by Francesco De Salvatore
With sweat stains the size of Lake Michigan, I stumble out of my taxi in front of Accademia dell’Arte’s villa. As the driver yanks my luggage out of the trunk, I hear the duomo’s ancient bell signifying the setting of the sun. Raucous conversations fill the Tuscan countryside as families settle down for dinner. For three weeks I am here to learn a form of storytelling passed down from one jester to another. Using Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo, I will tap into a forgotten form of performance intertwining commedia and popular theatre techniques.
Luggage in one hand and mandolin in the other, I drag my jet-lagged self up the steps, expecting to find Dario Fo in the giardino. But there is no Dario Fo. The next day I learn of his absence as fifteen of us huddle together in the teatrino for the start of the workshop. After losing Franca Rame–his wife and collaborator of fifty years—he has no will to continue working. While we speak in hushed voices about our disappointment, outside, Michele Bottini–a professional Italian actor and instructor at the Paolo Grassi School in Milan– speaks to his assistant Giuseppe. I can make out a few words from his thick northern Italian accent:
“Now from what I understand there are a lot…I mean A LOT of Americans in that room. So….we’re gonna to have to stop being…you know, Italian for the next three weeks and actually follow a schedule.”
“So what’s the schedule?”
“Me? Mi scusi, I thought you knew!”
And with that said, Michele rolls in, hyped on who knows how many cups of espresso.
“Ah ha! I apologize that we’re a little late! Cigarette break. You know how it goes! Allora. Benvenuti a Italia.”
Michele is a small man with dusty gray hair, and there is nothing too distinct about his physique. But his eyes are filled with a pulsating energy that could only be induced by cocaine or some form of joy I have yet to tap into. It is difficult not to laugh whenever he smiles because he looks like a harlequin. Giuseppe stands patiently in the back observing his energetic teacher. Occasionally, a smile breaks through his stoic visage, but his calm eyes are transfixed on Michele.
“Now we’re here to work on Mistero Buffo. It’s a collection of Gnostic stories. The direct English translation is the Comical Mysteries. They’re funny, no doubt. But they’re much more than that. These are stories that people understand because they see themselves in them.”
Giuseppe cuts in:
“But remember, they’re also damn funny!”
Michele explains that we won’t use our native language because we need to invent our own. He is referring to grammlot, a collection of rhythmic sounds that allude to a language, but do not contain any real words. 16th century commedia actors used grammlot in order to be understood by foreign audiences.
Michele, sensing our confusion about grammlot, begins to perform a story by Dario Fo. The second his left arm shoots in the air, English-sounding utterances roll out of his mouth. His body morphs into different shapes as he reveals the corruption of an English lawyer. Sweaty and taking deep breaths, Michele finally reaches the end of what seems more like a workout than a performance.
“You see! That’s kind of what we’ll be doing for the next three weeks. No big deal, right? We’re doing popular theatre! So no more black box theaters or fancy chairs! We want brick squares, grassy fields! The one rule is that YOU bring the story to the people.”
Michele then assigns everyone a story. I am given The Birth of the Jongleur, which is about a poor peasant turned into a storyteller by a kiss from Jesus Christ. For ten days we spend ten hours with Michele and Giuseppe and then we’re given studio time to further work on our stories. Later in the week while I am performing for Michele, he abruptly stops and guides me to a window.
“No..No..No! Look! You see all that. Imagine this is what the man saw everyday of his life. Show us this!”
At this point I am frustrated with the entire situation. I spend an hour with Giuseppe learning how to eat imaginary food. Attempting to take this exercise seriously, I slowly pretend I’m peeling an orange.
“Mah no! Ceco, that’s not it. You look like you’re peeling a bowling ball. Come on, you know how to do it.”
I try again and again and again and again….and then finally:
“Ah ha! That’s it!”
From there we begin to create the rest of the story. After the peasant drunkenly stumbles around in the woods he encounters a mountain. I puff my chest out and my fingers become the pointy peaks, while my face is a sight of disgust as I catch a whiff of the volcanic mountain. But then I feel the joy of someone who has found freedom. This mountain is the peasant’s orchard of dreams and soon he brings his family and turns the fruitless soil into sweet nectar for his harvest. My hands make the winding branches of the trees and my fists turn into juicy pears. At one point my lips become the lips of my wife, and then my children. My Italian grammlot echoes my wife’s emotions as she is being raped by the cruel landowner. Meanwhile, my clenched fists and pulsating veins display the hopelessness of the peasant as his livelihood shrivels up in the flames engulfing his beautiful mountain.
My body becomes a story of success, and then tragedy. With my hands in the air holding a rope, I slowly begin to step off an imaginary chair. But then I am stopped. I turn my head and I morph into a hunchbacked old man, who turns out to be Jesus Christ. Jesus’ hands are pressed against my cheeks as he slowly plants a loving kiss on the poor peasant’s lips. Soon following the kiss, my body shakes and my eyes roll back into my head as I transform into something new. I return to where I am and I stare out– not as the peasant or Jesus Christ– but as a storyteller.
This story reflects my own transformation after the end of my stay in Arezzo. Two weeks later, after I have gone from a bumbling performer to a storyteller, I race across a field of dandelions, calling to the people of Arezzo. Together we sing a song that Giuseppe taught us:
“Come in harmony, young beautiful people. If only for a second, at least we all held a tune together.”
As my friends mark their places in which they will tell their story, people gather around me and I yell out into the cool Tuscan air.
“Come my people. Come! I have a story to tell you!”
For centuries these stories have trickled down into the minds and bodies of jesters from town squares all across Italy. Rarely have I ever shared something that is so tied to the past and yet, still understood in the present. When I finish my story, I look at everyone and I feel a harmonious connection. I find a sense of home in this ancient paradise.
While I watch someone else perform, Michele comes from behind and places his arm around my shoulder. In this moment he looks peaceful and his eyes are finally at ease. The familiar sound of the duomo’s bell blends in with the audience’s laughter. The hot sun is finally dying down and a cool breeze begins to shift the restless trees. While the audience soaks up the story, Michele nudges me and whispers in my ear:
“You see, this IS popular theatre. Tonight we’ll go to bed and then we’ll all be gone in the morning. And all of this will be over….. But remember these stories don’t end. Take them with you and tell others. That would make Dario happy. I know it would.”