5 lessons from Dell'arte International

In 2009-2010, I attended Dell'arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, CA.  There I studied theatre:  Physical, melodrama, clowning, commedia, devised, ensemble.  These words are some of the buzz words.  But that would be the superficial words.  The easiest of words to describe what I learned. Sometimes I wish I could articulate what I learned there.  But often when I try, I think of some anecdotal stories, that out of context of the entire year, make no sense whatsoever except to people who were either there, in the moment, or at least have gone through the school.  While there is an academic side of the school, the heart of the school is beyond the mind.

This week, the school is celebrating its 40th year of existence, with an all-school reunion.  I couldn't make it to the reunion due to work, but I've been in contact with friends and classmates who are there.  I am left reflective of who I was before I went to Dell'arte, what happened there, and who I am now because of the school.  There isn't a single teacher there during my year who did not touch profoundly some aspect of my art.  I have also learned much from my classmates who came from across the world.  Some very talented, bizarre, driven, and experienced artists.  Since leaving the school I have also learned tremendous amounts of knowledge and been given inspiration from the alumni network.  Some alumni, whether they know it or not, have become crucial mentors to me.

1)  The sooner I embrace and fight to do the work I'm interested in, the more my work becomes uniquely me.  I came to realize how much I sought approval for all my work.  I wanted to short circuit feeling vulnerable by getting permission to perform.  There came a point just past the half way point of the school year where I realized this, and decided from that point forward I was no longer going to do what "I thought was right" as much as "what am I interested in doing?"  In terms of the quality of the work, I feel something came alive in me as a performer.  I still need to remind myself to do this on a constant basis, and I don't always succeed.  But when I find something that interests me about a new work, it seems to come alive.  I have more fun, no matter if the work is dramatic or comedic, and the work seems to resonate more.

2.)  I learned to be present, and vulnerable.    Nearly 4 years after attending the school, I realized what vulnerability was beyond an intellectual concept.  Through a journey into self, I realized that I hated feeling vulnerable all my life.  I did everything not to feel vulnerable.  But once I realized, "oh, this is what vulnerability feels like", and I allowed myself to feel it, things began to change for me.  To be present to that feeling as an artist means taking risks.  Sometimes it means putting the mind aside and listening to the heart.  I find joy in what I hear.  I find heartache.  I find the breadth of human experience resides in my heart.  There is an infinity there, if I'm willing to sit in it.  To be still and silent inside my heart, I can hear the echoes of the universe.

3.)  Characters, stories, and performances move through me, not by me.   I can and have wasted many hours thinking about a piece, or character, or performance.  A huge shift happened to me during my time at Dell'arte where I began to see the stage differently.  I began to see a flow of energy between performers and audience.  I felt intrinsically a connection to a higher plane, which if one relaxes enough into it, the impulses move through us.  For example, during clowning, we had to create clown characters.  After weeks of coming up with "good ideas" for clowns, I sat one Saturday afternoon in front of a mirror in the studio we had class in, and I emptied myself of thoughts, preconceptions, and desires.  This wasn't quick.  I sat there in quasi-meditation for fifteen minutes or so.  And when I felt completely empty of ideas for a clown character, I walked up to the costume area and with as little thought as possible, grabbed certain clothes.  Suddenly an old character I used came to me, or I should say, a particular element of the character.  And when I donned the "mask" of that clown, someone looked at me, and handed me a helmet they found.  I put it on, and it felt right.  Bradley was born out of aligning myself to an energy as opposed to trying to manipulate it.  Since that school I've tried to recreate that character and he never quite existed quite the same again.  He was a specific character for a specific piece with a specific ensemble.  Only by emptying myself could I allow myself to be filled.  And I found numerous bits that worked as that character no matter how many times I performed it.  In other projects, I discovered a process of not trying to succeed, I instead found creating work by being less precious.  Having more fun and listening in response to my fellows, and making choices based on that.  Creating work began to have an ease to it.  Not that it was always easy, or the results always fruitful.  Failure happened.  Which leads to:

4.)  Failure is not only okay, it is essential.   The clown training makes failure mandatory. More than anything we studied, when we studied clowning failure became amplified.  And by being in that fire, I learned that failing is okay.  Earlier in the school year, failing would bother me.  I tried to avoid it.  Perhaps it was also a culmination of failures occurring in my personal life during clowning, but I reached a point of giving up trying to succeed.  I just did.  And did.  And if something hit, I kept doing it, and if it didn't, okay, I'll try something new.  This has been essential in life as well.  I fail sometimes.  And it's not the end of the world.  I just keep doing.  And sometimes things strike a note, and some of the benefits of a hit fill my life.  Other times, something just doesn't work.  And I try something new.  I know it will be okay.  And it has been.  No matter how difficult life is, I'm okay.

5.)  Finding my voice.  I have become very passionate about spirituality, art, and community.  Sometimes, when I talk about these things, I fear I sound a bit crazy.  It is easy for me to be a parrot, reciting things I've read or heard (and I do that).  But the real gold is when I allow my voice to be heard as it is.  It's a combination of the previous points, they strengthen and allow me to have my own voice.  My own style.  My own interests.  For example, I've heard people read something I've written for myself to read, and sometimes it sits weird in their mouth.  Because it's not the way they speak.  And that's okay.  I have to keep speaking, performing, and exploring the things that interest me.  I have to make the theatre that I am called to make.  And in order to do that, I have to paradoxically empty myself of goals and take the actions the universe sets in front of me.  It's a scary place.  It's vulnerable.  But there is no other place I'd rather be than right here, right now.

Thank you to Dell'arte, to my teachers, my peers, those who came before and those who came after.  I owe so much, and hope to give back every penny to the next person who needs it.