By Colleen Goodhue
Early this spring, when covid wasn’t yet a household name, I was in a small town in the mountains of Colombia reading the novel Station Eleven, in which there is a traveling Shakespeare troupe in a post-pandemic, post-apocalyptic world. Despite the struggles in a world without electricity or running water or order of any kind, the caravan travels to small communities to perform, because they believe “survival is insufficient.”
So I was delighted to hear that during our very own pandemic, a new theater group had started in the Upper Valley; Covid Commedia is a troupe of three artists — Lulu Fairclough-Stewart, Cameron Silliman, and Seamus Good — who also did not want to merely survive the pandemic. They are young artists who want to keep their performance skills fresh while theaters are closed. Lulu and Seamus are from Hanover and returned home. Cameron joined them from New Jersey and they began practicing together. As Seamus had been in Italy teaching at a commedia dell'arte school, they began rehearsing in that style.
While they've recently begun performing outside at large venues like ArtisTree, they've mostly focused on backyard shows at people's homes. (They’ll perform for you too if you can get a group of 15 audience members together!) Last week, the three of them squeezed onto a couch to video chat with me. We talked about performing 16th-century Italian theater, socially distanced audiences, and how backyard performances could shape the role of theater in American lives.
Colleen Goodhue: For the uninitiated, like me, how do you describe commedia dell'arte?
Seamus Good: It's a traditional form of Italian theatre that relies on improvisation and stock characters to tell some wild story. It's different from other more traditional forms of comedy. In Shakespeare, there are set lines, set moments, while commedia really relies on characters and archetypes to create funny situations; the miserly old man, the soldier who's actually a coward, the lovers. They're pervasive in our culture, everyone's familiar with them. The actors come in knowing that these characters are inherently funny and lead to certain situations and then they can delve in, explore, and try to figure out what new possibilities they can come up with for them. We're doing something crazy, putting on masks, making up these crazy voices, moving around in ridiculous ways, but the characters and the stories have been retold in our culture so many times that it still feels familiar. These archetypes are what initially inspired Shakespeare, Molière, all those people, and have led to our Western form of comedy.
Cameron Silliman: I have the least experience with this art form. I was able to see a little bit of it when visiting Seamus in Arezzo [Italy], when he was working at the school, but didn't start practicing until I came up here. So that was intimidating for me. It seemed very foreign to me, but once I got comfortable with these practices I actually realized that I had a lot to pull from. I started to think of things like Disney characters, Disney films that I grew up watching. I was like, “Oh, I've actually seen this before. I just didn't know that it was coming from this kind of art form, which was really cool.”
Lulu Fairclough-Stewart: Commedia is primarily recognizable from the leather masks that people wear. The other thing that sets commedia apart from other forms of theaters is the physicality that it's based in. As an actor, performances and characters are usually approached first with text and then you build your character out from there; you read the script to figure out what the character is all about. You look at the text and you figure out the motives, but with commedia, it’s flopped on its head and you start with your body and you start with the physicality. You start with the mask and then you figure out what they're going to say. The first thing and the most important thing I feel about commedia is the physicality.
Colleen: I imagine that it makes it quite amenable to performing outside.
Lulu: Everyone's now socially distanced, so super spread out. How do you tell a story with your voice and your body so the person in the last row can understand what's going on? It's all very purposefully exaggerated.
Seamus: Commedia really seems like it was built for this kind of time. In Italy, it died out as soon as sort of the Renaissance moved in and more structured plays began. It's a kind of dead theater. Now it seems that we have returned tp these old tools of being forced to play to massive amounts of people where you don't have the right acoustics. You don't have the right setup for everyone to see you. You have to be big. You have to be loud. There's no room for subtlety. And the fact that there are these techniques that have been proven to create these incredibly fun and interesting stories just seems so tooled for this exact moment.
Colleen: So what is it like for you performing to a socially distant audience? How does that feel as a performer?
Seamus: Either great or horrible!
Lulu: What's proven to be so hard is that people are spread out and wearing masks, so we can't see people smiling and we can't hear people laughing so the energy exchange between us and the audience is very different from an enclosed theater where you can hear a phone buzz. It's proven to be very difficult at times, but if people take their masks off, or make a point to laugh loudly, we can hear them. I'd say it's pretty challenging performing outdoors with people wearing masks.
