IT WAS OPENING NIGHT LAST WEDNESDAY OF The 30 Show, Dell'Arte's celebration of its 30 years in Blue Lake, and the accolades were flying. Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley took the stage with a resolution commending Dell'Arte, and then Zuretti Goosby of Sen. Wes Chesbro's office began another one, this time from the state Legislature.
Resolutions all sound the same, Goosby said. "So I've improvised the whereases. Whereas 30 years is a long time to be in the performing arts business in Blue Lake -- I guess it's time for Dell'Arte to pack it up and get outta town!"
It just goes to show that, at Dell'Arte -- despite its having reached middle age -- not even political proclamations are dull, nothing is sacred, and humor touches even the most serious work.
But the fact is, 30 years is a long time to be in the performing arts in Blue Lake, and the timing of the retrospective signals what Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle calls a "reconfiguration" of the company.
"We are looking at how we can keep our ensemble together when everyone doesn't live in Blue Lake," she said. "Our original ensemble, we all lived here, and it was easy for us to create plays and tour them from here." Today, because of rising real estate prices and a severe shortage of rentals, "We can't support a full-time ensemble in Blue Lake anymore."
Above Photo: Part of The 30 Show ensemble, left to right: David Ferney, Anna Svensson, Stan Mott, company founders Donald Forrest, Joan Schirle and Michael Fields, and Michael's children, Maya and Sean Fields.
At right: Michael Fields as Mr. Natural.
Instead, several of the actors support themselves with jobs in other parts of the country, coming back to Blue Lake in between.
"We are actually having discussions all summer long about what will be a way for us to continue working as a company, where there's a commitment on both sides," she said.
One of those discussions took place last Monday, as Schirle, Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields, and many of the actors and crew from the company's last piece, Shadow of Giants, ate pancakes and imagined the future.
"The questions we were talking about this morning have to do with, what is the next evolution of the company, given the people who are now part of it?" Fields said. "What is the next direction of work it will take, given the people who are part of it? Those are the great questions."
Dell'Arte was founded in 1974 by an Italian actor named Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, and his wife, Jane Hill, who had moved to Humboldt County so that Hill could take a teaching job at College of the Redwoods. They bought the old Oddfellows Hall in Blue Lake with the intention of creating a theater and school there in the "commedia dell'arte," or artistic comedy, tradition -- a theater-for-the-people style that involves ridiculing authority and human foibles. As the organization grew in acclaim, eventually gaining international renown, many have asked an obvious question: Why Blue Lake? The couple believed that theater could thrive in a rural setting, where artists could concentrate on their craft without the distractions of the city. Besides that, Mazzone-Clementi said, it was "paradise."
Mazzone-Clementi remained involved, off and on, until his death in 2000, and the leadership of the company rested for many years in the hands of four others: Schirle, Fields, director Jael Weisman, who left several years ago, and co-artistic director Donald Forrest, who left in 2002 after a back injury but has returned for The 30 Show.
It wasn't always easy to be a theater company in a small rural logging town of 1,200 people. "It was difficult initially for Blue Lake to have this organization start in the midst of it, because it was so weird in 1974," Fields said. "It was so bizarre. You should listen to the upstairs room when we're doing melodrama classes or something with 30 people, and people are screaming and howling in agony as part of an acting training. A woman walked in the office one day and asked, `What room are they worshipping the devil in?'
Left: Joan Schirle as environmental investigator Scar Tissue, promotional photo from early '80s, courtesy of Dell' Arte
"Now people have more understanding, I think," Fields continued. He credited much of Dell'Arte's acceptance by the town to its involvement in the local schools. (The organization has installed resident artists at Blue Lake and other schools, teaching theater to children.) "That has changed our relationship to the town in a much deeper, much more effective way than any kind of promotion or anything like that," Fields said, "because the kids feel fine with it all."
Nothing succeeds like success, and Dell'Arte has managed to score one major grant after another from heavyweight groups like the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Irvine Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Wallace Funds and the Pew Trust Artist-in-Residence grant.
Today, the nonprofit organization is thriving, though, like all nonprofits, it has felt the effects of the poor economy in recent years. It is also seeing the fallout from the Bush administration's tightening of visa restrictions. Artists from other parts of the world are having a hard time getting into the country; some are barred altogether.
