Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Table Work

La Fenice's "table work" is primarily about reviewing the scenario as advocates for the stock characters we're playing. In its earliest stage, our scenarios are extremely malleable, so we like to tackle any problems with plot in a character-driven sort of way.

While we do a more "formal" table-work session at the start of the rehearsal process, it usually comes at the end of a series of more informal ones, like this one over beers last week between Genevieve Kinney, who is playing Ruffiana in our next show, Aaron Johnson, our Artistic Director, and Kate Meehan, our Managing Director.

[It's rather important to understand that the bulk of this conversation is underscored by a lot of AC/DC and Guns and Roses from the juke box.]

Genevieve: I had a lot of fun with Columbina from For Whom the Dong Tolls, and Gian [Giacomo Colli] said that, well, really, I was playing Ruffiana. And so, what is that, what's the difference? Why was she a Ruffiana and not a Columbina? And then, this Columbina that I'm doing in Kill the Messenger, is just crazy, I mean she's nuts. That's really fun, doing a powerful, smart woman who's also nuts.

Kate:  Is it that Ruffiana isn't smart in the way that we played her before? Or is it just that we played her pathetic? Or drunk?

Genevieve: Yeah, yeah yeah! The only time I've ever done Ruffiana before was in King Makers, and she was just - she had a cigarette and bottle every time she was on stage, and she was definitely pathetic.

Kate:  And messy.

Genevieve: She was all over all the male characters and they're all "ew, gross."

Kate: She wasn't allowed anything. The comedy was in her rejection. She wasn't allowed sobriety, her sexuality, or any kind of power. She was literally spayed. She was a spayed lady.

Genevieve: I hated playing her. That's why I've never played her since then. It was terrible.

Kate:  Huh. Smirildina is often pathetic, and you like playing her.

Genevieve: Oh, but she's innocent. Ruffiana is aware of her patheticness. I'm totally not going to do her like that again.

Kate:  So, Smirildina is pathetic but ignorant, but with Ruffiana. Huh. If Ruffiana's pathetic and aware of it, you have a sudden potential for tragedy. That's probably one of the most tragic characters in our arsenal, really - that's some Emile Zola noise there. L'Assommoir or Nana.

Genevieve: It's just not appealing to me.

Kate:  And it doesn't feel very Commedia to me, to have such a depressing little albatross around the neck of the show. All hyuck hyuck hyuck, and then some high-tragic figure literally drinking herself to death on stage.

Genevieve: The way you did her in Sparrow, she is a drunk, but she's still a wheeler and dealer.

Kate:  Yes, well, in that show she was empowered by her husband. At that point she was able to be a six-martini cougar and get away with it, because she had a crazy rich husband to back her plays. It doesn't matter if you care if she's drunk, because she can buy you.

Genevieve: I like the idea of Ruffiana being like a mother figure. Not exactly, but like the one with the wisdom.

Kate:  If not mother, then mentor. What about her relationship with men?

Genevieve: What about it?

Kate:  How does it change if she isn't spayed? At least half of our characters are male, so if she's no longer this impotent thing, there's a new power at play in the scenario.

Genevieve: It becomes a manipulation. Like my Columbina that Gian was so sure was a Ruffiana, where all men were her little puppets. Which was fun. She was able to be super witty and suggestive. I don't know, I guess I have some confusion between Columbina and Ruffiana.

Aaron returns with another round of drinks.

Genevieve: So, who is Ruffiana historically has a lot of power, right? Like sexually, and with blackmail and that kind of thing.

Kate:  The power is there - she not only has blackmail, she has the money, the clout, the freedom, she's outside of the cloister. I mean, something like 60% of wealthy women at the time were stuck in convents because their parents couldn't swing the dowries of second and third daughters. They had to know everything - they became where you went for gossip, where you went to discuss politics, who wrote your sonnet, where you saw a concert -

Aaron: Like the Geisha in late samurai Japan.

Kate:  Except they were allowed outside the Floating World. They were allowed to freely co-mingle with society, where Geisha were generally frowned upon outside those walls.

Aaron: The first great woman of Commedia dell'Arte was one of them. Isabella -

Kate:  Oh, no way. She's not the first. She's absolutely not the first. Vittoria -

Aaron: Well, I mean, she was the only one to get a state funeral in another country.

Kate:  The first to get coins minted with her face on them. But that doesn't make her the first. She was walking a tended trail.

Genevieve: Okay, so then, in playing Ruffiana, I'll need to figure out what she's good at. What her specialty is.

Kate: And what her language might be. Because knowing the Venetian dialect was a gimme, but as a port city, she would've been expected to know at least one other language. That might influence her flavor a little. The Venetian dialect is like some weird Italian/Austrian thing.

Aaron: What's the town when Italy wraps around real close around the Dalmation coast? There's a town where the language you here over there sounds Italian?

Kate: What?

[Aaron consults his phone]

Genevieve: Okay, what else?

