Former students stood, one by one, and told us how they’d been changed by the school. We were barefoot or in our socks, seated on chairs, acro-mats, and tables. The stories were about being cracked open, about light finding a way to spill out. I sat by the door of the acrobatics studio, which hadn’t existed during the 10 months I’d spent at the school, and silently sifted through memories of days and nights that had been buried by a decade of doing other things in other places. A dawn drive to a beach where the fog was so thick I couldn’t see my hands or the ocean pooling around my boots; a hundred mornings of hurling myself toward a redwood-paneled wall and immediately crashing to the floor, then a gleaming moment in April when I held my handstand longer than anyone else; a Saturday I felt so suffocated by ensemble work and small-town life that I drove five hours to an isolated cove, spotted the rotting corpse of a recently dead seal, climbed a boulder beside it, and tried to forget everything but the roar of waves hitting sea stacks and the hum of flies eating flesh; a trip to a mountain commune on solstice, where a man stood by a pond, pierced his legs and lower back with fish hooks, wound rope through the hooks and over a tree branch, asked volunteers to pull the rope until he was hanging upside down, then opened his arms and invited us to hug him. We did, one by one, as blood trickled down his thighs and back, and thousands of migrating monarch butterflies fluttered around us, landing on bark and skin. I hardly wrote anything that year. I didn’t take any pictures.
It was the beginning of July, 10 years after I’d finished the yearlong training program at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Two hundred of us had gathered for a weeklong reunion in Blue Lake, a former logging town on California’s Redwood Coast—the first formal assembly of alumni in the school’s 40-year history. The week was packed with workshops and warmups, performances and river trips, shared meals, bonfires, and rollicking nights at the Logger Bar. Much of my time was spent with classmates I’d lost touch with in the decade since we’d trained at the school—performers who, when I’d arrived in Blue Lake a decade earlier, the lone writer in a class of actors, acrobats, and dancers, had no idea what I was doing there, or if I’d survive the year.
My journey into this world began at the age of 22. Four months after I graduated from college, I got my driver’s license, bought a used car, left my parents’ home in Northern Virginia, and drove across the country in time to start the training program in physical theatre and ensemble devising that begins at the Dell’Arte School every September. If I’d had any inkling of the year I was in for, and how hard it would be to perform tasks that come naturally to children—things like breathing deeply, sitting without slouching, or walking neutrally across a room—I wouldn’t have gone. But I didn’t know, so I went, feeling adrift, stranded on an island of grief. A year earlier, a death I’d spent my college years fearing and anticipating had finally happened. In place of passion, fear, or conviction there was dread—and a vague suspicion that if I didn’t push myself toward the opposite of everything I had become comfortable with I would remain in a crushing stasis, indifferent and detached, stuck on the wrong side of the looking glass.
I wasn’t aware of how the life I’d led up to that moment, across two decades and four countries, had left me so ill prepared for the year I was embarking on that if I hadn’t been so thoroughly disembodied and desperate to change, I would have found my presence at the school, with its extreme physical and interpersonal challenges, a more likely setup for a ridiculous “fish out of water” comedy than a logical—or even feasible—next step.
When I was born in Philadelphia in 1983, the obstetrician, concerned something was wrong because of how large my head was, measured my father’s head—he’d been known on the football team of his parochial Boston high school as the guy with the biggest head and smallest feet—and concluded I wasn’t deformed; I just came from big-headed people. This anxiety about my size resurfaced two years later when my pediatrician, concerned that my height, in the 99th percentile on growth charts, would make it difficult for me to find a partner later in life, recommended growth-stunting hormones.
When I turned 9, my father joined the State Department and we moved to East Asia, where I went from being tall to appearing, by local standards, gigantic. When I went shopping at night markets in Taipei and asked for shoes or pants in my size, shopkeepers laughed and shooed me away. In Beijing, groups of young men stopped in their tracks when I passed them and stared with bulging, horrified eyes and disbelieving grimaces.
My already through-the-roof body consciousness skyrocketed whenever this attention took on racial dimensions, as the ways I was seen and understood depended on the culture I was in and which parent was around. In my mother’s rural Taiwanese village, I was praised for my “Western” features of light skin and double-lidded eyes. Conversely, in the U.S., a friend often rolled her eyes when I tried to explain my mixed heritage, remarking that I looked “completely Asian” to her. This assessment reversed when she met my Boston Irish father and pronounced me “very white.”
