The first two months after graduating from college, I frantically prepared for one of the biggest and scariest decisions I’d ever made in my life: pack up everything, travel over the Atlantic Ocean, and study in Europe for two and a half years. I had been accepted into an MFA program for Physical Theatre which travels through Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I’d never been outside the USA before this point, and though I had my doubts and fears, I figured that I would be crazy to pass up an opportunity like this.
What is Physical Theatre? It’s a type of theatre that focuses on character and story told through movement and voice rather than solely text and stage effects. Physical Theatre is beginning to rise in America, however it has been prominent in Europe for centuries, which is why Physical Theatre is often synonymous with European Theatre. By studying in Europe, I’d be experiencing the craft directly in the heart of this exciting and rigorous type of performance, starting with Italy.
Upon arriving in the small medieval town of Arezzo, after a grueling ten hour flight, four hour train and a thirty-minute tram ride, the beauty of the Tuscan sun was enough to make me feel welcomed in unknown territory. The beauty alone made me feel safe – and coupled with the food, wine, and music, I was very excited to spend two years in my little Tuscan city.
The conservatory-based Physical Theatre program consisted of five semesters in Italy, one in Berlin, and one just outside of Prague, all focused on theatre, voice, and movement with professionals around the world. The classes were taught in English mostly, but we were pushed to learn Italian since we’d be living in Italy for two years. The vocal professors consistently had us singing and speaking in different languages as well as speaking in gibberish, forcing us to not rely on words, using only our voices to communicate on stage. With our movement classes, we trained in dance and circus arts, strengthening and expanding our physical possibilities on stage and exploring the body’s role in theatre.
Through the program, I also trained in Commedia dell’Arte, a medieval form of masked theatre. Commedia is a comedic type of theatre which parodies societal norms through stock character types. Though Commedia pieces are structured improvisations, the many scripted pieces called canovacci, influenced many famous playwrights and actors including Moliere and Shakespeare. Commedia dell’Arte is classified as Physical Theatre due to its focus on its stock character physicalities, use of masks, improvisation and unique story telling.
Every Italian city has a focus in a different art form–poetry, visual art, sculpture, theatre or dance–and these artists openly want to involve passersby every chance they get. Italy has a rich and long history in physical theatre, that inspired almost ALL theatre we learn and see today. Also, on top of learning so much from the country and its people, I got the rare opportunity to perform for a culture I knew very little about, whether it was in a small theatre, a studio space, or on the street. I performed a clown piece for a random Italian audience which consisted of non-English speakers and a dog, who pretty much became the star of the show. I even got to dress up in a morphsuit-and with my best friend- create a hilarious comedic thesis performance which I’m not only proud of, but a piece I want to bring to America and produce in theatres around the US.
MFA programs in Physical Theatre are few and far between and no other program travels through multiple European countries to give students hand-on experience with the origin of their art. I cannot imagine what my life would like right now if I didn’t make the difficult choice to leave America for a completely new and foreign adventure. I am so glad I allowed myself to challenge what I already knew, and throughout the duration of the program, I was able to experiment and mix up my theatrical experiences like a chemist in a lab to make new work I can be proud of and want to produce in the future. I couldn’t imagine training in this kind of theatre anywhere else but in the heart of the country that has influenced artists for millennia. For any and all artists out there reading this, I highly recommend taking the jump over the Atlantic to experience one of the most beautiful, cultural, and inspiring places on Earth, Italy.