Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dario Fo

Artwork by Dario Fo

What can we learn from Dario Fo as Commedia performers?

His 1987 book (lecture notes, really) Manuale Minimo dell'Attore (translated by Joe Farrell, 1991, as The Tricks of the Trade) has this to say about the mask:

"What is the purpose of the mask? To magnify and simultaneously give the essence of the character. It obliges you to widen and develop your gestures, which must not be arbitrary...if you want the audience to follow you..."

"The mask, in bringing the movement of the whole body into play, imposes the need to identify the essence of a gesture, because if...a multiplicity of senseless gestures are performed, the result is to destroy the value of the original gesture itself."

My entire first semester as a freshman acting student at NYU was spent in a neutral mask. We worked to strip away our natural movement patterns, personal tics and learn to use the body, instead of the face alone to communicate the inner life of a character to the audience. John Lepiarz (Mr. Fish) said of LeCoq "he worked the neutral mask ad nauseum". His experience was of LeCoq continually pressing for "less, less". Reduce to the essence of the gesture revealing the emotional experience.

In discussing the performance of The Starving Zanni lazzo in The Tricks of the Trade, Fo describes how he will at various times freeze the body and animate only the face, allowing the audience to focus, concentrate on the face alone. He alternately opens the focus to his whole body, and mimes pots and pans on various fires around the body, opening up the stage space. These gestures are carefully chosen, yet performed in an energized sense of improvisation and abandon useful for outdoor theater. But the actor is always in control of the audience.

Think in terms of editing a film performance: wide shot, medium shot, close-up. My own CDA scripts have my little stick figure drawings all over them; perhaps a comic strip or a storyboard is a good example. The character posture comes first, then the emotional posture, then the character's playable action is boiled down to the smallest gesture: just the mouth speaking the line, perhaps a tilt of the head, perhaps a point of the finger, perhaps a cartwheel-roundoff-back-handspring. But it's specific. No wandering. No 'spaghetti' (which is, I believe, a Carlo Mazzone-Clementi term for non-specific, messy acting.)

Fo is also a strong proponent of grammelot; a mix of onomatopoeic sound effects and words. This is harder to describe in a printed text, but we see stand up comedians do it all the time: roaring dinosaurs, bodily functions, noisy neighbors and appliances all come from the mouth of a single performer. Used more imaginatively, in an 'as-if' situation, we can transfer this to commedia. Perhaps I am hit with bad news as if I had been hit in the stomach. What is a sound effect for getting hit in the stomach? What is a sound effect for the reaction of getting hit in the stomach? How can these be combined with a specific gesture that puts a reaction to another character's words into your character's body?

Grammelot is also a great way to use mime and keep it fun and noisy. Clown teacher Alan Clay likes to remind his students, "noises, noises, noises." You can mime bouncing a ball, but adding the 'boing' sound or a 'splat' sound enhances the storytelling.

The Tricks of the Trade has much more to offer; history of theatrical techniques in Greek tragedy, thoughts on the history of women in theater, specifically in comedy and clown, and finding a dialectic balance to your performance.

Another Fo book, this one by Ron Jenkins, entitled Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Artful Laughter published by Aperture books has a wonderful series of articles about Fo and Rame, and a large number of Fo's posters and illustrations, similar to those seen above.

My favorite passage is here: "An actor should treat his audience the way a fisherman handles a fish on a line. You have to maintain just the right amount of tension. If you relax you will lose them. If you pull them toward you too abruptly you can snap the line and they are lost. The trick is to bring them close to you gradually while keeping them on the hook" -Fo

Click on the title of this post for Dario Fo on Wiki

Buy these books!

Artful Laughter by Ron Jenkins

The Tricks of the Trade by Dario Fo

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

The Tricks of the Trade is such a useful book for mimes, clowns, and commedia dell'arte actors that I have read it from front to back more than once. I consider it essential.

Artful Laughter is another favorite, but it's rather hard to carry around and read on the subway.