Cameron: We had a more recent experience where it was a large audience, but very spread out. Everyone was wearing masks and if people were laughing we couldn't hear them, and if people were enjoying themselves, we couldn't see that. So we all just worked a little harder, because we just weren't sure. Of course we find out at the end that everyone had a great time, which is wonderful, but it is a different experience when, as a live performer, you're used to being able to tell in the moment whether people are enjoying it or not. So we just kind of go in, do the best that we can, and try to create the strongest connection possible with the audience. I think in all of our experiences, actually, everyone's been very positive and appreciative, but doing it has been very different than what we're used to as live performers.
Lulu: It’s an unknown hour where it’s just us three. We’re doing our best, but what's really happening is kind of unknown.
Colleen: So full disclosure [for the reader], my improv team is planning a show with you in October. I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to do a show outside! We did one last year on the Norwich Green and it’s tough to not be able to hear that audience reaction. Do you have any advice for Valley Improv for that outdoor, socially distanced show?
Seamus: One of the things that I've learned the most in this time is something that Lulu said after one of our performances. You have two choices to make when you feel like the audience isn't coming with you. You can either apologize, back down, and say like, “Oh, I'm sorry.” Get a little smaller. Or you can meet that with more energy and get larger and get bigger and make that choice. Even though it's definitely the hardest thing and it's the most exhausting thing that we've had to do, it pays off. You can always win people over with commitment, more energy.
Lulu: Throwing caution to the wind! Honestly, what's been the hardest is sometimes, with our show, if people aren’t digging it, it could be super embarrassing. We're standing up there with leather masks, singing a strange little song, walking around like 95-year old men, but kind of being like, “Screw this. I'm going to commit to it fully. If they don't like it, we can't tell. If it's embarrassing, whatever.” And then they like it because we're committing to it fully, but throwing all that away has been necessary.
Seamus: If you let people know that you are embarrassed by what's going on, then they'll think it's embarrassing, but if you can just hold up the facade — that this is what we are doing and it's intentional — then they'll go along with it. You gotta fake it till you make it, I guess.
Colleen: That's good life advice in general. So Lulu and Seamus, what's it like for you to bring this project back to your hometown?
Seamus: For me, it's definitely been like a kind of a dream come true. I've been very frustrated with the fact that theater in America sort of migrates to these cultural center points in New York City, Chicago, L.A., though mostly New York. I feel like it creates this environment where you have incredibly talented people forced to compete with each other in order to get whatever few jobs are remaining. The Upper Valley is a really interesting place because there simply is so much theatre happening here for such a small community. Doing work in these smaller communities can be, for me, even more fulfilling than maybe doing something in a larger city. It makes me feel really good about possibly continuing to work up here and continuing to work in small areas where you know the people that you're connecting to. You're not doing a show for a room full of strangers. It's a room of your network and community and you can hopefully at some point feel the change and the impact that you've had rather than that of whoever just happened to come see the show and then is going to drift off into their own sphere.
Lulu: It's kind of wild that these groups of people in Vermont and New Hampshire are like, “Yeah, I'll go see this 16th-century style of theater!” Who knew those people were out there? The Upper Valley is interested in the arts, and I think that continues to impress me.
Colleen: So you've been doing some smaller shows for people by request. What has that been like?
Lulu: So when this whole thing started we thought that everything would have to happen on a smaller scale. When we set out to start doing shows, the initial idea was that we were going to be doing door-to-door performances for households at a time. Our first show was for three people. Then we realized that there was enough of an audience and enough of a demand to do larger shows, but we have been doing private shows by request. All that we ask is that there'd be an audience of 15 plus people and we’ll come and perform for them. Most of the shows are private. We've been doing shows every week.
Seamus: It also came from a place of accessibility where, during covid,you can’t assume that every single person is going to want to like go out to ArtisTree or Pentangle or feel like they're in an audience of a hundred people. It'd be nice to see what it's like to create theater in the Upper Valley, from an organizational standpoint, like, what's a booking fee cost? How do you get in touch with these organizations? How much money do you make from donations? All that's been really, really interesting, but the primary goal was just to say that theater is really important.
At this point, we don't know if it's going to survive the pandemic, or what it's going to look like on the other side of this. If we can do as much as we can to just keep some form of theater in front of people's faces, then that's really just like the biggest success that we could have. If there's a family or group of people who are more reticent about going out to those [big venues], we would love to bring this to them and find a way to continue to show that theater can bring communities together and do great things in spite of the impossible circumstances that we’re dealing with.
