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How the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre Partners with Communities

Joan Schirle is Founding Artistic Director of Dell’Arte International (DAI). She co-founded the Dell’Arte Company in 1976 and served as director of the DAI School of Physical Theatre from 2003–2011. The school offers a three-year MFA in Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre and a one-year certificate program.

Rural towns of 200 to 1,000 people have a lot in common with Blue Lake, California, whose population is 1,200, and the base of Dell’Arte International since 1974. As rural artists we think of the regional rural community network as part of our own extended community. In our early years, Blue Lake alone couldn’t support more than a couple of performances of a Dell’Arte Company show, but we realized that if we were mobile, the extended community could support a tour. By touring we could both serve the network of small towns, while honing our work through multiple performances.

The Origins of Dell’Arte’s Rural Touring
In 1978 the professional Dell’Arte Company mounted its first touring show. It was the beginning of many years of research into the development of touring networks as well as what “community partnerships” mean. We developed relationships with community groups through extensive rural touring residencies in addition to urban and college tours. For at least a decade we brought indoor and outdoor shows, and workshops to over a dozen small rural communities in Northern California counties. The circuit had originally been developed by the Pickle Family Circus and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, two urban-based groups who practiced community engagement since the early ’70s. They were aided by the California Arts Council, whose populist philosophy in that era provided opportunities for the arts to reach audiences in all 58 counties.

In the late 1980s, however, Dell’Arte and other companies were unable to continue rural California touring. This was due to an unfortunate shift in state arts funding. Foundations and the California state arts council shifted away from granting direct touring subsidies to artists selected for its touring roster, and the council then gave the touring funds to presenters. “Presenter” was a relatively new phenomenon in the nonprofit world—gatekeepers! This shift effectively eliminated small communities from the touring map—even those who wanted our productions. Small towns could not meet the financial qualifications to be considered “presenters” under this new system.

The new system required the artists to announce a set touring fee, of which the arts council would pay half, while the presenter had to match the other half. Previously, under the original touring subsidy-to-artist system, the Dell’Arte Company had the freedom to negotiate with sponsors. For example, rural communities could get shows for a low price because a payment from a university residency would make up what was needed for the rural engagement. But many small communities didn’t have the funds to match the set touring fee, and didn’t qualify as “presenters.” So, there was a goodbye to rural touring, not only for our ensemble, but also for a whole group of theatres, dance companies, and small circuses that chose to bring their work off the beaten track. (Ironically, this trend among arts funders was a blow to what is now the Holy Grail of arts funding: community engagement—it prevented artists from serving and deepening relationships with actual communities as opposed to culture palaces.)

I saw that 'embedding' a group in a community had more impact, and required more genuine engagement, than doing one-nighters. I proposed a new touring model for first-year students—a Rural Residency.

Students Touring Rural Areas
While the professional Dell’Arte Company was creating and touring work, students of our Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre produced an annual year-end show, created by students and initially performed close to home in places like Arcata Plaza or Eureka city parks. Eventually, to give the students experience in performing on tour, their final show began following the touring trail established by the Company. Our Professional Training Program (PTP), a one-year actor-training program, mounted a three-week end-of-year tour with its full class of twenty to thirty students that was directed by faculty artists. Following the tour manual and the trail blazed by the Dell’Arte Company in the ’70s and ’80s, students camped out, drove the trucks, cooked their meals, and set up their stage in each town along the route: Forks of Salmon, Petrolia, Redway, Whitethorn, Briceland, Orleans, Hoopa, Salyer, Alderpoint, Harris, Cave Junction, and more. For about fifteen years, restoring a fallow touring route became one of the goals of the school.

However, the student tour was a difficult model to sustain. When touring, the fully developed company shows traveled by truck and van with a troupe of six to eight actors and technicians. Yet, the student ensemble show involved all twenty to thirty of the students, which required several vehicles that could manage difficult roads, and booking required a lot of staff time. Touring requires advance work and an ongoing interface between bookers and sponsors; then, the artists show up, dazzle, and go in a kind of “drive-by” event that stays in the memory of the community. Communities that were regular stops on these early student tours remained eager audiences and never forgot it. But these short drop-ins didn’t really open up the challenges, or benefits of a longer association with the communities visited.

Performers with masks and audience
A flash-mob of masks appears at the Dell'Arte Rural Residency in Forks of Salmon, California. Photo by Joan Schirle.