Kate:  Also, what sort of art they've taken as their calling? Whether it's painting, music, dancing, writing? She'd be proficient in most of these, but there's probably one that has her heart. They all have to sing and dance, that's just assumed.

Genevieve: Nice. "They all sing and dance." I like that.

Kate: They also have to pursue something intellectual, and they all have to know quite a bit about politics.

Genevieve: Wow.

Kate:  I mean, you couldn't be a slouch and be a Cortigiane Oneste, you wouldn't get customers. There's a reason why Commedia spread.

Aaron: Capitalism.

Kate:  You have these women who have customers who love them, who bring their troubles to them, and wrap themselves up in their velvety skin, and then they go off to whatever country they're from. These actresses now have the super hot roladex of all the monied, well-traveled men in Europe. So then it becomes a question of asking the troupe "where do we want to go?"

Genevieve: Riiiiiight.

Kate: I made a pretty map once, so I could get a good idea of the troupe movements with extant documentation I could find. They were in Russia, Germany, Denmark - everywhere.

Genevieve: Okay, so --

Aaron: Trieste is the name of the city I was thinking about. See, here's Venice, right across the Adriatic Sea.

Genevieve: And, wait. What do they speak?

Aaron: Whatever. I mean, Austria is here, Italy is there. Serbia is here. And Albinia is there. It's a melting pot.

Genevieve: Okay, so in the Maiden's Chest - at least, until we come up with a better name for it - so she's got a collection of things. I was thinking about when I played Isabella in Sparrow of Roma, I felt like I was doing Columbina - she had all these museums, and she was all passionate about things. She had a lot more going on than it seems is usual for Isabella.

Kate: There's no reason why Ruffiana can't be an historian that's been collecting curiosities from the beginning. Like part of her fee was something exotic from where they're from, or collecting stories or artifacts that is in and of itself representative of the world that she can put in a shelf and gaze upon. The idea is that this box contains love that brings everyone to their knees, so that's what her curio is missing, the thing that unites everything in her chest.

Genevieve: And she knows that?

Kate:  I think it'd be awesome if she does. I mean, if she can summon any rich dude to her side, even in her retirement.

Aaron: What's her flaw?

Kate: That's up to Genevieve. But I think it's totally cool if she's got a secret. If her passion is filling this curio, and this is the last thing that it needs, the thing that really ties the room together.

Aaron: I have that movie in my bag right now.

Genevieve: So she's still a little crazy.

Kate:  Not in a talking to rubber chickens kind of way.

Aaron: Few women are.

Kate: I don't think there's anything crazy about - I mean, some people keep a shoe box full of love letters.

Genevieve: It's not crazy, but the quest is a little fanatical.

Kate:  Maybe it's her last journey - maybe she's decided she won't take any more lovers, and this is the last thing, some final symbol.

Aaron: Okay, so fanaticism. That's the key. I'm just trying to find what it is that - we can't have the ideal anyone up there on stage.

Kate:  There's nothing implicitly ideal about that. You can have a caricature, but one of the things that we as a company have always shied away from are moments of levity. So, there's nothing wrong with a woman going a quest for closure for her life's work. If that in and of itself is something that we as a company feel needs to be painted as fanatical to be comfortable with, it does kinda say something about us. The character can be funny and still go on a quest that is poignant and lovely and valuable. They aren't mutually exclusive.

Aaron: I'm not saying that. I'm saying that even if you look at it from a point in space, Orlando from For Whom the Dong Tolls is driven by what was right. His father was dead, the book of spells was gone, he falls in love, he's trying to do everything the right way. His flaw was that he's a goofy sort of guy in the process. You see what I mean?

Kate: That's acting. If it needs to be something ridiculous, it could be that she just needs to finish out this Curio so she can buy the one she's been eyeing at the shop next door and start over. Whatever it is. But I don't think we need to turn her into a fool or a crazy person to make it work.

Aaron: Maybe flaw isn't the right word. Something that kind of allows... if we present onstage, especially the way we've grown accustomed to doing things - and I get that you're saying that maybe we might want to do things differently - something, there's got to be some aspect of it that we can lampoon, or something that we can play. So that other characters can get one over on her so that she can be manipulated. Unless Ruffiana is the person driving the whole thing.

Kate: But, why does Orlando get to have a noble quest and just be a goofy sort of guy, but Ruffiana's quest has to be flawed? There's always a way to get something over someone that doesn't involve assaulting their purpose.

Genevieve: For one thing, in this particular scenario, she can have her noble quest or whatever. [laughs] You know, all that crap.

Kate:  All that garbage.

Genevieve: She can end up having a weakness related to Capitana, that can be a thing.

Kate: That could be why she's retiring. We have to run off together to one of those other states where they can get married. You know, anywhere but here. They've got to put the past behind them before they start anew in somewhere not-Texas.

Aaron: Actually, I sort of like that. So it's her super-objective. Like, she has to have this, and she can become sort of fanatical when things don't go her way. Like she could throw a massive shit-fit, potentially.

