ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Behind the mask: Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, 1920-2000


The theater legend who put Blue Lake on the map and

reintroduced the nation to commedia has died.


CARLO ALESSANDRO LUIGI MAZZONE-CLEMENTI, a giant of a man and a giant in the world of theater, died Nov. 5 at the age of 79.

[photo of Carlo with mask]In Humboldt County we know Mazzone-Clementi because of his legacy: He was the founder of Dell'Arte, the internationally renowned school and theater company in Blue Lake. But his influence stretched far beyond our borders.

His teaching played a major role in the revival of commedia in America and abroad and helped ignite a rethinking of the very purpose of theater that led to the creation of the new vaudeville and a theatrical circus renaissance.

"Carlo burned with a primal fire. The light he spread can be seen round the world in the hundreds of people who have been influenced, inspired and touched by his vision," said Joan Schirle, Dell'Arte co-artistic director. "He was not an easy man to understand, but he always said that what he taught wasn't in the books. He called it `learning by heart.'"

"Carlo was an original," said Michael Fields, Dell'Arte Company managing artistic director. "He uniquely captured, embodied, provoked and expressed the unquantifiable spirit of the human comedy, and he passed it on through his teachings around the world and through the founding of Dell'Arte."

In honor of its founder the Dell'Arte studio theater henceforth will be known as the Carlo Mazzone-Clementi Theatre and a Carlo Mazzone-Clementi Scholarship Fund has been established to assist young performers in their efforts to train at the school.

[photo of Carlo] Carlo teaching at Dell'Arte (photo courtesy of Del'Arte)

Mazzone-Clementi was a contemporary and colleague of the giants of modern European theater. He first gained attention in Italy in 1947 when he worked alongside Marcel Marceau in the mime's first tour outside of Paris. From 1948 to 1951 he assisted the master of movement, Jacques Lecoq, while Lecoq taught and directed the Players of Padua University. In 1954 Mazzone-Clementi was in the Piccolo Teatro di Milano with Dario Fo and Franca Rame. Their young Italian company was on the forefront of the renaissance of Italian theater in the 1950s.

While he was performing with Piccolo Teatro, Eric Bentley, the American theater scholar and director came to Italy to direct the company in the first Italian production of Bertolt Brecht. Then, with Bentley's patronage, Mazzone-Clementi toured the United States in 1958, conducting workshops in mime and commedia, and introducing the leather masks of Amleto Sartori to this country. That led to a teaching assignment at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie-Mellon University) and to similar work in colleges and universities around the country.

He also came to America to act, and in New York he was represented by agent Toby Cole who "knew everybody in the world" and represented Zero Mostel and "all the big names," Mazzone-Clementi recalled in a videotaped lecture/performance at Dell'Arte titled In His Own Words: An Evening With Carlo Mazzone-Clementi.

"I got more demand than the top actors. You know why? Because nobody knew about commedia -- and everybody was a comedian. I was born in a situation close to it. In my 50 years I had commedia at my side because in Padua we had the tradition of Ruzzante, a 500-year story. All the French came to study in Padua because of Ruzzante, people like Lecoq. They understood that they had to go with the peasants to see theater (that was) alive."

[photo of Carlo as Tom Sawyer] Carlo as Tom Sawyer in 1976.

(The "Ruzzante" he mentions is Angelo Beolco, an Italian actor and playwright who lived at the beginning of the 16th Century and wrote rustic comedies in the Paduan dialect based around the lives of peasants. His main character was the peasant "Ruzzante," whose name is synonymous with Beolco's.)

Asked if the commedia we see today, the work of the Dell'Arte Company, for example, is anything like the classic commedia, Mazzone-Clementi answered by reading from an article he and Jane Hill wrote when the Dell'Arte School was founded.

"Although we can conjecture about commedia in an historical framework, we cannot know what it was like. There are no existing scripts, no photos. There are only a few paintings, a few sparse descriptions and a horde of untranslated scenarios. Yet a great interest in commedia continues. Anyone can open a door marked commedia dell'arte. But having opened it, how does one know what to choose? ... We must begin where we are."

"Carlo was a self-educated man," said Donald Forrest, another of Dell'Arte's co-artistic directors.

"He grew up in Padua, a university town, a town known for its ancient and highly esteemed schools. Coming from an extremely literary scholarship, he chose as his devotion commedia dell'arte, a nonliterary style of theater, one based in intuition and improvisation.

"Nowadays you can find a few books on commedia and you can find some practitioners and theoreticians. But Carlo was the genuine article. He was part of a group of people who, after World War II, revitalized the ancient form. It included an exploration of the mechanics of how the masks were made and an investigation into how to play characters from a physical perspective -- from appetites, not from psychology.

"It was the antitheses of the Moscow Art Theater, which was the vogue when he arrived here. That `Who am I? Where am I? What color is my character? What do I do on Saturdays when I'm not in this play?' stuff was all bullshit to him."

While theater was becoming more and more intellectual and high brow, Mazzone-Clementi and his cohorts championed the decidedly low brow commedia, a broad style based on animal instincts.

In fact, explained Forrest, "All of the commedia characters are generally based on domestic animals. It was a form that needed to play to rural people. It came from a time when the church had outlawed all performance but their own, so at the beginnings of commedia, it played in lots of very small towns. When you went from one ZIP code to another, the dialect could be so different that you couldn't rely on the spoken language to convey the character. Springing from those concrete conditions, the movement would often be inspired by a pig, a dog, a chicken. The Pulcinella character's name literally means little chick and the proboscis on the mask for that character is beak-like.

