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Even when they’re fully committed to a character, the best improvisers bring their own personalities to their performances, says Gemma Soldati ’09.

Soldati and her comedy partner, Amrita Dhaliwal, visited improv classes taught by Performing Arts Department teacher Peter Parisi before spring break. The performers shared the joy and connection present in clowning. As students performed—improvising as chickens and horses, and taking audience cues for their characters—they added telling flourishes: a Shakespearean flair, comic movement, and a confrontational “neigh.”

“These things are real, they’re part of who we are,” Soldati told the students. “You have to bring the truth of who you are to the stage. You’re not going to be successful onstage if you’re trying to hide.”

Clowning allows performers to play with power dynamics, absurdity, poignancy, and hilarity. A good clown—in the commedia dell’arte tradition rather than the big-shoes, red-nose tradition—can be a conduit for all kinds of emotions. Soldati and Dhaliwal have toured with their two-woman show, The Living Room, in the U.S. and internationally, winning the “Best Comedy” award at the 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival in Australia.

The Living Room is described as a “comedy of grief,” in which the two play accountants of death, recording the death toll. It is a physical and participatory show, and the clowns’ bumbling idiocy is a vehicle for them to learn about life and death. Moments of discomfort on stage can be stretched for long enough to make them funny, or turned into tragedy.

Playing off one another and creating a story doesn’t always result in humor, but it’s necessary for good improvising and clowning, Soldati said.

“It’s not a competition to see who’s the funniest,” she said. “You need each other.”