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Your Guide to Theatre Education

Dell’Arte International

In this series, David Dudley looks at the different models of theater education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.

Joan Schirle, Founding Artistic Director of Dell’Arte International, was director of the school from 2003 – 2011 and devised its MFA program. She is an actor, director, playwright, deviser, and master teacher.

David Dudley: When were Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre’s programs started? When did you join?

Joan Schirle: Dell’Arte School opened in Blue Lake, CA (pop. 1200) in 1975. That’s when I met founders Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and Jane Hill. They started Dell’Arte in Berkeley in 1971, then moved north to Humboldt County in 1972. For years the School was a one-year program with occasional shorter advanced trainings. In 2004, we became accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) to offer a stand-alone three-year MFA in Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre, plus the one-year certificate program, summer intensives, and study in Bali.

Italian-born Mazzone-Clementi moved to the US in 1957. He was inspired by Copeau’s ideals of a company/school. Carlo’s vision in turn inspired me to devote my life towards growing a rural training center housing a professional company. Carlo, Jon’Paul Cook, and myself founded the Dell’Arte Company in 1976. Initially we gathered an ensemble of actors not trained by us, but forty years later, 90 percent of our professional company is alumni. Carlo’s words, “Effort, Risk, Momentum, Joy” have guided not only the daily work of the students, but our organization’s long trajectory as well.

Self-discovery as the key to learning…nature as teacher… We train global, flexible actors who are able to invent or find the techniques they need to communicate the content they are creating.

David: What does Dell’Arte's program offer potential students?

Joan: We offer students a path to finding their own voice as theatremakers. The programs offer rigorous physical training and an approach to theatre making via devised work. Imagine a Lecoq base with forty years of our own research and experimentation. An international student body from a dozen countries, including Iran, Greece, Zimbabwe, and India.

David: What makes Dell'Arte’s program different from others?

Joan: Our location’s extraordinary natural beauty and lack of distractions allows total attention to the work. DAI is a pioneer in community engagement; community service hours are required each term. Students do a ten-day Rural Residency at the end of their first year, embedded in a rural town, camping, cooking, and making a performance for their host community. MFA’s have devising internship with the resident Company, whose members also teach and model the life of working artists.

a group of people dancing on a beach
A dance project on the Mad River, choreographed by faculty member Laura Muñoz. L-R: Jerome Yorke, Billy Higgins, Allie Menzimer, Lucy Shelby, Ariel Lauryn, Andrew Eldredge. Photo by J. Schirle.

David: What are the guiding principles of the program?

Joan: Former School Director Ronlin Foreman called it pro voce: to find your own voice, while coming to know ourselves in community. Self-discovery as the key to learning…nature as teacher… We train global, flexible actors who are able to invent or find the techniques they need to communicate the content they are creating.

David: Following that, what's working?

Joan: The development of fearless creators, in many countries. Ten years ago Dell’Arte offered the only MFA in physical/devised theatre in the world; there are now at least half a dozen. “Devising,” the British term now widely adopted, has moved from the margin towards the center. And our school has come to attract a pretty great quality of human being…this is a wonderful thing!

David: What kinds of challenges have you faced? How do you intend to approach them in future?

Joan: It was hard to build a faculty in an area without a pool of teaching artists, like voice teachers. But with time, we built our own faculty. 70 percent of our current resident faculty is graduates of the school. In the early years the town was extremely suspicious, even hostile; we in turn were ignorant of the region. But forty years of patient, consistent engagement has put us at the center of a vibrant community.

For years, an old Venetian proverb was our recruiting slogan: “If they’re not crazy, we don’t want them.” Now we have to be more careful about that—more and more students are medicated, making it difficult for them to focus, to be truly present, or they are crazy not in a good way.

Funding is a constant worry…no grant programs for schools. The cost of student loans—sheesh!

a group of actors dancing in a parking lot
2nd Year MFA's in an ensemble-written, site-specific original tragedy directed by Ronlin Foreman. L-R: Jared Mongeau, Youli Archontaki (Greece), Buba Basishvili (Georgia), Vida Teyabati (Iran), Grace Booth, Tone Haldrup Lorenzon (Denmark), Erin Johnston (Canada). Photo by J. Schirle.

David: What's missing, in your opinion, from the current education/ training programs available?

Joan: All schools and training programs, especially those in colleges, are struggling against the same tide: education increasingly seen as consumerist activity. In our field that makes the actor a commodity, rather than an artist, a citizen, a shaman, a pioneer of the imagination, or any of the many possibilities for the theatre as a contributor to the health of society.

More and more students are affected by the expectation that education should not cause them to walk a path of discovery that might be uncomfortable or cause them to fail and rise, fail and rise many times. And how many programs are engaging students with a sense of purpose: what is the human need for theatre now?

David: Who do you feel is the ideal candidate? Who are you trying to bring into the DAI family?

Joan: No guidelines other than the desire to work, to be willing to try something else and then try something else, again and again. We like people of heart, integrity, generosity, and talent.

group photo
One-year program end-of-year Rural Residency with members of the Yurok tribe at Ah-Pah Creek on the Klamath River. Photo by Thomas Dunklin.

David: What do you hope your graduates/ trainees do, once they complete the program?

Joan: Start their own ensembles, of course! We hope they’ll do good in the world, find the work that allows them to do their best, and make a living at it.

David: Any changes planned for the future?

Joan: There has been a recent change of school leadership, though the pedagogy remains the same.

David: Success stories?

Joan: Getting accreditation for a stand-alone MFA degree…alumni performing in Vegas, in Broadway tours, in Macau, in Clowns Without Borders, as film actors, as tenured faculty… the success of grads like Chilean director-playwright Guillermo Calderon, who in his own words “came into the program an actor, and left as a director.” Alumni ensembles in many cities and countries from Detroit to Abu Dhabi… the network of grads around the world helping each other. Learning what it means to serve a community and the art at the same time.

Thoughts from the curator

David Dudley looks at the different models of theatre education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.

Education Series


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