Cate Brewer speaks with Matthew R. Wilson, who is nominated for The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical for Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s A Commedia Christmas Carol, based on the novel by Charles Dickens.
Cate: In your acceptance speech for the 2012 John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, you mentioned how surprised you were that your concept for a Commedia dell’Arte company took off with such force. As you find yourself nominated for the 2013 Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical, what are your thoughts?
Matt: I love the fact that we took a 500-year-old theatre form and applied it to a 200-year-old novel in order to create a brand new play. The paradox is beautiful, but what we are learning through Faction of Fools is that many of the old ideas are still great ideas. If we want to look for theatre that does something new—not the same proscenium naturalism that we’ve seen for the last two centuries—then we can take some inspiration from the kind of theatre that inspired people back in the Renaissance BEFORE the 4th wall was constructed and art was asked to slavishly imitate life at its most mundane.
Cate: In your mission statement, you talk about preserving the Renaissance style of Commedia, how do you accomplish that goal as a company and still find ways to keep the style fresh for yourselves and your audience?
We are not making museum pieces. We are exploring why Commedia changed the world and how it still speaks to us as human beings and artists. Commedia has always been about a strong collaboration between artists and a direct link with the audience. Our artists and our audiences are postmodern people, and, therefore, so is our Commedia!
When adapting a traditional story like A Christmas Carol for Faction of Fools, is there a certain process that you follow? How much liberty do you take in this process? How much of the work is improvised vs. scripted?
Each process is different. For A Commedia Christmas Carol I began with the novel and also with the opportunities and challenges created by working at Gallaudet. I knew that we wanted non-verbal forms of storytelling to be prominent, but I also knew that we also wanted wordplay. The different ghost vignettes gave an opportunity for different types of storytelling throughout. I knew that we wanted to respect Dickens’ characters as well as the Commedia archetypes and see how they could inform each other. And from there we all started to play. The work of the designers helped to sculpt the playground, and then the work of the actors kept finding new invention and fun. But for this project it was important to do justice to the novel through a script that could innovate with respect. Some places I borrowed directly from Dickens. Elsewhere I wrote my own Dickensian style. And some places are surprising contemporary intrusions.
Your company is now in residence at Gallaudet University. Can you talk a bit about that relationship and what it has meant for the company?
We have a great partnership with Gallaudet. Our residency there means training and internship opportunities (both performance and technical) for the excellent students in their theatre department. And it is exciting to see how many people who might not otherwise visit Gallaudet are coming and witnessing how important the school is to the neighborhood and the District. For us, the resources and technical support from the staff and faculty have allowed Faction to take our work to the next level design – and production-wise. But most excitingly, it has forced us all—students & professionals, hearing & deaf—to reconsider how we communicate and how we make art. Commedia thrived in the Renaissance because it could play across Europe to cross-cultural audiences and surmount linguistic barriers. We are finding the same thing with English & ASL and Hearing & Deaf culture in our partnership with Gallaudet.
What sparked your interest in Commedia? How are you able to use your love of the form to excite and educate an audience that might not be very familiar with Commedia?
I started doing Commedia just to acquire more tools for my acting tool box. I only wanted the physical training and comic sensibility. But I found a theatre style that is vibrant and beautiful and has really shaped my whole outlook on life and art.
In performance, it always looks like your actors are truly living in the moment and having fun! Are there different steps involved to accomplish this in a more stylized form like Commedia?
Part of the beautiful but deadly balance in Commedia is the balance between disciplined precision and chaotic improvisation. You have to live in the form a little bit before you can see it as freeing rather than constricting. Once you can rely on the structure, then you can play, and anything is possible. But it takes actors a long time and hours of sweat and frustration to arrive at that point.
It seems that Commedia dell’Arte involves so much physicality that your company relies on each other as an ensemble to a greater degree than some productions. How do you build ensemble within your company?
Ensemble requires training together and playing together and working together. I am touched by how many people who work with Faction of Fools will show up to hang lights or usher for a show that they are not appearing in. We want to keep training more and more in the future to really build a common vocabulary and skill set. Also, in addition to our mainstage shows, we have been able to participate in things like Fringe, Atlas INTERSECTIONS, community festivals, and our annual Commedia dell’Arte Day to build low-cost, low-tech ensemble shows that really are created and generated entirely by the performers involved. There is no better training that getting out there in front of an audience!
In the past year you have been working more with other area companies both in the capacity of director and actor. You also teach in the area. Can you talk a bit about how you are able to balance the myriad roles you play in DC theatre?
I worked with a Laban instructor who always used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” For me that is absolutely true. I thrive on the variety of getting to act, direct, teach, and choreograph. A lot of irons in the fire lets me eke out a living, and, for me, each job is like a break for the other jobs. Teaching inspires me and keeps me searching in my own work. And I’ve been lucky to get to work with other companies recently—like No Rules (where I am appearing in Black Comedy) or Constellation (with whom I just did Taking Steps) or Hub (for whom I am directing this summer’s Act a Lady). It’s stimulating to see how other companies work, and it is liberating to have someone else handle the admin and producing tasks for a change!
As Faction of Fools continues to get more acclaim, do what do you see for the company? What is your next step?
We’ve had some pretty significant staff changes recently, including my wife stepping down as Managing Director after 3.5 years of service for the company. So I think now we are really trying to figure out what our long-term plans are rather than just racing from show to show. This spring’s The Lady Becomes Him, devised & directed by Toby Mulford, will be our first major production that I have not been a part of. It’s exciting to see the company starting to walk on its own legs. And of course we are already planning for next season!
Is there anything else that you would like to tell the audience about Faction of Fools?
Congratulations to all of the nominees and to all of the artists who comprise the Washington theatre scene. We will all look forward to discovering who the winners are at the Helen Hayes Awards Ceremony on April 8, 2013 at The Warner Theatre.
Matthew R. Wilson’s website.