I responded to this hyper-scrutiny by cultivating an aloof, detached indifference toward my surroundings and retreating inward. I got lost in books, craved foods that left me in a gauzy daze, and played endless computer games with my brother. Patrick and I were allies in this isolation but also worlds apart. Because he was only 4 when we arrived at our first overseas post in Okinawa, my parents chose to enroll Patrick in a local kindergarten, where he achieved Japanese fluency quickly. He remained in the Japanese education system during our postings in Taipei and Beijing, while I attended international schools taught in English and grew more and more detached from the outside world, as images being presented as “reality” increasingly had no relationship to anything I’d experienced before.
My first memory of driving into the gated diplomatic compound where I’d be spending the next five years is of passing a basketball court full of black teenagers. These were the sons of African diplomats, and their allegiances to one another followed the fault lines of ’90s American hip-hop, as they reclaimed its coastal divide as an expression of the side of Africa they belonged to. This sense of dislocation characterized my teenage years, as surreality became indistinguishable from daily life. In the winter, dust storms originating in the Gobi desert blew in and left every bicycle, building, and car covered in an inch of silt, making the city appear to be part of an archaeological excavation. One day, shortly after I’d flown kites in Tiananmen Square with my brother, CNN showed footage of Falun Gong members in the same place lighting themselves on fire. A girl I’d played basketball and discussed the virtues of mango lip gloss with was killed when a grenade was thrown into the church she attended after her family moved to Islamabad. NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade resulted in classes at my school being canceled for a week as streets bloomed with protestors waving swastika-emblazoned portraits of Clinton and Blair, and paint, rocks, and Molotovs hit the walls and windows of my father’s workplace at the U.S. Embassy. Shortly before the Olympic Committee came to town one spring, beggars were kicked out of the city and clouds were seeded by the Weather Bureau to induce rain and an ensuing “Blue Sky Day.” The dead trees outside my compound were spray-painted green and supplemented with plastic palm trees illuminated by green floodlights. Unable to comprehend or process these events, I perfected the impenetrable mask of a bright smile and focused on what I could control: grades and college applications.
I got into Brown University and moved back to the United States in the fall of 2001. My plans to major in public policy and pursue a career in the United Nations were hijacked when I took a playwriting course offered by the Africana Studies Department and fell in love with the structure for self-guided learning that writing each play required, and the stretches of solitude needed for crafting and reworking scenes. I moved to New York City after I graduated from college to do a summer internship in the literary department of the Public Theater, and gradually realized that work being created within the paradigm I’d trained in—where a playwright writes a script and gives it to a director, who then has four weeks to stage it with a group of actors who have never worked together before—left me numb and bored.
Exactly three out of the dozens of shows I saw that summer made me feel something besides despairing: The Last Caravan Stop, a six-hour production by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Paris-based company Théâtre du Sol, performed in a tent at Damrosch Park as part of the Lincoln Center Festival; Fathom, by the Montreal-based SaBooge Theatre, part of the Ice Factory Festival at the Ohio Theatre; and another Lincoln Center Festival presentation, two of Yukio Mishima’s Modern Noh Plays, directed by Yukio Ninagawa. Each show had a vibrantly distinct physical life that made me lean forward, entranced, and pay attention. In the Théâtre du Soleil piece, about the journeys of refugees, the characters were pushed around on dollies and never touched the floor. One Noh play was scored acoustically, with the pulse of plastic flowers falling from the ceiling to the stage floor throughout the show. And the SaBooge show, about a boy who could breathe underwater, was a feat of virtuosic physical acting.
There was a recurring phrase in the program notes of these three shows, in the artists’ bios. It was a term I hadn’t heard before: “physical theatre.” When I looked online for a definition, the first two hits were the Dell’Arte School in Blue Lake and the Lecoq School in Paris—international training centers for ensemble creation and physical theatre. Beyond not speaking French, the language Lecoq classes are taught in, living in Paris seemed to require a level of sophistication I didn’t feel I possessed. So I applied to Dell’Arte, received my acceptance a week later, and went, blissfully ignorant of the impending barrage of confrontation, criticism, and repetitive, alien-to-me movements that would make up the year.
The first 10 weeks of training revolved around the study of “Neutral Mask,” born out of the conviction that an actor must become aware of the unconscious physical mannerisms and tendencies she brings to the stage and achieve conscious control over them before progressing into the style units of commedia, melodrama, and clown. Ensemble work during this period focused on the creation of plays without words. Every Monday we received a new “provocation”—a performance assignment we worked on every evening in small groups and presented in “Performance Lab” on Friday afternoons, in front of classmates, faculty, and second-year MFA students. This was supplemented with a weekly schedule that included daily warmups and acrobatics training, tai chi, voice, tango, and Alexander technique. Up until this point my theatre training had been delivered through playwriting workshops in which 7 to 12 students and a working playwright sat around a table, read each other’s scripts, and discussed plot points and character arcs. If moving from this seated, office-like environment to performance lab assignments restricted to nonverbal sounds and the images created by the shape and movement of our bodies wasn’t enough of a culture shock, ensemble work at this early stage appeared to be a euphemism for “violent or passive-aggressive communication.”
