Your homework: Make ’em laugh

FLC students study comedy

Junior theater performance major Erin O’Connor loses her composure during a comedy workshop taught by guest artist Rima Miller at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Junior theater performance major Erin O’Connor loses her composure during a comedy workshop taught by guest artist Rima Miller at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre.

Can you imagine Will Ferrell playing one character his entire career? If this was commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, you could very well say that Buddy the Elf, Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy were all one character: The Clown.

Now, Fort Lewis College students are learning to play The Clown and other traditional commedia characters through this semester’s Guest Artist Series.

This semester, Rima Miller of Santa Fe has introduced nearly 30 FLC students to the fundamentals of comedy with her commedia dell’arte workshop. The historic Italian form of comedy features “stock” characters with recognizable methods of moving and acting.

Though traditional commedia dell’arte actors played a single character throughout their career, Miller is teaching students to develop their physicality in order to portray a variety of characters – enough to last a lifetime.

“She is working them so hard,” Theatre Department Chair Kathryn Moller said.

“They’re learning a lot about physical comedy. It is very athletic. I think one of her geniuses is how she connects the body with the acting work.”

As part of the workshop, Miller leads her students through a sort of workout for actors. From simply walking across the stage to trying to sit in a chair and never succeeding, Miller helps students develop their characters long before they memorize lines.

“We are not just talking heads,” Miller said.

“The interest of an audience is in the full body. When we engage ourselves 100 percent, we become that character. In the beginning it’s scary. You don’t want to give too much too fast to anybody,” Miller said of her students at the beginning of the semester.

Through the course of the workshop, both Miller and Moller have seen the students evolve, becoming freer and more comfortable onstage.

The culmination of this semester’s workshop will be the production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” Moliere’s final play, “The Imaginary Invalid” is regarded by many as a turning point in the history of comedy. First performed in 1673, “The Imaginary Invalid” still relied heavily upon commedia dell’arte devices, but merged them with song and dance. For FLC students, it can be viewed as a metaphor as they bring commedia dell’arte into the 21st century.

“The joy of commedia is that incrementally the students get more confident and give themselves permission to be creative, silly, expansive and exploratory,” Miller said of the workshop.

With an M.F.A. from Harvard University, Miller founded the Riolama Theatre/Dance Ensemble. In addition to commedia dell’arte, Miller has studied circus arts, modern dance and the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira. She has directed over 20 productions in Santa Fe and across the country.

The Guest Artist Series helps give Fort Lewis students “the tools they will need to be professionals,” Moller said.

“The best way for us to serve our students is to give them professionals.”

“The Imaginary Invalid” is directed by Miller and will feature 12 of Miller’s students on stage with the other students acting as assistant director, stage manager and crew.

Margaret Hedderman is a freelance writer based in Durango. Reach her at margaretyh@gmail.com.

“It takes practice to be ridiculous,” said Rima Miller, shown here directing the cast of during a rehearsal of “The Imaginary Invalid” at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre. At right it freshman business major Cedric Richardson. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“It takes practice to be ridiculous,” said Rima Miller, shown here directing the cast of during a rehearsal of “The Imaginary Invalid” at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre. At right it freshman business major Cedric Richardson.

Senior education major Mary Quinn gets a laugh out of the cast of “The Imaginary Invalid” during a comedy workshop conducted by Rima Miller at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre. From left are Jessica Fairchild, David Haralson, Julie Faulkner and Erin O’Connor. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Senior education major Mary Quinn gets a laugh out of the cast of “The Imaginary Invalid” during a comedy workshop conducted by Rima Miller at the Fort Lewis College Mainstage Theatre. From left are Jessica Fairchild, David Haralson, Julie Faulkner and Erin O’Connor.