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News & Notes: Dell’Arte on the ropes

The noted school for physical theater announces an emergency fund drive to keep its doors open. Plus: new Oregon Arts Commission grants, Dan Ryan's quartet of city Art Talks.


Dell’Arte International teaches and creates an approach to theater that has centuries-old roots and continues to have an impact on contemporary performance. Photo: Mark Larson, courtesy Dell’Arte International

The chips keep falling. As Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and many other performance companies across the United States find themselves in financial pickles created largely by the impact of pandemic shutdowns and the slow return of audiences, yet another significant group finds itself on the financial ropes.

The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, the training and performance center that’s been teaching actors, directors, and designers in expressionistic theater styles since 1974, has announced that it’s facing closure and has begun an emergency funding campaign to keep its doors open: It’s seeking to raise at least $125,000 by the end of December.

Graduates of Dell’Arte, which is in Blue Lake, near Eureka in northern California, have seeded theater communities nationally and internationally for almost half a century, ensuring that physical approaches to performance survive and thrive.

“Over the past decades, Dell’Arte has fed the artist pool in Portland — my last count was over 50 living and working there,” noted the longtime Portland master maskmaker Tony Fuemmeler, who relocated to Blue Lake a little over a year ago and is now Dell’Arte’s head of training and one of a three-member school leadership council. Among those Dell’Arte grads in Portland are such theatrical stalwarts as Jessica Wallenfels, Matthew Kerrigan, Linda Hayden, Kate Mura, and Emily Newton.

The school “has announced plans to lay off the majority of its staff, citing critical cash flow issues,” American Theatre magazine reports. In a press release, Dell’Arte declared: “Like almost every theatre company in the world, Dell’Arte has suffered terrible financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent loss of support, major national and state-wide changes in philanthropy and funding and significantly reduced audiences.”

Dell’Arte has been a major player in connecting theater’s past to its present and future, helping to ensure that diverse physical approaches survive and thrive. It was key to the new-vaudeville movement that flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, and has played a role in the rise of new-circus groups ranging from the Pickle Family Circus to Cirque du Soleil.

Its approaches to expressive theatricality link it to ancient Greek theater, Italy’s commedia dell’arte, the stylized French theater of Molière and others, English Restoration comedy, Shakespeare (several of his early plays in particular show marked commedia influence), even countless Indigenous forms of ritual and expression. It’s been a kind of seed bank of theatrical styles and approaches that might otherwise be swamped by the dominance of film- and television-style naturalism.


But the school is hardly locked in the past, Fuemmeler said in the press release: “Dell’Arte is not a fixed entity with a timestamp in renaissance Italy (or 1970s California). Dell’Arte has been evolving from the beginning. It is meant to evolve. … The need for Dell’Arte as a dynamic, ongoing destination for research, training and performance through the undeniable lens of the body in space remains as potent and vibrant as ever.”

In the meantime, there’s that pressing call for $125,000. Donations can be made online here; by mail to P.O. Box 816, Blue Lake, Calif. 95525; or by phone at 707-668-5663.

Arts Commission awards grants

Speaking of money, the Oregon Arts Commission announced a new round of operating support grants this month — 171 grants to arts groups throughout the state, between $3,000 and $25,000 each, and totaling $1,382,696. The grants, which help support everyday operation, range from $3,000 for Cascades Theatrical Company in Bend to $25,000 for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Associaton in Ashland and the High Desert Museum in Bend, with plenty between.

Among the awardees are the Sisters Folk Festival, Sunriver Music Festival, Painted Sky Center for the Arts in Canyon City, Historic Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Crossroads Creative and Performing Arts Center in Baker City, the Ross Ragland Theatre in Klamath Falls, Eugene Opera, Newport Symphony Orchestra, Write Around Portland, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and Live Wire Radio in Portland. See the complete list here.

City of Portland Art Talks

Confused about who’s in charge of what on the arts and cultural scene in Portland and the three-county metro area? Join the crowd. The City of Portland and the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which has been awarding grants and helping to set policy since the late 1990s, have gone through a messy divorce. The city has set up its own Arts Office. And in a surprise move, RACC’s board of directors has put the agency’s executive director, Carol Tatch, on paid leave.

A series of free community meetings might help clear things up a bit. Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, whose portfolio includes the arts, has set up four Art Talks around the city to “explore the dynamic arts landscape in Portland.” The first will be this Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Mount Scott Community Center. The other three will be in November.

“This unique event series aims to foster a deeper connection with our community and provide insights into the transformative journey of the City Arts Program, the Arts Education & Access Fund, the significance of our Monuments, and the envisioned trajectory of arts funding in Portland,” T.J. McHugh, communications and senior policy advisor on Ryan’s staff, said in an email.


Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

The monuments include the downtown Elk Fountain, the South Park Blocks’ Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt statues, and others that have been in storage since being torn from their pedestals or otherwise damaged during 2020’s social protests.

Ryan and members of the City Arts Team will be on hand, audience members will be able to speak, and city spokespersons will explain the new Tailored Requests for Proposals, or grant system.

The full schedule of talks:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 17, 6-7:30 p.m.: Mount Scott Community Center.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 7, 6-7:30 p.m.:  East Portland Community Center.
  • Thursday, Nov. 9, 6-7:30 p.m.: Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.
  • Thursday, Nov. 16, 6-7:30 p.m.: Multnomah Arts Center.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


One Response

  1. As chair of the Dell’Arte Board of Directors, I thank you for bringing our current situation to your readers’ attention and for the donations that continue to come our way. I would just like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the roles played by co-founders Carlo Mazzone Clementi and Jane Hill in bringing the commedia art form to the US. As noted by the inimitable Joan Schirle in The Routledge Companion to Commedia Dell’Arte: “With the spirit of a poet [Carlo Mazzone-Clementi] spread seeds of Commedia dell’Arte in the New World. With the spirit of a pioneer he stayed on to tend those seeds. “No roots, no fruits.” That spirit is what we vow to continue into the future, wherever that may take us.

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