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Grand Dame 

Dell’Arte International’s Joan Schirle

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Joan Schirle leaves her shoes at the door of the classroom and travels across the airy, cool studio in a pair of black sweatpants. Her MFA students are settled along the east wall. The sun shines on their backs through the tall windows of the 100-year-old building. Schirle situates herself in the center of the room, with long, silver hair haphazardly restrained by a plastic clip. She peers through giant Edna Mode spectacles and asks, "How does your body register being caught by something?"

"In acting, if you cannot be caught in the circumstances of what you're doing, you're not in it." She sets her students the task of being caught, "OK. Go! And see what you find." They rise and move around the room, shouting, leaping, running.

With eyes on her students, Schirle sweeps past the piano to grab her coffee cup. She moves with a grace that speaks to a lifetime in theater and dance.

Founding artistic director of Blue Lake's Dell'Arte International, Schirle grew up an artsy, repressed Catholic schoolgirl in San Jose, California. Her mother refused to let her take tap and baton, insisting those pursuits were for "trashy girls." Instead, Schirle was raised on a strict diet of piano and ballet, which she admits gave her the perfect entree into theater.

After nearly flunking out of her first year at Cal Berkeley, she transferred to the University of Santa Clara, where a professor suggested she help out backstage at a production. It was there she found her people. "I was so impressed by the family spirit of those who worked in the theater," she confides. "They were playful and affectionate with each other. This was in contrast to my family situation, which was chilly." She laughs softly. "Not chill, just chilly."

Schirle became entrenched in theater, but a year after graduating, she got pregnant. "I moved to New York so that my parents wouldn't find out. And I gave my daughter up for adoption." Forty years later, they reunited through an international registry. Her daughter now lives in Florida and, Schirle exclaims with pride, "She's a biker. I mean a biker!"

In New York, Schirle trained in mime and modern dance, and got her certification to teach the F.M. Alexander Technique before leaving to travel Europe. In time she headed back to Santa Clara to teach. After a devastating breakup in the early 1970s, Schirle quit her job and slept in her Volkswagen van on the Mendocino coast for a while, then joined up with some friends who were living in Briceland.

She spent a few years with Southern Humboldt's first generation of back-to-the-landers. Then, out of money and looking for a job, she heard about a festival in Eureka that hired — and paid — actors. The Grand Comedy Festival at Qual-a-wa-loo was run by Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and his wife Jane Hill. They didn't hire her to act but invited her to join the faculty of their theater school, which she did. The school soon tanked, but in 1976, Schirle joined Mazzone-Clementi and Jonathan Paul Cook to found the Dell'Arte Players Company. Dell'Arte International, as it's now known, has been a powerhouse in the international theater scene for the four decades since.

Schirle is a self-identified "slasher": actor/director/playwright/teacher/musician. In her years at Dell'Arte, she's worked on a mind-boggling array of local and international theater projects, has written and performed in her one woman play, Second Skin, and designed the school's accredited MFA program. She's won a slew of prestigious awards and taught students from Yale University to the Bejing Dance Academy, and worked with artists from Cirque du Soleil.

Shirle has also been busy filming a documentary about Dell'Arte's most popular stage show to date, Mary Jane the Musical. Perhaps the jewel in the Dell'Artian crown, Mary Jane explores both the benign and the ugly side of Humboldt's cannabis culture. Schirle created the title role, which she plays with aplomb, saying it speaks to the first generation grower, the kind of people she knew when she lived in SoHum. "This was before marijuana became such a cash crop," Schirle says. "But the seeds of it, so to speak, were there." Mary Jane the Potumentary is being submitted to film festivals across the country and will screen in Humboldt during harvest 2016. You can check out clips at www.maryjanemusical.com.

Schirle has a lot left to do. Current projects include writing the main stage play, The Big Thirst, for this summer's Mad River Festival. "It's a comic mystery about water," she says. It's the centerpiece for the month-long celebration of theater and music that includes physical theater, circus arts and the Humboldt Folklife Festival. (Check out the full schedule at www.dellarte.com).

"No one person walks like another," Schirle tells her class, adding, "Carlos said that." And Schirle, an elegant, theatrical renegade with a little bit of hippie thrown in, has proven no one walks quite like her.

Mad river festival

June 16 - July 17

Dell'Arte International

131 H St., Blue Lake

dellarte.com

Photography by León Villagómez
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