Lulu: Something about the Upper Valley is that people have been like, “Wow, I can't believe how much I needed this!” That's been a response audience members have said, “I needed this so badly.” So that's kind of exciting: hearing how theater and art are necessary. How does it run through the veins of the community? What I think is exciting when going door-to-door to people's houses and doing private events, is really integrating theatre back into American culture. What if theater was how we entertained each other, was part of our social circle? How cool would it be if theater started popping up everywhere on intimate levels instead of just like larger equity performances? What if theatre became just a staple in all of our social lives on every level?
Seamus: This is something that you're seeing from the Broadway scene and the New York scene in terms of theaters realizing that one of the things that covid is forcing us to do is make theater more accessible in general. Most people are choosing to do that through streaming, to say, we're going to do performances, but it's going to happen over Zoom, or we're going to open up our archives so that people can watch this theater. We are choosing to do it by doing it in a small community and by having a really small troupe that can go and do really intimate performances. Theater is becoming more accessible and more integrated into communities with smaller shows that are integrated into people's life schedules that allow as many people to come in through the doors as possible. Share what you have to share and promote this art form to more and more people
Colleen: Before I lived up here, I lived in Brooklyn and got these “$30 for 30” tickets for people under thirty to get the cheap seats at Broadway shows. I got to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman. It was, like, a moment of my life. It felt very electric, though it was depressing to think there’s no way I could have afforded these tickets. It makes theater feel inaccessible. So I really love that idea of theater shifting to be more accessible to people and coming to where they are.
Lulu: And accessibility of genre too, like theater can become elitist in the accessibility of ticket prices and theater locations, but also of content. I feel like commedia is accessible to all. It’s very family friendly. Kids can watch it and understand what is going on. The oldest people in the audience can understand what's going on. And there's no elitist subtext or confusing language. It's really just that the content itself is accessible to any level of schooling or background. Everyone can understand it. Theater can be really intimidating. I hope commedia isn't.
Seamus: I think it can be abrasive sometimes. You have people walk outside with masks on and start doing these character voices. I think the initial reaction of most audiences is like, “Whoa, what is happening?” But I do think that, by its nature, it's also very easy to win those people over. We haven't had anyone who's been like, “Nope. Too strange for me. I’m out.”
Lulu: The content we tried to make really relatable. We reference Netflix and Zoom and being quarantined away from your boyfriend.
Lulu: Unemployment! Health insurance. I feel like the content, we've tried to make super accessible, as well.
Cameron: Talking about accessibility, another private show we did was for the Special Needs Support Center, which was a whole other kind of accessibility. We've talked about commedia and this show being pretty malleable like for age groups, but we also got to experience what it's like to edit the content for people of different abilities. It's a pretty easy conversation. You have this organization instructing us on ways to make our material easier to digest for their community. People within that community have been nervous, just to step outside of their environments, because it hasn't been made accessible to them. And so that's just been a whole other level of accessibility that's been really fulfilling to figure out and understand, because that is a community that tends to get left out in theater experiences and so many other experiences.
Lulu: They called it making the show “sensory friendly.”
Seamus: They've really given us a checklist of like, these are the pieces that are necessary in order to make it as widely accessible to any single person who walks through the door, and all of them are pretty easy to implement on your own. The only thing that really has any sort of trickiness to it is finding someone to translate into ASL, but everything else other than that, it's just, like, really simple, straightforward, easy stuff to make sure that every experience can be accessible to anybody.
Cameron: It doesn't take a lot out of us to make those changes. That was a really wonderful experience.
Covid Commedia has two upcoming performances and books private performances on their website.
Sunday, October 11 - 1:00pm
Covid Commedia and Valley Improv - Wilder, VT [registration required]
Covid Commedia and Valley Improv - Wilder, VT [registration required]
Saturday, October 17 - 3:00pm
Covid Commedia - Special Needs Support Center (SNSC) [registration required]
Covid Commedia - Special Needs Support Center (SNSC) [registration required]
Colleen Goodhue is a videomaker and writer living in West Lebanon, NH. She loves archives, long layovers, and all kinds of friendly competition. She performs with Valley Improv, the Upper Valley’s best and only improv troupe.