Dell’Arte and the world of physical theatre have lost a legend. On Feb. 1, Joan Schirle passed away in her home, surrounded by friends and family. Joan was the founding artistic director of Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake, Calif.
She was a trailblazer in the field of ensemble physical theatre. As a woman in a field dominated by men, Joan fiercely overcame obstacles and continued to create phenomenal works that often centered the experiences of women, alongside amazing female collaborators. One such longtime collaborator is composer and musician Gina Leishman, who shared these thoughts about Joan:
One of the great women of the world, a favorite collaborator, and a dear friend. Of all the projects we worked on together, beginning with the Scar Tissue mysteries back in the late 1970s, I am most grateful to have made the workshop and concert performances of the opera Bird of the Inner Eye with her. We weren’t done, but we caught a glimpse of what it could be, and spending that month with her was a true gift. Stupidly long hours, as always, working against the odds and against the clock, but always time for a joke, a meal, a glass of wine or whisky, a walk by the river. She leaves a giant hole in the world, but also an extraordinary legacy.
Joan’s legacy continues on in the training at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. Her legacy also lives on in the numerous comedies she created alongside fellow Dell’Arte Players Company members Donald Forrest and Michael Fields. For decades the Dell’Arte Players Company created theatre of and for the rural community in which they live.
Former co-artistic director Donald Forrest said this of Joan:
Our company placed value on the ability to turn on a dime.
Once I dragged Joan to Monterey to fish my rocks. The damn aquarium had them all sequestered. So we trespassed onto the riprap jetty of the Coast Guard station. Joan pulled on waders (naturally) and kicked a few mussels. Rainbow perch the size of dinner plates rose to feed. Joan hooked one, then another into the bucket. “Dinner for the girls.” She giggled. Then, sober, “We may be in trouble.”
Two guardsmen hailed us from their HQ. I ignored them, and landed one of my own before the big guard reached us. “You two are violating United States Coast Guard property!”
I was poised to snarl.
”Hello, Sailor.” Hair down, glasses gone, Joan had transformed into a sultry dance hall pro.
“Ma’am, I’m a Seaman first class”.
“Yes, you are.” She stepped into his space.
“Ma’am, I…I’m going to ask you for those fish.”
Joan gave me a side eye and took another step into the youngster.
“You could ask for a lot more, sailor.” She backed him all the way up the cat walk. Rods in hand, I hustled past them to her double parked 68 Valiant. She swaggered to the driver’s side with all three fish in that bucket and the young seaman’s phone number in her hand…
on a damn dime.
And co-artistic director Michael Fields recalls:
Joan, Donald, and I had 40-plus years creating, touring, managing, and working together as an ensemble. Joan’s definition of ensemble was “a commitment to people, over time, with attention to craft.” At my mother’s burial, the Irish priest handed my father a cross. It was rough on one side and smooth on the other. The priest, with his lilt, explained that the two sides represent all of the good moments and at the same time all of the tough ones, side by side.
For anyone who has lived what I’ll call the “ensemble life,” you know what I mean. Joan once wrote about ensemble effort: “It is like a steelhead that swims upstream to spawn several times in a life, always against the current, hoping to leave something to the future.” There were many glorious moments, and the iconic characters Joan created are seared in my memory: Scar Tissue, Mary Jane, Dorothy Dugan, to name a few.
Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, who co-founded Dell’Arte, always said, “Your partner is your best partner.” Joan was more than that. She was the ultimate partner. She was a champion and mentor to women in the theatre, an incredible advocate for ensembles, and she cared deeply about the people at the heart of the work.
So many Joan stories but we’ll need a proper wake with whisky for those.
Dell’Arte International co-founder Jane Hill had this to say about Joan:
I first met Joan when she auditioned for my former husband Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and me as we founded Dell’Arte. We were casting for the Grand Comedy Festival at Qual-a-wa-loo, a summer festival we produced at College of the Redwoods. Joan had come to the woods of Humboldt County for a spiritual retreat, which included studying the art of Native American basket weaving.
As we soon learned, she could also weave theatre magic with her many talents as an actress, dancer, choreographer, singer, writer, musician, and teacher. But none of those skills could rival the deep friendship we formed in more than 40 years of involvement. She was my trusted confidante through a few divorces, career shifts, and the inevitable process of aging. In 1989, I bought a plot for myself in the Blue Lake historic cemetery, where I’ve held many of my birthday parties. Because the purchase of my plot entitled me to three additional cremains, Joan will be the first to be interred in the site. The plot is right next to Carlo, who will be glad to have her company. Prior to her passing I discussed with her how rude it is to depart before the hostess—we shared a wry laugh together.
In laughter we remember Joan’s comic zaniness, and in spirit we remember her artistic grace. The Player is gone, but the Play lives on.
Stephen Buescher is board co-chair of Dell’Arte International.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!