12th century Italy meets the internet in the form of Sarah, The Schoolfriend, And The Five-Minute Man.
A new play written by THRESHOLDTC's Andrew Dodds (under the pen name E.D. Downs) is about to make its debut at the Melbourne Short + Sweet festival. Andrew's interest in exploring various theatrical styles and techniques to bring his pieces to life has, this time, prompted him to enter the world of Commedia dell'Arte where this 12th century theatrical form complements 21st century internet dating angst.
Can you talk to us about your play Sarah, The Schoolfriend, And The Five-Minute Man, which will be a wild card entry into this year's Short + Sweet programme. In particular, what were the influences or inspirations that initially prompted you to create the piece?
I was prompted to create the piece by chance. I was having lunch at La Via on Glenferrie Road in Malvern, when I noticed that the lady at the table next to me happened to be in quite a state. Sensing that I was looking at her, the lady looked up, our eyes met, and I gave her a courteous smile.
‘You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a little bit nervous, I’m on an Internet date’, said the lady.
We both looked at the vacant chair opposite her.
‘Is he late?’ I asked cautiously.
‘No, I’m just a little early’.
‘Oh, well, all the best then’, I said returning back to my pizza.
A little while later the gentlemen arrived (a tall and handsome young man), I finished my pizza, and headed for the tram. Whilst on the tram I began to turn over ideas for writing a short play about the incident. It just so happened that I was performing ‘Not Quite Cabaret’s Six Pack Of Plays at Red Bennies in South Yarra at the time, and was quite taken with the short play genre. I had assessed some of the scripts that we were performing, in terms of what appeared to have the greatest impact with the audience. It was my belief that scripts that had larger than life characters or scenarios appeared to come across better within the short play genre.
The play draws from the 12th century Italian form Commedia dell'Arte. How and why did you make the decision to use elements from this form and how do you believe it enhances or informs the work?
I made the decision to use elements of Commedia dell’Arte, as I wanted to draw from a base of larger than life characters and scenarios. Within the ‘Internet Date’ scenario I wanted to feature the ‘innamorati’ (the lovers), ‘arlecchino’ (a servant with a trickster streak), and ‘il capitano’ (a coward who pretends he’s brave). I then made the decision to combine these characters with features from people who I know, to give the characters a more ‘human’ touch.
Commedia dell'Arte can be translated into 'comedy of craft.' What sort of images or obligations does this title – 'comedy of craft' – present for yourself?
For myself, I believe the title ‘comedy of craft’ creates the image of skilled actors drawing out the comedy from everyday life. Commedia dell’Arte troupes would tour all across Europe in their day tailor-making shows for each and every village they went to. Of course they would have their stock standard routines and scenarios (lazzi), and character types, however troupes would do their very best to add a regional flavor to each of their shows. This is the image/obligation I see when I think of Commedia dell’Arte, and it is the image/obligation I wished to bring across when writing this project.
Can you discuss some of the challenges that you encountered while writing this piece and what were some of the strategies you used to overcome them?
Some of the challenges I faced when coming to write the script was choosing what bits to keep in and keep out of the final 10minute cut. The strategy I used when looking to overcome this was saying to myself ‘does this serve the story?’ I therefore had to cut a lot of the physical humour, as it didn’t really propel the story forward.
Did you spend much time researching any aspect of the piece and how were these researched elements used within the work?
I spent much time reviewing John Rudlin’s book Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. These research elements helped to nail down both the structure of the scene and the characters themselves.
You recently commented on how much you were inspired by actor Malcolm Robertson when he attended and spoke at Short + Sweet as guest speaker. What was it about his words that inspired and what specific, if any, shifts did your creative side take?
I found Malcolm’s words inspiring, not only because they come from a wealth of experience within the theatre, but because he is open and honest about his opinions, and is willing to debate his point of view. Of course it would take courage to enter into such a discussion with someone as wise as he, but both Malcolm and Festival Director Anthony Crowley encouraged ‘provocative’ debate throughout the afternoon. Being able to discuss your craft openly, in subjects ranging from catharsis, denouements, the role of dramaturgy, to the ways one can learn from their productions, is something you don’t often get to do.
Over my time within the performing arts I have been fortunate enough to participate in discussions such as these with the likes of David Wicks, Rob Baum, and the late Peter Oyston, and each and every time I feel the better for it. I particularly felt inspired by Malcolm’s focus on Australian content and his fervent belief that major Australian theatrical institutions should be putting on more Australian content irrespective of box office pressures, as ‘that’s why we have a government subsidy’.
What were some of the emotions associated with learning the news about the placement of your piece within the festival?
I had a mixture of emotions upon learning that THRESHOLDtc had been approved as an ITC to feature Sarah, The Schoolfriend, And The Five-Minute Man within the Melbourne Short + Sweet Festival, the one which would have been the strongest was the feeling of relief. After putting so much work into the piece, I was relieved that the play would have the opportunity to be seen for whom it was written, an audience. In the words of Malcolm Robertson ‘The theatre is a platform of ideas’, which is very true of this piece as it has utilized the form of Commedia dell’Arte within it’s construction.
What, specifically, are your beliefs and desires regarding the sort of theatre you would like to see and are you presently creating that vision within thresholdtc?
As stated within THRESHOLDtc’s mission statement, I and the team at THRESHOLDtc wish to present theatre that allows others to know themselves. We did this in the Melbourne Fringe Festival through presenting an absurdist comedy in Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, which allowed people to see Eugene Ionesco’s wrestle with language and the banality and utter meaninglessness of some of our communication in life.
In Sarah, The Schoolfriend, And The Five-Minute Man audiences will find a short Australian story that explores modern relationships in a comedic manner. As Carol Burnett says, ‘comedy is tragedy plus timing’, which is often true when dealing with matters of the heart. Through using elements of Commedia dell’Arte, larger than life characters will hopefully allow audiences to laugh out all those awkward moments.
You chose to write this piece under the pen name E.D. Downs. What was the reason for this?
I write under the pen name of E.D. Downs, as I wish my writing endeavours to be separate from all my other artistic ones. A pseudonym gives me this opportunity and helps to distinguish the roles I play as an artist.
What is the next project for yourself and thresholdtc?
THRESHOLDtc’s next project is the Midsumma Festival. Melbourne’s annual Queer Celebration, which will feature a play I have written specifically for the festival in ‘The Crowd’.
Melbourne SHORT + SWEET Festival runs from the 2nd of November to the 12th of November at the Chapel Off Chapel theatre space in Prahran (www.tinyurl.com/snstheatre).
**Promo Photo by Luke Lennox