The local arts economy is a real topic of discussion in our community right now - everything from affordability for area artists, to lease/term agreements and land use to paying performers for their work.
Our organization is built on making financial choices that benefit our company members. This strikes people as odd sometimes, because the work we do is constructed to feel loose and dangerous, like the wheels might fall off any time. Friends and colleagues have asked us to share our process, and we are happy to do so - we think it's kind of time to lift the veil of secrecy around how local performance companies operate, and we're happy to be the first to show off our knickers.
Feel free to skip to the end for the TL:DR version.
La Fenice: How Our Sausage is Made
We generally perform one show each year because we feel like we can only afford to do one show each year, though we are planning to expand next year to include one fall show for children. We plan our next season during a seri...
Lovers are usually the maypole around which Commedia dell'Arte scenarios are woven. Usually, the story is all about the two lovers falling in love and trying desperately to get together.
In Siege of the Dark Nebula, we decided to poke at their relationship from another angle. What if the lovers have already officially gotten together, but haven't really gotten together? So often, Commedia scenarios revolve around the Lovers' ability to unite, but once that prize is won, what happens then? The shallow attraction that usually forms the narrative for most Commedia scenarios (and every Rom-Com) doesn't seem like it would be the start of any relationship that can last.
So we decided to start our Lovers' stories in the second phase of their relationship - Chad and Stacy have managed to get together, but they listen past each other, focused more on their own skills and goals than a shared future. It's only when their backs are against the wall that they actually discover each other. Really, t...
La Fenice's "table work" is primarily about reviewing the scenario as advocates for the stock characters we're playing. In its earliest stage, our scenarios are extremely malleable, so we like to tackle any problems with plot in a character-driven sort of way.
While we do a more "formal" table-work session at the start of the rehearsal process, it usually comes at the end of a series of more informal ones, like this one over beers last week between Genevieve Kinney, who is playing Ruffiana in our next show, Aaron Johnson, our Artistic Director, and Kate Meehan, our Managing Director.
[It's rather important to understand that the bulk of this conversation is underscored by a lot of AC/DC and Guns and Roses from the juke box.]
Genevieve: I had a lot of fun with Columbina from For Whom the Dong Tolls, and Gian [Giacomo Colli] said that, well, really, I was playing Ruffiana. And so, what is that, what's the difference? Why was she a Ruffiana and not a Columbina? And then, this Co...
My name is Kate Meehan, and I'm guilty of shoddy character choices.
I was the first person in our company to play Ruffiana, an older female stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte. This was some twelve years ago, and when I played her, I went straight for the laughs. Ruffiana translates to "lady pimp," and in my young mind, the joke was that she was a woman deprived of her sexual comeliness after decades of hard use. I played her drunk, raunchy, sexually forward and repulsive. It was an easy choice - prostitutes in America are one-dimensional figures, depicted as the very definition of desperate, powerless women. What few madams we have in our cultural lexicon - Miss Jessie at the Chicken Ranch, Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, are anomalies in a history of male-run brothels filled with downtrodden women.
It set the tone for how she was played by everyone after me. Genevieve Kinney, who's been performing with us for a decade, played her once and determined never to do it again, finding...
Gian Giacomo Colli comes from a family of commedia dell'arte performers and practitioners. He holds an MFA and a PhD, and is the only actual Italian performing on our stage. In the past, he's visited as a guest director, flying in to tidy up shows at the last moments before performances. After many moons of cajoling, harassment, and plying with wine, he finally agreed to join us as Pantalone in For Whom the Dong Tolls. We caught up with him, now that we've performed the show a few times, to see what performing his native theatre for foreign audiences has been like.
We've worked with you previously as a director (sort of), but this is your first time performing with us. How is La Fenice's process different from our foreign counterparts?
Well, it's different in the sense that everything is improvised. With La Fenice, we start with a scratch of a scenario while in the past I've always started from a very well developed scenario. With a scratch scenario, more of the development is done ons...
Adam Rodriguez is rehearsing his fourth show with La Fenice. Previously, he has only played the role of Pulcinella, but this time he's shaking off his hunchback to play Capitano. In this interview, Adam, stand up comic and Esther's Follies veteran, is joined intermittently by Company Member at Large, Paolo Garbanzo (who was making eggs), and Managing Director Kate Meehan.
Kate: Usually you play Punch. This time you're playing Capitano. How different are you finding the characters?
Adam: There's a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. Naturally, the physicality is very different. In rehearsal, I often find myself growing a hunch back, and it's like "oh, damn it! Capitano stands up straight!" The fact that he's new is exciting is nice. When I played Punch, I was just trying to add layers to him as a character. He started off as just a straight up murderer, and later he turned a little more perverted, and by Sloop I think he had a lot more complexity. C...
Aaron Johnson serves as La Fenice's Artistic Director, and is currently playing Orlando, the male lover, in our next show. In this interview, he speaks with Managing Director and long-time collaborator, Kate Meehan.
You had your laptop out the entire rehearsal.
Well, not the entire rehearsal, but for a significant portion of it, yes.
Were you looking at pornography?
Yes, if by pornography you mean our scenario.
We're using technology this time around. Talk about that.
We're chronicling the way we work in a way that probably isn't entirely new to us, but we're employing it more consistently. We have the scenario, which was started as a very simple sketch of a plot, and over the time that we develop new material, we're now able to do live updates through Google Drive. In fact, while you guys were working on the song, Tate and I were actually making jokes back and forth together, editing one of our scenes in the scenario simultaneously in real time. So, he would enter a line and would...
Kate Meehan has been performing with La Fenice since it's very first show as Austin Commedia Society back in 1999. Over the years, she's played a number of the Commedia stock characters with us, and currently serves as Managing Director. Before joining ACS, she performed on many famous Chicago improv stages, including ImprovOlympic and Second City.
How does La Fenice's approach to Commedia differ from other Commedia dell'Arte troupes?
Well, I've really only created Commedia shows with La Fenice, but for the last few years I've been in touch with a whole lot of different performers. Apparently, we're pretty unique in the United States in that we're performing Commedia outside of Renaissance Faires, the confines of a Goldoni script, or a proscenium stage. We perform in bars to keep things risky - usually at least half of our audience was unaware there would be a show that night, and it means we don't have the luxury of a trapped audience. They can ignore us, talk over us, throw...
Tate Green is our sprightly young actor playing Arlecchino - the first since it was retired by Jason Fawcett back in 2002. Tate was last seen as Ottavio in Sloop of the Damned, and is the creator and host of the wildly popular YouTube Gong Show.
How has the process of stepping into the fabled shoes of Arlecchino been?
Well, all of the tales of past La Fenice Arlecchinos – shots lined up across the stage and all – I’m feeling it’s the perfect role for me. Although I don’t think I can handle a shot thrown in my eyes.
Don’t worry, that wasn’t Arlecchino’s eyes. Those were mine.
Yes, but you threw it in your own eyes, right?
Yes. But that’s neither here nor there. Tossing liquor into your eyeballs is not a requirement for the role, unless you’re into that kind of thing.
I enjoy the experience of playing Arlecchino a lot better than playing the Lover. I’ve been having more fun with it. I’m not sure if it’s the character or the process that’s just...