Diasporas Festival, Berkeley
May 9, 2014

The Dell'Arte Company brings an excerpt of its newest work, "Elisabeth's Book" to the Diasporas Festival of Contemporary Performance in Berkeley, California, on May 9 & 10. Inferno Theatre

THREE TREES to Western Washington
April 18, 2014

The Dell'Arte Company in "Three Trees" heads to Western Washington University for two shows, April 18 & 19th at 7:30 PM
A mixture of rollicking clown routines and poetic, theatrical

Humboldt Sponsors support
April 6, 2014

THANKS to Humboldt Sponsors for a $500 award to the 8th Grade Show for " costumes, props, and technical production." Congratulations to director Lydia Foreman and her cast from Blue Lake

World Commedia Day Feb. 25
February 21, 2014

World Commedia dell'Arte Day is celebrated every year on February 25, and is proclaimed by the Italian cultural association SAT as an action of the incommedia.it project in support of SAT's

TCG grant awarded to DAI
February 1, 2014

Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for theatre, announced recipients for the third round of its Global Connections program. Dell’Arte was awarded one of three


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Articles by Founders
 Walking the Talk

Walking the Talk: Artists connecting with community

by Joan Schirle

©J. Schirle, 2000



Dell'Arte International is based in the town of Blue Lake, Calif., pop. 1,300. We are a ten-minute drive from a university town, but the area could be characterized as rural. Logging and fishing built the regional economy, some time before too many trees and too many fish were taken and "sustained yield" became both a desperate hope and a polarizing issue. Now the tensions between timber workers and the environmentally concerned are always near a simmering point, and the local economy depends in large part on tourism.


Dell'Arte began in 1972 as a professional arts organization with roots in the European popular performing traditions, but early-on those roots were transplanted into California soil with the hope that we could create something distinctly of our area while still maintaining an international outlook as artists. "Think globally, act locally" has proven a guideline for our work of more than 25 years. We coined the name and pioneered "Theatre of Place" in the early '80s, creating original plays based on local characters, themes and issues; they were made to be enjoyed by local audiences, but also made to stand as artistic products on international stages. Since 1975, 30-40 percent of the students in our one-year professional actor-training program have come from other countries, but each of them is required to do 12 hours of local community service during the school year. Our summer Mad River Festival, now ten years old, promises events from "around the world and down the block," featuring a combination of international and regional artists.


Dell'Arte's history and our mission evolved over time through a strong connection to our local community. But it took some years for us to discover how important it was to reach out past the limitations of the traditional audience/artist relationship, and more years to learn how to do it well. Our expertise was as artists; we had to discover by trial and error how to become bridge-builders to our community, which includes timberworkers, environmentalists, artists, Native Americans, liberals, rednecks, retirees, children, hippies (it's been said that nearby Arcata is "where the '60s meets the sea") and more. We had to cross some class lines. And we had to make a commitment beyond funder-driven projects with limited lifespans, beyond "cultural stunts," toward real interaction.


Along the way, we had ideas that were inspired and as many that fell flat. We learned from the strategies of other artists in other places. We also learned that every community is as unique as its individuals and its landscape. We listened to our community. We have developed programs with local schools, hosted benefits. We created numerous plays about local themes, characters, history and issues, held open houses, started a summer festival, marched in parades, joined civic groups, gave our work to the local public-access TV channel, held community forums, toured to most of the towns in our region, and gave umpteen free performances in three counties.


One of many inspirations was the community work of Britain's The Welfare State, whom we had met while performing at EXPO '86 in Vancouver, Canada. The Welfare State was formed in 1968 by John Fox and Sue Gill, and it generated a network, a method and a style in which not just the performance counts, but also the process of bringing people together and passing on techniques to help them create and organize themselves. Their performances were audience-specific as well as site-specific, devised from the local culture. They used pyrotechnics, parades, found materials and drama based in community themes and images. Over years of devising residencies with communities, they became dissatisfied with drop-in, drop-out kinds of outreach, and they moved toward making a deeper relationship with communities, connecting to the personal as well as the public sphere. Their work now involves helping communities create rituals for namings, weddings and funerals. (They have a couple of very useful books: "Engineers of The Imagination" and "The Good Dead Funeral Book").


