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  • Created by the Ensemble: Generative Creativity and Collective Creation at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre
  • Claire Canavan (bio)


In a large and open acting studio with two sets of mirrored walls, students converge in different configurations. A trio is up on their feet, trying on commedia masks and looking at themselves in the mirror. A pair leans on a window ledge, engaged in heated conversation about what, exactly, they are supposed to be doing. Yet another group is running around a flat, trying out the choreography of a chase scene that they practiced earlier in class that day. The group in the studio—a small sampling of the thirty students who have traveled to the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California, during the summer of 2009 for a month-long workshop—are all rehearsing for a performance lab assignment.

The assignment is to work in groups of three to collectively create a scene in the style of commedia dell’arte. The only parameters are that we must wear masks, and that our scene should involve “a crisis,” in which one character becomes unable to function. The creation of everything else—character details, specific story, staging, timing—is left up to the performers. These performance lab assignments, during which students work in small ensembles to collectively create new performance material each week, are a key component of the pedagogy at Dell’Arte and provide a practical opportunity for students to rehearse the school’s underlying philosophy—that actors are generative artists, or actor-creators, in conversation with their community.

Drawing upon historical research, personal interviews,1 and my own embodied experience as a participant-observer during a four-week summer workshop, this essay explores the diverse historical influences on Dell’Arte’s actor-creator model, and then investigates how the core concept of generative creativity is embodied in the classroom through specific assignments and particular pedagogical practices. I argue that teachers at Dell’Arte encourage generative creativity through employing a form of critical pedagogy that re-imagines the relationships among teacher, student, and subject and constantly places the actor in the position to make creative decisions.

Untangling Historical Threads

The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre is located in Blue Lake, a small town in northern California surrounded by coastal redwoods. The Dell’Arte school, founded by Italian theatre artist Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and his wife Jane Hill, opened in Blue Lake in 1975, and now offers a one-year Professional Training Program (PTP) and a three-year MFA in ensemble-based physical theatre. The Dell’Arte Company began in 1976 and continues to be known for creating original theatre through a devising process, often about issues or themes linked to the surrounding community. According to founding artistic director Joan Schirle, the school is “the U.S. center for [End Page 49] the exploration, development, training and performance of the actor-creator. Its mission is to employ and revitalize the traditional physical theatre forms to explore contemporary concerns” (2009b).

Dell’Arte training is physically based and draws on an eclectic host of popular theatre traditions and movement practices, ranging from melodrama and circus to the Alexander technique. At Dell’Arte, actors first work on physical awareness and awareness of the self in time and space, and then begin to engage the different “dramatic territories” of melodrama, tragedy, commedia dell’arte, and clown, with the goal of becoming a transformative actor-creator who has “an instinct for play” and “embraces the dynamic reality of time and space” (Foreman 2009; Schirle 2009a).

It is important to historicize Dell’Arte training partly because acting practice is so often evacuated of its history, but also because the company’s training techniques are indeed drawn from a vast range of influences. The school’s central emphasis on the actor-creator and on collective creation has been inspired by a long lineage of theatre traditions, including physical theatre forms, the European mime tradition as practiced by Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq, commedia dell’arte, and the collective and community-driven ethos of 1960s experimental theatre artists.

In Physical Theatres, Simon Murray and John Keefe argue that “the...


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