Improvisation in the Commedia dell'Arte

Surely improvisation is the most important defining feature of commedia dell’arte (after the masks) devotees of Physical Theatre will say? Certainly ‘improvisation’ – in inverted commas because it needs to be understood and defined – was an essential ingredient, but there are problems with this that contemporary exponents of the commedia dell’arte like ourselves have to address.

The first thing that has to be understood is that ‘improvisation’ did not mean just making it up as they went along. To begin with they used a scenario or list of all the key ‘things’ they were going to do (or platt as they were called in Elizabethan theatre). Well, that’s easy enough; we’ll have one of those says the modern improviser. They also had commonplace books in which set speeches were written down and learnt by heart (although probably also re-written while on their feet). So it wasn’t completely improvised.

Using Improvisation Today

So let’s do what the great commedia dell’arte companies did! Let’s improvise! In my experience, for example at Antonio Fava’s ‘Internazionale Scuola dell’Attore Comico’, where there were superb quick witted young physical theatre actors, totally spontaneous improvisation often resulted in an almost totally non-speaking mime, so that Fava had to remind them that they could speak. Prepared improvisations, while often brilliant physically, were often equally banal in spoken text. Some actors were better than others at it. Those from extrovert cultures such as the USA and Australia seemed to be more comfortable with it. Other work I have seen by improvising companies, while often being rich in physical performance, has equally often produced spoken text which does not even begin to be rich.

There is also a tendency in Physical Theatre to make the spoken text of less and less importance and to concentrate on the movement, although sometimes without the kind of consistent vocabulary of gesture, posture and gait which is the essence of commedia dell’arte. This isn’t a criticism. It is a direction in style which is often very beautiful, but is, however, a movement away from commedia dell’arte at its best. Also, by opting for minimal spoken text performers don’t make what they do say less worthy of attention. On the contrary it is more important. There aren’t many better improvisors than at Fava’s ‘Sculoa Internazionale dell’Attore Comico’, which suggests that for many improvisors there is a key point being missed.

Minimalism in all art produces a maximum of focus by its audience, so it must be crystal in its clarity, rich in its texture and profound in its depth. I would contend that it is impossible for contemporary fast-tracked commedia dell’arte actors to improvise the kind of richness of spoken text probably spoken by performers during the great period because they are not a part of the kind of oral tradition which produced it. So, if the masks don’t work for our audiences and we can’t improvise well enough, should we just not bother?

Should we settle for less?

We could just settle for less. In the open air with robust performance, skilled articulation of the body and sensitivity to universal meanings of movement, with lots of colour and vibrancy, and in a carnivalesque ambience, people of many backgrounds will enjoy performances, including trite dialogue, but they will not be profoundly affected. A commonplace curiosity with the quirkiness and ‘ugly/beautiful’ nature of the masks, in this context may (probably will) give pleasure and amusement, but again not in the way that people are profoundly affected by masks which are indigenous to the meaning systems and lore of their own culture.

Bring the same performance indoors and people’s expectations are greater (partly because they have paid to see the event) and it will be more difficult to achieve the same success. Masks which do not ‘speak’ will be alienating, body language which has no grammar will be ignored, and improvised banal text will go in one ear and out the other. The approving audience will be much smaller and will probably consist of theatre-goers who already know something about commedia dell’arte or at least like physical theatre (thinking it avant-garde). They may even suppress (because of their desperate wish that what they are watching is good) a recognition that the spoken text is nothing special and that the masks probably mean nothing to 100% of the people buying and selling in the street market outside.