Monday, October 6, 2014

Masks give us permission to explore new ideas or to more bravely enact ways of being that we don’t usually give ourselves permission to pursue. They invite playfulness, humor, parody, and even a bit of mischief. Think Halloween costumes and masquerade balls. All of the qualities that masks allow and invite also make them a clever tool for exploring social issues, which is the aim of a new UI Theatre Arts production, Crescendo, this year’s Iowa Partnerships in the Arts project.

The first inkling for the work, which combines physical theatre, a jazz music score, and masks, began during a trip that UI Theatre Arts assistant professor Paul Kalina took to Italy in 2011 as part of an Old Gold Fellowship. Kalina met master mask creator Matteo Destro in Tuscany and was taken with his creations, which blend the centuries-old tradition of commedia dell’arte with a contemporary aesthetic. A form of theatre characterized by masked types, such as the fool or the sophisticate, commedia dell’arte began in Italy in the 16th century in the form of improvised sketches and is the progenitor of modern clowning.

Clowning for Social Change

Kalina created the Chicago-based physical theatre company 500 Clown He has worked with edgy performance groups, like   Steppenwolf Theatre, and been an invited artist of the Cirque du Soleil. Meeting Destro introduced possibilities for a new mask tradition. “I was interested in using this very established tradition to approach current issues and stimulate debate toward social change,” he says.

Kalina wanted to devise a piece that tackled a tough social issue, preferably something with global relevance. Destro suggested education, and Kalina immediately agreed. They soon realized the educational system in Italy was struggling with challenges similar to those Kalina described in the States.

Back in Iowa, Kalina approached jazz musician and composer John Rapson. “I was attracted to John’s work because it is so improvisational,” says Kalina, “and also because of an existing relationship between mask and jazz.” Mask and jazz share a history dating to the late 1940s after the Second World War when physical theatre performers and jazz musicians engaged in late-night jam sessions in Paris nightclubs. Each would take turns following the other’s improvisational riffs in live collaborative performances.

Obermann Provides Time and Space for Improvisation

The next step was for Kalina and Rapson to spend concentrated time together, imagining the music, while also learning more about contemporary issues in education. Through an Obermann Interdisciplinary Research Grant, the two artists spent a month together last summer at the Center, watching films that combined music and physical theatre, learning more about education, and, in Rapson’s case, listening to music.

“That uninterrupted, daily interaction was invaluable to the project as a whole,” says Kalina of their month at Obermann.

Of the many films they watched, Rapson was especially inspired by the music in the French actor-director Jacques Tati’s films, including Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. One tune turns up throughout the film, sometimes on a record player by the beach, another time on the radio. But that was a single piece of music. The production Kalina was imagining would be improvised—the actors going in new directions and the musicians needing to keep up with them, or vice versa with the musicians finding an unexpected cul-de-sac of emotion and the people on stage reacting to what they heard.

Rapson knew that his musicians would need a road map, even if they were improvising for much of each show. He wrote more than fifty “vignettes” for two musical groups: one with a big band sound for introductions and segues; the other a small group in which specific instruments are linked to individual actors in the vein of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Taking Turns

Whether the musicians are steering the action onstage or the actors are steering the musicians remains open for debate. “One thing that happens with collaborative projects,” says Rapson, “is you have to figure out who goes first. In this case it was the mask making followed by the composition of the music. But in a good collaboration, you take turns, and now we are pounding this out in rehearsal, still trying to decide whether the action generates the music, or the action reflects the music.”

Rapson’s compositions employ a woody and whimsical sound. He knew early on that he wanted to anchor the music with one instrument: the accordion. As the production is about a global issue, he argues the accordion is a uniquely global instrument, popularized and spread by sailors. “You can find accordion music on all seven continents,” says Rapson, who shared possible musical inspiration with his collaborators in the form of songs with origins as diverse as Finland and South Africa.

Playing with Testing

Last spring, Destro and Italian director Paola Coletto visited from Europe. They worked with actors in Kalina’s mask class, listened to music with Rapson and Kalina, and met with David Bills, associate dean in the College of Education, who joined the project as a consultant on current issues in public education. Allyson Malandra, a third-year MFA student in acting, says they did a lot of improvisation around educational themes during the workshops, trying on Destro’s newly created masks.

“The masks give you greater permission for greater exploration,” says Malandra, a Philadelphia native. “We played with prompts like ‘report cards’ or ‘tests’ or ‘teachers,’ and ideas would just start coming out.” Cast and crew discovered each of these pieces of the educational puzzle to be imbued with memories—some painful, others funny, many absurd. This is exactly what Kalina wants to surface in the production.

More than 50 actors, crew members, and musicians are involved with Crescendo, a production that takes the risk of never being the same thing twice. Kalina is not yet sure what will occur onstage on opening night, October 9. But he is certain that it will evolve and morph and be a distinctly different production by the time this run ends two weeks later.

Educational Pendulum

Malandra has had major roles in numerous UI theatre productions. When asked what she’s learned from this insistently open-ended production, she says, “The important thing is to play. Just keep trying things. Nothing is off-limits.”

Kalina hopes that educators and policy makers will see the production. In working on it, he admits that he’s actually become more disheartened about the current state of American education. “We expect our schools to raise our children and turn them into good citizens. Yet, we do not fund them and give them the tools and autonomy they need to inspire each individual child. Education has always been a factory of sorts, but with standardized testing and as we continue to demonize teachers—the good ones leave because they can no longer teach as they’d like—we are creating numerous deep-rooted problems.”

Just as in the realms of clowning and commedia dell’arte, however, Kalina believes that extremes create change: “The optimist in me believes the pendulum will begin to swing back the other way.”

For more information about the play and to purchase tickets, go to: