Ribaldry Explores Renaissance Improv
by Andrew Leland
Peter Cairns and Peter OLeary and the rest of the cast and
crew of Sibling Ribaldry have been working excruciatingly hard this
semester raising money, building a gigantic wooden box, outfitting
it with security cameras and microphones, designing audio software,
experimenting with prosthetic make-up, improvising, writing, rehearsing,
researching archaic forms of European theater and the theory of
comedy and trying to marry two potentially hostile art forms. And
they have one main goal in mind: entertaining the heck out of an
We just want to please, said Cairns. We want everyone
to be chuckling.
The production will serve as an honors project in the Art Department
for Cairns and an honors thesis in Theater for OLeary. They
wanted to fuse improvisational theater and film for their project
but found that most attempts at fusion in the past were unconvincing.
Instead of actually creating live, spontaneous film, they
seemed to only document improvisation, OLeary explained.
To circumvent this problem they devised The Box a 20
x 20 x 8 wooden box rigged with eight closed circuit
security cameras, as well as four or five microphones. The images
from these cameras feed into a video mixing board controlled by
Cairns, who then edits the film live in front of the audience, selecting
which of the eight feeds will be projected on a gigantic screen
at any given time. The actors will also leave the box and perform
in front of it on the stage, creating a dynamic tension between
the live images and their live presence on stage.
As they were thinking about these strategies for their performance,
the directors discovered Commedia delArte, the most popular
form of entertainment for about seventy years in Renaissance Europe.
Sibling Ribaldry is an unconventional, contemporary interpretation
of this form. Like the Commedia, the performance is based on a conventional
tragedy/farce plot structure not unlike some of Shakespeares
dramas with largely improvised dialogue. Instead of wearing
the traditional masks that the Commedia troupes wore, however, members
of the cast will wear prosthetic features: bulbous noses, ears and
Another feature of Commedia delArte that Sibling Ribaldry
retains involves the audience. In Renaissance times the bawdy marketplace
humor of the shows would excite male members of the audience, who
succumbed to tomfoolery womens asses were pinched incessantly.
This situation became so pronounced that women began to bring weapons
to the performances in order to defend themselves. Eventually, the
men had to be separated from the women in the audience. The shows
this weekend in Hales will likewise take this precaution, dividing
the audience by sex.
When a Commedia troupe came into town, the cast would spend a few
days learning about the major landmarks and the hot topics under
discussion in the region. They would then incorporate these topical
elements into their performances, which appealed to their audience
immensely. Sibling Ribaldry follows this tradition and as a result
is highly Oberlin-specific. It takes place in a college town (whose
name rhymes with Oberlin), and the central character
is the colleges president. The audience will doubtless be
titillated by countless in-jokes. For example, at one point a cast
member shouts to the chancellor, Die, president, die!
Despite the rehearsed plot and bits of dialogue such as this one,
the show will be, on the whole, completely improvised. Senior Dave
Levin wrote a computer program that allows him to edit sound on
the fly. Different characters have different sound-effects associated
with them, and Levin will have lists of these ready to be played
at any moment at the touch of a button.
The Commedia form incorporated popular culture of its day into its
performances, and Sibling Ribaldry also interprets this practice
for modern times: the tech crew mixes in clips from popular movies
and pre-recorded scenes from around Oberlin onto the video projector;
many characters also have top-40 hits for their theme songs. The
show has a star-studded cast of students whose faces
are recognizable from other campus theater productions and improv-comedy
troupes, including Hallie Gnatovitch, Jim Williams, David Blatt,
Michael Leibowitz, Duncan Gale, Graeme Hinde, Amy Flanagan and Paul
Blanding, among many others.
All of the technical and conceptual complexity, then, comes from
the attempt to combine the interactive spontaneity of improvised
theater with the polished, digital veneer of film, and it isnt
intended to distract or provoke the audience with high-art intentions.
Hopefully people will be interested by what were doing
technically and how it works, said OLeary. But
I think at its core the complexities have the aim in mind of entertaining,
and making people laugh.
Catch Sibling Ribaldry in Hales Gymnasium Friday, Saturday and Sunday
April 19, 20, 21 at 9 p.m.