Adam Paolozza explains Italian Mime Suicide

Adam Paolozza and theatre ensemble Bad New Days are coming back to Toronto with the provocative genre-bending piece ITALIAN MIME SUICIDE at The Theatre Centre (Franco Boni Theatre) beginning April 21 to May 1 (opening night April 23).

Inspired by a 2003 newspaper headline, “Italian mime jumps off building claiming no one appreciates his art,” a short version of ITALIAN MIME SUICIDE was initially performed as part of a double-bill in 2016. This new, full-length production is an exciting work of (mostly) silent theatre that sensitively explores levity within tragedy. With an aesthetic reminiscent of the kitsch iconography of clowns, mimes and world-weary circus acrobats, ITALIAN MIME SUICIDE is a funny, poetic meditation on melancholy, the acceptance of failure and the usefulness of art in troubled times.

To find out more I asked Adam some questions.

poster image by Omar David Rivero

As we return from the land of Zoom rather than actual theatres, what has your life been like through the past 2 years?

I’ve kept as busy as I could. I was lucky enough to teach some theatre courses at Brock University during the first half of the pandemic. I travelled to Estonia in September 2021 to perform in a puppet show with Viktor Lukawski’s Zou Theatre. This past November we toured Italian Mime Suicide to Montreal at Théâtre Aux Écuries, just before omicron hit.

But, other than that it’s been an existential pause.

When the general anxiety about the world quieted down enough I was able to find some focus and grounding. I’ve reflected on what’s most important to me in the work going forward. And now, being able to finally share work again, I’ve got a new focus and a new energy. I’m also incredibly rusty and nervous, as if things were brand new again. So, as with everything in the pandemic, it’s a see-saw of emotions!

I read that the title for Italian Mime Suicide was inspired by a headline that said “Italian mime jumps off building claiming no one appreciates his art””. Could you speak to the way that story seems to capture the present culture of disruption?

There is a line in the show that says that the arts are “Perennially in decline, but it’s a long, slow merry death”. In a way, the show is an homage to the arts and to artists who continue to create, in spite of difficult circumstances. The show asks why we continue to make art; Why now? Does it matter? Since the pandemic started, this theme seems even more pertinent now than it did in 2016 when we first presented Italian Mime Suicide. We try to affirm that there is dignity in small, creative gestures, that these creative acts are significant and do have meaning. This is a nice thing to remember as the theatre in Toronto tries to start up again.

More than just about the arts and artists, the show is also about empathy and community. It empathizes with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feelings that so many are struggling with these days after two years of COVID. It shows how community can act as a balm to these feelings, holding space for us to laugh and cry. And our friends, though they can’t solve our problems, can support us to feel more fully, standing by us and bearing witness to our struggles. Their support can lighten the load, and as the mime says at the end of the show: “Sometimes even the heaviest things require lightness.”

The title suggests that this piece engages with death….. The pandemic forced many of us to confront mortality and death. Did you have any near-brushes with COVID and death?

Many of my close friends have caught it, some are struggling with long COVID, so that’s been stressful, but I’ve been extremely lucky that no one too close to me has passed away due to COVID.

A modern audience may assume that a mime is always a comic figure. Do we really understand mimes and what do we need to know?

Let me start off by saying that I love the art of mime, but I’m also aware that there is a certain “cringe” factor when we think of mimes. At least when we think of the cliché white faced mime, like sad Pierrot or Marcel Marceau. There’s something almost too precious about mime, it gets dismissed as a “minor” form, something for children or for corporate Christmas parties. We don’t take it as seriously as other forms.

But I think mimesis as an anthropological phenomenon is much deeper and more beautiful than that. Mimesis is the foundation of all representational arts. Even from the time when we’re babies it’s a fundamental way that we learn: we mime the world around us, bringing it inside our bodies to know it better. In this way, mimesis is deeply human and profoundly empathetic.

So, there’s this tension in mime between the kitsch and the beautiful and the show consciously engages with this theme. The emotional journey of the show evokes this back and forth between the tragic and the comic modes of experiencing life, exploring the journey between lightness and heaviness.

Usually in modern theatre
a) one begins with a script with characters (Romeo, Juliet, parents etc): then seek people who can play the parts.
b) In the old Commedia dell‘Arte it was the reverse, where you start with your company of players, and built the scenario from an inventory of people, skills, lazzi, songs, body-shapes, voices.

So…. in 2022 as you do your show: are you closer to A or B?

My practice is very inspired by commedia dell’arte, especially in the way that I organize Bad New Days and the creative process. So, in that sense, yes, a little closer to column B. I tend to start with a theme and fellow artists that I want to work with. Then we get into the room together and start playing, improvising and devising the piece. I try to create space for the artists I work with to bring a little of themselves into the roles they create. Italian Mime Suicide was originally created like this. This time it’s a little different, as this production is a remount. We have some of the original creative team returning, artists who I know really well, as well as some exciting new performers and designers. But even in this case, we try to look for ways that the new performers can adapt things to their bodies and their sense of humour. The show continues to evolve and we make room for this in the process.

Are their any classic lazzi (stock comedic routines associated with Commedia dell’arte) in the show?