A New Model for Dell’Arte School
When I took on the director role for our School of Physical Theatre, I wanted to restructure the PTP final show to create deeper relationships with the communities we served. Inspired by other groups who found the artist/audience relationship open to new models (like England’s Welfare State International 1968–2006), I saw that “embedding” a group in a community had more impact, and required more genuine engagement, than doing one-nighters. I proposed a new touring model for first-year students—a Rural Residency. For ten days, the students would camp in a community, give workshops, have story circles, plus whatever exchanges that could happen, and make a free show as a “gift” to the community, who in turn would sponsor the students.

We divided the PTP students into two discrete groups to make it easier to deal with camping and touring logistics, and so that we could serve more than one community per year. The community would provide a campsite and a performing site—indoors or outdoors—and pay a fee to support the travel and food expenses of the residency. Once in residence, the students would learn as much as they could about the people, the land, the history of the community, and present a theatrical response devised by the ensemble as a way of celebrating that community to itself.

I felt confident that this initiative would work in the small, rural communities surrounding us because we had built community relations over thirty years with many of them. We had a reputation in over a dozen outlying communities, we were not strangers and they knew our work, and we were capable of doing workshops and performances. Our first Rural Residency took place in 2004 in Taklima, Oregon, and Whale Gulch on the Lost Coast of Mendocino County, California—the first two communities willing to experiment with us. It was through personal contacts that we forged the first tours: a former student was a resident of Takilma, and I had lived in Whale Gulch in the early ’70s.

Having students camp out is an important component of this program. They experience a connection to the land and to nature that only comes from natural environments with few amenities and no street lights!

Evolution of the Model
For two successive years, one half of the PTP students participated in Takilma’s counterculture Shooting Stars Festival for a week. They camped on the festival site and the community provided their meals. “Too luxurious,” we said. “Not embedded enough.” “Too easy.” In the third year, the towns were Forks of Salmon—a small community up on the Salmon river, three hours from Dell’Arte’s home base—and Petrolia, a small town on the Lost Coast. These towns were a better fit for my vision of the Rural Residency. The two towns were extremely rural, campsites were off the grid in heavily wooded campgrounds, no shopping areas within miles, and minimal cellphone service.

Having students camp out is an important component of this program. They experience a connection to the land and to nature that only comes from natural environments with few amenities and no street lights! Ultimately, they depend on each other for both work and play. We also wanted places where the presence of students could be an “exchange”—an energizing, coagulating event for the town or community, and a peak experience for the students that would crown their year, sending them into the world empowered to make connections and make things happen as actor-entrepreneurs and community builders.

We have learned from each successive tour and made adjustments each year. Currently the students camp either in a state/county campground, in a school field, or on private land. Prior to their departure, they are given instruction in everything from how to rainproof their campsites to how to spot poison oak. Each student has a job, whether that’s camp manager, food crew, driving captain, rehearsal director, etc., and all students take part in creating the performance, unsupervised by faculty.

In addition, the show must be site specific—it can be at a single site, or the audience can move with the actors to different close locales. For example, the first year’s show in Whale Gulch moved the audience through a wooded area for each segment, and concluded in a large open meadow. In Orleans, California, the performance started on the grounds of the local school and concluded in a large open field with a mountain backdrop.

The students don’t plan what their show will be before they go because it must be a response to the community. It has variously taken the form of a story based on local lore; a revue; an impression of the natural world in a specific location; and an issue-oriented comedy related to local environmental issues. We encourage the students not to think of themselves as critics of a community, but more as mirrors to these communities, as responders to place and people.

At each culminating performance, the faculty journeys to the site to view the final presentation. We have a BBQ afterwards and the two student groups, who have been separated from their classmates for ten days, have a joyful reunion.

actors in a giant fish costume
A giant fish helps tell the story of the watershed at Dell'Arte's Rural Residency in Orleans, California. Photo by Joan Schirle.
an actor and a young child
Dell'Arte student Carina Skrande and young fan, Rural Residency, Bridgeville, California. Photo by Joan Schirle. 

Challenges and Adjustments
As time went by, we made connections with more communities. Some communities became bi-annual stops. We didn’t want communities to depend on us coming every year and we wanted to spread the opportunity around the Northern counties. For example, the river community of Orleans was so welcoming that we come at least every other year. Since 2008 we have added several communities to which we have made repeat visits, including: Spring Valley (Lake County), Bridgeville, Whale Gulch, and Orick. Yet, some towns, like Rio Dell, were not a good fit.

