The MAMAs Column 5

The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art celebrates the Mother+Artist. The MAMAs Column is dedicated to sharing the stories of all things Mother*+Artist — personal and universal, integral and peripheral, iterative and ongoing, purposeful and playful. May you find yourself here. Welcome!

By Catherine Mueller

*Statement of inclusion at end of page.

Monkey and MeowMeow, in the beloved park truck, Brooklyn, 2019

What are these? Commedia dell’Arte, I replied.

As of this writing, my son is almost 5 years old, and he really enjoys running. We like to play a game we call Kissy Tiger, a consensual game of affectionate pursuit, wherein I pretend to be a tiger chasing him, and when I catch him, which is rare, I give him loud kisses on the top of his head. There is also a Huggy Tiger version of this game.

Yesterday, my son asked to play Kissy Tiger. This was after several rounds of Being a Witch, hunting for him loosely hidden under bushes or behind our mailbox, pursuing him while riding a very small broom. I was tired and declined Kissy Tiger, opting to sit for a moment in a chair and look at the sky. Undeterred, my son then proclaimed that he would run very slowly, and he gave a delighted demonstration of this feat. His little feet made rhythmic little steps, his shoulders hunched slightly to indicate slowness, his face turned over one shoulder towards me, to make sure I was noticing, and he slowly but animatedly traveled across the patio. Pantalone! I exclaimed. You are being a perfect Pantalone!

What is it to inhabit a body, and to let that body’s particular shape, length, locomotion, energy, propel you through the world? Is this not akin to Early Childhood? Aren’t all people ages 0-5 doing just this, without censor, edit or commentary?

I leapt from my chair with the forgotten energy of art and inhabited this ancient comedic form alongside him: the crooked body of the miserly elder, scooting along but not really getting anywhere, rubbing his fingertips together, licking his lips and muttering on about lunch money. We Pantalone’d all the way to the front yard, where I then switched to Harlequino, the servant, explaining how he stuck his torso forward at a flat tilt from the hips, his arms dangling, his nose smelling distant food just out of reach, his confusion easily activated. After we took the secret passageway around the other side of the house, I located Smeraldina in my thrusting chest and bent knees, raising my voice into shrill proclamations of disappointment and need. My son was impressed.

What are these?

Commedia dell’Arte, I replied.

He asked me if these people were real. I said yes. He asked if I knew them. I said, Long ago, but it has been some time.

Later, in the bath, he made a long white beard of bubbles for his chin, put a bubble beard on his head and said Mommy, I’m Pantalone, and began muttering like a 5 year old’s version of an old man. I felt accomplished.

An image of Pantalone, from The Italian Comedy, by Pierre Louis Duchartre

If you are a physical theater practitioner who dares to dwell in the comic realm, the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte are surely familiar. You understand the power of these physical and vocal articulations, liberating in their precision, their base needs prescribed by old, repeated narratives, their quest for sustenance consuming, their presence inescapable in theatrical performance.

What is it to inhabit a body, and to let that body’s particular shape, length, locomotion, energy, propel you through the world? Is this not akin to Early Childhood? Aren’t all people ages 0-5 doing just this, without censor, edit or commentary?

In my twenty years of work as a physical theater practitioner rooted in the world of Clown, I have spent just enough time Commedia-adjacent to humbly respect its power. It releases a certain kind of energy within a performer as they stretch and strut inside its prescription. It is a cousin to clown, the more hopeful idiot that knows not much of anything, but longs to, someday. Different from circus skill training, the Clown I reference here is a sister to Bouffon, Commedia dell’Arte and Mask. It seeks to excavate and promote the performer in her purest form, with all her innate humanity, comedy, tragedy and poetry exposed for the world to see. Through a playful, innocent lens, Clown investigates questions essential to theater and to ourselves: Why do we come on stage in the first place? What is the nature of a theatrical event? What stories are we most interested in telling? How can we connect directly with an audience?

All who inhabit the comic world are driven by a certain speed, described by Christopher Bayes, Head of Physical Acting at Yale School of Drama, with whom I studied, apprenticed and whose pedagogy I teach, called The Speed of Fun.

Stepping into the comic world requires a kind of leaning in, literally with your physical body and physiologically with your heart chakra wide open. This vulnerability, this not-knowing, is crucial to the clown’s journey, both as an actor training technique and as form and aesthetic of performance. It also allows a person to joyfully seek out the lazzi, an unraveling and compounding game of nearly any sort, as long as it is driven by pleasure in pursuit.

When my son was two, we often frequented a park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The young men who maintained the grounds knew us by name and would let my son sit in their beat up, borderline decrepit John Deere park vehicle, its seats held in place with duct tape, empty plastic bottles left crushed in the limited foot space, a topless frame weathered by constant exposure to wind, rain, sun and snow. For hours, my son repeated a physical score in which I was a necessary participant: Getting in and out of the truck, pretending to drive its locked steering wheel for the shortest of intervals, the key part being the getting in and out, and the declamatory seat selection this consistently required. With each repeat performance, his enthusiasm for this sequence was undaunted, and I kept pace. Our spoken text was not adjusted, we did not stray from the pattern he required. Our joy was the thing.