Still, "the organization has probably tripled in size in the last five years, in terms of money, in terms of budget [it's now $1 million], in terms of people working here," Fields said. "In terms of activity, it's even grown more than that."
Part of Dell'Arte's tradition, and its strength, has come in its emphasis on collaboration among all members of the group -- actors, writers. directors, crew members. Actors and designers often take part in writing the plays, for instance. That's not the way the theater world, or the world in general, usually works, Fields said. It's certainly not the corporate model, where everyone has their assigned role and the top doesn't talk to those on the lower rungs.
In a more structured setting, "you eliminate the input from the least likely person who will change the entire way that things are seen and that things are made," he said.
Though the collaborative model can also make for conflict and division, Dell'Arte has managed to hang together and survive, even bringing in a new generation of artists.
"There really aren't very many companies like this anywhere, certainly not of this age, because most groups that collaborate in creation ... and in organizational structure break apart," Fields said. "And -- fortunately we don't have cars, so we can't leave -- there's a sense of something deeply unusual and powerful in the fact that there is a generational span here right now that very few places have."
A look at those involved in Shadow of Giants illustrates the changing face of Dell'Arte. The play was written by 26-year-old Matthew Graham Smith, who also played three roles in it. The lead was played by 33-year-old Dawn Falato, the oldest member of the cast.
Many of the up-and-coming performers and crew members attended the Dell'Arte school. They have grown under the tutelage of Schirle, Fields and Forrest, but that does not mean they agree on what should come next.
Tyler Olsen, who played Bald Eag in Shadow of Giants and appeared in two other productions, said he thinks the company is somewhat amorphous. "It shifts, it's kind of a shape-changer. It's more of a net than a title. It has a bunch of things in it, and some things drift through sometimes and come back into it, but it's more of a net."
Lauren Wilson, a 10-year member of Dell'Arte who wrote the company's upcoming play, The Golden State, wasn't so sure.
"I don't necessarily agree with that," she said. "I think there should be more of a point of view, rather than a smorgasbord approach. I think the smorgasbord is great for Humboldt County, but not for taking it on the road.
"You can see in The 30 Show just what strong performers the three company members are. For me, now that they are not the focus of the company, how do we define ourselves? Is it an acting method? Is it the content? Or is it the working method, how we create the material collaboratively? And those three things are kind of open to question right now, what direction we're going in."
Some people in the new group are very interested in political theater, Wilson said. "I am really interested in work that's less rhetorical ... more character-based work." Joan and Michael were able to combine those two. "They weren't afraid to tackle controversy. They did that in a really successful way: (using) vivid characters through whom the politics were expressed."
Shadow of Giants, a play about the epic battle between treesitters and timber companies, is an example of the political theater that Wilson spoke of. Playwright Matthew Graham Smith was trained at Dell'Arte and has been involved with the organization for three years, though he calls New York his home.
"It's such an interesting time of transition," Smith said. "There are a lot of directions it could go." He said he looked forward to a retreat the company is planning for September. "We're going to start from scratch and figure out what direction we're going to go in."
Left: Whiteman (Ronlin Foreman) encounters a family of Bigfoots in a scene from Whiteman Meets Bigfoot, a 1980 production based on a Robert Crumb comic book.
As Schirle and Fields themselves recognize, they are getting older. (Schirle is 60; Fields 50.) Schirle became director of the school last fall, when the new two-and-a-half-year Master of Fine Arts program was inaugurated; the program has been accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theater. And she and Fields will turn over some of the more physically demanding work -- the slapstick gags and falls that are so hard on the body -- to younger members.
"Part of the interest is to get people who have the facility to do the rigorous performance that Dell'Arte is known for and train a new generation," Smith said.
Right: Dell'Arte co-artistic directors Michael Fields and Joan Schirle don clown noses for a photo session with Robin Robin.
Schirle and Fields also talk a lot about "succession," Schirle said. "Not for next year, not for another few years, but who are the younger members of the organization who have the interest and the dedication and the skill to look at the organization as a whole and guide it in the next few years?"
Other changes are also in the works. Last year, the company purchased the empty lot next door to its headquarters in downtown Blue Lake. It hopes to build a new $2 million studio and, upstairs, apartments for students of its International School of Physical Theatre, many of whom come from across the globe to study there. (In addition to the new MFA, Dell'Arte offers a one-year certificate program in physical theater performance.)