Genevieve: Something weird she does when she's upset. Like, not totally together.

Kate: There are certain things that make everyone a little bit crazy. For example, a really nasty bathtub, and people being cool with a totally nasty bathtub, and multiple molds growing in some sort of terrible habitat.

Genevieve: I like the idea of her having a lofty goal.

Kate: It gives her more purpose than "give to me that thing I don't have... barf." Me and this bottle, that's all I need.

Aaron: But, that's not unfunny, but no. I get it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ruffiana and the Gender Politic: An Historical Context

My name is Kate Meehan, and I'm guilty of shoddy character choices.

Ruffina, from Sparrow of Roma
I was the first person in our company to play Ruffiana, an older female stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte. This was some twelve years ago, and when I played her, I went straight for the laughs. Ruffiana translates to "lady pimp," and in my young mind, the joke was that she was a woman deprived of her sexual comeliness after decades of hard use. I played her drunk, raunchy, sexually forward and repulsive. It was an easy choice - prostitutes in America are one-dimensional figures, depicted as the very definition of desperate, powerless women. What few madams we have in our cultural lexicon - Miss Jessie at the Chicken Ranch, Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, are anomalies in a history of male-run brothels filled with downtrodden women.

It set the tone for how she was played by everyone after me. Genevieve Kinney, who's been performing with us for a decade, played her once and determined never to do it again, finding the role too sad and pathetic for her to enjoy performing.

But we use Ruffiana relatively frequently, as a female counterpart to Pantalone. We don't perform her as someone scheming for money - she has always been secure in her position, as depleted as it may be. From a purely mathmatical format, the way we've played her doesn't work. Pantalone works because he is a high status character playing low. Ruffiana, as we've played her, is a character of questionable status (is she a high status character?) playing low, isn't structured enough to fit with the rest of her stock character friends. The tidiness of status is what makes Commedia easy for all audiences. Our Ruffiana broke that mold, because of my sloppy choices.

But I'm already sort of ahead of myself. Let me back up.

Ruffiana, from Kill the Messenger
(performed by Katy Smaczniak)
First, we might want to talk about gender in Commedia dell'Arte. I'll not cite my sources, but I'll provide a tidy list of additional reading at the end for scholars who are interested in being picky about that kind of thing.

It's probably not surprising that the current Commedia dell'Arte practice is dominated by male voices,
with notable exceptions in Joan Schirle of the Dell'Arte School, Didi Hopkins out of the UK, Katrien Van Beurden from Amsterdam, Judith Chaffee in Boston, and a crew of younger women who are beginning to carve out reputations for themselves. Corrina Di Niro out of Australia and Franchesca Chilcote, for example. Many of us attended an International Commedia dell'Arte conference in Canada a couple of years ago, presumably about gender, and Joan found the imbalance of male to female voices included in the festival worthy of calling out at the conference wrap-up.

That's not to say that the men of Commedia dell'Arte are masochistic, repressive jerks. Quite the contrary. They're fantastically supportive of us ladies. But recent dialogue within the community has the Ladies of Commedia more interested in the performance of gender. As a performance style entirely based on stereotype, the way we play our women defines how we see women in our society. If our oldest female character is defined by the absence of sexual power and is depicted as sloppy and pathetic, what does it say about us?

Historical Context: Old School Commedia Chix.

A purported portrait of Vittoria Piisimi
Italy, particularly Venice, was home to a cultural phenomenon known as the cortigane oneste. They were super high-class courtesans that drew customers from the European elite, known for being sharp of wit, excellent singers and dancers, politically savvy, fabulously literate and wildly independent. They were among the first women granted entry into elite male-dominated intellectual societies. They grew fabulously rich, and their independence scandalized the wives of powerful men, who, despite their position, were still confined to their private chambers and deprived of their voices.

It is generally presumed that many of Commedia's best actresses were cortigiane, and many of them went on to manage some of the most powerful troupes in Europe. Vittoria Piisimi was one of the first internationally famous actresses, attracting Henri III of France, who became a patron of her company, I Gelosi, which she co-managed until starting a new troupe, Uniti, in 1579. I Gelosi's new prima donna, Isabella Andreini, worked closely with Vittoria, and the two tended each other's companies while one of them left on maternity leave.

Together, they created one of the most genius acts of early marketing when their troupes were hired to perform during the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando de'Medici. Their troupes were supposed to go up after a giant indoor naval battle, and they weren't about to get shown up by some tiny canon and machina. They held a much-publicized "argument" over which show they should perform (one starring Isabella, or one starring Vittoria), which led to them going "head to head" the following weekend.

(If you're interested in this stuff, here's a short paper about the cortigiane and some key actresses.)

Back to the Point: Ruffiana

Genevieve as Columbina: Kill the Messenger
As a "lady pimp," the Ruffiana of antiquity would have been a member of the cortigiane oneste, freed from the social stigma and onus bestowed on women in the sex industry in America. She would have been a scholar, a performer, and a trend-setter. She would be independent, wealthy, and would have her fingers in the hair of every powerful man in town. Her retirement from the sex industry, then, would be more of a matter of choice. Rather than being a drunk, sad shadow of her formerly enticing self, she would be a Grade A Cougar.

