A Conversation with Lara Coutinho, Capocomico…

Lara Coutinho is the sort of person who needs no introduction, and yet you can’t help yourself from introducing her because you want people to know ALL THE COOL THINGS about her. We became friends in the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Barony of Windmasters Hill, where she introduced me to her passion, Commedia dell’ Arte. Later, in an incredibly generous act, she invited me to direct her troupe in a Commedia version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that we performed at a Baronial event. She is an inspiration, a teacher, and an amazing woman. Someday, when she is handing out orange belts, I hope to be graced by one. (SCA reference. ūüėČ )

And now, without further ado, I introduce Baroness Sophie the Orange, mundanely known as Lara Coutinho!

Q (Infamous Scribbler): Tell me a bit about your area of expertise. What do you do? How long have you been doing it? Where do you share or publish your work?

Photo by Bill Frazer.

A (Lara Coutinho): Performing arts of the 16th century in Europe including music, dance, and theater with a specialty¬†in Italian Commedia dell’ Arte. I also love any kind of improvisation theater, puppets, and circus arts.¬† I always loved every kind of dance and music, and when I found the SCA in college, I found an outlet for my wide variety of interests. The SCA is a historic re-enactment group with a limited scope of pre-1600 Europe, but that was a huge arena for me to play in. I found teachers and friends of like-mind that enjoyed dance and music as much as I did. From the summer of 1992 until about 2004, I focused my hobby time in the SCA on learning and teaching European dances and the music that matched them. A few of my friends and I joined together to create a band called Musica Subterranea which played and recorded historically accurate dance music for 16th century European dance. The SCA has a robust community of dancers, and they enjoyed our live dance music performances at balls and revels. We produced 5 CDs of recorded dance tunes which are still available on CDBaby.com. We have all the sheet music for the 104 tunes we recorded available on our web page http://musicasub.org.¬†¬†

Musica Subterranea is the result of amazing teamwork between the band members, but one critical piece is the research and music arrangements created by our Music Director, David Lankford. His understanding and skills in both early music and dance are of the highest caliber. We are always blown away by the beauty of his arrangements and how detailed he gets in matching every phrase to the choreography. I could go on for days about the incredible skill and creations of my buddy Dave, so for now I’ll just say that Musica Subterranea would not exist without him.

In August 2000, I discovered the theater style of Italian 16th century Commedia dell’ arte, and I was hooked. I found my place in the world. The characters of commedia plays were the cartoons of 16th century people. Performing and watching commedia made me laugh and explode with joy. I really can’t stop laughing when commedia is happening. Since then, I’ve been reading and learning about commedia wherever I can. I’ve created 3 troupes of actors that share this joy with me: i Scandali in Dayton, OH started in 2002, i Firenzi in Raleigh, NC started in 2011, and the Commedia All Stars troupe that only comes together at the SCA event called Pennsic War in August started in 2014.

Q: Can you share with me some of the story of your journey? What first interested you in what you do? What were some challenges along the way?

A: I started playing the cello in 6th grade. I thank the adults in my life for insisting that I learn something about music because it’s helped me connect with friends and enjoy performing arts throughout my adult life. I was never very good at the cello because I did not invest the hours of practice that it takes to get really good. But I did develop an appreciation for musicians by being an enthusiastic amateur. Same with dance. I got pretty good at folk dance and loved every opportunity to dance to any kind of music. I also loved theater, but I never had focus. I loved all the performing arts and wanted to play with all of them since I can remember. I remember doing dance numbers and skits at a Girl Scout camp session called “Greasepaint” during many summers.

Photo courtesy of Lara Coutinho.

I never felt that urge to practice until I found commedia.¬† I’d dabbled in every kind of crazy performing thing one could do: juggling, stilt-walking, mime, tap dance, jazz, recorder, ukulele, drumming, belly dancing, ballroom dancing, choral singing, puppeteering, hooping, and I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.¬† But commedia made me want to practice. I wanted to revel in it and work at it until I got good. I still do. I want to dig into every aspect of this art and improve my skills all the time.

Commedia gives me a way towards laughter for both myself and others. I feel the healing power of laughter when it happens, and I want to keep it going. I want to live in those moments where the pain of the world is forgotten because we were laughing so much.

Don’t get me wrong – life can’t be 100% laughter. We have to manage our lives in this world with some amount of responsibility and work. But I do want to maximize the laughter and squeeze every bit of joy out of every moment I can. So far, improvised commedia is my favorite tool for that.¬†

Challenges along the way are many, and they keep coming. First, finding other people to do commedia with me is the hardest part. I live in the volunteer world where no one gets paid in money. We get paid in laughs and fun experiences. So, the troupes I put together have to be people that are friendly to each other and hopefully get to be good friends. And they have to want to learn something about the historic basis of commedia, improvisation skills, and basic stagecraft. I can teach all of that, but it takes time. And since we’re all volunteers, members of the troupe will come and go as their lives change.¬† When kids are born or jobs are taken or marriages shift, the volunteer hours these actors have to devote to practicing commedia goes away.

