There are several things you could do. You could buy John Rudlin’s ‘Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook’ and follow the detailed instructions on the major characters, or you could get Pierre Duchartre’s ‘The Italian Comedy’ and study all 259 illustrations very carefully and copy them, or you could go on a Didi Hopkins course, or you could splash out and apply to the ‘Scuola Internazionale dell’ Attore Comico’ in Reggio Emillia, Italy, and study with the maestro, Antonio Fava, all of which will be extremely helpful, or you could try making one at home.
Best of all get together in a studio with several other imaginative, vital and energetic people (preferably speaking the same language – one major drawback of the Fava school) and just play!
Do you need the leather masks? No. They are expensive, limiting and destroy complicité (at first). Should you ever use them? Of course, eventually, when you are ready to cross over into their dark and dangerous world. But don’t forget, they are not yours. They are partly Antonio Fava’s or Ninian Kinnier-Wilson’s or some other mask maker’s; they partly belong to Alberto Ganassa, or Francesco Andreini, or whoever created the ‘mask’ (that is, character) in the first place, and they partly belong to tradition. It is someone else’s house, someone else’s clothes. Have you the right, the skill, the responsibility, the respect, to take such an object with its distilled magic of possibly in some cases over a thousand years of character making, certainly several hundred, and put it on your face? Ok, you have. Well do it then. There is certainly enough residual magic left in them to chill the balls off a donkey.
But then there is the little matter of your audience. Our first duty as actors is to make theatre with our audience – that is, make characters and storylines that can inhabit their mental landscape. You can’t achieve that with everybody obviously, but to earn a living you need to do it enough times with enough people. The narrower the cultural sphere of reference is that you are working in the fewer people there will be who can share your performance with you however good it is. If you want to work with the masks, then have a serious think about who your audience are.
Are the leather masks the most important thing about creating a commedia dell’arte character anyway? You may think so as the word ‘mask’ and the word ‘character’ are virtually synonymous in the tradition, but the answer is: No, there are several things that are much more important. To begin with ‘mask’ does not just refer to a leather object worn on the face. All the traditional characters are ‘masks’, but they didn’t all wear leather masks as we commonly use the word. The innamorati (or Lovers) did not wear them, nor Signora (the older sexually knowing woman), nor the il Cavaliere type of il Capitano. Martinelli even played Arlecchino without a mask as did Dario Fo sometimes. The vecchio Tartaglia didn’t wear one, except a large pair of spectacles. Several zanni didn’t wear one, including Pedrolino and his later incarnation Pierrot, nor Scapino, nor the servetta Colombina, and Fiorilli discarded his Scaramuccia leather mask and played him white faced eventually.
The point is ‘mask’ implies a kind of setting aside of nature as something irrelevant. It is an abstraction of nature; it is passing through a door from nature into a separate world, that of story-land, myth or dream. The natural face is too reminiscent of the world left behind, so we cover it up and start again using the expressive capacity of the whole body to make a character fitting for story-land. As with the ‘surreal’ story-land can continuously extend from one world to the other; as in dreams nothing is impossible. Whatever you want to say you create the grammar to say it.
So what is the grammar? The natural face must be covered, that’s the first rule. Covering it with leather is one way of doing it, but you can do it just as well with make-up. With pantomime blanche the face is abstracted, summarised, cartoon-ised; the essential range of meanings and emotions is enough for the audience to recognize the ‘type’ of human this is – and knowing the ‘type’ is enough for the story to work. You don’t need to include everything for a drama to work; pare it back. Audiences can deal with a great deal of paring back once the grammar has been established and the more pared back the speedier the story will flow and the more concentrated are the still moments.
The difference between using a leather cover and make-up is to do with the nature of the movement remaining in the face. A great deal of subtle movement is still available with white face without the loss of abstraction. With leather there is no actual movement at all so the actor must animate it by association with the movement of his or her body. Some people might argue that the latter therefore stimulates the audience’s imagination. It does, but both ways are valid and their relative use comes back to cultural meanings for the audience. In fact in the tradition the leather masks are used mainly for more grotesque characters – There may be reasons for that? – like Il Magnifico, il Dottore, most of the il Capitanos, Grande Zanni, Brighella, etc, while the ‘painted or powdered’ ones are more poetic or lyrical, such as the Lovers, Colombina and Pedrolino, although this isn’t 100% the case. Scaramuccia is grotesque but powdered.
If you cover the face, however, which is in our ‘natural or everyday world’ the single most expressive part of the body, then you must redistribute the responsibility for communicating with your audience to the whole body. The logic of this, of course, is that the natural face comes first, we choose to cover it up, so must therefore compensate by making the whole body do the work, but in historical or evolutionary terms in fact it was the other way around. That humans stand erect and express mainly with the face is the pinnacle of our evolution, not our history. There is in fact a universal psychology of communication through the whole body that is possibly genetic, certainly innate, and governed by the deepest instincts to survive and reproduce. So covering the face puts us back in the world of predator and prey whose body language the whole world understands and much of the animal world too. It is this, ‘the talking body’, that is the underlying fundamental grammar of the commedia dell’arte and its most important tool.