande Productions. It was an evening that seemed to aim to inform as much as it entertained, and all within a sort of informal framework of each act presenting itself with little explanation, then that performer hanging around a moment to introduce the next. I appreciated this, because it lent a feeling of inclusion, but it may have made some who were expected a more refined production feel awkward. In particular, I enjoyed a description of the commedia dell'arte given in prelude to the whole thing, by a gentleman named Stanley Allan Sherman. Mr. Sherman had that immediacy about his demeanor that is so essential to good commedia, and can be rather intimidating or unpredictable to folks unaccustomed to that sort of ride. He reminded me a bit of our friends Andrea Brugnera and Angelo Crotti, and I wanted to talk to him more. A young student was interviewing him before the show, and I was giddily elated to hear he designed the mask for a famous professional wrestler, Mankind, and that he based it upon Arlecchino's visage. Living tradition, indeed.
The evening included commedia tropes, clown routines, satire, buffon and acrobatics, and tons of just lovely silliness. There wasn't much traditional scenario work -- Brian came closest I think with a lovely solo piece reminiscent of the lazzi of perhaps Arlecchino or Pedrolino -- but I was pleasantly surprised to see transformational elements such as masks and wigs. Billy participated in a structured improvisation with a great premise: that of an international competition for paper airplane construction and flight. This was the piece that most reminded me of Zuppa's initial original work, insofar as it was essentially a use of commedia techniques and archetypes in a more contemporary context. I was later blown away by the comical mastery displayed by the Acrobuffos. They ripped it up, stitched it back together and made the whole audience more alive with laughter.
The purpose of this International Day of Commedia dell'Arte, as I understand it, is to bring a wider appreciation and understanding of the commedia dell'arte to the world in the hopes of getting it acknowledged as the major cultural influence upon western civilization that it has been. (So, you know: modest goals.) In the US, Faction of Fools seems to have taken up the bulk of the mantle of this promotion of "intangible heritage" and is doing an accountable job of mobilising troupes and players into action. It's a bit regrettable that, here on the northeast coast, the day takes place in February, given that outdoor performance would be both historically appropriate and good for advertising. Nevertheless, the day is a great idea that I hope carries ahead full steam into the coming years and toward its eventual aim. The Commedia dell'Arte is alive and well and almost no one seems to know it. I'd like to believe we can change that.
As to my failure, I paraphrase that towering Capitano Sinatra: Regrets, I've had a few. As much as it was scheduling and insufficient time to prepare (yes - to prepare my improvisation) I think it was also a feeling of being quite out of touch with my craft, not having performed in the style since last summer's trip for In Bocca al Lupo. This evening rejuvenated that sense of connection, better than I could even have imagined, and has my imagination whirling again with archetypes and acrobatic gags. Who knows what will come of it, but I know that it will be driven forward by two things: the first, to never again be caught unawares for a similar performance opportunity; and the second is this feeling that I just walked into a room and found a panoply of old friends in the form of commedia characters. Thanks for that, everyone.