But the building project is a huge undertaking, Schirle said, and the company will have to think long and hard before actually committing itself. "Let's say we build, take out a 30-year loan. Somebody -- and it's not going to be me, and probably not Michael -- somebody is going to have to see that through." It takes business acumen and financial savvy to pull that off, and not everyone has those skills, she said. "So when we talk about things like, can we take on another building project like this, when money is tight ... As a living organism, is this a burden that we [shouldn't] take on, or is this something that will create so much to the organization that we must do it?"
Left: Dell'Artian Stan Mott, a lifelong Blue Lake resident, serenades the crowd before The 30 Show.
The company will also focus more on expanding the reach of its work, said Booking Manager David Ferney, who has been with the group in various capacities for 18 years. "Support for theatrical touring has really waned" in the last 10 to 15 years, he said. "Presenting has become more commercial and more conservative." But it's vital for Dell'Arte to get its work seen, attract students and "creatively evolve your work," Ferney said. To that end, it is working toward having an annual season in San Francisco in the next two to three years, as well as more performances in New York and elsewhere.
Whatever changes are in store for Dell'Arte, it is clear that not all fans of the company will be happy.
"We have a huge fan base who has loved the work that we have done that's issue-related, especially local-issue related. And then fans who've loved the more visual, experimental work we do," Schirle said. "Any fan group, they expect you to stay the same, always. Sometimes, the most vital and positive work you can do is to try to take care of your own demons, so that you can go on and serve the community in a broader way. Sometimes you've got to scrape the barnacles off the roof of your brain through confronting something. If we can't take care of ourselves, keep our own inspiration alive, then we burn out."
Quoting one of her most celebrated characters, the Eureka private eye Scar Tissue, Schirle said, "Memory Lane ain't one of my favorite streets." Granted, The 30 Show is a look back at some of the best work the company has produced, a showcase of Dell'Arte's brilliance and innovation. But the past is just that, Schirle said.
"What's necessary about the past is to learn from it and to not forget the people who started the things. But it's also important to not dwell in the past, to not say, `Those were the best days,' or `We did our best work then,' but to imagine that the best work is yet to come."
Above right: Promotional button the The Scar Tissue Mysteries
Right: Stephen Buescher as a cowboy in a scene from Korbel 3 (ensemble in background).
LOCAL ARTIST MICHELE MCCALL-WALLACE
WANTED TO CREATE A VISUAL COMPONENT FOR DELL'ARTE'S MAD RIVER
FESTIVAL THIS YEAR, AND SO, ALONG WITH TESTIMONIALS FROM STUDENTS
AND OTHER ARTISTS, SHE INCLUDED COMMENTS FROM LOCAL RESIDENTS,
WHICH SHE COLLECTED BY GOING DOOR TO DOOR IN BLUE LAKE.
" I love them here now. I think they are the most wonderful people in the whole wide world. You meet different people all the time, get the different cultures here, get to know them and then they leave you but then it will start all over again for a new (school) year. "
-- 26-year resident
-- 6-year resident
-- 19-year resident
-- 11-year resident
" When they came, it was very strange for most of the town. A few years ago, when they first started the mask making and then the pageant up to Dell'Arte, and I saw everybody meshed in the crowd it was a wonderful turning moment. I realized how great Dell'Arte had held its own and overcome that. "
-- 26-year resident
" When I first met them I was tending bar at the Logger. They tell me The Road Not Taken was made partially after me. I've known them for quite a while. They have been pretty good neighbors. The only thing that I can think of that has bothered me at times four or five years ago, they used to stand and throw an ax against the fence. I don't know what they were practicing. And the music is a little loud sometimes. Out of all the years it's been no problem. "
-- 37-year resident
" They're trying to take things over. I don't like them, they should go back to where they came from. I don't know if they think that what they are doing is theater, but the grammar school puts on better plays than they do. "
-- 41-year resident
" I like Dell'Arte because we get to do a Dell'Arte program at school. It's a lot of fun, we have a good time. "
-- 9-year resident
" Seriously? When they first moved in I thought it was a bunch of weirdos. I thought, holy smoke, we got people dressing in leotards and all this stuff. But it has turned around. I got a 7-year-old daughter and everything has changed. They put on good shows. It's a family thing and it's awesome. When they first moved here, yeah, it was a big thing, but it's fantastic for the community, I think. "
-- Lifelong resident
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.