A Passionate Love Affair
The audience quiets as the lights in the church sanctuary are doused. A luminous pale blue moon appears above the altar. A percussive rattling begins and a black-clad form bursts into the space. The blue moon becomes a searchlight. The dark form becomes a woman fleeing, her breath harsh, her words elemental, as she dashes along the darkened aisles clutching a bundle, a child perhaps. In an instant the woman disappears, the lighting shifts and the audience is greeted by another woman altogether. Lila, an actress, introduces herself, and begins a wildly comic monologue about packing for a trip to Malta and Sicily. As she speaks, items appear as if bymagic —two bottles of water, three hats, four bottles of shampoo, tea bags, an enormous stripedumbrella, a coffee maker, an electric fan —and disappear one by one into a huge duffel bag.
From these opening moments of writer, director, and performer Daena Giardella's latest one-woman performance, Opposites, the contradictions of life play themselves out as thesanctuary of the gray stone church is returned to its ancient roots, transformed into a theatre of pure improvisation, daring, lively, and enlivening. As the evening unfolds, the audience will beconducted on a journey through time and space, waking and dreaming, myth and memory, comedyand drama. They will meet a diverse cast of characters —including a mischievous child, a bawdyold woman, an angry goddess, a pontiff, a psychiatrist —all of them portrayed by Giardella in shimmering turns and lightning-quick transformations. There will be laughter, tears, excited shouts, questions, puzzles, mysteries, rituals, and what surely must be magic, in this recent expression of Giardella's "passionate love affair with the moment."
Something out of (almost) Nothing
Giardella's development and rehearsal process is quite different from the standard "memorize the lines and learn the blocking" approach. Instead of a written script, she brings to the studio the themes and dramatic issues that have emerged from her attention to her own life and the world around her. The work of building a performance from those themes is grounded in the physical, and always involves music, both live and recorded. "I begin on the floor," she says, "working with where I am in space, improvising with movement, with rhythm, with my relationship to gravity. This allows impulses to arise." As she describes it, the next steps aren't linear. "The whole thing is more like popping popcorn, I throw a lot of things into the pot, not knowing which kernel will explode, or when. I try out a lot of different plot lines, looking for a ontainer for the themes. I use everything: observations from my travels, bits of relationships,memories, dreams, current events, visual images, musical and rhythmic themes, physical and emotional impulses. I play with props and costumes. Characters emerge and a plot begins to percolate." When those characters are ready, they appear on stage —as vivid, unpredictable andtouching as our most intimate friends and relatives. Combining the intelligence of story, theimpulse of carnival, and the depth of myth-making, her performances have dealt with all of the timeless complexities of life: love, death, sex, grandma's spaghetti sauce, answering machines —often all at the same time.
The Importance of Audience
At other times the audience participation is more indirect, as Giardella reads auditory, visual and energetic cues —body language, breathing, laughs, attention, facial expressions, eye contact —and shifts her improvisational gears according to what is going on. Giardella cites her performances of Moment to Moment, which was presented in Israel and in the United States. In both places she dealt with living in Israel during the Gulf War. On one evening, her improvisation followed a satirical path, focusing on the ludicrous experience of taking shelter in "safe rooms" in which a thin sheet of plastic was supposed to provide protection from chemical warfare. On another, the material took on the form of a heartfelt investigation of the horrors of war as seen by an Israeli Holocaust survivor.
Giardella's artistry is such that unless people had been in the audience both nights, they wouldn't have known that most of the elements of the performance were being generated on the spot, in the spirit of contained abandon that is at the heart of her improvisational method.
The Richness of the Moment
This interest was intensified and deepened by the time she spent living, teaching and performing in Israel. "Living in Tel Aviv, in a different culture, in a place where people spoke English, but not as a first language, was a life-altering experience. Everyone had dramatic life stories, and many were passionately eager to tell them. There was no polite veneer, no reticence. Artists were very creative and daring, and the audiences sophisticated. In that environment, I also found myself working more with the universal language of movement and emotional imagery, relying less and less on the purely verbal." She lived in Israel during the Gulf War, a time of great pain and terror, and yet people kept coming to her theatre workshops throughout the war. Theatre was a matter of life and death, reflecting the passion for the present moment, the now, the point between a painful past and an uncertain future. "My performance, Moment to Moment, came directly from the experience of living in a war zone and then returning to the stressful urban warfare of life in the States."