From a performer's standpoint, this gives her much more to play with. She can use all the subtlty and cunning of Columbina without ever having to be submissive. She can utilize elements of Smirildina's sexuality and Isabella's poise. In plot structure, we now have a new vehicle to steer the storyline.

This new Ruffiana is someone that Genevieve is excited to play. As a mother of a talented young man, an artistic polymath, a woman in her fifties that can strip down to her skivvies onstage and grab everyone's attention, Genevieve is the perfect performer to shape our new Ruffiana. I'm thrilled to get to be a part of the process.

Recommended Reading:
Joan Schirle's chapter on Gender in the Routledge Companion to Commedia dell'Arte 
Olly Crick and John Rudlin's book, Commedia dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes
Susan Griffin's The Book of Courtesans: A Catalogue of their Virtues
Margaret Rosenthal's The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in 16th Century Venice.
Laura Anna Stortoni's Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtesans
Martha Feldman's The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives
Lynne Lawner's Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Outdoors

A post in which Kate Meehan, our Managing Director and frequent performer, waxes on about performing outdoors.

Every now and then, a show will remind me of why I keep coming back to Commedia dell'Arte. This past Friday, La Fenice's performance of For Whom the Dong Tolls was just one of those nights. But I'm already getting ahead of myself.

When I was a little girl, my mother would disappear every night and wouldn't return until very late. One night, when she'd snuck into my room to give me a kiss, I asked her where she disappeared to every night. She promised to show me. The next night we packed a picnic dinner and went to the old Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. We climbed the magnificent stair and, half way up, went through an anonymous, nearly invisible door into a dark, cramped staircase that led to the peanut gallery, which had been sealed off decades before. Cut into the plaster that had sealed off the balcony were two open windows with gigantic spotlights leering out over the audience below. In the darkness of the balcony, the sounds of tiny claws scuttling across the dust and ancient peanut shells were transformed into a miniature army of monsters. But those windows. Oh, those windows. Far below, Cabaret was unfolding. My mother guided the spotlight as people sang and danced, plucking their performances out of the darkness.

It has nothing to do with Commedia, but I share it because it marks my first formative experience with the theatre. At that moment, theatre became something that fused spectacle and danger. That was 28 years ago, and that show, the way it made me feel, is as tangible as this keyboard.

I performed on stages all over, but there was always something missing. Sure, there's always some potential for surprises in live theatre - missed lines or cues, costume malfunctions - but there was some threat that wasn't there that seems to both ignite and unite audience and spectator. I delved into improv in Chicago, finding the risk inherent in improv a little closer to what I felt was missing from traditional performance, but missing the structure and spectacle that comes from tangibles like properties and costumes.

I'd performed in Commedia-inspired version of Tony Kushner's The Illusion (twice, actually), so had been introduced to the style and had done a bunch of armchair research. It wasn't until I moved to Austin and was introduced to a bunch of ex-Renaissance Festival geeks starting up a Commedia troupe that I found the combination of danger and spectacle I'd been looking for. They performed in bars (Club Deville was our first venue). They wielded swords. They crammed more fart jokes into an hour than should be legal without a permit.

That troupe, of course, was Austin Commedia Society, the progenitor of La Fenice. In addition to the improv, there is something really magical about performing on outdoor stages in bars. With the broad expanse of stars and sky, your task as an actor not only includes providing a convincing portrayal of a strange human within a predetermined narrative, but to physically draw the audience away from the expanse at their backs. We were creating invisible windows in peanut galleries.

And then there's the elements. We perform in wind and heat. Heat. Did I say heat? Why are we always performing in summer? We sing and dance, and it feels like we're performing inside a fat kid. Our thin blades flash across the stage, and inside our velvet and brocade costumes, we're making human soup.

On Friday, it was muggy and hot. The sky to the north of the stage flashed with wild lightening, and as the show progressed, the audience's attention was pulled by the ominousness of this crazy, natural light show churning behind the stage. Would the storm hit before the show ends? Will it rain? Was that thunder? We all felt it. With each lightening strike, the audience sat a little more forward in their seats. The actors, off stage, looked to the north and engaged in frantic math as they pretended to be meteorologists. That shared trepidation united the audience and actors in an electric way unrelated to the storm.

And then, slowly at first, fat drops hit the stage. We looked to the audience. They told us to play on.

We frantically took off our wigs and masks and stowed them in dry places, and kept going, slipping a bit on the stage as the rain came down harder and harder. We rolled on the stage, on puddles, while our audience, uncovered, got just as soaked. And they stayed. And we blew through the show like a tempest.

And as we took our bows, soaked to the bone, looking out at our half-drowned audience applauding merrily, I realized that we'd made something that many of those people would remember years down the road - the night that they watched this crazy show in a torrential downpour. It would've been impossible in a traditional stage. It would've been impossible in a show that was tightly scripted. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Giangiacomo: An Italian trapped in an American Commedia

Gian Giacomo Colli comes from a family of commedia dell'arte performers and practitioners. He holds an MFA and a PhD, and is the only actual Italian performing on our stage. In the past, he's visited as a guest director, flying in to tidy up shows at the last moments before performances. After many moons of cajoling, harassment, and plying with wine, he finally agreed to join us as Pantalone in For Whom the Dong Tolls. We caught up with him, now that we've performed the show a few times, to see what performing his native theatre for foreign audiences has been like.

We've worked with you previously as a director (sort of), but this is your first time performing with us. How is La Fenice's process different from our foreign counterparts?

Well, it's different in the sense that everything is improvised. With La Fenice, we start with a scratch of a scenario while in the past I've always started from a very well developed scenario. With a scratch scenario, more of the development is done onstage than when you begin with a fleshed out scenario. Improvising. That's the big difference for me.

Was it hard?

Well, it's not hard. Actually, it's fun. No, actually it was hard because I felt, and to an extent I still feel, not so much for the action or physicality but for the language to understand and to develop verbal lazzi. Sometimes when you all get going I don't entirely understand what's going on. I mean, I think I have a general idea, but especially when you're discussing cultural references, sometimes I get lost. That's the only tricky part, but it's a different process, and it's been fun.

You understand how important it is to have a really good feeling for the other people in the company. To know how they perform, and the kinds of things you can expect from them. That's very important.

How easy is it to improvise in, what, your second? third language?

It's okay to improvise, but I feel like I'm kind of improvise. I can't use the language to it's full power, so there are lots of moments that aren't as verbally crafted. In Italian it would obviously be much easier to create jokes. In English, I'm kind of limited.

So, next time we'll just have you do the show in Italian and we'll just figure out a way to subtitle you.

That would make sense, but I'd still have to understand some of your weird cultural references.

The style of our show is a little different from the commedia going on in Europe.

Commedia in Europe - France, for example, or some of the Spanish troupes, the big traditional theaters aside like Piccolo Teatro and their Servant of Two Masters, you see a strong connection with the popular roots of commedia, the low-class tradition.

Like street performance?

Yes, many street performers. There are double aspects in Europe. It can be either very political, like Dario Fo, or it can just be pure entertainment, very circus-like, but still you can see a very local connection. That's where the language becomes important, it is tied to the place and the audience. You can see it in Italy and France.

Here the language is much more important. Here's it's much more about the connection with the characters. There's a sort of American idea of commedia, a sort of cultural idea that isn't the same as Europe.

So the idea of Commedia is different in America than it is in Europe?

Europe has a historical connection that goes back to the Renaissance, maybe not straight back, but there is a practical development of the form that happened there. Here, commedia was more of a recent rediscovery, like in isolated parts of Europe, like Russia in the 1920s and 30s. A sort of perception of commedia as popular theatre that was at the heart of the interest in it.

So it's more of an American reinterpretation?
I wouldn't say reinterpretation, exactly, but there is a different sort of perception. Again, there are elements that belong to American commedia that are perfectly right that aren't as at the forefront as European commedia. Maybe it is a reinterpetation. Maybe it's that Americans can go to the historical renaissance and pick and choose what is important in their interpretation, but in Europe it's continued to evolve, so there are expectations.

That makes sense. Most of the troupes we are familiar with in the US, with some exceptions, are based in Renaissance Festivals or related to historical reenactment of some kind. Or it's a "commedia - inspired" production, which is taken to mean more of a masked, avante-garde circus.

That's the difference, I think. In Europe, commedia was born in the renaissance but there was a continuation, and then a transformation in the 18th century. The vision of Commedia in france and all of the revisions there. There is a continuity of performance in Europe that is an entirely different cultural element than in America. But that's okay. I don't know what's happening in south america, but I'm sure it's reflective of their development.

Any parting thoughts?

I think that I'd like to keep working with you. It's been fun, and I want to keep developing our show. This one. We should do that.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Adam Rodriguez: Punch vs. Capitano, with cameos by Paolo Garbanzo

Adam Rodriguez is rehearsing his fourth show with La Fenice.  Previously, he has only played the role of Pulcinella, but this time he's shaking off his hunchback to play Capitano.  In this interview, Adam, stand up comic and Esther's Follies veteran, is joined intermittently by Company Member at Large, Paolo Garbanzo (who was making eggs), and Managing Director Kate Meehan.

Kate:  Usually you play Punch.  This time you're playing Capitano.  How different are you finding the characters?

