Dell’Arte International

This is an artform from five-hundred years ago in Italy. How is that relevant now? It’s relevant because we can create on stage, without the permission of television networks or movie studios. We can create stories that reflect the concerns, the desires and the pain of our audiences. We can reach out, without permission to tell stories we would not be able to tell in the major media. The theater is absolutely vital to the survival of free expression in America.

           – Tim Robbins, accepting Dell’Arte’s 2009 Prize of Hope

The small town of Blue Lake, California is the homebase of the Dell’Arte International–a theatre company with a vision all to itself. Approaching its fortieth anniversay, Dell’Arte are “a committed community of artists who model and share in a sustained ensemble artistic practice,” with a mission that is “international in scope, grounded in the natural living world [and] inspired by [their] non-urban setting.” From that imperative, they both honor the commedia dell’arte tradition and renovate it for contemporary use, presenting a touring company, acting workshops and youth programs, as well as an impressive series of outreach projects in the surrounding community.
Though they offer a regular schedule of performances, their principles converge in dramatic fashion every summer during the Mad River Festival. Each year the local community is joined by theatre fans from around the globe, as Dell’Arte performs their work alongside troupes from a number of other countries. This year Klinke, a contemporary circus show from Italy, as well as Los Payasos Mendigos, will perform–though a visit to their site will reveal many more performances and events than a single paragraph here could condense.
The Festival will also highlight Blue Lake: The Opera, a piece conceived by Dell’Arte to celebrate the Blue Lake’s centennial:

On the 100th aniversary of the founding of Blue Lake, Dell’Arte takes us back to the wild days of Blue Lake’s birth in 1910. Hogs in the streets, rowdy logging camps, mysterious Odd Fellows, gunfights, fires, housewives and socialists–and three tired schoolteachers in charge of 190 students–how could love possibly survive in a place like this? But it did, even when the great fire of 1911 tragically and spectacularly took down the Odd Fellows Hall…

And so… we open the 20th Mad River Festival with Blue Lake: The Opera. Nearly every word will be sung in this story based on actual events–both lurid and lyrical–in the early life of Blue Lake. A ribald blending of styles and influences, as quirky as Blue Lake itself, mixing the earthy sounds of folk music with the full-throated coloratura of classical opera, and featuring some of the finest singers in Humboldt County, alongside sheep, chickens, pigs and a milk cow.

What was spawned 100 years ago has hatched into the “peaceable hamlet” we know and love today. The machine guns may be gone from city hall, the gambling palace has a new hotel, the sewer system is still working–but what new visions await us in the next 100 years, that we seed today? As Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge…”

Though there hasn’t been much video or photo stills released yet in conjunction with this project, Tim Gray, the opera’s musical director, has made available streaming demos of the songs as well as pdfs of the sheet music, so you can learn “The Woodsmen’s Chorus” or “The Bear’s Lament” before attending the show.
For further investigation, included below is a video compilation of the various facets of Dell’Arte International: