COMING UP NEXT MONTH
The Spirit of Christmas Present: A Poetic Carol in Three Movements
Conceived and Directed by Fredric Villano
December 18, 19, 20 – at the Kitchen Theatre Company
Our first Wintermezzo!
For the first time, Civic Ensemble is producing a show especially for the wintertime! This tradition will continue in the years to come, as the devising process expands and continues.
Inspired by A Christmas Carol, an ensemble of actors, led by Freddy Villano, have created this charming and surprising family-friendly play.
Civic Ensemble asked Freddy to share more about the process and this play…
Civic Ensemble: First of all, how did you get into theatre?
Freddy Villano: Sometimes by car, sometimes on foot, but always through the stage door. . .
Just kidding. I grew up playing music and sometime in my mid-to late twenties realized that there might be more to life than just big hair and spandex pants — I grew up in the ’80s. I was living in NYC and enrolled at the City College of New York/CUNY. I earned a BA in English Literature, but was heavily involved with the theatre department — I have a minor — while there, performing in MacBeth, some restoration plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and others. When it came time to graduate I knew I wasn’t going to grad school for Comparative Literature. . .
So, as a gift for getting a BA — and because I always seem to defy logic when it comes to decision-making — I treated myself to a three-week summer workshop with Sandglass Theater. Sandglass is a puppet theatre company based in Putney, Vermont. . . using the puppet as a theatrical medium, unlocking doors to more secret sides of ourselves. According to Sandglass, this included the worlds of our dreams and memories, as well as all the metaphorical possibilities of theatre.
Anyway, while attending the workshop, and participating in a lot of ensemble exercises, I realized that my seemingly disparate background in music and English Lit seemed to be useful in the world of theatre. A classmate asked me if I’d ever heard of Dell’Arte, which I had not. That got the wheels turning. Three years later I had an MFA in Ensemble-based Physical Theater from Dell’Arte. I chose Dell’Arte because I realized I wasn’t into re-creating theatre. The Dell’Arte curriculum focuses on the actor as creator of his or her own work, so rather than study Shakespeare or any other playwright-driven material, the goal is to become a prolific creator of devised work.
Now I joke around with friends that if my music career doesn’t work out, I always have theater to fall back on!
CE: What inspired you to theatricalize Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a new way?
FV: This actually relates to my music background in a way. . . After graduating from Dell’Arte, [audition offers from] the Trans-Siberian Orchestra got me thinking about devising a holiday show that could become an annual event, a combination of music and theatre — but not musical theatre.
So, the idea of Christmas carols with some of the archetypical mask characters you get from Commedia lent itself to an adaptation that would have the potential to reach a wide audience. . . Though we are not performing a Commedia-inspired piece this year, nor is it an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at this point, the work you will see is a necessary stage in the development of such an endeavor. . . The development of [an ensemble’s] work happens over time, in the midst of rigorous daily practice. Our work with this holiday performance will, hopefully, continue beyond this season and we’ll continue to develop and devise. . .
CE: You chose to center this play around mask work. Why?
FV: Mask work excites me simply because it is revelatory and transformational. In the case of the piece we are performing this year, the actors/performers are wearing full-face masks called Larval masks, which are derived from carnival masks from Ball, Switzerland. . . They are considered “pre-character,” which is to say they are not fully formed characters yet, so there is an innocence and naïveté to them that makes. . . actors to use their bodies as the main form of expression. . . They cover the entire face, so the performers’ mouths are covered, inhibiting speech. There is no talking in a full face mask — no talking, no text. The language is physical and gestural.
This opens up a whole new world of metaphorical possibilities. A simple turn of the head or slumping of the shoulders carries all of the intention and communication. . . It seems kind of weird that an English Lit. major pursued a theatrical degree in a form that can sometimes be devoid of verbal language, but, in theatre, the physical level is so much more compelling to me, personally. I’ve always been more into seeing shows like Blue Man Group than the next adaptation of a Shakespeare piece that’s been done a thousand times already. If one can hone in on the specificity of gesture and the stillness that separates each action, each movement, a palpable world emerges from which magical things happen. And it doesn’t require words.
CE: What should the audience expect at The Spirit of Christmas Present?
FV: I’m not sure I can tell you what to expect because part of this art form is spontaneous, so on some level, the actors/performers won’t know what to expect either. But they have to be ready to receive and react to what happens. . . There is no fourth wall in this piece, so the characters will want to include the audience in both their triumphs and their follies.
The audience should not expect linear storytelling. There may be a beginning, middle and end, or there may not be. It sounds esoteric, but think of it as poetry rather than fiction. It can be open to interpretation. The main thing is that hopefully you are moved in some way you did not anticipate when you walked through the theatre door that evening.
CE: Who do you hope will see the show?
FV: We’d love to reach everyone. Hopefully the humanity in these characters transcends age, religious affiliation, political affiliation, etc. We live in a world where everyone is divided up into categories by religion, politics, sports team, whatever. We are trying to appeal to the human condition that lives within us all. Young or old. Black or white. Liberal or conservative.
As Ronlin Foreman, the former director at Dell’Arte, once said to me and my classmates: We want the audience to run out the door — after the show — with the desire to be as real as what they just witnessed onstage. We’re not interested in anecdote. The audience will be moved if we, the performers/actors, are moved. There’s no camping out behind the frontline on stage. You have to be willing to throw yourself into battle. The stakes for these characters are life or death.