Adam:  There's a lot of similarities and a lot of differences.  Naturally, the physicality is very different.  In rehearsal, I often find myself growing a hunch back, and it's like "oh, damn it!  Capitano stands up straight!"  The fact that he's new is exciting is nice.  When I played Punch, I was just trying to add layers to him as a character.  He started off as just a straight up murderer, and later he turned a little more perverted, and by Sloop I think he had a lot more complexity.  Capitano now is just back at square one, so it's cool to get to start the process over again.  There are still a lot of similarities.  My Capitano is a killer and a pervert, so in that way, they are very much the same.  They're both scumbags, really.  The only real difference is that Capitano gets a sword instead of a rubber chicken.  Just in the back of my head, I want to play Capitano once or twice more to fill out the complexity of the character.  Standing straight and goosing my neck and carrying a pair of swords is the real fundamental difference.

Kate:  Gotcha.  

Paolo:  I've got a ton of eggs!  I'm adding this chicken to it, okay?

Adam:  Do it!

Kate:  What about the differences between performing stand up comedy and performing Commedia?

Adam:  They're both very experiemental.  My fundamental difference is that in standup you're flat-footed, by yourself delivering a joke, so if it doesn't work, it's all on you.  All the consequences are yours.  In an ensemble, you've got people to bounce off of.  If something doesn't work, you've got people to share the blame and maybe fix it.  You have people to help you out.  In standup, you're all alone in the cold vaccuum of comedy.

Paolo:  Doing solo shows, you're not alone, the other character is the audience.  If they're not giving you the time of day, you're screwed.

Adam:  You have to trick them into investing in you.  You sell yourself in the first five seconds, so the audience decides in the first five seconds whether they'll like you.

Kate:  And whether they'll allow you to be funny.

Adam:  And that you're worth their bloody time.  In an ensemble, you get five seconds for each performer, and if one of your cohorts can win them over, by the end of the show they may have softened to you a bit.  They're already invested in the scenario concept, so if you can hook them into the story, they'll probably like you more by the end of it.

Kate:  It helps that we cover ourselves in masks and fancy wigs and shiny baubles.  It helps that we dazzle them.

Adam:  You aren't as alone as standup.  In stand up you're just alone with your voice and your presence.

Kate:  And your meat.

Adam:  And all of our stupid props.  I mean, really, we're a swordfight away from being a Carrot Top show.

Paolo:  I've done so much solo stuff, so the things you can get away with in an ensemble show is awesome.  You can have someone be a total jerk, and then the rest of the group gets to totally overreact to his jerkness.  If the other members of the troupe are the people who call a performer out, the audience doesn't have to over-react.  If they watch you overreact, they can say "Oh, well, come on, he's not that bad."

Kate:  Yeah, "You should meet my brother in law.  He's a way bigger dick than that guy."

Paolo:  "Sure, his joke has offended half the population of the earth, but...  I mean, come on."  You can totally go over the top, but if you're alone and you're a jerk, you're just a jerk onstage and everyone hates you.

Adam:  In an ensemble, frequently the audience will love you for being the jerk.  That's why playing the villain is so fun.  You get to invite the audience to hate you a little bit.

Kate:  I don't think anyone's going to hate your Capitano.

Adam:  I'm goofing him a little bit.

Kate:  He's kind of tender, really.  He's the fat kid that picked up swords to keep people from picking on him.  He kind of reminds me of the Truffle Shuffle kid.

Adam:  Chunk.

Kate:  Yeah.  Like Chunk was an exchange student in Germany and fell in with a bad, stabby crowd.

Adam:  Started knifing people, totally.  Truffle Shuffle.  Yeah, I'm not doing the Truffle Shuffle.  Maybe the next show.

Kate:  You really shouldn't have told me that. I'll build an entire scenario around that. 

Adam:  That and the "dictate" joke.

Kate:  Paul, that smells delicious.  Adam, let's wrap this up.  Any final words on Commedia, or the show or the DC Universe?

Adam:  Hmm.  Let's see if I can have words on all three.  Yeah.  I think this show is probably one of our best, easily, because the process was very clean.  Not only is everyone in it a veteran of this process, the only one that isn't is Gian, who has more experience in Commedia than anyone I know.  I mean, more than any one of us know.

Kate:  Naw, Aaron and I met some pretty fancy dudes at the Commedia conference. 

Adam:  La de dah.  The ones willing to play with us. 

Kate:  But I don't think we'll be getting John Rudlin, Carlo Boso or Antonio Fava on our stage.  

Adam:  Having Gian has streamlined our process.  So often we'd lose a day in rehearsal to complications in the scenario.  Gian just nipped all that in the bud from day one.  The scenario was hashed out before we even started.

Kate:  Having the hash day in the beginning was nice.

Adam:  There was no second-guessing everything, so the rehearsal was clean.  Gian had already front-loaded the rehearsal process with second-guessing everything, so none of us had to.  I don't feel like we missed a single day in rehearsal, where in the past every now and then we'd realize that we'd have to trash a day's worth of work because something wasn't clicking.

Kate:  Yep.

A.  That alone has already added to the quality of the show.  We can throw all of our experience behind making things awesome, rather than making a story work.  We're like the A-Team.  We're like the Justice League of our particular little troupe.  So I get to play the Solomon Grundy to Gian's Lex Luthor.  That's awesome.  Good stuff.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Aaron Johnson: On Technology, Collaboration, and our Summed Parts.

