Paolo Busi – Interview (Part 2)

Masks – like all human beings – are able to feel tenths of emotions.

Photo credit: Viviana Porru

1. Paolo, we met for the first time on your workshop called: „Impromask”.
How did it happen that you got involved into masks? What came first in your life Masks or Improv?

First was improv. I started as an improviser, but after a while I felt I need some theatre training and in Bologna there is a theatre school focused in Commedia Dell’Arte, so I got in touch with the masks.

2. Why did you want to combine both of these things? How using masks changed you as an improviser?

At first I was looking to create a political improv show, something where improv could be used to talk about our World, our society, about inequalities. In Commedia, each mask portrayed a social class; Pantalone the ones who don’t have to work to live, Arlecchino the underclass and so on: using masks seemed a great idea. At first.

So we started developing our masks, to portray modern society. We spent months looking like a marxist-leninist collective from the 70’s : “Do you think that the Immigrant will ever be in a positive relationship with the Temp? And what about women?“
And at the same time we were undertaking massive mask training.
Then the time of putting everything together came and we discovered that in improv there is too much worthless stuff. Every time we were trying to improvise something the masks were pulling us in a different direction. You cannot ignore the mask while improvising with it. For example, we soon learned that you cannot just switch masks between actors: each body is a different character and you have to make this character real, so different actors, wearing the same mask create different type of the same character. And we learned how deeply you cannot hide behind a joke: the masks doesn’t allow you to do it.

We had to relearn improv, discovering how much energy is being wasted in a normal improv scene: you can get the same result with less.

We learned a lot about audiences also: the relationship between masks and audience is wonderful and we learned how to make the audience look where we want them to look, their desires, what they really see.

And politics, of course. You can change the actors and the countries, but relationships between masks remain the same. Always. You have someone who is dominated and someone dominating them and those masks are always the same. Masks are cruel and tender at the same time.

3. There are different kinds of masks. What kind of masks do you use and why?

We chose half-masks, like the one used in Commedia dell’Arte. They leave the mouth free, so they can speak. We wanted to be as close to “normal” improv as possible. Now I am experimenting with larval masks: a less political result, but interesting anyway.

4. Is a mask workshop used only to improve skills or is also used to make entire improvised shows with the masks?

We developed a couple of improvised show with the masks. After all the original idea was to create a show to process society. We managed to develop a two actors only show: an helzapoppin of mask changes, but it works!

5. The experience with the masks was very intense for me. After while I understood that masks train not only physical aspects and they don’t allow to drop the character but also they train being present and taking care of ourselves as improvisers. How would you describe what one can learn at „Impromask workshops”?

Masks push everything to the extreme from the physical aspects (body and voice) to the dramaturgical one: like in Commedia masks walk along a narrow path, pursuing happiness while trying to escape death at the same time. This is a wonderful place for an improviser to stay: think about having to tell your beloved one how much you love her while her father is pursuing you with a club. And masks love to be pushed on that narrow path.

What an improviser can learn from masks depends on what he is looking for. Maybe the skill to drop into a character in a split second, maybe a better use of the body and the voice, or to develop physical comedy routines, or how to use the stage at its best. Or the wide range of human emotions.

The most important thing masks teach – in my opinion – are Presence and Authenticity. In Impromask you learn, how to be there wholly, because as soon as you get into your head the audience will just see you with something on your face, no more than the mask you were portraying.

But at the same time the mask is a sculpture you wear on your face: it is up to you to give her a believable range of emotion. Often improvisors know just a few emotions: Rage, Fear, Sadness and few more of your choice. Masks – like all human beings – are able to feel tenths of emotions. So learning to improvise with masks means learning to portray the full range of human emotions.

Once the pupil learned what he wanted to learn, he will not be obliged to use the mask anymore: those are skills that remain. So even a few hours workshop can teach a lot.

Thank you very much Paolo for the interview!

Contact Paolo by:

Interview by Monika Ozdarska
Photo credit:
Viviana Porru
Edited by Katarzyna Anna Dąbrowska

Paolo Busi – Interview (Part 1)

Improv in Bologna (Italy)

Photo credit: Viviana Porru

1. Please tell me how did you fall in love with the theater improvisation?

I started in January 1991. A girl I liked told me: “I heard there is an “improv course”: would you like to accompany me there and see what they do?”. I was interested in her, not in improv and twenty six years later I am here doing and teaching improv: love at first sight. At that time, in 1989 improv had it’s official start in Italy.

Improv begun in Tuscany, between Siena and Florence, with the Impro Match, a format from Quebec. Bologna had been the first city were improv spread. We were a small group and our teacher was an actor with little experience in improv. It was a regular course and still now in Italy the “default mode” of training is the improv course, not the workshop. At first it was a two year course, but around 2001 it was extended to three years (and it was my idea, but this is another story).

The first year was about improv, the second year was mostly a study of genres and Impro Match. In reality it was more training for the Impro Match than an Improv course, but it was all we had in Italy at that time: internet was not so widespread, there was no European Union, no Euro, Italians and English language don’t fit, so exchanges were not so common as today; we were almost unaware of what was happening abroad.

2. How big was the improv community those days?

We were a small community, performing mostly in Bologna and Florence, but during the ’90s improv spread to Milan, Turin and Rome and with the new millennium improv spread all over Italy. Around 1994, even if the community was small, emerged the need for a separation between professionals and amateurs, so two leagues were formed.

It is important to say that Impro Match is a copyrighted format, so one man had (and still has) the rights for the format in Italy. I know that a lot of improvisors will dislike this, but this shaped the Italian improv scene in an unique way.

