Remembering Joan Schirle of Dell’Arte, Mentor to Bay Area Artists


Joan Schirle, founding member of Dell’Arte International, is introduced before the company’s show ‘Ruzzante Returns from the War’ in Blue Lake, Humboldt County. Photo: Justin Maxon/Special for The Chronicle 2018

In the 1970s, a group of artists decided to create an international physical theater ensemble and school deep in the woods.

A few miles up the Mad River from Arcata, Humboldt County, they found an old Odd Fellows hall in the lumber town of Blue Lake in 1974. The following year it was their home. In the following decades, Dell’Arte International went on to influence hundreds of theater practitioners, emphasizing the actor as creator and theater of place – theater made about and for a specific community.

Joan Schirle in “The Golden State” by Dell’Arte, 2004. Photo: Dell’Arte International 2004

One of those founding artists was Joan Schirle, who died of cancer on February 1, days before her 78th birthday. If you’ve seen a Bay Area theater with clowns or acrobatics, or one that was designed by an ensemble, chances are that San Jose native Schirle touched it in some way or of another. Today, Dell’Arte honors his legacy with a production of “Madsummer”, a musical adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which all the lovers are over 60; it is scheduled to take place from Friday February 18 to February 27.

Schirle was an accordionist, ballerina, mask artist, playwright, actor, certified Alexander Technique instructor, and scholar, in addition to being a teacher. The Chronicle spoke to Bay Area Dell’Arte alumni about their most vivid memories of their mentor.

Jeff Raz with co-host Tristan Cunningham at the Theater Bay Area Awards ceremony at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle 2017

Last name: Jeff Raz, Alameda

Current theater projects: Circus program for young people at the Circus Center; “Circus/Borders”, co-created with Rebecca Novick

Years at Dell’Arte: 1979-80 as a student; 1980–present as artist and teacher

One time Joan and I were going to co-teach, and the first class was horrible. For example, she would say “Red” and I would say “Oh, but it’s green.”

We go to the Logger Bar (across the street). We sit down, and I think it’s going to be terrible. Joan says, “Well, that didn’t work out. I have an idea. Why don’t you teach acrobatics, and I’ll just help people with a little Alexander technique? I think, “What are you talking about?” We are supposed to do something else! But I’m so glad there’s no fight in the bar over performance theory that I say yes.

The next day I teach acrobatics, and she walks around silently, almost as if she’s not there, just touching people gently. And the acrobatics improve exponentially, and everyone in the room becomes calmer instead of more amplified. It was beautiful, like, “My ego isn’t there, but my hands are.”

Stephen Buescher, currently works in theater and education in San Diego. Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2019

Last name: Stephen Buescher, San Diego

Current theater projects: UC San Diego Theater and Dance Department; “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” from the San Diego Repertory Theatre; “A streetcar named desire” by the Fiasco theatre; formerly with the MFA program at the American Conservatory Theater

Years at Dell’Arte: 1994 as a member of the society; 1995 as a student; 1997-2004 as company member, teacher and eventually associate school principal; 2021-present as Co-Chair of the Board

For sSome people, (Schirle) was an incredible advocate for what they were going through in their personal lives. For some people, she was the person who kept them on a theatrical path. Some people, she was a mentor, and I would put myself in that category. Ensemble does this stuff where there’s no separation between your theatrical life and your personal life, almost on purpose. Joan would teach a lesson and be the expert in the room. Then she would go and rehearse, and you would see her performing. Then she would hang out at the bar, and now she’s not on time, but she’s still mentoring, telling stories, and being with you.

Joan Schirle at the Dell’Arte International School of Blue Lake, 2018. Photo: Justin Maxon/Special for The Chronicle 2018

Last name: Bridget McCracken, San Francisco

Current theater project: Trash Mash-Up (which creates costumes from items that would otherwise be considered trash)

Years at Dell’Arte: 1996-2001 as a student, then member, production manager and stage manager

She taught me that you can follow your dreams. If you want to run an international acting school in the middle of nowhere, you can. It was with the sensitivity and generosity of her spirit that she brought people into her dreams.

Something that was so important to her was Theater of Place, creating works about where you are. They would use local stories and things that inspire them in nature. This influenced me in the creation of Trash Mash-Up. What can I use? What’s around me? What is identifiable to many people but can still be transformed?

Mr. Graham Smith, theater director and Dell’Arte alumnus, at his home in San Francisco. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle 2020

Last name: Mr. Graham Smith, San Francisco

Current theater project: “The Mortification of Fovea Munson” at the Kennedy Center

Years at Dell’Arte: 2000-01

She believed in thoroughness and contemplation, and I think that drove her decision to live away from a city, where most artists find currency and the means to perform. She knew that the training and rigor that interested her could only be found away from the chatter of a city.

She is one of the most amazing listeners I know. There’s something about that thoroughness that really got him started as a listener. Whenever I had a conversation with her, she usually insisted that it be a one-on-one conversation, and that would really allow her to absorb all the scope, subtlety, and nuance of the conversation. I find that to be very rare.

Joan Schirle, shown in 1984, died on February 1 at age 77. Photo: Mike Maloney/The Chronicle 1984

One day she said to me, “Graham, have you ever thought about teaching? I said no. I want my art to change the world, Joan, and I don’t have time to teach. She stopped, took a breath, tilted her head a little and said, “Well, in my experience as an artist as a teacher, I’ve found that the ripples I create in the world go deeper and deeper. deeper as a teacher than any 90-minute performance could ever come from. And lo and behold, I cherish teaching more than anything, and it feeds my artistic work, and artistic work feeds my teaching. Joan knew this when I was 22. She knew how to be deep, but she also knew how to be light and gentle when needed, knowing that in the fullness of times, all things that were to happen will come to pass.

Performer and playwright Evan Johnson (left) with multimedia artist and actor Teddy Hulsker as they rehearse “Barn Owl” at Eureka Valley Recreation in San Francisco. Photo: Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle 2018

Last name: Evan JohnsonOakland

Current theater projects: Cosmic Elders Theater Ensemble

Years at Dell’Arte: 2005-06

She really changed my life when she told me that I could live fully in my male body and have the grace of an angel; I could stretch into the space of my arms. I had not felt in my life a sense of comfort or ease in my body. I went to physical theater school with that in mind as an actor. She noticed this struggle in my body and my gender expression. The roles I played were not always comfortable to play. I have this habit of holding my chest in a certain way. It’s like I’m affirming that I can be here. This extra effort, it hurt to do because it was so toxic. She gave me permission to be here without having to bulk up. When I let go and allow and invite ease, there is a huge possibility of being present.

Writer and theater actor Ross Travis rehearses his solo show “Tempting Fate” in San Francisco. Photo: Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle 2019

Last name: Ross Travis, Mendocino

Current theater projects: “Balloons, Birds and Other Flying Objects” from Flynn Creek Circus; Antic in “Tempting Fate” from a drain

Year with Dell’Arte: 2009

(Travis wanted to discuss Schirle via a poem; here’s an excerpt)

She trained the water to flow freely through her muscles
Air to create space in his organs
And that fire in his spine?
This is where the muses of Commedia made lazzi on his vertebrae
Ignite the inspiration that nourished his masks
She transposed the flamboyance of these leprechauns for our good
With agile and generous steps on the earth
The basis of its existence

Sabrina Wenske (left) and Cara McClendon and in ‘You F—ing Earned It’ during the 26th Annual Fringe Festival at the Exit Theater in San Francisco. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 2017

Last name: Sabrina Wenske, Oakland

Current theater project: “How to Catch a Karen” with Naked Empire Bouffon Company (Schirle introduced Wenske to its founder, Nathaniel Justiniano)

Years at Dell’Arte: 2011-12

She encompassed the room and was such an embodied presence, but not in an overbearing way. She seemed to float.

She invested herself in everyone’s dream, just like a true mentor.

“Crazy Summer”: Adapted from William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Fields. February 18-27. $20. Carlo de Dell’Arte Theater, 131 H St., Blue Lake. 707-668-5663. www.dellarte.com




  • Lily Janiak

    Lily Janiak is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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