I have, till now, never written anything about our school, but in response to the numerous requests – principally from the director of the school – I will now try to put something down on paper. I will write from my own very personal point of view, explaining my concept of the ideal school in the light of some of my experiences.
Comic theatre lies particularly close to my heart. The necessity to share and to entertain others or make them laugh is as old as the world. People of all cultures and times have enjoyed laughing and allowing themselves to be seduced by stories – there has always been dancing, singing, music-making, storytelling, mime and juggling. Humour, fun, parody, jokes, and farce have always had an important place in the performing arts. And, humor can also be a means to an end – it is thanks to humour that clowns, jesters and commedians can often better express the truth. Comedy requires the transposition of the theatrical action through the application of an external, artistic procedure.
I have often had the feeling that people treasure and are willing to attend comic theatre, despite its not being artistically and culturally on the same level as, for example, drama. A new era definitely dawned for us clowns with the awarding of a Nobel prize to Dario Fo – an official and public honouring of a clown and comedian! Today, there are many different forms of comic theatre throughout the world, for example the Commedia dell’Arte, the Kyogen, in Japan, comedy, cabaret, clownerie or pantomime.
I have always dreamed of a "total" theatre – a simple, primitive form of theatre created without technical aids. This would recquire a multi-talented comic who has a mastery of his body that allows him to utilize it as an instrument. I believe that every actor should be capable of performing a standing somersault or other acrobatic exercises even if he never uses it on stage. Furthermore, he should be able to dance, sing, juggle, and even more. I myself have tried out and practiced some of this as a clown and I am often asked: “How and where did you learn all that?”. I learnt it in different places with various teachers, and also partially taught myself.
The pantomime Richard Weber and myself founded the school in Verscio in response to the wishes of a group of young people who were interested in the type of theatre I described above. It would obviously not have happened without the help of Gunda and the first teachers.
But what does it mean to found a school – a school that till then had existed only in our dreams? We knew that the school would teach a non-verbal, artistic, poetic, musical, burlesque form of theatre, and we needed to develope a technique for all these disciplines. It was clear that it would be a strict school, and that it would depend on the expression, talent, presence and personality of young, future comedians – all of which cannot be taught. It must be awakened and developed. There were many excellent acting schools at the time and our school was to propose a counter-point, or shall we say, a completion, an alternative.
We started with the subjects pantomime, dance, acrobatics, improvisation, folk-songs and history of theatre. The school is now 25 years old and the disciplines have been reinforced, been changed and new ones added. Let’s look at them individually, starting with the main subjects.
Acrobatics is an artistic discipline, a training that every potential comedian can use. Acrobatics should be approached carefully and individually, because every student naturally has his or her own gifts and limits. One can expect everyone to take part in the warm-up and simple exercises like rolls, cartwheels and handstands, but after that, the teacher should develope the specialities and unusual physical talents of each student. One might be a naturally good jumper, another a contorsionist, a third very strong, and the fourth clumsy…but even the acrobatically incompetent can learn to turn this to their advantage in theatre.
Obviously, it is difficult to integrate the artistic into a scene or theatrical event – the danger is that it becomes a simple demonstration of technical ability. Clowneries and comic scenes are particularly well adapted for the avoidance of this technical demonstration and for the developement of the unexpected jumps, falls and dislocations into something comic. Acrobatics is, however, also extremely effective in daramatic scenes and fights.
The artistic and its possibilities are not yet fully exploited in theatre. Some dance groups have successfully combined dance with acrobatics, and acrobatics is often no longer an end in itself in young circuses.
Stunts and falls also belong to the field of acrobatics, or more precisely, how does one fall in the most spectacular manner without hurting oneself? We can also include the exercises in couples or groups – the two-man up, pyramids, dive-rolls, or the lifts, which can be developed into acrobatic dance.
A daily training is very important to build the new muscles recquired by this subject. I don’t believe that acrobatics can have a detrimental effect on the other subjects.. if one has seen Russian dancers and how their fantastic, acrobatic leaps are incorporated into the dance, then one can understand how the one cannot hurt the other. Certain Broadway artists are singers as well as acrobats and dancers and the one doesn’t hinder the other here either.
To end with I would also like to emphasise that the acrobatic training also helps to make the student aware that one doesn’t gain anything without sweat and practice.
Dance - another wordless art – has played an important role in our school from the beginning. There is hardly an actor in classical theatre who has not had to dance at one time or another, and nearly all would have had lessons in ballet or social dance during their training. Dance makes the actor more versatile. It offers the beautiful and important possibility to express oneself non-verbally – only through the body. Dance is also more appropriate for the expression of abstraction or pure feeling than pantomime or a theatrical scene. Joyfull leaps, exuberant or tempermental steps, or slow, melancholic movements and much, much more is possible in folkdance, tango, flamenco, modern dance, etc.
