Improvisation in the Commedia dell’Arte


  • It’s all about improvisation – Surely all’improvviso or 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.
  • Making it up on the hoof – 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 the platt as it was called in Elizabethan theatre) which they could refer to back stage before they went on. They also used canovacci or set sequences or scenes each with familiar associated text (some of which may have started life on paper) that they frequently went back to, which gave the play structure. 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). Together these things provided a kind of ‘grammar’ on which to ‘hang’ the words spoken. Isabella Andreini (right) of Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi, a rare, extremely literate actor & writer apparently could make up rich text on the hoof but it was out of a background of wide reading, an ability to speak several languages & extreme experience of committing language to memory, but she was not typical of most actors of the time.
  • The Oral Tradition – Therefore it was never completely improvised anyway. But most importantly many people during this period could not read and write, including some actors, so holding quantities of text in the mind was a much more normal part of what was essentially an oral tradition than it is today. Our literacy effectively sets us at a disadvantage in creating ‘rich beautiful & complex text’ on the hoof. In fact for thousands of years poetry, such as the Homeric poems, were carried ‘in the head’ by poets & not written down. If you don’t have the facility to read & write then the emphasis is going to be on carrying quantities of text in the mind. The work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the 1920’s & ’30’s demonstrated how language can be carried in the head by using formulae or set phrases & repeated patterns of words and still be rich & beautiful as they proved in their studies of the oral tradition & Homeric poems.
  • So, to say that commedia dell’arte was improvised is an extreme simplification & misunderstanding of an essentially oral culture (with the exception of rare individuals like Isabella Andreini) which was very different to our own.

Using Improvisation Today

  • Let’s improvise – 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 & was at best banal.
  • Movement more important than the words – There is also a tendency in Physical Theatre to make the spoken text of less and less importance and to concentrate on the movement (albeit 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 physical improvisors than at Fava’s ‘Sculoa Internazionale dell’Attore Comico’, which suggests that for many improvisors there is a key point being missed – if, that is, they want to make commedia dell’arte.
  • Crystal clarity in minimalism – 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 of the kind that was probably spoken by performers during the ‘great period’ because they are not a part of the kind of oral tradition which produced it.

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 candidly trite dialogue, but they will not be profoundly affected. A commonplace curiosity with the quirkiness and ‘ugly/beautiful’ nature of the traditional masks – and I am not talking about masks like those created by Vamos & Trestle which are so much more rooted in our own culture than the traditional masks are –  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 – and without richness of text either then the performance becomes a mere museum piece & fails as theatre
  • Improvised physical theatre with little or no text – This can equally be rich, beautiful & eloquent – as it is frequently seen at the London International Mime Festival. But I believe that during the ‘great period’ of the commedia dell’arte in the 16th & 17th Centuries theatre was being made that was both physically rich & eloquent and textually rich and eloquent & that is impossible today in my opinion just by relying on text made up on the hoof, simply because we do not have the same largely oral tradition that existed in ‘the great period’.

So is physically & textually rich commedia impossible today? Click here for an answer.