For those who scoff at the duality of parent-artisthood, I challenge you to find a subset of people more suited to the open territory of children.

The clown is a creature who lives entirely in the present. This is why for maturing actors, the work is often so difficult, because one cannot rely on the knowing of the past. For the clown, there is no knowing, no history beyond a few minutes before now. Anyone who has experienced a toddler knows this spacious presence very well. It is a state of constant discovery, receptivity and wonder. It sits very far form sarcasm, wordplay or intellectual diatribe, so often the tools of grown-up humor.

As audiences, we love the clown, for as much as she makes us laugh, she also always moves us. There is a deep yearning barely kept beneath her surface, for triumph, connection, acceptance. What human longing is more basic than this? In the clown we recognize our own striving, our own failure, our own forgotten hope, our own poetic idiocy.

The cast of CLOWNS, produced by The Glass Contraption, presented at The Public Theater;
top row L to R: Christopher Bayes (dir.), Andy Grotelueschen, Liam Craig, Catherine Mueller, Aaron Halva; bottom row L to R: Anne Louise Zachry, Chris Curtis, Justine Williams

After decades of exploring this form as a performer, creator/director and educator, who knew that the most rigorous use of it would be in my daily life as a parent? There are countless examples of its presence, from invented songs to experimental recipes to taking apart broken toys to repair their inner mechanisms to feeling the first touch of grass and brush of wind to recognizing the eruptive expanse of big feelings often too much for a body to bear. Kissy Tiger trods on the heels of all this delight and pathos.

For those who scoff at the duality of parent-artisthood, I challenge you to find a subset of people more suited to the open territory of children. We travel in empathy, in dialogue, in beauty. We make magic with paper and string, animate found objects, welcome in fairies, dreams and conundrums. We are in the practice of treasure hunting and sharing said searches across distance and time with others interested in discovery. We are unafraid of darkness lit by stars.

True theater comes from this place, and pure parenting does too. It is a guiding principle from which one can then access the structures and constraints required when parenting (or when constructing performance), and relate to those as we do the liberating confines of Smeraldina’s arched body and arching voice – as ways to be free within our necessary limits.

Physical theatre was my lifeblood for twenty years prior to motherhood. In many ways it still is, but my access points and the size of my audience are radically different. Lest you think I am performing for my child, I challenge your notion of what performance is and its purpose. It is not a demonstration but an inclusion. It is a welcoming, a witness, a conversation, a mutual excursion, a mini communitas (in all the collective breath Jill Dolan ways). It is very hard to achieve or maintain, for our socialized selves are far more comfortable in their futile grasps at certainty, knowing and assurance. I suspect you can count on one hand the few truly spectacular transportive performances you have witnessed in your life, and you recall them with immediate glory. For the young child, whose presence on this earth is still so closely tethered to the mysterious place from which souls come to inhabit our human bodies, this is language most primary.

When someone surmises that parenting makes a person less of an artist, I willfully insist the opposite.

I cannot imagine parenting without this perspective, but I also cannot imagine living without it.

When someone surmises that parenting makes a person less of an artist, I willfully insist the opposite. We are artists every day, celebrating and finding how to meet our children where they are, holding them close in wonder as they become more firmly who they are, in their own gloriously articulated bodies, with their own stories to tell.

The MAMAs welcomes and celebrates this duality, and all forms and disciplines in which mother+artists work, make and parent. You are not alone. You are artist, now.

The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art has been invited as the inaugural program in PAAL‘s new incubator initiative for artistic and communal development for artists and activists. More to come on this exciting news!

This column is part of The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art. The MAMAs and its sister subset The PAMAs / Pregnant Artists Making Art is leading a movement that foregrounds the value and visibility of mothers who make art.

The MAMAs embraces ALL who identify with the words Mother and Artist, including biological, adoptive, surrogate, foster, those who have experienced pregnancy or child loss, Trans, and non-binary parents; and passionate and/or professional creative practice across all forms and disciplines. The PAMAs welcomes people who birth.

This initiative was created in partnership between IFCAP (The Institute For Collaboration and Play) and PAAL (Parent Artist Advocacy League).

Both PAAL and IFCAP welcome all caregiving responsibilities and realities in the background or foreground of any meetings, phone calls, and exchanges and gladly receive your life in our pursuit of productive and supportive practices.

PAAL and IFCAP are transgender and non-binary affirming spaces.  We support a safe space for everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and beyond. Our programs are designed for anyone going through the huge changes we experience as artist-parents, whether that’s as someone who identifies as a mother or birthing person, including cis-, Trans and gender non-conforming parents and caregivers. “Mother” is for all who identify with it. PAAL is actively working to develop an organizational standard of language that expands caregiver terms off the binary.

PAAL and IFCAP commit to anti-racist roots in our structures, practices, policies, principles, and producing.

To learn more about The MAMAs/PAMAs, please click here, or visit us on Instagram.

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