Improvisation is possible and usefull here, too. It is just important not to lose oneself in it and to be able to repeat a beautiful, newly discovered movement. Theatre is made up of repetition, and it is important that each night is as good as the previous.
Expressive dance has also always fascinated me, especially where the dancer is nearly a mime, and the mime nearly a dancer.
I am convinced that we could get much more from grotesque dance, and likewise from dance that leans toward the absurd, comic, burlesque, exaggerated and satirical.
While we don’t actually want to train dancers, the better we can dance – whether we are tall and thin, or short and round – the better we can fascinate the audience.
How can one learn improvisation? And if one has learnt it, is it still an improvisation? This interesting contradiction has always occupied and fascinated me. One could say: Yes, every creative, artistic process begins with improvisation. The painter begins with sketching, playing with the colours, perhaps without a precise idea of what he would like to represent. However, he is at home in his craft. Perhaps he can draw well, has trained his sense of proportion and knows how the colours play together. He can create something by chance, from a dream, his immagination, a vision… I believe it is similar for all artists.
In theatre, one must train one’s memory from the beginning (if one works without tape or video, which is what I would hope).
Yes, improvisation is the alpha and omega of a creative, living theatre. It is a beautiful experience when a student discovers that he can create a scene himself - when he learns how to begin, not become to long-winded, to hold the tension and find an ending. He must also learn how to repeat, to correct and to shorten. He must improvise on a given theme – not always his own author. Later, as a qualified performer, he may have to fit into a role, or work with a strict director, but even here, improvisation and the trying out of various possibilities can help to find the character better.
Improvisation with words, without words, with objects, with nothing, with others, alone… it’s unending and exciting.
The subject "storytelling" also belongs to the theme of improvisation as it shares the same basic rules. One starts by discovering a story through improvision, and then performing it. It would seem important to me that the same principles that apply in improvised stories be applicable to given pieces written by other authors.
(scenes without words, pantomime, mask-building,and acting with masks)
Is a scene without words a pantomime? Is a mime who sings or uses props still a mime? Were the silent films pantomime? Or, were the actors mute because in those days films didn’t have sound? One could discuss this at great length...
Expression without the voice, bearing, body-language, and the mastery of every part of the body are extremely important in the special subject of pantomime at our school. Through pantomime technique, we can learn to move our bodies in a controlled and conscious manner. The better our mastery of our bodies, the greater the virtuosity at our disposal. Technique is obviously not enough – one also needs expression and the artistic element. A breakdancer has a phenomenal mastery of his body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can play a role.
Pantomime, the way it is practiced at our school – the "scene mute", scenes without words – is a whole world, nearly complete in itself. Thinking back on an excellent, convincing and stylized scene, one often has the feeling that the actors spoke. This is the power of pantomime.
Another element of movement theatre is the work with masks. I think that this subject is presented ideally at our school because the students get to know their own faces in the plaster mold-making phase, and go on to learn everything that has to do with masks by making them, and then working with them. A good example is the work with a neutral mask which requires the full availability of the body to communicate feelings. It is possible to bring the audience to the point of believing that the mask actually cried. This is creative theatre in which the audience’s fantasy can participate.
There is a huge amount of literature on masks: masks in different cultures, the mask in theatre, in carneval, in crime stories and films, etc. We will concentrate on our white, self-made masks, whose character is created by each student individually and then modelled, copied with papier-mâché, covered with wood-dust, sanded, tried on and tried out. When after lengthy rehearsal the scenes without words are performed, it often occurs to me that one should do a full perfomance in this style because it is a unique and seldom seen theatre form.
The masks of the Commedia dell’Arte are introduced in workshops. They are half-masks that leave the mouth free so that the actor can speak better. The strength of the Commedia dell’Arte lies principally in the characters – Pantalone, il Dottore, Arlechino, etc. - and it is possibly through to the masks that these figures have become immortal. We should help to ensure the continuation and spread of masks in theatre.
This is a subject that has become essential in our school – neither the Variety, nor the company pieces would be possible if the students did not attend rhythm lessons. How closely art is linked to rhythm! This is especially true in music but also dance would be impossible without rhythm, and likewise many forms of verse, poems and songs. A theatre piece, a scene or a number has rhythm – or it doesn’t, which is usually negative. The meter, the order, the system which is repeatable and nearly mathematical is healthy and helpfull for the artist. Percussion instruments, drums, and also sticks, a wooden floor, a box, a tin, a paper bag, hands and feet, the chest, and much more are our instruments. There is, also in rhythm, a clear connection to many other disciplines.