[photo of Del'Arte class with Carlo] Carlo teaching at Dell'Arte

"Commedia is about ridiculing authority and pomposity and exploiting human foibles -- vanity, greed, lust. Often the coin of the realm is the sexual transaction. The ultimate comeuppance for lechery and status is the cuckold; it's a just dessert that meted out in the classic commedia form."

While some got stuck on merely reproducing classic commedia, Mazzone-Clementi saw it as a vital form, one that fit any time.

"The commedia dell'arte was a departure point for Carlo, not a destination," said Fields. "He brought to the United States a living breathing theatrical form that changed, moved, inspired and transformed generations of performers."

A major turning point in Mazzone-Clementi's life came in the 1960s. He was at Carnegie Hall preparing for a role in the American premiere of a play by the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey.

"I was playing the rooster in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy," recalled Mazzone-Clementi. "I was practicing. Every night I would warm up because I had one difficult thing: I would jump into the audience in the dark from 12 feet in the air and crow, `Cock-a-doodle dandy!' I had not much space to land -- boom! I had to do it in the dark or it would spoil the whole thing. I was scared every night so I had to warm up as if I was in a competition.

"The warm-up was real athletic stuff and one night I was jumping downstairs in Carnegie Hall -- under the hall they built a little theater. I was jumping on the grids. I didn't realize it was old fashioned iron work --it was defective or rusty or whatever, but -- bu-dum! I went two stories down to the basement.

"I was wounded, but luckily I was survivor. (In both knees) my cartilages were injured. Of course I sued Carnegie Hall, and of course I still did the show anyway -- sitting there in the dark I went, `Caw-caw-caw,' and I finished the show.

[photo of Carlo at Del'Arte] Carlo at Dell'Arte

"Then the doctor said, `You have a choice: Operation and you can be better, or operation and you can be worse. Or you can lecture, you can teach commedia and so on.'

"I come from a town of surgeons, and the surgeons, they told me, `Please, if you can avoid, avoid.'"

He skipped the surgery and opted for the teaching path. Why did he choose to set up shop in Blue Lake? A woman asked him just that at the "Evening With Carlo."

"Oh, because it is the best place in the world. It is a paradise. Why does Dante go through Hell and everything? Because he goes to Paradise at the end."

The woman still wants to know how he chose Blue Lake, "an obscure place in the middle of nowhere."

"It's not nowhere," Carlo insists then he shifts to the topic of beauty.

"Beauty is difficult. I'm talking about difficult as an adjective, of course. But the attribute is beauty. And beautiful is a good adjective, once it's attributed to the proper lady. In my case it was Jane. Jane was very definitely inspiring to me. Without her I would never have come here."

The year was 1973 when Mazzone-Clementi and his wife, Jane Hill, a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon, came to Humboldt County where Hill had a teaching position at College of the Redwoods. Together they put on the Grand Comedy Festival at Qual-a-wa-loo and Mazzone-Clementi served as the festival's artistic director for six years. In 1974 the couple purchased the Oddfellows Hall in Blue Lake and cofounded the Dell'Arte School of Mime and Comedy (now known as the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre).

[photo of group] Qual-a-wa-loo Festival at College of the Redwoods
in the early '70s (Jane Hill seated second from left,
and Carlo, standing)

With actors Joan Schirle and Jon'Paul Cook, Mazzone-Clementi created the Dell'Arte Players Company in 1977 and its first production included Michael Fields. (Donald Forrest joined in 1978). The 23-year-old ensemble embodies the concept of "actor as creator" and the belief that professional theater can be enhanced by a rural setting away from the distractions of urban life.

Mazzone-Clementi served as Dell'Arte's master teacher for 10 years, then moved to Copenhagen to co-found the Commedia School with Ole Brekke. (He was divorced from Hill in 1979.) He returned to Blue Lake in 1994 and continued to present lectures and workshops at Dell'Arte until shortly before his death.

How did Mazzone-Clementi influence the course of American theater? Schirle and Forrest both point to his impact on individual performers.

"Carlo was important because he was an inspirational visionary," said Schirle. "He believed in the unique genius of each person. His teaching was not by formula or system; it was about helping you to unleash your own creative genius as a performer.

[photo of Carlo and Jane] Carlo and Jane Hill at a Dell'Arte party

"But more than anything he taught in the classroom, being around Carlo was the real education. The essence of creative performing was what he himself embodied -- to be ready for anything, to be spontaneous, unpredictable, economical, patient and available. These are some of the attributes of great acting in any style or era. And if you were willing to hang around him long enough, you began to absorb some of his `crazy wisdom.'

"He believed that mime was the basis of theater -- `Who invented the alphabet? Mimes, probably illiterates.' He saw how the European performing traditions could influence classic and contemporary plays from Shakespeare to Fo, and when he came to America, that was his mission," Schirle said.

"Carlo was both my mentor and my partner, and no matter what arguments we might have or frustrations with each other, one of his lessons was that `The partner is always the best partner.' I will miss him terribly."

Forrest echoes Schirle in pointing to the man as a personal mentor, one who "provoked" him to become a better actor. But even more important is the way his influence shaped the course of theater and the vision of the Dell'Arte Company.

[photo of Dell'Arte] From the left, Donald Forrest, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, Michael fields and Joan Schirle.

"Carlo believed that the old style was dead, that even though it has been dealt a mortal blow and is still walking around on Broadway, it's gonna die.

"When you look at theater commerce today, the tickets cost more and more and fewer and fewer people go to the theater. But at the time of vaudeville and before, theater was popular culture. Carlo always believed that the work we were doing with our company in particular was the emerging force in a new popular theater."


Carlo Mazzone-Clementi died from complications following heart surgery in San Francisco Nov. 5.



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