Acting Is Instinct, Says Colli

  • Gian Giacomo Colli  

Theater runs in Gian Giacomo Colli’s blood.

“When I was a kid, my father was a popular Italian director. The first five or six years of my life, we lived in hotels, touring in Turin, Naples, Trieste and so many other places,” said Colli, assistant professor of theater.

The family settled in Rome in 1962, after Colli’s father took a job with RAI Television and Radio, Italy’s state-owned media corporation.

“Rome, in those days,” Colli said with a nostalgic smile. “That was the moment for radio and television. Everything was flash and excitement and beauty and my family was in the middle of it.”

Now, sitting in his office in Meyran Hall, Colli beams remembering his life growing up in the world of Italian theater and television.

“Theater was always a part of my life,” he said, “but until I was 18, my idea was to become an architect. I was shy and afraid of the entertainment glamour all around me.”

Colli joined the faculty of Franklin & Marshall College two years ago as a visiting instructor. This year, he was named an assistant professor of theater.

It has been a busy semester already for Colli, who is teaching an acting workshop and a course on Shakespeare. He also directed last week’s staging of Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Colli’s own professional career as an actor has included theater, television and film. In the early ’80s, he studied acting with the popular Italian actor Vittorio Gassman at his workshop in Florence and Commedia dell’ Arte (the art of comedy) with Carlo Boso, who now has a theater school in Paris.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Colli appeared in a few American films that were shot in Italy, including a Bruce Willis film, Hudson Hawk, in which Colli played a witty Italian waiter. Colli said the film is “completely forgettable.”

While he worked, he took acting classes under director-teacher Orazio Costa. Some of the best-known Italian actors during the latter half of the 20th century, including Colli’s father, attended Costa’s classes at the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica in Rome.

“Studying under Costa was intense and revealing. While Gassman taught me all the tricks of being a great actor, Costa helped me to understand why humans need theater. He had a very intriguing approach to theater, stressing the use of imagination,” Colli said.

That approach to acting would later become the basis for Colli’s dissertation at the University of Rome, Una Pedagogia dell’Attore: L’insegnamento di Orazio Costa (A Pedagogy for the Actor: The Teaching of Orazio Costa). The dissertation was published as a book in 1996.

After graduating from the University of Rome in 1985, Colli studied Asian Theater at the University of Hawaii, where he earned a master of fine arts degree.

He returned to northern Italy, where he started his own touring theater company.

“It was like I was back with my father. I was acting, directing and losing sleep. It was exhilarating and exhausting. It was great, but I started to feel the commercial part of the theater — filling out tax forms and applications — was killing me,” Colli said.

He closed the company in 1999 and began to study for his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He taught acting and Italian language classes at various Canadian universities and finished his doctoral studies in 2006.

Not long after, Colli joined the faculty at Franklin & Marshall.

In acting classes and while directing, Colli teaches his students the lessons he learned from Costa, Gassman and Boso, as well as his own years on the stage.

“When I direct, I look at what the student has already and how I can help develop what is inside her or him,” he said.

An attribute in humans, he explained, is the ability to change our bodies and the way we walk and express ourselves.

“One of the greatest gifts of being human is being able to imitate and modify our actions,” Colli said. “It is very important that students understand the potential they have inside.”

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