I nearly forgot the inner rhythm, the feeling for timing. Every mime or performer needs not only an inner dialogue, but an inner rhythm. If this is missing, a piece quickly becomes slow and boring.
We have used, and sought to develope the voice in many forms since the founding of our school – in folksong and choir, in rhythm and with rhythmic texts. The voice belongs to the body, from which is issues. It is important and indispensable for every form of theatre with the exception of pantomime.
We are often faced with the question of how much time the voice training requires or how much we can afford to devote to it. I think we can invest as much time in it as is invested in the subjects of dance and pantomime in a classical theatre school.
It requires a huge amount of work to arrive at a full use of the all the possibilities of the voice and all its variations, shadings and subtleties without forcing, straining or even damaging it. It is necessary in our type of school to develope a quicker way of polishing the voice. It is important that our students can be understood, even if they are not at an acting school. If one is going to speak, well then, perfectly, and not how one speaks on the streets..!
Subjects that emphasize the body can be very supportive for the voice. Many singers train their bodies to keep their “instrument” solid and in good shape.
There are many wonderful possibilities that remain unexploited. The combination of voice and dance, for example, or recitation combined with stylized movements of the hands and body, the telling of stories in which the body is used... or, a group that moves, dances or mimes accompanied by choral recitation...
(integrated with different emphasis into movement theatre, rhythm and acrobatics).
When one starts to juggle with one ball, it seems pretty easy, but when this is practiced to include all the other movements of the free hand, the path of the ball, behind the back, and so on, one suddenly notices how difficult it can be. Then dance movements are added and the whole is built into a theatrical action – the ball becomes a globe, a stone, a toy – and it becomes the creation of an artistic, imaginary scene.
Juggling can then go further almost without limits with two, three, five balls, with clubs, sticks, cloths and other objects.
Actually, everyone should try to juggle. There is hardly a discipline that trains the coordination, the presence, precision and reactions better. It creates a feeling of well-being to defy gravity and throw things through the air in regulated patterns, like the stars in the sky. Juggling is one of the oldest and most difficult jester and circus acts in the world. It can nearly become a form of meditation, and practicing, an addiction. It is generally the jugglers who practice the most in circuses. Juggling is extremely entertaining when combined with theatre, clownery and magic.
In my opinion, the fight – whether with hands, feet, sticks or sword – is a wonderful and attractive enrichment in theatre, especially when stylized and masterfully and artistically presented. Fencing is still practiced in classical theatre and often provides dramatic and exciting moments.
Tension, aggression, defense, evil and the fight against evil are important elements of theatre. This is why the "martial art" is a subject that can enrich artistic and theatrical expression.
Isn’t a well-painted wooden sword something beautiful? Such swords fascinated me as a child – the world of pretend and make-believe. The games of pretending to stab someone, or take one’s own life for grief - knowing all the time that the wooden sword is not a real danger and at the same time believing in the action – are part of the origins of theatre.
The martial arts train the reflexes and presence, and come close to juggling when one starts to explore all the possibilities of a stick. One also learns how to approach another – the various strikes and hits can be dangerous if not well calculated and rehearsed.
I can only repeat again how important music is for our form of theatre. It is one of the "international" arts, because, like pantomime or dance, it is not bound by language. It’s a pity we didn’t include a conservatory of music when we founded the school, however, every student and teacher understands that music increases our options.
Magic is an often employed element of theatre. There are magic shows in which whole elephants disappear, women get sawn in half, and people fly, but we are interested in the smaller, more intimate type of magic: changing hankies into different colours, and conjuring innumerable balls out of one’s mouth. We work with manipulation anbd illusion – making it seem that a ball is floating, and pulling flowers out of the air. All these tricks can be wonderful if they are correctly applied, which means incorporated in a dramatic or comic scene, theatrically good and technically perfect.
It would be a poor theatre without the magician, the sorcerer, conjurer, sleight of hand artist and trickster. The perfect performance comes about when these artists are also good comedians.
This rhythmic-acoustic dance form is particularly valuable for theatre, and has fortunately not died out completely. While most at home in musical and variety, tap-dance can also be extremely useful for us.
The meeting of dance and percussion, the linking of the body with music, drums, song, and much more, is fascinating and spectacular. The connection to other subjects like dance, rhythm and clownery is evident, which is why it is another form of expression offered by our school.
At the beginning of our school I taught improvisation. I didn’t want to give a clownery course - I was somehow afraid to - and I absolutely didn’t want one to think that ours was a clown school. That all changed.