Giardella's travels have taken her around the world to research her themes, and their historical and mythological implications. "I'm drawn to the extremes —deserts, mountains, forests, remote seacoasts and other places where people lived in ancient times." Opposites, her current presentation, had its origin in the Mediterranean. Standing at the top of an active volcano, Mt. Etna in Sicily, with glacial snows on one side and smoldering lava on the other, provided a living metaphor, as did the numerous goddess sites she visited on the island of Malta, many of them ancient temples located beside or under Catholic churches.
Learning to Practice, Practicing to Learn Although she has taught in traditional actor training programs in both colleges and conservatories, her current teaching, both in her ongoing weekly classes and her one-day and weekend workshops, is carried out in a broader context. "Daena's class is so much more than an acting class...It allowed me to see my potential to the fullest," says Paula Plum, a stage and screen actress. Giardella's students include writers, teachers, computer programmers, consultants, therapists, dancers, police officers, clerks, retail workers, engineers, even ex-nuns. "I see improvisation as going beyond theatrical technique. It is really the work of creativity, of communication, of the mysterious enterprise of being human" says Giardella.
Her classes are themselves improvisations, each one unique and irreplicable, fashioned from the contents of the moment when the class gathers in its opening circle. "I may have an idea of what I want to cover during a class —making choices, practicing listening skills, building on the ideas of others, creating believable characters, developing scenes —but this may change on the spot, from a thought someone has about what happened the week before, or from what we are handed by world events or even the weather."
After a short discussion and an explanation of how to work on the skills being focused on that day, each class session begins with a physical and vocal warm-up which Giardella considers crucial to the work. "As the body moves and the voice is released, the imagination is freed up as well." A variety of music is used, and as people move through the room Giardella stands by like a gifted athletic coach, encouraging people to find their own way to release stiffness and attend to their impulses. This is not a drill-instructor's aerobic workout; students at all levels of limberness and fitness find a way to work where they are. As the intensity increases, her students are asked to make it bigger, make it louder, to go beyond what is tasteful or proper or acceptable. And they do. "It is amazing what people are capable of when you give them permission to expand their limits."
As the session continues, students are directed to work in pairs or small groups simultaneously, exploring, doing simple exercises, improvising scenes. They may work on entrances and exits, meetings, leading and following, or any number of skills. During the last hour or so, the opportunity to go onstage and to create scenes witnessed by an audience of class members is available. Giardella describes her classes as a laboratory, a place to actively experiment. When she speaks it is not to lecture but to set up the improvisations, and, as they unfold, to provide dynamic and insightful suggestions that enable students to move through blocks and solve problems of plot and character. Her directions are invitations to expand awareness and the ability to make choices.
Yes to Everything The scenes themselves can be startling, ranging from a wordless athletic ballet of actors interacting with tables and chairs that has the student audience convulsed with laughter to a solemn, meditative take on the death of a child. Some are purely comic, others tragic, many an amalgamation of the two modes. They may involve movement, sound, speech, images and music. The most successful, no matter how simple or complex, involve a profoundly attentive listening and a willingness to collaborate among the participants.
"Daena teaches people to say 'yes', while staying true to their characters," says Melissa Wilbright, another of Giardella's students and a marketing manager at Hasbro. "Her improvisational theatre techniques are just as effective in the workplace as they are for actors or writers overcoming blocks in creativity and motivation." It is this ability to say "yes" that develops greater personal integrity, authenticity, and freedom, both onstage and off, Giardella believes. "There are so many voices in our society, and in our own psyches, that tell us to play it safe, to say 'no,' to crush our impulses. These 'Inner Critics,' can cut us off from the very sources of creativity and imagination that we, and our society, are so hungry for."
No one goes away hungry, either from Giardella's performances, or her classes, unless it is for more of the same: her intuitive, lively, engaging, amusing, provocative and highly passionate art of improvisation.