Once we have people that like each other and start learning some commedia skills, we have to find venues to perform at where we will enhance the environment. Those venues have to be easy enough for our actors to get to, eat at, and sometimes stay overnight at. Sometimes¬†they bring their kids along. Sometimes they’re juggling their own paycheck jobs around the performance time. There are a million challenges that get in the way of making a performance happen.

But when it works, it really works. Laughter thunders throughout the area to anyone within earshot. Smiles and joy are created and shared. It does my heart good.

Q: What in particular do you find most satisfying about your work?

A: I want to be laughing, and this is how I get there. Laughter is best when shared, so performing comedy so all of us can laugh together makes me the happiest.

Q: What do you find most challenging?

A: The administration of making a theater troupe come to life and run is incredibly overwhelming. It’s more work than anyone else knows who hasn’t done it.

Q: What piece of advice would you offer someone interested in this field? What piece of advice do you find yourself giving over and over to people who are hoping to learn from you?

Photo by Hauk Photography.

A: Start small and let it grow. Success breeds success.¬† Starting with a goal of “Let’s make a commedia troupe!” is setting yourself up for failure. Starting with a goal of “Let’s perform some commedia!” is much more realistic and useful. Start with 2-3 of your good friends that you want to spend time with anyway, and do a commedia-inspired skit. I have a few small skits in the booklet I wrote with some friends and published by the SCA called The Compleat Anachronist, issue #173, Bring Sixteenth Century Commedia dell’ Arte to Life.¬† It can be ordered for $4.50 on www.sca.org under the Marketplace. Or go to my web page at www.ifirenzi.com and look at the tab for “Starter Kit” where there’s another short 5 person scenario.

One suggestion I’ll give to anyone starting out is to find some mentors. I’ve had many generous mentors, but one was key to my growth. Paul Adams, known in the SCA as Duke Steffan Glaube, is a professional actor, director, and producer in Brisbane, Australia who also happens to really like SCA heavy combat. So much so that he became King of his region, “Lochac”, and travelled around the planet to attend the SCA Pennsic War in 2015. He’s also a Master of Arts, part of the SCA Order of the Laurel, for his expertise in Theater Arts. So, when I met him at Pennsic War, we geeked out about SCA theater and stayed friends online. His own personal mission in life includes mentoring, so he was happy to talk with me about many topics all leading towards excellence in Commedia. His dedication to mentoring had him waking up early and staying up late for online calls with me privately and also my troupe. He watched our rehearsals via web cam and gave constant feedback and suggestions that improved our performances. His unique combination of excellence in theater, leadership, teaching, and SCA life made him a key source of wisdom for me. His devotion to mentoring means that wisdom is shared. I’m one of many recipients of his generosity, and I hope everyone can find an effective mentor like him.

Q: What work are you most proud of, and why?

A: The Commedia All Stars troupe performed particularly well this past Pennsic, just a couple weeks ago, and I think that was the best show I’ve ever directed. The troupe came together with some new folks and some very experienced folks, and we clicked like we’ve never clicked before. No diva energy from anyone, no slumpy energy from anyone, and no one had a health or family crisis that made me find an understudy. Our work was clearly producing results within the timeframe we had, and once we felt the magic of the audience’s energy, the laughs just kept on coming.

Photo courtesy of Lara Coutinho.

I’m also really proud of the Compleat Anachronist I wrote with my buddies Drea Leed, Robert Schneider, Dina Turnello, and my husband Scott Dean. The CA is a quarterly publication of research papers produced by the SCA, Inc. Dina wanted to write a CA on commedia with me as a team, and our dreams expanded enough to easily fill two issues. Those two little booklets have become a manual in How To Make Historically Accurate Commedia Happen. I’m exceedingly proud of my part in making those CAs happen because they’ll be around for years to come helping people make commedia inspired laughter. I love that.

Q: Anything to add?

A: Bringing theater and other performing arts to life is hard. And rewarding. I love the teamwork part of theater and the magic of working with an audience. It’s the kind of energy that makes the work worth it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for the adventurer. I hope if anyone reading this feels inspired to try it, they will bring their boots, water, and protein¬†bars.¬† Get and read the two Compleat Anachronists on commedia and email me. The thrills and laughter is so worth it!

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For more information, check out www.ifirenzi.com,  www.earlycommedia.com, www.musicasub.com, and www.sca.org/marketplace

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**Featured image by Hauk Photography