More from my Mini-Interview archives: this of Jeff Wills, New York-based theatrical artist (and a damn good writer, too).
5 questions: JEFF WILLS Interviewer: Jenn Zuko
1.) What steered you towards physical theatre/clowning as you moved through your theatrical education, as opposed to a more psychological, Stanislavsky-esque style?
My undergraduate education was devoid of style work, focused mainly on Stanislavsky and Meisner techniques, but the first mainstage show I performed a major role in there was The Three Musketeers, as d’Artagnan. It was at a time when I was trying to decide what larger purpose theatre served, and what it could do that other media couldn’t, and the human body and real things happening in real time seemed like important aspects of that. Then in my early professional career I fell in with the commedia dell’arte and circus-theatre groups, where those ideas really carry into characterization (not to mention humor) and I was hooked.
2.) How do you feel Commedia dell’arte has evolved since its inception in old Italy? Why do you think it works for audiences now?
This is an interesting idea, because many people will tell you the commedia dell’arte is an old, dead form, but it’s an important aspect of the philosophy of my troupe – Zuppa del Giorno – that it is a living tradition. From my perspective, the influence of the commedia dell’arte can be seen in just about any timeless comedy of the last century, from the silent comedians to Judd Apatow films. It might be impossible to summarize its evolution over the past half a millennium, but I will say that what seems to resonate for people is the ways in which the form creates a common language among its audiences right from the start by the use of character archetypes. Everyone knows the mask they’re being presented with when a performer takes the stage or screen–whether it’s a drunkard, a merchant, a lover (or all three)–and so the story is inclusive right away. Combine that with all the ways in which the style invites audience participation and you’re talking about creating a more community-themed catharsis than the more predictable individual experience.
David Zarko, our artistic director, likes to point out how everyone used to know the same dances. We would get together and there would be a common forum for interacting on an unspoken emotional level. Social interaction rarely like that anymore, but the commedia dell’arte and theatre inspired and influenced by it is one of the things we still have that invites that unique and important experience.
3.) What artists are you inspired by? Any heroes you try to emulate in your work?
Too many, probably! The first that comes to mind is Buster Keaton, simply because I find his comedy to be a very pure and timeless experience, and of course because he was a tremendous acrobat. I have a real love of all silent comedy, to the extent that my particular clown character still doesn’t talk! I love dancers of just about every variety, and have a real fondness for Gene Kelley. In terms of contemporary artists, I take a lot of inspiration from Julie Taymor (more Titus and Lion King than Spider-Man), Bill Irwin and David Shiner.
4.) Any interesting performance horror stories? Recounts of joyful victory? What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you onstage? The most exhilarating?
Maybe college makes for more dramatic events, somehow. I was in a production of Julius Caesar in which I was on the charging end of Caesar’s coffin as the mob rioted. It was hundreds of pounds on a gurney with a plywood top that I had to essentially brake as we rolled down a ramp into the vomitorium. One matinee the lights went down a little quickly and we got disoriented and just as I was moving my hands from the sides of the gurney to the front, one corner collided with the doorway and the corner of the plywood ploughed almost all the way through my right palm. Looking back, my whispered cries of “Medic! Medic!” backstage while holding my bleeding hand seem hilariously inapt but, at the time, it seemed war-like, I suppose.
On the fairer side of things, I once did a comedy for a small regional theatre in which I played a character who was a reincarnated dog trying to look out for the family who had owned him. It was great fun in general – finding the physicality of a dog trying to act human – but the most fun was that the director was so on board with my physical choices and ideas that she made sure the set was adapted to them. So, at the climax, I got to climb up and along a bookshelf on the upstage wall, jump from there onto a banister on a second-level staircase, then leap from there to the downstage center floor to clobber the bad guy. Great. Fun.
5.) You (like me) are a writer as well as a performer (and a teacher). What do you enjoy most? How does one feed into and play off the other?
The enjoyment of one to the other is so different that it’s difficult to rate them, but I’d say there’s nothing I enjoy in quite the same way as performing. The highs and lows are more extreme, so there’s a balance to that experience, but the sheer vulnerability of it and the way in which performing exists in a moment is in a way incomparable. I love them all, of course. They’re very different skills in my opinion – I think the best teachers have some performance instinct, but being a good performer does not in any way make one a good teacher, and the most brilliant writers can be awful, awful performers and teachers. But all have a common root in storytelling, or narrative communication. For me, writing satisfies the part of me that craves more control when I’m being a performer, and teaching ties both instincts together in a way that’s all about reaching out to others on their own level, and doing so with adaptivity.
I’m curious about your answers to your own questions! Thanks,