3. And how does it look now? You said there are national associations.
What is their role? Do they have any specific teaching and certification system?

In 2006 there was an huge schism in the italian improv community: some group decided to go by their own and leave the Impro Match. The result was such that even now we have a sort of post World War II world: two huge blocks – Ares with Impromatch and Improteatro with an alternative format – and a myriad of non-aligned groups.

The result is that italian improv is very format focused and the improvisors are mostly focused on a specific format than on improv in general. There are exceptions, of course, we have some amazing groups and teachers, but the legacy of seventeen years of Impro Match is still present, even in those who disown that experience. What we lack is awareness of what we have.

And what we have are the numbers: having two national organisations could translate into being able to talk to public institutions standing on the force of the number of their members and of the shows those members produce each week, but we still haven’t found a way to cooperate.

We have also a well developed training system: the two blocks create a solid learning base and the “not-aligned” groups offer a lot of specialised training increasing the offers.

In the last four years Improteatro (one of the two blocks) started an improv teachers certification path: the Scuola Nazionale Improvvisazione Teatrale certification (SNIT).

This was welcomed with a lot skepticism, when not with hate (someone insulted it renaming it SHIT on Facebook hoping to get some Likes, just to give you an idea of the cultural level of the debate!), but I think it is one of the best thing Italy could in the future offer to the world.

This certification is not about what to teach – as most of the haters think – but about how to teach. And because almost every improv teacher in Italy is a self-styled teacher, having someone from the outside teaching people how to teach is good, in my opinion.

Being a certified teacher means to follow a common procedure and using a common language and assessment method, so that we can compare classes not on the “how good my pupils are” principle, but with a more objective one.

For me, as a teacher, the most important thing has been the passing from Skills teaching to Expertise teaching. Before the certification process (and training), the passing of expertise was more a collateral aspect: I was teaching you how to edit a scene, now learning how to change a scene is a skill that is a step into teaching you the Reframing. And this is extremely important, because “editing improv scenes” is not something you can do outside improv, Reframing is. And you can put it on your CV, because I can tell you, in a measurable way, how you learned it and how good are you at it. Can you see the potential in this?

We have identified eighteen expertise improv develops , and for each of them we have identified the skills and knowledge the pupil needs to learn to gain the expertise, the timing of the teaching of each of those skills and knowledge, the exercises and evaluation grids to assess the proficiency in each expertise.

I don’t know what result this certification will get, if the Public Institution will ever recognize the value of this certification or not, but I strongly believe that what we developed so far is justifying the effort done. Those one hundred (more or less) pages certify the pedagogical value of improv.

4. Do you see something characteristic in the Italian way of improvising? Anything what is more common in Italian improv then in other countries?

The main aspect is the separation between professionals and amateurs. This has old roots, but the main business model in Italy is that improv schools give you a three year training, than you become Amateur and you perform in the school shows, then you can become a Professional and get paid. Not all the Amateurs rise to the Professional level and sometimes the promotion criteria are obscure. Apart from our structure what I see is that we are more focused on genre then other countries. An Italian improvisor is able to pretend he is proficient in Shakespeare, Greek Tragedies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, rhymes, poetry, almost any genre you can think of. And of course people gesturing on stage, often too much.

5. How do you see changes over the years and how do you see future of improv in Bologna and Italy?

Well, Bologna in the past decades was a sort of Athens of improv, being able to deliver high quality training and being a forge for important advances to evolve from the Impromatch. Now the proficiency has spread to different cities, but Bologna still is an important learning center: it is enough to say that Bologna has almost the same number of improv schools that are in Rome, but with one tenth of the inhabitants.

I see that divisions between blocks are falling down with the new generation less involved in personal issues, so Italy could be an interesting laboratory should the Impromatch tradition melt with the Improteatro experiences and the “not aligned” vitality. I think that a new impulse to improv could come from the Mediterranean countries in the future, we are incubating at the moment.

6. And last but not least question! You are involved in Scuola di Fallimento and a brand new book forwarded by Patti StilesThe Art of Making Mistakes”. Can you tell me more about that project?

With the certification process, a reflection about the role of mistakes in improv came. In improv the Process is the Performance, but the nasty legacy of the Impromatch has been the predominance of the Performance over the Process.
Audiences love Impromatch, but improvisors are trained into doing things in the “right” way and this is a strong underground theme in the Italian improvisation.

Then the opportunity to write down my thoughts came from Finland: a Finnish improvisor – Saija Laukka – asked me to write a chapter in a book she was writing, “The Art Of Making Mistakes”. The foreword was written by Patti Stiles and the afterword by Frank Totino, but a lot of authors coming from the different branches of Education contributed to it.

Once published the book ended in the hands of a friend of a friend, who was ready to launch her Startup, the Scuola di Fallimento, a school to teach people the importance of failure and how to use failures to gain successes. My vision was complementary to the one of the School: they were focusing on learning from mistakes, I was focusing on using them as opportunities. They were using board games and role playing games to train people, so improv was the ideal complement, because of its joyful aspect.

So in the school we have improvisors, coaches, ludologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, teachers of Game Design at the Polytechnic institute in Milan and business trainers. We work with Public Institutions and private companies. In this moment we are the benchmark in Italy for anything regarding failures.

Contact Paolo by:

Interview by Monika Ozdarska
Photo credit:
Viviana Porru
Edited by: Katarzyna Anna Dąbrowska
Part 2: comming soon…

„Stop measuring yourself against others.” by Steve Roe

Here is an article „Stop measuring yourself against others.”
by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv in London.
He asks question why do measure ourselves to others?
and writes about his my own experience.
Enjoy reading!