The important lessons from Commedia dell'Arte

So why waste our time talking about commedia dell’arte? For those of us who are devoted to the tradition and recognize that it remains the most inspiring source of practical methodology for comic acting in Western culture, of course, that is not the end of the story.

Let’s consider a tip from the Gelosi? They were professionals. They had to make a living. They couldn’t afford not to speak the same theatrical language as their audiences. If we want to succeed we need to respect our audiences – that is, know who they are first (and we may have several choices) and work with them. We should take very seriously the lesson from history that if the mask doesn’t speak use the white-face instead. If you put a mask on your face without serious regard to its implications for communication you do so at your peril.

But much can still be achieved with masks where proper thought has been given to what it means for the audience. Trestle Theatre & Trading Faces (among a few others) have shown us how. Anyone who has held a well made commedia dell’arte mask in their hands (such as those made by Antonio Fava) and solemnly put it on the face will know about the residual magic they have – and much is to be learnt about the power of the mask by experimenting with them with audiences who are sensitive to your experiments. New masks may emerge which do speak in our culture and profound communication might be achieved. It’s worth it – worth really going for it with the mask, with the right audience.

The same with spoken text. If you want spoken text to be a major part of a substantial play for the ‘public at large’ and richly satisfying then for the moment (though improvisation may be part of the creative process) it has to be finally written down and learnt (unless you happen to be a part of an oral culture where improvised spoken text is still alive, in ghetto generated rap for example). If you want it to be minimal it still merits proper attention, more attention in fact. However, it is an exciting challenge to work with improvised text in the studio and with selected audiences to try and achieve richness.

For me text must always be as rich as possible – not florid, not wordy, not necessarily lengthy (although ‘length’ is a relative and movable concept), minimal or maximal – It’s a matter of choice – but always rich. I have seen a performance recently by Tall Stories of a play for children called ‘The Gruffalo’ (now on video). It had the formulaic simplicity of Kipling’s ‘Just So’ stories, yet had been partly improvised. It was beautiful. It can be done with proper attention and in short or minimalist plays – until a way can be found to rediscover the skills of the oral tradition.

Fava talks about the commedia dell’arte performer ‘enclosing … all languages in a few strong, effective phrases’. This use of a minimalist but rich spoken text derived from several languages allows essentially the same performance to cross language borders. Multi-lingualism (a common skill in the commedia dell’arte originally) is one of Fava’s ideals and the ability to achieve this is an exciting, practical and achievable aim for companies who want to work in several countries. ‘Footsbarn’ and ‘Ophaboom’ have shown the way.

Also longer plays can mix text generating methods. You can have the framework of the written script, but allow it to evolve in rehearsal through improvisation, or include ‘all’improvviso’ passages which have set rules and guidelines for free improvisation in live performance. Actors can be set free to have more direct involvement in set speeches, working with the author, and the more actor-centred the performance becomes the better – as long as the text remains rich, it doesn’t produce chaos and there’s always objectivity. That’s another lesson from commedia dell’arte.

But the greatest legacy of all of the commedia dell’arte is a complex, subtle and articulate vocabulary and grammar of body language (again quoting Fava) ‘composed of clear and highly-expressive gestural character’, which makes the actor from head to toe a whole vibrant talking organism. It’s a challenge and we as a company have a long way to go, but that’s our ideal.