The residency itself has changed somewhat due to the needs of differing communities, or their expectation of what we will do. Instead of spending most of their time creating a show, the students now spend most of it doing school workshops with community children. The children are often a big part of the show, though this was not how the first few years were organized. The involvement of school children has advantages and disadvantages. For starters, we provide needed respite for teachers in tiny communities, and sometimes there is barely any interest from the adults of the community. Sometimes the teachers take the opportunity to get some time off without really joining in our work, or we find ourselves in communities where the problems faced by children—low income families, alcohol and drug problems, and lack of school resources—are greater than we are able to deal with.

We’ve also had some exceptional years. In 2010 the entire PTP class went way off the grid to Blue Creek/Ah-Pah on the Klamath River to assist Yurok tribal member Willard Carlson clear land and build a healing center with traditional Yurok plank dance houses. We were out of cell phone range, seven miles up a logging road. Unlike the usual Rural Residency, faculty members Zuzka Sabata, Tyler Olsen, and I camped with the students, given the extreme circumstances. It was necessary for us to set up camp kitchens, meeting areas, rain shelters, showers, and even porta-potties. The final show took place in the rain with a giant old-growth redwood stump as backdrop. For all of us, especially our international students, it was an unforgettable experience.

Notably, our faculty coordinators have been essential to developing the Rural Residency as community liaisons and guides. Dedicated program builders over the years include: Stephanie Thompson, Zuzka Sabata, Tyler Olsen, Meghan Frank, Pratik Motwani, Ronlin Foreman, and Daniel Stein.

The Rural Residency remains a high point for the end of the PTP. Students learn a lot about themselves, and ensemble work, as they organize their residency and interface with communities very different from our own. Successive tours have created a detailed tour book with many years of observations, and suggestions on best practices for the Rural Residency. We have assembled expertise plus the equipment we had to borrow in the first few years—i.e., tents, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, and so on. The students approach local businesses to donate food supplies, which brings greater visibility and support of our community engagement efforts. During the first years, we relied on personal connections in small communities to gain entry. Now we have communities calling to ask to be one of our residency tour spots.

An MFA Program with a Community-Based Arts Component
With the advent of the Dell’Arte MFA program in 2004, human resources became available to allow the school to take yet another role in developing community partnerships. It was clear to me that the role of artist-as-citizen and education in community partnering needed to be part of the graduate education. In designing our MFA program, I proposed a community-based arts component in which second-year students would envision and outline imaginary projects with local nonprofit agencies. After one year, we realized the projects needed to be more than just virtual, and now our curriculum includes a community-based arts project over six or seven weeks. This is a longer engagement than the Rural Residency, involving fewer students and a greater investigation of various community arts models.

many people dancing
Dell'Arte Rural Residency, Orick, California. Photo by Joan Schirle.

The Rural Residency Model
It is possible to envision the Rural Residency model working for larger schools or colleges. Students gain a unique learning experience, and their tuition and activity fees make it possible to send out even a large group. Local businesses donate much of the camping food, and vehicles are rented. While the students do the bulk of the work, initial community contact and prep work is done months in advance by a staff/faculty member, who then supervises the tour prep and orients the students to camping, etc. Our Rural Residencies now average nine to eleven days on site, but shorter terms could also be valuable. By proposing an exchange to a community, we essentially say, “Our creative work allows all of us to make new connections, see ourselves and each other in a different light, have face-to-face encounters, to respond with presence and commitment.” The Rural Residency is a way of using the resources of a school to make a genuine contribution to community-building.

In 2017, we returned to Spring Valley for the third time, while half the class camped on the reservation of the Table Bluff Wiyot Tribe. Next year the entire PTP class will camp at Table Bluff. Clearly, every year is an experiment!

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The Rural Residency Program was the highlight of my first year at Dell'Arte. I continued to go up to Orleans in the subsequent two years of my MFA program to visit people I had met up there during the project. And the Community Based Arts project in the MFA third year -- and a subsequent CBA project I did as a part of another student's thesis -- taught me invaluable lessons about being an engaged member of my geographic community. Dell'Arte has put in the long-term work and mechanisms of accountability to their neighbors necessary to do this kind of work; thank you, Joan, for your commitment to this kind of deep, real, and complicated engagement!