The style of the show is more inspired by mime and clown than commedia dell’arte. But there is some classic physical comedy. Pratfalls are important in the show, for example, evoking the theme of “falling” and the loss of dignity that entails. But no “classic” commedia lazzi from the existing canon.

We do, however, use the concept of lazzi in a more structural sense. In commedia the ‘lazzo’ temporarily interrupts the dramatic action to produce a comedic effect. We use similar dramaturgical strategies of interruption, exploring the contrast of quick rhythmic and tonal shifts.

This is a bigger version of a show you did before in a double bill. Is any of this larger version also a continuation of subjects / themes you have contemplated in earlier works? I saw mention of the word “melancholy “ in a press release. Your Scott Walker show was titled “Melancholiac”. Please give me an idea of how melancholy fits into your aesthetic, your understanding of life & art.

As an aquarius, I’ve always been prone to philosophical introspection but it was Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melancholia that first introduced the word to me when I was young. And then in my twenties I read a book by Susan Sontag called Under The Sign Of Saturn that introduced me to many artists, like Walter Benjamin and Antonin Artaud, who engage with melancholy in a more philosophical or poetic way.

But I’ve always been into darker things – the gothic, the uncanny, the grotesque. I think melancholy falls into that area of my taste. And I have explored it before in works like Melancholiac, that you mentioned, and also in another piece called Empire of Night. But I like to balance it with humour. The best comedy rests on a deep well of sadness. I think that kind of contrast heightens the effect of each. This show really plays on that contrast.

Adam singing Melancholiac, December 2019

Does your show involve any audience participation, at least as far as our applause or laughter possibly changing the shape of the show on different nights? If we are silent in awe could that be the right response, or do you prefer something more unruly in our audience behaviour?

There is some room to react to the audience’s changing energy but we don’t change things based on their reaction. I personally prefer a more boisterous audience, and this show is a comedy so I hope people laugh! But there are also quieter, more contemplative moments when silence might feel right. All responses are welcome and I leave it up to the audience to decide how they want to react.

I find your shows always seems to begin from first principles. I wonder: is the dynamic different, when the audience rather than the commedia clowns are the ones in masks?

Hahaha, good question! When we did the show in Montreal last Fall the audience was masked and it didn’t really affect things, other than us not being able to see their lovely faces. If anything, we felt the audience trying harder to connect to us.

Do you do anything with masks in the show, and if so, has your understanding of theatrical masks changed (given the pandemic, and the possible resonance to past periods of masking & epidemic)?

This show doesn’t have any theatrical masks in it. But we’ve been rehearsing in COVID masks to be as safe as possible. That makes a big difference, and when we take the masks off for a run through you really notice how much you’ve missed the expressivity of the whole face.

I haven’t been able to teach with theatre masks, either, as it isn’t sanitary. That’s been a shame for the students as they’re missing out on that training. And the COVID mask, though necessary, is not expressive. So, if anything I’m just reminded how much I miss the human face.

Yes I miss live theatre. But I feel I’m out of practice. It could be me? But when I go to a show or a concert I’m unsure, not confident that I am reacting right. Is there even a social consensus when we’re all alienated from gatherings and community, living in our little boxes under masks? the wrong ways, or things don’t work the way they used to work. It could be me, but I have this sense that everyone is alien, distant, a bit out of practice. Does it change things for artists if we—the audience– are rusty, and haven’t yet found our groove?

That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of social activities feel strange and alienating these days. When we were in Montreal this past Fall the audience response was extremely warm. They seemed so happy and thankful to be in a theatre again. So, the rustiness that you speak of was eclipsed by the energy and desire of the audience to connect to us. It felt like seeing an old friend after a long time and picking up where you left off. I hope we have a similar response here in Toronto. We certainly have missed our audience!

Right now the whole world is in a confused place, needing to remember our relationship to theatre and theatre art. Did that Italian mime think of his death as a work of art?

I don’t personally think there’s anything artistic about suicide. I’m not sure what that poor man thought about his death, and the show doesn’t try to answer that question by representing his life in a literal, biographical way. We engage with the word suicide in more of a metaphorical sense. The show is less about the death of a particular mime, and more so about the death of mime as an art form, and furthermore the decline of live theatre in general, especially in the neoliberal capitalist culture. But, I do think the show tries to hold space and empathize with the kind of feelings of loneliness and isolation that the Italian mime must have felt. I think after two years of COVID, a lot of us can identify with those feelings, even if we don’t feel pushed to such a desperate act as the mime. Hopefully, the experience of gathering together in the ephemeral community that theatre creates offers some form of catharsis, as art can do at the best of times. By contemplating death we try to affirm the fleeting beauty of life.

~~~~~~

WHAT: Bad New Days presents ITALIAN MIME SUICIDE
WHEN: April 21 to May 1 (opening night April 23), Tuesday – Sat 8pm; Sat-Sun 3pm
WHERE: The Theatre Centre (Franco Boni Theatre) 1115 Queen St W, Toronto
TICKETS: Pay What You Can Afford, www.theatrecentre.org
WEBSITE: www.badnewdays.com

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