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Director Christopher Bayes and actor Steven Epp have been friends and collaborators since they met more than 20 years ago in the company at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. In the decades since, they have combined performing and teaching—Chris as the Head of Physical Acting at the Yale School of Drama, where he teaches clown and commedia dell’arte, and Steve as the co-Artistic Director at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for outstanding regional ensemble before it closed its doors in 2008. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Literary Associate Drew Lichtenberg interviewed the two recently—Chris from his house in Brooklyn, Steve at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where he had just finished performing in their new adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself. They discussed their love/hate relationship with Carlo Goldoni, their process of adapting The Servant of Two Masters, and the eternal games of the commedia dell’arte.
Drew Lichtenberg: When did you guys meet? I assume you have worked together for a long time.
Steven Epp: We started together working at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis.
Christopher Bayes: Yeah, 1984.
SE: I eventually became one of the artistic directors… Chris and I started at the same time, but he left and I didn’t. He abandoned me.
CB: Yes, I abandoned Steve…so he could become an artistic director. (Laughter)
SE: It was like a school. We would study all these root forms of theatre—clown, commedia, bouffon—but then apply them to make theatre for an audience today. I think that’s reminiscent of our Servant—we’re in masks, but we’re not trying to do some museum piece. It’s infused with a contemporary sensibility.
CB: Yeah, I first became interested in using commedia as a teaching technique. Nobody really does the hardcore commedia stuff in a traditional way anymore, which I think is a shame. If you do it right, it forces you to be alive in the moment. The ability to find the physical psychology of the mask, the playfulness and theatricality of the mask, is really useful for actors in terms of figuring out how to use their bodies to create character. The commedia is bawdy, earthy. It comes right out of the gutter. It has its own kind of poetry, but it’s the poetry of the downtrodden. It’s a political form.
SE: Yeah. It’s a very social form, whereas clown, for example, is more intimate, almost more private.
CB: Commedia has its own poetry, but it’s from the earth. Lots of hitting and bad words. The trick with commedia is that you have to give a nod to legacy, but at the same time be completely up to date and in the moment. Like, what happened on the news last night? What happened to Santorum yesterday? What happened on Wall Street? We source from the present day, but it’s part of a legacy that stretches back to the 17th century. There’s a lot of verbal wordplay in Goldoni, but it’s built on a kind of broad physicality that has always supported the language.
SE: Goldoni is challenging, because of what’s there and what’s not there. Servant is the best known of his plays, but his later ones are more Chekhovian, almost, much more naturalistic and polite. At the beginning, he was writing for actors in Venice who came up in commedia and were trained in physical improvisation. The text is thin in Goldoni, because he relied so heavily on the physical, on the stuff that’s not on the page, whereas Shakespeare is completely text. His line is completely packed.
CB: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Carlo Goldoni. The original version of The Servant of Two Masters is a commedia dell’arte scenario. The dialogue wasn’t written down. He gave it to this troupe of commedia actors and they played it for a while and he came back and saw it and thought that it was too vulgar or something. So he took the play back from the actors and wrote it out, and then gave it back to them with all the naughty bits cut out. We’ve put all the naughty bits back. (Laughs)
SE: It makes you wonder, what did we lose that those guys had come up with, you know?
CB: So we mostly took our adapter Connie [Congdon, whose article begins on page 8] aside and said, “Well, what does it say in the Italian?” How do we explode this and how can we find what the original game was? It was really an excavation, an archeological dig.
SE: It’s such an early play in his career, and it was so dominated by this company of actors. For the bulk of his career he was really veering in a direction away from the commedia to this other form that he was slowly finding—so to me there’s a license to be loose with the material, to really infuse it with the dynamic of the true commedia—the vulgarity, the down-and-dirty side of it, which is very topical and very immediate in feeling. You kind of have to approach it in the way those commedia troupes did, which is to write up a scenario and then just play, create. You have to go after that spirit. It feels fresh that way, charged, dangerous, improvisatory without necessarily being improvisatory. When you’re wearing a mask it’s got to be that way. You have to find a way to make your body communicate.
