Posted by: Janice | December 6, 2008

The World of Commedia: Part 1


It is now almost the end of Term 1. For more than a month, we’ve been hurtling through the world of commedia dell’arte. The ride has been long, and occasionally, quite rough and tumble. I never expected to take to commedia, but I’ve been surprised at how much it has brought out of me, both in terms of what I am capable of as a performer, and also in terms of what I love doing onstage.

In the first two weeks, the school provided us with existing character masks from the classical tradition – Pantalone, Harlequin, Capitano, etc. We were not so much informed about how to play the masks, than asked to figure them out ourselves. Much like the rest of the Lispa pedagogy, the teachers are more interested in you discovering your own version of Capitano, for example, rather than telling you the “right way” to play Capitano.

Capitano (see above) is a veteran sailor or soldier who pretends to be strong and brave, though in reality, he is actually a coward. Steph was the teacher who worked with us on the Capitano mask, and she led us through a series of investigations in which we explored the dynamics of an inflating and deflating balloon. The inflation of self-importance and the deflation of macho bravado. How can one switch quickly between the most over-the-top bravery and the most pitiful cowardice? By embodying the dynamics of the balloon, we were able to figure out what it is physically without over-analyzing it intellectually. When it came time for one Capitano to meet another Capitano, Steph harked back to the animal work we had done last year and asked us to embody competitive chickens/roosters. When fear kicked in, we swiftly turned into mice or lizards. In addition to the ability to switch back and forth quickly between the two states (which is where the comedy lies), there is now the question of build. If two roosters meet in the farmyard, how might they attempt to out-rooster one another, and how can that competition escalate?

I had a Lispa breakthrough moment during one of Steph’s Capitano classes. The improv for this class is “The meeting of two love rivals”. The meeting of two Capitanos. One of you has discovered that your lover cheated on you, so you have arranged to meet this love rival at night to duke it out. I went up with Marcell. “Ahha – not only has your lover cheated on you, but he did it with someone of the same sex!” said Steph.

I made my entrance first, but before  I got any further Steph made me enter again. “Attack the space when you come on! There is no warm-up time for these masks!” I entered again. This time when I stepped out into the space I managed to stay, but I felt totally lost – I had no idea what I was doing out there. I tried to inflate and feel important, Capitano-esque, but I wasn’t really finding the situation. My rival had yet to arrive, and I was just left standing there, waiting for him. “What are you planning to do when he gets here? Will you fight him? Maybe you’ll need to warm-up. Go on, do some push-ups.” I hesitated. “Go on, these masks have to be in action! Really do some push-ups! Stretch, jump – clap your hands between the push-ups! You’re going to kick his ass when he comes in, won’t you?”. By this time, I was sweating profusely and simply struggling to keep up with the string of provocations that Steph was volleying at me. I stood back up. “What are you going to do to him when he comes? Come on, what are you going to do to him?” “I am going to punch him in the face!!” I shouted in Chinese as I threw my fist out. “And then what?” “I’m going to punch him in the face again, and then I’m going to kick him, and then I’m going to karate-chop him left and right.” The audience started laughing. I kicked and shouted and looked at Steph. “Thats right, find us with the mask. Look at us. Now speak quickly and punch slowly at the same time. What are you going to do to him?” “I’m going to punch him, and kick him, and pick him up and throw him down. I’m going to cut him into pieces, I’m going to…” I rambled on in Chinese. The audience was in absolute hysterics “Keep moving! Punch slowwwly, but speak really really really fast.” Steph’s arms went punching slow-mo Tai Chi-esque as she talked. “Turn your head, look at us, speak, punch. Now punch again. ” She paused “Now good, make your entrance again. Use the stuff that you’ve found” I turned, disappeared behind the black screen, and came on again. Silence. “Mehh. Do it again!”. I turned around and entered “Come on, you can be bigger than that!” I tried again. “Nope, still not good enough. You’re the warrior from the far east! This is the day when you show us what a mighty fighter you are! Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon! Take the space!” I left, took a deep breath…and jumped out with a flourish, like the heroine from a martial arts epic. I glared at the audience. I surveyed my kingdom. There was a collective sigh from the audience. Steph nodded “Ahhh. Now, thats more like it.” She turned “Okay Marcell,  you can enter.”

When I sat back down again, I was completely drenched in sweat. My face was flushed, my eyes were bright, and I was radiating heat waves. I felt completely exhilirated. It was one of those moments where I felt I had just broken through a personal barrier. I had tried to do something out of my natural forte and touched something deeper.

All last year, the teachers kept saying how I have a natural fluidity in the way I move, how I have this innate stillness and calm. They said that the things I need to work on is the attack, the aggression, and the chaos, my counter-mask. As it turned out, commedia has been extremely good at pushing me to work on these things. In that improvisation, I really felt that I touched on something different when I took on the role of a Chinese fighter. Even my classmates said that I became unrecognizable when I performed in Chinese. I was so much more grounded, so much more powerful.

Unexpectedly, the Chinese language gave me access to a rhythm and cultural body that I have been unfamiliar with for most of my life. I feel so proud and excited about this discovery.  Though I grew up in Hong Kong, the years of English language education and theatrical endeavors abroad have distanced me from my roots. Now, just like that, it is as if commedia had tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed me to the beginning of a lifetime’s investigation. Commedia is earthy comedy, and the earth is where my ancestors lie. My heritage does matter. It is time to dig deeper into the lives of those that have come before me. To learn about their stories, their myths, and how they relate to me.



  1. Yeah! Tai Chi kicks butt! Come play push hands with me when you get back….
    :) H

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