Behind the Curtain with Marco Barricelli

Marco Barricelli is bringing 1700s France to UC San Diego with sophistication and style.

For Marco Barricelli, “The Green Cockatoo” has been a long time coming. The actor-director first came across the play as a student at Juilliard School. Despite his repeated attempts to arrange a production, the enormity of the play’s cast (and the associated expense) proved too formidable a roadblock to overcome. Now, as the head of UC San Diego’s graduate acting program and director of this year’s fall production, Barricelli has overseen the fruition of a passion project.

“‘The Green Cockatoo’ is the name of an underground tavern [and] performance space in Paris, France,” Barricelli told the UCSD Guardian. The tavern hostess, Prospère, acts as a stage manager to an assembly of amateur actors who perform improvisational theater in exchange for food, wine, and meager salaries. The actors use real-world happenings as improvisational inspiration, and the performances allow them to vent their frustrations to the nobility while recusing themselves from legal repercussions under the guise of entertainment. The French nobility receives the improvisations with fascination and great amusement. “The aristocrats come to this place because they get titillated by the types of improvs that go on there,” Barricelli said. The parallels between the performance content and the outside world create a palpable tension that pervades the play from start to finish. “There’s a confusion always about what is illusion and what is reality, and that really excites me,” Barricelli said.

The play takes place on the night of July 14, 1789 –– the storming of the Bastille. “It’s happening at this cataclysmic time,” Barricelli said. “It’s the disintegration of the monarchy.” The battle in the Paris streets becomes a direct echo of the sentiments expressed inside The Green Cockatoo. “On this particular night this improvisation is going on and right outside the doors, unbeknownst to the nobility that are in [the tavern], the Bastille is being stormed, the peasants are taking over, and so the improvisation becomes real.”

The meta nature of “The Green Cockatoo” blurs the line between theatrics and reality –– even the characters themselves experience varying levels of uncertainty. Barricelli stressed the importance of proper distinction for his actors, but hopes that the play’s ambiguity lingers with his audience. “I hope that they’re struck by the levels that this writer has been able to examine without being sure of all the answers to what they’ve seen,” he said. “I’d love if they walked out with questions and not answers.”

The multi-award-winning director is drawn to theater that is driven by human exploration. “I like something that is not focused on event, but is focused on the human condition,” he explained. Despite its historical premise, Arthur Schnitzler’s “The Green Cockatoo” satisfies this classification for Barricelli. “I honestly don’t believe that Schnitzler’s writing a play about the French revolution,” he said. “I think he is more interested in the idea of […] human beings’ response to that historical event.” However, the play’s period-specific vernacular was a deciding factor for Barricelli in selecting the work. “I am more drawn to plays that have some muscularity of language,” he said. “I wanted to do something not contemporary, something that would require of the actors a sense of scope and size and plain, and sort of panache.”

The sheer size of the cast came with its fair share of challenges for Barricelli. “At times you feel like air traffic control,” he remarked. As a director, he takes care to ensure the total development of each character. “I’m trying to make sure that each one of them has a full life, that even the ensemble that don’t actually have lines … that they’re alive, that they’re living in the space, they’re not just filling up space in a period costume,” Barricelli said. The director included students from all three years of the graduate acting program in the cast and even recruited undergraduates, fostering a diverse learning environment. “You have to balance the different levels of acting that are present on stage,” he said.

Barricelli, whose performance credits include titular roles in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and many more, has a keen understanding of the theatrical process as a whole –– including when to extricate himself from it. His sensitivity to his students’ work is bolstered by his own onstage experience.

“Being an actor is important because I’m sympathetic to their process,” he explained. “It’s as important to know when not to give a note as it is to know when to give a note. So, I can tell that an actor isn’t quite there yet, but if I step into this process at this moment, and define it for [them], it will lose its organic specificity. It will be something they’ll create to please me, rather than something they will eventually get to on their own, which is a thousand times more valuable.”

Barricelli’s acute consciousness of the balance of power in the theater extends to his relationship with playwrights, including Arthur Schnitzler. Barricelli doesn’t view his directorial position as an opportunity to tamper with original material. Instead, he devotes himself to delivering the authorial vision.

“I’m all about the playwright,” he said. “It’s not a vehicle for me to make a statement about the French revolution or revolutions in general or the nobility of the 18th century or the proletariat of the same time,” he said. “I take what I think Schnitzler wants, and I try to realize that. So my guidance is really him.”

Barricelli, who teaches Shakespeare and heightened text in addition to serving as head of graduate acting, revels in his time at UCSD. “I get to do Shakespeare everyday of my life,” he said. The renowned theater faculty was one of the primary factors that drew him to the department. “There were some people that I had known in my professional life who were on faculty here and other people that I’d known of and admired throughout my professional life, and this was a chance to collaborate with them and that’s terribly exciting to me.” As an added bonus, Barricelli’s side-hobby of riding motorcycles perfectly suits San Diego’s temperate climate. “I can ride almost 365 days a year,” he enthused.

Barricelli’s advice for young actors and directors: “Don’t expect too much too soon […] Be patient about a career and let it evolve.” Barricelli also stressed the importance of cultivating a passion outside of the theater. “You’ve gotta find your joy in life because it’s a hard, hard road […] Make stuff that has nothing to do with theater. Just create, alongside the training.”

With “The Green Cockatoo,” Barricelli hopes to make a lasting impact on the lives of his students. “What I really hope is that they can close this show being that much better of an actor than they were at the first read-through,” he said. “That’s really the goal. So they have something they can take with them.”

Image Courtesy of UCSD Theatre & Dance