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What does Washington Iriving’s spooky classic Sleepy Hollow have to do with commedia dell’arte? According to Melissa Gabilanes, director of ReThink Theatrical’s re-imagining of this American folktale, a great deal.
When I sat down to speak with her about the process of devising this original work, she said, “I’ve never been in a writers’ room for television, but I don’t think it’s very dissimilar…” She went on to describe a process of collaboration, in which cast and production staff put their heads together to decide what makes sense for each character, what advances the story and--of course--what might be funny. She describes it as similar to commedia dell’arte, the ancient theatrical form originating in Italy, in which archetypical characters perform within an outlined story, using established comedic bits called lazzi.
Though Sleepy Hollow has a predetermined story, their script isn’t permanent, and relies on the intuition of their actors to progress and grow. Though this is a great opportunity for originality and authenticity, it can present unique challenges. For example, as Melissa explains: “We can’t have somebody be absent and just have a stage manager read their lines because how they would respond in the moment--and the things their character would be doing--is not set in stone.”
This means communication and documentation are key to the success of the project. When not all cast members are present, any epiphanies must be carefully noted and communicated to the relevant people.
Another unique set of challenges comes from the site-specific aspect of Sleepy Hollow, which is being staged at the East Jersey Old Town Village. Part of being good “house guests”, as Melissa puts it, to the village, means complying to their opening hours, and sharing the space with the public. It also requires considering how much space actors need, how much space their audience needs, and the accessibility of the spaces and pathways. “It’s not as simple as you have a house manager who can figure all of that out, we also have to figure out how our production molds itself to the space,” according to Melissa.
These challenges are nothing that an excellent team can’t handle, however. “We have a great cast who have proven to be very funny, very capable, and quick-thinking people,” Melissa reports. And, though the parts were created before casting, the ensemble has quickly bonded.
“Some of these pairings that may have seemed random at first have turned into actually some great partnerships between actors who seem to have found a lot of common ground,” Melissa says, “So they’re able to come up with ways of connecting with their characters and connecting with each-other that makes sense for the scene, perhaps more so than people who are trying to find a way to relate to characters who aren’t them.”
This comedic crew is well-equipped to handle the challenges of devising a site-specific re-telling of this familiar story.
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