Aaron Johnson serves as La Fenice's Artistic Director, and is currently playing Orlando, the male lover, in our next show.  In this interview, he speaks with Managing Director and long-time collaborator, Kate Meehan.

You had your laptop out the entire rehearsal.
Well, not the entire rehearsal, but for a significant portion of it, yes.

Were you looking at pornography? 
Yes, if by pornography you mean our scenario.

We're using technology this time around.  Talk about that.
We're chronicling the way we work in a way that probably isn't entirely new to us, but we're employing it more consistently.  We have the scenario, which was started as a very simple sketch of a plot, and over the time that we develop new material, we're now able to do live updates through Google Drive.  In fact, while you guys were working on the song, Tate and I were actually making jokes back and forth together, editing one of our scenes in the scenario simultaneously in real time.  So, he would enter a line and would suggest my reply, and I would edit it to say "what if I said this instead."  It's pretty nifty. We didn't want to interrupt the good work that was going on, so we worked collaboratively by typing.

So, when we called you out for having your faces in your gadgets in rehearsal, we were being jerks.
Yeah, we were actually working.

Probably a little harder than the rest of us.
But yes, I also had a side window up that was porn.

Was there a woman in the porn?
I think so.  Maybe?  Yes?  Moving along?  Actually, I do prefer my porn XX.

Um.  Does that mean Diet Porn?  Like a 100 calorie porn snack pack?
No, I was referring to chromosomes.  But that works too.  1/3 less the guilt.

As the Artistic Director, you tend to get bullied by the rest of the company.
That's okay though.  I mean, that's the nature of working in a collaborative form.  Different people drive at different times.  Everyone tends to be very open to ideas, but also has to be responsible for shutting a process down if we're getting off track or if things aren't working.  I've studied a number of groups working collaboratively over the last year, and in class last semester we watched some behind the scenes production work from a company called Mabou Mines up in New York.  It was really interesting to watch their collaboration process alongside more traditionally trained actors, because they found their process extremely creative and innovative, but I found it to be very natural, the sort of interactions.  It's the same thing as here.  You're in a room full of people with very strong personalities, and you're sort of editing toward the best idea for the work that you're doing.  As a result of that, I changed my designation on our Facebook page.  I believe I was originally called the Artistic Pushover, but I changed it to Artistic Distractor, because I thought it mirrored the word "director" a little better and it's probably more accurate to what it is that I do.

Well, the tasseled pasties you wear to rehearsals are a bit distracting.  Especially when you set them wagging in opposite directions.
Hey, when you've got skills, you don't always know you're displaying them.

But to talk about the group we're working with, I feel that everyone in this show comes playing their A game whether they want to or not.  We've certainly gotten older and potentially wiser, but we've also gotten more efficient.  People are able to work fast and funny.  We're a commedic version of the Borg.

No way, dude.  We're summed parts.
The newest performing member of our troupe is Gian [Giacomo Colli], who has more experience than most of the rest of us combined.  I know he's having to learn a new process, - oh wait.  He's right behind me, isn't he?

Don't worry.  He's looking at porn.
Does he have his laptop open?  Oh, okay.  Good.  Well, I know we work in a way that's very different from how he likes to work, but he's picked it up very well.

I'm really enjoying working with Tate [Green].  It's my first time working with him, and I'm amazed at how quickly he and I work together and how well we jive.  I was talking to Adam [Rodriguez] the other day and remarking how much working with Tate is like working with Paul Joiner.

Both of them have Yes, And in their bones.
Adam is playing Capitano instead of Pulcinella, and I think that every show that we've done at this point.  He's behind me too, isn't he?  Is he looking at porn, too?

No, he's slurping soup.  Which I guess is a sort of Adam porn.
There's a website that charges money for that.  Adam's playing Capitano as the heavy, the dangerous Capitano, which seems increasingly to be our choice.  Theoretically, the Capitano in Sloop of the Damned was also dangerous, even if he was a Don Nazi.

Oh, man.  No, that went straight to the cutting room floor.  Thank God.
Genevieve is getting to go back to Columbina, which is something she's wanted to do for a long time.

We're actually a bunch of Fascist jerks for not including that burning desire while we wrote our scripts.  By "We" I'm using the Royal We.  But I'm including Adam.
The Royal We is a total pain in the Us.

Genevieve is getting a chance to play Columbina, but because of the construct of the show, she's now in the position of playing Columbina in a very different way than she ever has before.

How many shows have you and I done together?

I can't even start to count them.
More than a couple, basically.  I'm actually enjoying doing Lovers with you again.

I think the only time we've played the Lovers together was the pick up show we did of Family Jewels where I kneed you in the jimmy in the middle of the show.
Yeah, where you were drunk?

Yes, totally.  But, to be fair, it was my 21st birthday and people kept buying me shots before the show.
And you didn't actually get me in the junk, you frogged me on the top of my thigh.

