Carlo’s Revenge – Project “Commedia Toto”

By Ira Seidenstein

September 2, 2013

Carlo’s Revenge – Project “Commedia Toto” in part in memory of my teacher Carlo Mazzone-Clementi
I am in Italy, the country of Carlo’s birth. This project “Commedia Toto” owes much to Carlo and is a transference of his energy. Carlo was complex and I understood early that he was like a fire and if you got too close you might get burned. There are others who could tell drastically more about Carlo than me but that is up to them to write or not to.

So, one of my teachers, and a most important one was Carlo Mazzone-Clementi of Padua, Italy. He was the founder of the Dell’arte School in California along with Jane Hill his wife and who was also an inspiring teacher (actress, comedienne). Carlo’s Assistant was Joan Schirle – a deeply wonderful person and complete Person of the Theatre.

In relation to my current project “Commedia Toto” I would also like to reference my teacher Trudy Scott, PhD who was my first acting (Stanislavsky, Method) teacher and my first dance (Modern/Graham) teacher. Her unique way of allowing the actor’s humanity and individuality to shine I later labeled “Fellini Theatre” and use that concept always when I direct. In a similar way, Carlo was much more interested in the individuality of each student/actor than in the ridiculous and reductive formalism called “Commedia dell’arte” or “Clown”. Carlo moved beyond that/those by the 1950s. He was onto another track – that of the empowered and inspired individual. He had a concept called “The damn thing” – that is the damn thing is to integrate any so-called style to become an individual. The more formal the ‘style’ is taught (as in the French ways) the less likely an individual will make their own discoveries. Here is another concept of Carlo’s – as he said his method was “To teach the Art of Discovery”. Note this in not the art of recovery nor the art of reproduction.

In our first meeting as the first formal group of the official Dell’arte School – Carlo sat with us in a circle for well over an hour or so. He first was polite. Then after each person introduced themselves very briefly, Carlo said “You think this is a ten-week school. It is NOT!!! This is a ten-YEAR school!!! It takes ten to fifteen years to become a clown.” He explained that in most/many cases the ‘character’ or image that a clown become known or famous for actually took them 10-15 years to develop.  Oh at that point I certainly liked him very much!!!! Then he proceeded to ask if any of us had any clown experience. A few said yes and he asked what and they told briefly. He asked ‘and anyone else’. No one answered. He then looked at me and said “What about you Ira? I understand you had some clown experiences.” My reply was simply “Yes”. He then asked “What was your first clown experience? Could you tell us what your first clown experience was”?. So I did. That took several minutes to tell. Then he asked ‘then what’. A new friend of mine who told me about Carlo and his school and who was also starting this day – had a letter from me in which I described my first five clown experiences with my clown teacher/mentor Danny Chapman. Carlo got me to tell the lot. It took around an hour and included some prodding questions from Carlo.

Years later I understood that those five experiences encapsulated the essence of Carlo’s real teaching and philosophy. Not all the details, but, the essence.

Carlo was the person who first told me about Toto the great Italian clown. In Australia around Christmas SBS would show a Toto movie annually. A few years ago for the new generation SBS began to show Roberto Begnini’s Pinocchio instead. Carlo was also my initial teacher in Commedia dell’arte.

“Commedia Toto” reflects my own interest in a holistic integration of clown and commedia dell’arte. This is counter to the teaching in theatre about ‘styles’ in which there are claims that ‘clown’ is a ‘style’ and that clown is separate or distinct from ‘commedia’. Such distinctions are only one way of understanding theatre.

I have found that teaching categorical separation of ‘styles’ in theatre is Cartesian (Rene Decartes) in that it separates rather than integrates.

In many ways I use Shakespeare as the ultimate theatre fulcrum. Shakespeare integrated clown, commedia, tragedy and comedy. I disagree with the clear distinctions of Shakespeare’s works as tradition maintains it as: tragedy, comedy, history plays. For example Henry V is considered a ‘history’ play yet it is filled with clowning (comedy). Antony & Cleopatra is sometimes referred to by scholars and directors as a tragedy or a history. Which is it? Or can’t it be both? Yet if it is either a tragedy or a history why is it filled with comedy? Then is it a comedy? Again that reflects a Cartesian approach and I feel there are better ways to consider such works.

Commedia dell’arte itself is filled with clowning. Antony & Cleopatra in fact or in my view is also a great commedia dell’arte play. There is a real possibility and maybe even a probability that Shakespeare spent three formative years in Italy. A large percentage of his plays take place in Italy (Venice, Padua, Verona). Some of Shakespeare’s plays are partially in or related to Italy – Antony & Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Cymbeline.   

I consider Toto one of the most direct links to commedia dell’arte. He is like a pure cultural lineage. He even explains that his first experience in theatre was with a commedia dell’arte show. Of course the purest romantic form of commedia ended in the 1600s. It had remnants into the 1700s and one of those extended farther as the Price family of pantomime players from England joined forces (and families through marriage) with an Italian commedia family when the two met in Copenhagen around 1810. This tradition continues with the 10th generation Price still involved in Copenhagen’s style of commedia in its Tivoli Pantomime. There a Price is the composer and musical director.

Toto, just as Harlequin could, took on a variety of guises. Two of those I am fascinated by. Those two are Toto as Pinocchio and as Otello (both as marionettes). In at least one movie Toto also plays a clown.

Long ago I worked on two plays of Pirandello and was very interested in his use of meta-theatre – the acknowledgement of both the actors and the audience that what we are experiencing is theatre and life and that the life we experience in the theatre is also the only reality. Carlo once said in class while he was giving an inspirational talk “You think I am talking about theatre, but, I am not! I am talking about life!”. In this respect Carlo was Pirandellian. So Brecht, Commedia, Clown and above all Shakespeare used meta-theatre at least in each of his prologues, epilogues, asides and perhaps too in his soliloquies as performed by such people as Mark Rylance. Rylance is the embodiment of clown, commedia, capo comico, and tragedian. So too is Toto.

A few years ago I was nearly able to start my “Commedia Toto” project with two actors. That didn’t eventuate. But now I am here in Italy and with a wonderful group of actors and colleagues we are creating the play “Commedia Toto” that will be performed at the end of this week. I have asked for two assistants on this project each of whom will also act in the play. My friend and colleague Caspar Schjelbred (Denmark/Sweden) has assisted with the organization and communication and Elena Michielin (of Veneto) has done the textual research I’ve assigned into Toto texts and Pirandello texts. In our play Elena will play a character named “The Actress” and Caspar’s is “Soren Kierkagaard”. Kevin Gorczynski is “Toto as Pinocchio”. My friend and student Joshua (Paris) was only able to be here for the first week and was developing the role “The Policeman” that Heleen (Belgium) will inherit and develop and perform. Joshua sent me a link to a clown interview I had never seen. Last night I watched that extraordinary and completely unique and profound interview with the legendary master clown Red Skelton. (see the link below). Part of my philosophy of teaching is that each student is also a gift for the teacher. Real ‘teaching’ is rare. For me ‘real’ teaching is an exchange and the teacher should be enriched by the gifts, challenges, questions of the student. Too much ‘teaching’ is hidden and layered behind the mystique (and bullshit) of the word “pedagogy”. Each student is a gift and brings a gift. The teacher’s path is to learn from each student. The student’s path is to become their own teacher. It is a paradox, of course. I am speaking of ideas and perhaps ideals. Perhaps.

There is a great, very brief interview with Toto in ‘his’ home. It is brief and in Italian/Neapolitano. Below is the most incredible clown/commedia interview I have ever seen (so far). It is incredible because it reveals so many layers and it is incredible of course because indeed – Red Skelton was one of the most extraordinary clowns. Not the only clown, and I wouldn’t even say the ‘greatest’ as there are so many types of clowns. However, this is extraordinary. Thank you Joshua and thank you to each of the participants in “Commedia Toto” (besides the ones mentioned, also, Anne C, Olivier P, Marion. Thank you to the festival here. Thank you to participant Danica Hilton (Cirque du Soleil) who told the festival about my work and told me to create something for the festival. Thank you to those at Dell’arte who were teachers during my time – Jane, Joan, Avner, Jon-Paul, and a few others whose names escape. Most importantly thank you Carlo, Trudy, Danny.

Here is Red Skelton’s great interview (note it is 3 parts!!!)

As I mention in other of my blog postings – those of us who grew up around the same time who became clowns (long list including Bill Irwin, Jango Edwards etc etc etc….) were able to see on TV the most extraordinary clowns in a huge diversity of styles. Red Skelton was at the top along with Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason etc etc).

It is this background that gives me insight into Toto, Pirandello, commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare. It is a lifetime continuum.

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