Dell’ Arte Orleans Style

Ruby King, a second grader from Orleans Elementary School, practices an acrobatic routine called the King’s Throne with actor-teacher Alex Corby in his distinctive, oversize red derby. Ruby was impressed that Alex could juggle knives./Photos by Malcolm Terence, TRT Contributing Writer


By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

ORLEANS—The actors who came here last week knew well the secrets to engage local school kids:

break a few school rules about rude language.

if a joke has a good punch line, use it over and over.

never run anywhere without falling down.

get the kids into the act.

The actor-teachers visiting Orleans Elementary were actually students themselves from the Dell’Arte School of Physical Comedy in Blue Lake and the week-long visit was the Dell’Arte equivalent of their final exam.

Every day the actors ran workshops for each grade level. In one grouping, the students were corralled into a giant circle to play quick word games designed to overcome inhibitions. Anyone who’s visited the Orleans School knows the kids there, or the kids from Junction School, who joined in, don’t have many inhibitions to overcome but a few of them had short outbreaks of stage fright that didn’t last long.

Other workshops taught acrobatics and a big favorite was a free-for-all where groups of kids, a half-dozen at a time, would have a few seconds to run underneath a giant parachute held aloft, perform tricks like somersaults and cartwheels or just run through screaming like crazy and waving their arms. The biggest challenge was to get done and out before the parachute settled back down to the ground.

Shelly Slusser, teacher of grades 3-5 and a 30-year veteran at Orleans School, said the students learned that if something is intimidating they could still try it and master it.

“Anytime you give kids confidence with their bodies,” Slusser said, “it gives confidence to their minds. It shows them they can take on challenges, just like they did with Dell’Arte.”

The kids were the proof of Slusser’s theory. At one Monday morning workshop a sixth grader named Marina Cosce got momentary stage fright in one of the word exercises and her teacher Kim Hyde talked her through it.

Fast forward to the performance event two days later. Marina was astride a tall pair of stilts and moving around like a seasoned pro.

Hyde said the Dell’Arte troupes had come to Orleans at least twice before in years past but this team had incorporated the students in the performance more than ever before.

Ruby King, a second grader, said she already knew how to do a hand stand, a somersault and a wheel-barrow. But she learned a two-person balancing trick called King’s Throne and pointed at the Dell’Arte student-teacher who had helped her. She pointed at a man in a bright red, oversized derby and confided, “He can juggle knives. It’s hard to juggle knives.”

The knife juggler in the derby was Alex Corby, a student in Dell’Arte’s 900-hour Professional Training Program (PTP). He captured the students attention instantly, without tossing a single blade, and they streamed off the bleachers when he said it was time to form a giant circle and do Performance Day warm-ups.

Corby comes from a small circus in the Bay Area that travels internationally and said he was trying decide whether to stay another two years for Dell’Arte’s Master of Fine Arts sequence.

Dell’Arte started summer workshops in 1971 and opened its school a few years later. Joan Schirle, one of the founders, said the students have moved on to teach at universities, started their own companies, worked for big-name troupes like Cirque Soleil and even with an outfit called Clowns Without Borders.

Schirle is also the star of the next big Dell’Arte production, Mary Jane: The Musical, an examination of Humboldt County’s most famous cash crop. The performances are scheduled over two four-day weekends, June 23-26 and June 30-July3. Tickets are available at 707-668-5663, ext. 5, or online at


She had come out to Orleans for performance day, a kind of final exam for her PTP gang. There was also a big turnout of River town locals, mostly parents.

The Dell’Arte troupe and their boisterous students began with a noisy parade, including stilt walkers, around the school grounds and then the adult actors staged a play.

It had the trappings of old Italian Commedia with many of the actors in the traditional big-nosed masks. It was ostensibly a love story. The beautiful heroine was referred to as “a pretty woman (pause) with a big butt.” The crowd, not just the kids, broke up in laughter but the heroine attacked her critic with theatrical fury.

The plot thickened with love potion and a few pratfalls and the actor playing the hapless sidekick again called her “a pretty woman (pause) with a big butt.” (Note Secret A. and Secret B., a little Secret C.) More applause and another pummeling by the heroine.

The next sketch involved a crowd of actors in a pup tent, reminiscent of the old-school crowd of clowns in a Volkswagen. The plot revolved around one actor farting in the tent. If you tried this in fourth grade, it’d guarantee a visit to the principal’s office, but in the name of theater it got a big laugh. Even the second time. And the third. (See secrets A. and B.)

Finally they began the finale and the kids joined the act (Secret D.) If any had shown shyness in the earlier workshops, it was evaporated by now. They did acrobatics, sang, piled in to elaborate pyramids. The parachute was unfurled and the kids raced under it with cartwheels, somersaults and just plain running crazy, waving arms and squealing.

At the end, parents and kids all left smiling. Alex Corby, still in the red derby, paused with his bundle of juggling knives under his arm, and shook his head. Someone asked him if urban kids were different from students from Somes Bar and Orleans.

He nodded and said, “Kids here seem more open to interpersonal contact than in the Bay Area. Oh, and you don’t need to remind kids here to shut off their cell phones.”

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