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