CB: Connie trusted us in a really wonderful way. We would say, “Oh, what about this moment here? Can we push it further?” And we would work together to find out how. She was really open in the room to discussion. But with the spirit of play that commedia demands, even Connie had to throw her hands up in the air at a certain point. She was like, “What, are you gonna say whatever the hell you want?” and Steve was like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna say!” That’s the way Steve rolls. You gotta go with it, man.
SE: Very often, the best stuff is found on your feet in the room. Sometimes, if you were just trying to write, by yourself on your computer in your room somewhere, it just doesn’t come. There are great and important plays that are written that way—but once you’re on your feet, and especially once you’re in front of the audience, everything changes.
CB: There’s this sense that you could go terribly wrong. It’s never a surefire thing. You should always feel that it could really tank really easily. Without that danger, it doesn’t have the same spirit. If it goes great, then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t go great, that’s where the work begins. That was horrible! Oh God, I’m never gonna say that again! But what if I try it this way tomorrow? Without the possibility of disaster, you’re never going to feel like you had a triumph.
DL: I think one of the things that’s so fascinating about this kind of comedy is that it’s tapping into something that’s really deep and mysterious and almost primeval.
SE: It’s very visceral for all the characters. Everybody wears their emotions on their sleeves. There’s no intellectualizing, no psychology.
CB: And that’s the beautiful thing—in commedia you can swing from one emotion to the other the way a toddler does. The characters will burst into tears at the slightest provocation and then they can completely forget that because they suddenly see someone they love or something they want. There’s no transition from one emotion to another, they just go there. Whatever the emotion is, they inhabit it fully.
SE: It has to feel true. Not true on a Death of a Salesman level or something. It’s true in a different way.
CB: It doesn’t really exist in a 21st-century realistic way. The mask demands such physicality and expressiveness that it gains this kind of elastic fluidity. It can be super violent one moment and then idiotically silly the next. And within a second. It’s a little bit like being in the room with a bunch of toddlers, that they have that kind of filter-less ability to play.
DL: Chris, do you like to be the toddler in chief, or are you the grown-up in the room?
CB: Oh, I hate to be that guy. I’m much happier if I’m throwing a turkey around.
SE: Chris is the one who always goes further, who’s pushing you to do the most lewd, outrageous thing. Once you think you’ve done it all, he has an idea of how you can do more.
CB: Yeah…and then we have to cut it.
SE: And then we cut it.
CB: But I like to see how far it can go, push it to the most unfortunate extreme, because there may be a sweet spot down the road. We will never know if we haven’t pushed it. So let’s play this game, and play it violently. Let’s play it sweetly. Let’s do this or that and see what it can take. Usually we end up cutting it, but there’s something to be had from the full, most ferocious kind of play. It has a residue, a logic, that stays. If we can keep it fun in the room, and the actors are having a good time, the audience is going to smell it. If there’s no pleasure of the actor at play, the audience doesn’t really fully understand what’s going on. They’re watching someone unload a UPS truck. Nobody wants to watch that. If what’s going on onstage is a chore, it doesn’t make any sense. So I try to encourage as much as I can a sort of freedom of play. Maybe we go too far and have to come back a bit, but without the possibility of that, you’d be watching something that feels like an antique, rather than something that is informed by the past and is pushing something into the present and in the future is going to have an effect.
I also love to find that place in the midst of the comedy where you can find the tragedy of the comic character. You know, when Truffaldino is lamenting about how hungry he is, it’s not like he’s a spoiled brat, he’s a man who is dying. His stomach is cramping because he hasn’t had anything to eat for three days, and he has to work for this idiotic master in order to get a sandwich, in order to stay alive. If you run with that idea, you’re going to find something really beautiful on the other side. It’s still within the comic world, you’re just finding the tragedy inside of it. And that can be gorgeous.
SE: It’s always beautiful when they sort of live right next to each other.
CB: Each time out is an adventure and a discovery. If it brings you back to something that you know, that’s fantastic. But if you’re not curious when you go on an adventure, you’ll never make any interesting discoveries.
DL: Was that a honking clown nose? Sorry, I thought I heard…
CB: I think that’s my wife calling. She wants to know where the car is.