A Brief Preface
This past Tuesday, February 25th, marked the 5th year of the celebration of Commedia dell’Arte Day. If you’re a theatre buff, or have taken an arts or theatre history course you have had at least a brief elbow brush with the theatrical style of CdA. I could run on for a multi-piece post about Commedia, which I will be starting after this one is posted.
the event poster for the worldwide event, 2014.
It’s a style I came across a little over 10 years ago in high school, and it was love at first sight.
Given my flair for cartoons, a performance style that is more or less a cartoon on stage was something I took to quite quickly.
Here’s the Elevator Pitch: Commedia dell’Arte is an improvisational form of comedy that utilizes stock characters, half-masks, comic bits, and a character web that is the predecessor for all modern comedy.
Check it out, seriously. If you’re in the Midwest/Michigan area, check out my theatre company’s website. We do a lot of CdA style shows. We actually have one coming up in May:
our logo *(fancy, non?)
Hole in the Wall Theatre Company
And Now, The Adventures of HITW in the world of 24 Hour Theatre
Rewind 4, to February 2010 – 24HrTh parte un, “Picolette’s Pickle”
Through some form of social media, I had gotten wind of a world-wide event that was to be happening on February the 25th. This was an opportune date, because the theatre department had just closed a show the previous week that a majority of the company was in. Our schedules were open, all but 2 people in the cast had been practicing CdA regularly.
The school was letting us use the Black Box on campus, gave us run of the scene shop, costume storage; the school newspaper did a front-page story on us. For the performance we had to add seats because of how many people showed up. It was nuts, more than anyone could have hoped.
The following year we didn’t manage to get the troupe together to do a CdA show.
In 2012, we staged a fully-rehearsed scenario titled The Whole Vine Yards. That’s for another post, another time.
Fast Forward 3 Years, February 2013 – 24HrTh parte deux,“Who Are You? Do the Play!”
This time around, we performed at a space just down the street from the University, a local music venue called the Flint Local 432. Though it was almost exclusively a venue for bands, they wanted to start expanding into putting on plays. So, we put on their ‘inaugural’ theatrical performance there.
We had an entirely new cast this time, mostly students from the school. They had done a CdA style show that Fall and the buzz in the department to do more was still strong. Though we were off campus, there was granted access to some of the school’s properties and set pieces. The theatre was in such close proximity to the scene shop that the tech crew carried the set pieces down the streets of downtown Flint and through the stage door of the Local.
Being off campus hurt attendance this time, but a majority of the students really pushed the word about the play and we had about half house.
Fast Forward 1 year, to February 2014 – 24HrTh parte trois, “Dead Serious”
Here is the show poster for ‘Dead Serious’
And then, we come to this. The 2014, 24 Hour Theatre à la Commedia dell’Arte. To reference Murphy’s Law would seem almost trite to convey the magnitude of what this 24 hours became. My friend Ryan and I arrived at the Local at the 7:00 call time. I had assumed that there would be few to no people there immediately at 7.
I arrived to an empty theatre, save for the Building Manager who left us the keys to stay the night, and a reporter from the school newspaper who was staying with us for the night to do a piece on us for the MTImes. Ryan and I figured with the cold weather people would be arriving late. So we unloaded my Escape and began setting up the space for the night. It starts to approach 7:30, the time for us to commence constructing the play.
Ryan and I had talked briefly about the idea for the story. Earlier in the 24th the great Harold Ramis passed, and basically his entire body of work is an inspiration to me. The top of that list, personally, was Ghostbusters. My proposal to Ryan (and those who would join us later) was to do a Ramis-inspired show, inspired largely by Ghostbusters. This offered a wide gamut of possibilities for the actors, and allowed us to pay tribute to a wonderful artist.
Do Not Gentle into that Good Night…and Slimer
Then at about 7:45, my fellow board member Sarah arrived at the theatre, bringing our bodies to 4. Sarah and I had planned on writing and directing, not acting, and we were far from asking the girl from the newspaper to undertake something like Commedia. We tried to reach out to multiple people who had expressed intense interest, but for one reason or another everyone couldn’t make it. This included ALL of the technical theatre people, and their access to the props, costume, set pieces, as well as all of the equipment that would allow us to build a set of our own.
So there we were, three performers and a reporter.
Sarah, “well, I have to work the next day.”
So, there we were, two performers, a co-director, and a reporter.
“Alright. A two man Commedia show…we can do this, right?”
While Sarah and I hashed out the details of what we could possibly do for this show, unbeknownst to us Ryan was upstairs writing what would eventually become the scenario we would use for the event. A process that usually is thought out amongst a handful of writers for two-three hours was done by a greenhorn actor within the span of about 40 minutes. Granted, it wasn’t Hamlet, but it had a clear beginning, middle, and end, and allowed for character development and improv from the actors.
But we needed at least 3 people for the most rudimentary incarnation of Dead Serious.
But, there we were 2 actors, a co-director, and a reporter. SO we took to the phones, contacting any/all theatre contacts we had in the area. As luck would have it, a friend, Katie, whom we had gone to school with was in town visiting her family. She agreed she could do it, despite having an audition the next day before the performance.
So there we were: 3 actors, a co-director, and a reporter.
Each actor took 2-3 roles for the performance and utilized the ever-helpful quick change to keep the pace of the show up.
So, the night carried on:
Dottore and Scaramouche discuss the size of donuts
Katie just couldn’t keep her mind off me ;D
Zanni 2 and our female vecci, Doris, talk the merits of Arlecchino’s “spirit stick”
We concluded around 3:00 am, as Katie and Sarah needed sleep, while Ryan and I drove to Grand Rapids. We arrived in GR t approximately 5:30am. Ryan went on to study through the early morning for an exam he had at 10 in the morning. We reconvened at his apartment after his exam, and returned to Flint, pulling into town around 4:30pm. Katie was there before her audition, and rehearsed with us until 5, when she had to leave. She’d be back basically as the show was beginning.
The next two hours would be devoted to building some semblance of a set. We built a set in two hours. Three actors built a set in two hours. If you’re not in the theatre, the perhaps you don’t realize how amazing and terrifying that statement is.
A small audience attended, and Katie arrived with 5 minutes to spare before curtain. The performance was a success, despite everything we faced through the 24 hours. The cast/crew/writers/production staff enjoyed a well-deserved beer afterwards.
…and that was how I decided I will not do 24 Hour Theatre for at least 5 years.
If you like the masks, check out our maestro’s website and order some for yourself!