I was praised precisely once during these 10 weeks: after a performance lab in which I played a woman at a mental hospital who did nothing but stand completely still and stare out a window at a distant mountain. For everything else—anything that required that I move, interact, or speak—I was demolished, scolded, and picked apart in front of the whole school. Words used to criticize my efforts included “heady,” “shut down,” “unfocused,” and “autopilot.” This experience of constant failure was new to me. At this point I’d been a formal student of some educational institution or other since the age of 2. It had been, with the exception of physical-education courses—where gym teachers wrote on my report card euphemisms like “great smile” and “team player”—a realm where I’d excelled. But my ability to break down academic projects into small, achievable steps was useless at a school where every course was a form of physical education.
I adapted to the constant scrutiny and the claustrophobia of training and rehearsing and socializing with the same 30 people week after week by carving out daily time away from Blue Lake. I rose at dawn to begin my days in solitude on one of Humboldt County’s dozens of remote beaches, where I could walk for hours without seeing another person. I rushed to my car at the end of each day’s classes, feeling less suffocated and more able to breathe the further I drove away from Blue Lake, to watch the sun set over rolling sand dunes or hike through redwood forest trails lined with the world’s tallest and oldest living trees. Beginning and ending my days in this epic natural space put the training in perspective and made the streams of criticism easier to stomach.
I also found respite from school and my roles as “classmate” and “student” by dating a string of local men who were, to me, thrillingly eccentric and exotic planets I could visit to forget myself and my failures, by immersing myself in their intoxicatingly alien world views. One, a professional BMX-er and marijuana grower of Polish extraction by way of Chicago, was a reggae-loving raw foodist and Kundalini yogi who taught me finger mudras and scowled when I used a microwave. Another, a ruddy Tennessee transplant who worked at local farms, breweries, and salmon hatcheries, played the musical saw, had bookshelves crammed with books on shamanism and energy healing, took me moss collecting and agate hunting, and swung from friendly to sullen when he ate sweets.
But the enchantment of Humboldt wasn’t enough to protect me from the abject confusion and despair I experienced in the five-week training unit that followed Neutral Mask: Commedia Dell’Arte.
Much of the work of commedia lies in learning how to serve the mask. This requires understanding a given mask’s unique geometric planes, exploring how small, articulated shifts in movement change what it’s communicating, and creating a complementary body and voice mask that amplifies what the face mask conveys. Later, after my training year finished, I would remain in Blue Lake for a three-week workshop that broke down, in ways my writer brain could understand, how to use solitary studio time to research, movement by movement, the emotions, ideas, and stories suggested by specific shapes, and how hours of on-your-feet exploration can support one’s ability to improvise and generate material. But I didn’t understand any of this during Commedia, and wasn’t aware of the solitary work others were doing alone in the studios at night with a mask and a mirror.
I was lost, and wanted to drop out and go “home.” But I didn’t have a place to retreat to. My life to that point had been a series of liminal spaces made of transient communities of expats or students. I never considered the one place I could have returned to, my parents’ home in Northern Virginia, because my brother Patrick had hung himself there a year and a half earlier. His first suicide attempt happened my freshman year, and the next two years were filled with hospitalizations at adolescent psychiatric wards, more suicide attempts, and waiting and bracing for what seemed like the inevitable. Patrick had been my fellow outsider, the only person who’d moved through the same worlds as me.
On the day that would have been his 19th birthday, I was kicked out of an Alexander technique class because I couldn’t sit up straight. I was late to all my classes that week because I couldn’t get out of bed. The sight of bathtubs with curtains drawn over them, closed closet doors, razors, and belts left me breathless and rocketing back to horrific visions. I wanted to leave, but had nowhere to go, and wasn’t ready to leave behind the enveloping quiet I found alone in old growth forests or on vast expanses of unpeopled shore. So I stayed, and continued training.
On the first day of my clown training at Dell’Arte, each student was asked to stand before the class and “be funny.” After every failure, which was assessed in a matter of seconds, the clown instructor hurled a tennis ball or rubber duck at the student, roared “not funny!” and sent the next terrified student to the stage.
In the theatrical clowning tradition, which is distinct from the archetypal birthday clown, the clown nose is seen as the smallest mask in the world. The red nose allows its wearer to inhabit the part of herself she keeps most hidden and reveal her “truest” self. It is by allowing this self to see light and be mocked that she becomes “funny.”