Really?  I had this huge bruise on my shin afterwards.  I wonder how I managed that.
Yeah.  You didn't get me in the junk, because that probably would've stopped the show.  You were flailing about quite a bit.

Ah, youth.
But yeah, I think you're right.  I think that was the only time we ever played Lovers together.

Bruce, of course, doing music, is a great comfort.  Working with a musical genius is awesome.  I mean, we just sort of hummed some stuff to him and sent him away, and by the time he came back, we pulled together a three part operatic number.  It's encouraging, but not surprising when you've got Bruce around.

Am I missing anyone?

I hope not, or you'll look like a real jerk.  Any parting words?
Um.  People of the Philippines, I shall return?  Old soldiers don't die, they just fade away?  Thanks for this interview?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kate Meehan: on Aesthetic and Being Totally Lovely

Kate Meehan has been performing with La Fenice since it's very first show as Austin Commedia Society back in 1999.  Over the years, she's played a number of the Commedia stock characters with us, and currently serves as Managing Director.  Before joining ACS, she performed on many famous Chicago improv stages, including ImprovOlympic and Second City.

How does La Fenice's approach to Commedia differ from other Commedia dell'Arte troupes?
Well, I've really only created Commedia shows with La Fenice, but for the last few years I've been in touch with a whole lot of different performers.  Apparently, we're pretty unique in the United States in that we're performing Commedia outside of Renaissance Faires, the confines of a Goldoni script, or a proscenium stage.  We perform in bars to keep things risky - usually at least half of our audience was unaware there would be a show that night, and it means we don't have the luxury of a trapped audience.  They can ignore us, talk over us, throw bottles and loose change or just leave.  Our job is not only to keep their attention, but to convince them at the end that what they saw was valuable enough to dip into their wallets.

How well does that work, with the masks and such?
Pretty well, actually.  We've morphed our aesthetic over the years to suggest a sort of vague historic past, with stock characters pulling visual references from characters our audience already knows.  Pantalone, for example, is based off the Monopoly guy.  The masks and big shiny costumes cue our (likely drunk) audience in on the kind of over the top theatricality of our shows, and sort of prepares them for some of the bullshit conventions we try and pull later.

You're playing the young Lover this time?
Yes, a bit of a stretch, huh? At least I'm paired with Aaron, who is even more elderly than I am, instead of young Tate.  Sloop [of the Damned] made me feel like total a cougar.  I began playing the Lover with Austin Commedia Society back when I was, more or less, the Lover character in real life - obnoxious, loud, and with limbs a little too long and spindly for any real grace of movement.

Not much has changed.
That's totally true, except now I've got a lot more person to cram into the corset and am sporting these grey racing stripes.  Genevieve [Kinney] usually plays our lovers, and she somehow manages to explore various permutations on the Elegant Lady every time.  This is the second time I've picked the Lover back up since La Fenice reformed, and I'm trying to keep from making her too crusty, to just allow the character and myself to be lovely without making any commentary.

What do you mean?
Well, there's this strange attitude that's apparently pervasive among female comics.  They can be attractive, but you don't run into material from Cloris Leachman or Lucille Ball or even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler about how good looking they are and some of them will go out of their way to actively remove their femininity from their acts, talking and behaving in more masculine patterns, but there's no denying that they're all a bunch of total foxes.  In part, I think it comes from tending to be one of very few ladies in a dude's world - no matter how many manicures you get or how well you walk in heels, your testosterone starts to pique and you become less comfortable playing femininity in truthful ways.

I assume you mean the Royal You.
I always do.  Unless we're talking about doing dishes or picking up squished cockroaches, in which case, I mean Actual You.  I did a show during the Great Commedia Hiatus where I played this punky angel for the first act of a show, and a rapist-tormenting succubus during the second act.  The succubus role was really hard for me.  I remember being fairly confident someone would stand up in the middle of the show and call me out for farting into my corset and bustle, or point out how wildly uncomfortable I was with the slinky vixen thing.  I've never felt so exposed and awkward in my life, and I've done some really ludicrous things on stage.

Back up.  You were farting into your bustle?  Is that what chicks do into those things?
Well, yeah.  With all those voluminous folds, it's hard to resist filling them like a hot air balloon and there's  a lot of gut squeezing with corsets.  When the review came in for that show, the reviewer said I had played the role of a succubus too narcissistically, but playing the angel like I had just been hit in the head with many hammers and was suffering from Tourettes was called "spunky," so I guess it reinforced the notion for me - stick to what you know, and cling to the fart jokes and on-stage jitterbugging and leave being ladylike to the dancers.  So, you know, the first Lover I played when we re-formed was a sexual being, but in an aggressive, hyper-masculine way. It was actually a totally cowardly move. 

So this time?
Well, first of all, I'm going to sing like a freaking Disney princess.  Then I'm going to be so damned lovely, you're going to want to paint my picture like one of your French girls, Jack.  And somewhere in there I'm going to be funny, too.