I woke up the other day with a sense of unquenchable urgency.

It seemed very important that I tell Tami Nelson about Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Return from the Island of Cythera. But upon waking I wondered why? I mean, Return from the Island of Cythera is all pink ruffles and cloudy sky. It isn’t the kind of painting one ordinarily feels urgent about.

Dear Tami,

I am trying to figure out what Watteau has to do with improv.

At first I was thinking about the mood of this painting. These people have gone to the island of love. And now they are leaving there. Leaving in the bitter-sweet mood one leaves a beloved city, an epoch of peace or meditation; slowly rouses from a moment of bliss. Moving on. Like sloshing through grey-sky water. Like fighting the instant-nostalgia that resists movement. A feeling where one’s desire is to stay submerged in a moment forever. And yet we move.

In improv we are always moving. It is one of our core principals. We pump the music up extra loud. We strut on to the stage. We create from scratch something in unity with the minds of others, and then the din of clapping, and without a  backward glance we charge off the stage. Music up high again. Crowd ready to disperse. Yet, for a performer this isn’t an ephemeral enterprise.

Watteau painted this picture to try to get some respect.

He thought of it as a masterwork. It said, for him, all there was to say.

Most people think of it as a bit of frippery. The arbiters of art in the 18th century could only accept an artist based on what kind of subject-matter he made. But, just like there aren’t Oscars for comedy, there wasn’t a category for what Watteau painted. So the art academy made one up for ol’ Wattles: the Fête Galante. A gallant party (sidenote: anyone who wants to do a show with me called “Gallant Party” and is willing to dress in silk and bake picnic foods for the show—hit me up.) The fête galante was described by my high school teacher as “rich people doing rich people things.” Based on that description I wrote Watteau off for a lot of years.

Then came this dream the other night Tami. This dream where Watteau’s cloudy sky, and the moment of embarking or disembarking from the ship to pleasure-island, seemed so immediate. When I looked up ol’ Wattles on the internet again I was reminded of his kinship with us: Watteau painted many paintings of the Comedia dell’Arte. Here they are, if not sad clowns, at least profound comedians. Comedians with a grasp of life’s transience and pleasure’s fleeting enticements. They are paintings without narrative or didactic intent. They take the subject of enjoyment, episodic drama, human folly and present it for the viewing audience: leaving a wisp of air, not a block of stone, in the history of the world.

I don’t know Tami, it just seems relevant somehow.1.

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  1. This post is originally from 2011 when Tami and Chris were preparing to leave Austin for New Orleans and when I had very recently moved away to Houston.