I never achieved this realm of “funny,” but I saw it happen. And the thing about struggling through shared obstacles with the same group of people for months, seeing everyone criticized and broken and lost and rebuilt in tiny increments, is that a little bit of each person’s experience becomes yours. And when they succeed—which in clown training could be just for a few gleaming seconds—you feel it, and it’s glorious.
Nothing epitomized my struggle at Dell’Arte more than my relationship with tai chi, which was taught twice a week and seemed to have been invented to torture me. In it I was stuck inside a series of interminably slow movements, a slave to constant thoughts about escape, lunch, and sleep. At some point near the end of a very rainy winter, at the height of my fantasies of abandoning school, I wrote eight words on a scrap of paper and tried to keep my mind trained on these words and my breath as I struggled through the form: “You are here. You are nowhere but here.” Just be here. Just do this one movement, then do the next one. Just get out of bed. Just walk to school. Just move. Everything moves.
I felt like a person in recovery, navigating time in 10-second increments. In May, after a master teacher at the school stood at a lectern and said, very simply, “It is a constant struggle to get out of bed every day and choose to be constructive,” I began to understand that the grief and despair I’d been struggling with might not be a finite period to navigate, like a ship weathering a storm, but a lifelong string of daily choices. As June rolled around and graduation was on the horizon, I was finding stretches of expansiveness and stillness within the tai chi form—slivers of moments in which I was okay just flowing through the form, just moving.
My year at Dell’Arte turned out to be a gateway to a new realm of existence: the capacity to feel joy, connection, and satisfaction through physical movement. It is hard to fathom the distance between the miserable 12-year-old in Taipei who pretended to be sick to avoid going to school on days the mile was being run in gym class, and the 29-year-old in Austin, where I moved after Dell’Arte, whose favorite part of the day was pre-dawn track workouts with her triathlon training group. Instead of being made miserable by exertion and repetitive movement, physical training and group movement classes are the first places I turn when I feel the familiar tentacles of depression luring me toward emotional paralysis. There is a passage in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that resonates with my experience at Dell’Arte:
When an extrovert learns to experience the world like an introvert, or vice versa, it is as if he or she discovered a whole missing dimension to the world. The same happens if a very feminine person learns to act in what we consider a masculine manner. Or if an objective, analytic person decides to trust intuition for a change. In all of these cases, a new realm of experience opens up in front of us, which means that in effect we double and then double again the content of life.
After spending my 20s supported by a string of fellowships, grants, residencies, writing prizes, and parental bailouts, and the first year of my 30s living in a camper van and small office rental with my dog and now-husband in the Humboldt County town of Arcata, I am working my first “day job” since I made sandwiches and pizzas in college more than 10 years ago, as an assistant professor of drama in the Department of Theater & Dance at the University of California–Santa Barbara, entrusted with the undergraduate playwriting concentration and the creation of an annual festival of original student work.
As a teacher and artist, I seek to synthesize the disparate theatre educations I received. Much of the work I have seen created by ensemble companies trained in the physical-theatre tradition is more kinetic, dynamic, and visually spectacular than work found in regional theatres, but is often weaker in character development and dramatic structures. It seems that the strength of each tradition is often the weakness of the other. But this binary is not inherent to the art form; rather, it’s one that’s been created and reproduced through the ghettoization of theatre training into discrete realms, with little opportunity for cross-pollination, despite lip service given to the idea of collaboration and interdisciplinary work.
On one of my last days as a student at Dell’Arte, Young-Zhu—the MFA candidate from Korea who’d coached me through handstands all year, catching my legs mid-attempt and pinning them to the wall until I developed enough core strength to maintain the position on my own—tapped on my shoulder and pointed to a distant bay tree.
“Frances,” he said in heavily accented English. “Be tree.” He bent his right arm at the elbow and made a perpendicular, thrusting motion toward the ground, demonstrating how grounded and rooted I should be. Young-Zhu had used this comparison before to demonstrate the simultaneous pushing into the ground, stretching toward the sky, and stable mid-section needed to maintain a handstand. The image of a tree had also been used by another instructor that year to describe the opposing yet equally necessary directions of artistic growth: the deep rooting into and grasping of forms and traditions, and the extension and growth toward
As I waited for Young-Zhu to elaborate, he adjusted the black bandana on his head and modified the metaphor. “Ah…instrument,” he began haltingly, searching for the right English translation of his words. “Tree…is…instrument. Yes? Spend first 30 years of life learning how to be instrument. Then, spend next 30 playing instrument for other people.” Young-Zhu nodded and pointed back to the tree. “Okay?”
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s most recent play, The World of Extreme Happiness, recently completed runs at the National Theatre, Goodman Theatre, and Manhattan Theatre Club. She is head of the playwriting concentration at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the Dramatists Guild.