I’ve now been giving clown courses for many years. At the beginning of these courses I try to explain the following to the students: "As you all know, you are not at a clown school, but we do give great importance to burlesque theatre here. Not many of you want to be clowns but you will defintely have to play a comic role at some point. Many of you have a comic talent, and others will soon discover it. Either way, I believe it will do you all good to perform a clownery at least once."
"It is important to experience what people laugh about; to learn how to change a relatively serious scene into a comic one, how a gag works, and how much one can express with humor, to confront the questions: Can I still be funny without a red nose? How do I feel when the audience laughs? Can I repeat a good gag? Am I capable of not geing intellegent? Can I make myself ridiculous and stupid? Can I allow myself to be naked – in a theatrical sense – in front of the others? Can I accept that what I did was not yet funny?"
Yes, all these questions, and many more, are what the clownery course is about.
It is a great enrichment for our school that we can offer courses in this form of theatre because of the enormous importance it gives to phyical expression and the comic. The Commedia is the comic theatre par excellence. The performers of nearly all the characters – like Arlecchino, Pantalone, Pulcinella and il Dottore – must also be good comedians.
There are parallels between the Commedia and the Japanese comic theatre, Kyogen, the difference being that the tradition of the Kyogen is more alive in Japan than is that of the Commedia here. However that may be, the Commedia is still a theatre from whose style, half-masks, stylized, burlesque gesture and particular use of dialect we can only learn.
Although it is to all intents and purposes spoken theatre (yes, there is a lot of very fast speaking) the Commedia belongs completely to the family of comic theatre. It is obviously very closely linked to the italian language, although I have seen experiments in other languages which - thanks to the well-performed movements – managed to convey the essence.
Even though it is very tied to the tradition, I believe there is room for new forms of the Commedia. We have the freedom to try them out.
I’m sure I haven’t written everything I wanted to and I’m not sure if an epilogue is valid for adding what I’ve forgotten… Either way, there are a few observations I would like to complete.
Our school is also a people school – we artists shouldn’t get too full of ourselves. We shouldn’t think that we are worth more than “normal” people just because we are succesfull on stage and recieve applause. Our students should be gifted but also industrious, tolerant, modest, and intersted in life, people, art and theatre. More time and space should be devoted to the history of theatre and dance, dramaturgy, costumes, anatomy, lighting, management and culture in general. Teachers, director and collaborators should seek to have more contact and combine their intentions.
There are many subjects – till now regarded as optional extras – like tight-rope, trapeze, vertical rope, musical instruments, singing, Tai-Chi, Capoeira, break-dance, puppet theatre, juggling, unicycling, and various forms of dance, that are stimulating and desirable. It would be great if each student could study and specialize in one or more of these subjects.
I would like to make special note of the presentations, pieces and various performances and diploma pieces. It is extremely important that the students frequently have the possibility to show something, even if it’s only for a small “internal” audience. This is the beginning – in the end, theatre is for the audience.
It would be wonderful if some more of the divine gifts of humor and laughter enjoyed only by us human beings could flow into everything , and not become lost.
I often dream of reviving old and lost forms of theatre, and also of new ones that could still be created. In our school, we have already discovered and developed new forms of expression. We are already quite far in certain areas - in the subjects of improvisation and one-ball juggling, for example. The students sometimes make exciting experiments, especially in the diploma pieces – word and movement, word and dance or the translation of complicated texts into simple, visual scenes.
What is still missing for me is the courage to create comedy, parody, farce, clownery, the grotesque and burlesque. A search throughout the whole world of theatre for the comic would surely render some material that could be useful and exciting for our school.
In the same way that a cook cooks to please his own palate, I look at the students we train and ask myself if we would engage them for our company. My answer is "Yes", and there are various companies who work with ex-students, and others who exclusively employ performers from our kitchen.
Comic theatre today has a tendancy towards the brutal, the aggressive, the heartless, fast and technical. This requires a counterweight. I see myself as a follower, a left-over of the great clown tradition that began at the turn of this century. In those days when there was no TV and film was just beginning circuses, varieties, and vaudeville-shows did much better. It is important to preserve and bring into this century some of that fresh, naive, simply-presented entertainment. Theatre is entertainment, and entertainment always has something to do with comedy because the audience wants to have fun.
We are on the right track with our company, school presentations directed and choreographed by teachers, and pieces by ex-students. We should aim for the opposite situation to that which exists in classical theatre schools where comic theatre is assigned a supporting role, and the focus is on drama. We place the emphasis on the "teatro comico".
Dimitri, autumn 1999