In 1997, inspired by The Welfare State's large-scale outdoor work, we created a fledgling Blue Lake Pageant. The pageant takes place at the close of our summer festival and is planned to fall on the Sunday known in Blue Lake as "Annie & Mary Day." Named after two women who worked for the Arcata-Mad River Railroad at the turn of the 20th Century, this day is the one time when all of Blue Lake comes out to the street for a parade, fiddle contest, softball games, barbecue and whatever other events can be mustered up. Over the years, Annie & Mary Day had gotten a little lackluster, as the old timers got fewer and were more exhausted by putting together a day-long event. So it was a welcome thing to have Dell'Arte join in as a partner, both helping with the work and adding a dynamic new element to the celebration.

In the first pageant, director Christine Cook put out a call for community volunteers to paint sets, costumes, etc. Only a few brave souls showed up, though many took costumed parts in the final event - even the mayor, the postmaster and the former school principal. While we got participation and interaction, we felt that a one-time interaction was not enough; it didn't really put us into a different relationship to the public than being onstage did - it was still us performing and them watching. But it was a step in the right direction.


It was in the pageant's third year that we made a giant step forward to the true interaction we were looking for. We'd already figured out that people who might never set foot inside a theater will become part of a street event where they can participate as spectators, even follow a parade of masked giants for blocks. In 1999, pageant director Stephen Buescher got together with Dell'Arte grad Terri Diane, an accomplished mask maker and visual artist, and they concocted an ingenious plan. Terri would start a "mobile mask unit." The announced goal was to make 500 masks so that anyone who came to the pageant on Annie & Mary Day could put on a free mask and walk in the parade as a kind of instant mardi-gras. But the real goal was to get all kinds of people and all ages involved with us in a hands-on way during the several weeks before pageant day.


The first step was to send Dell'Arte students to every house in Blue Lake to ask for donations of brown paper bags to be used for papier mache. It was a request few refused, and the locals learned about the project that way. Then Terri set up tables on the street in front of Dell'Arte, put out the mask-making supplies, and invited everyone in town to come and make a mask three afternoons a week. Maybe they would work on sculpting clay on the plaster forms she had made, or tear paper bags, or put papier mache over the clay, or paint finished masks. Wanting a larger response than just Blue Lakers getting involved, she then took the Mobile Mask Unit to teen centers, churches, farmer's markets, senior centers, Grange breakfasts and 4th of July fairs in a 20-mile radius. She contacted local businesses like Calgon Carbon and Fish Brothers and got the employees making masks on their lunch hour. And for three Friday nights, there was a mask-making table in Blue Lake's own Logger Bar, where even the hardcore regulars decided gluing paper to clay was sort of fun, especially after Logger owner Gino Supko took the first step himself.


Local interest grew, as did the pile of masks. On Annie & Mary Day, 512 free masks were distributed to the public for an instant carnival parade that fell in behind a samba band, belly dancers, unicyclists and giant puppets. A splendid procession wound through Blue Lake to the pageant stage for the grand finale of the 1999 Mad River Festival. And we are now entering our second year of partnership with the Humboldt Folklife Festival, which takes place at Dell'Arte on Annie & Mary weekend, drawing yet another element of the community and a lot of great music.


Over 25 years we have nurtured our community connection and watched it grow. We need its support and we have something to give in return. We want them not to just buy tickets to see our work, but to interact with us on a deeper level. We want to give more than our performances. We want to know more about our audience than their demographics. We want to counter the propaganda about artists as removed, out of touch, unnecessary. During July and August of 1999, over 15 community groups and 400 individuals participated in making masks. Many of them came to the parade just to be able to wear masks they'd help to make. Each step of that parade represented steps over time learning to walk our talk, to take our audiences on a journey "around the world and down the block."


Joan Schirle is Founding Artistic Director of the Dell'Arte Company and director of the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre.


This article also appears on the website of COMMUNITY ARTS NETWORK (CAN)




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