Posted by: Janice | December 19, 2008

The World of Commedia: Part 2

This year at Lispa, Creation occupies a much bigger space in the curriculum. We spend five hours during the week on Creation, plus at least another five hours on Saturdays. Unlike last year, the themes given are a lot more concrete, and tied to the forms that we’ve been working on in classes. Put it another way – a lot more attention has to be paid to the construction of the pieces, the development of characters, etc. Gone is the abstract group atmospherics of last year. Now we are expected to craft our pieces from moment to moment: make a nice beginning, set up the story, weave a dramatic build, and finish with a bang. As we’ve been studying Commedia for most of November, that is what we’ve been struggling with in Creation.

We were given two themes to work on. First it was “You Desire Something That is Just Out of Reach”. And then it was “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. For the first theme, my group came up with the scenario of a family at the grandfather’s funeral, and everyone desiring the priceless family ring that is about to be buried along with his body. The presentation was a bit of a disaster – my group got stopped. In fact, all the groups presenting got stopped. This had never happened before, so we were a bit stunned.

Thankfully, the teachers were kind in their feedback. They told us that they had stopped us simply because the pieces weren’t working. It was as if they had expected us to fail – they said it was already nice to see that the masks were playing and that we were being playful with one another. The plotting and structure and build can come later. In retrospect what they did was quite merciful – I appreciate that they didn’t let us slog through dead material on stage for ten minutes when they knew full well that it wasn’t working.

The teachers said that a number of the pieces have veered off course into something that wasn’t Commedia: some became abstract, some became tragic (like the one where a group of homeless people started dreaming about food), and some became too complicated to follow. Since the teachers often only tell us what isn’t working, it can be hard to figure out just what it is that works. If no group succeeds (like this time), then it is up to us to get back in there and and have another go. Luckily, in the week that followed, the teachers worked with us

Based on what I saw and what the teachers were saying, it seems that a Commedia piece has to be dead simple. The audience needs to know who the characters are, what they want, and what the obstacle is in the first ten seconds. There can’t be too much preamble. Also, the desires need to be fairly straightforward, along the likes of money, food, sex, or power (the masks are these to expose our baser drives, after all), and the characters have to engage in some form of action in order to get the desired object – what the teachers call a theme of action. Plus, the action has to build until it gets to a fever pitch. That is what makes Commedia funny! As a character tries to get what he/she wants, the obstacles become more and more impossible, so he/she is reduced to ever more desperate and extreme attempts to get at the coveted object. Until in the end, nobody is ultimately able to get what he or she wants.

Another thing. Even though the masks are half-masks and you can talk in them, the language spoken has to be super-essentialised, or else there is the danger of the play devolving into psychological drama. Once a mask piece turns into a bunch of people standing around and talking, you might as well take the masks off and act without it. There is psychological time, and there is mask time, and while mask time doesn’t necessarily make sense to the performer, it is what makes Commedia work. I have discovered that even if you engage in nonsensical action, as long as you do it rhythmically, it will work and it will be funny. An example is a piece a group made from the second theme “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. A group of robbers decide to steal a diamond necklace, and at one point the robbers and the guard get caught up in a game of ever more creative ways to flick the birdie at each other. Completely hilarious, yet a total non-sequiter.

Mask play at heart is rhythmic play, and incorporated into that is the active presentation of the mask to the audience as well – the takes. Example: seeing an apple; look at the audience in surprise; look at apple again; look at audience; show extreme hunger; look at the apple hungrily; look at audience; show decision made; walk towards apple; look at audience one last time; grab apple. In addition to the takes, there is also the separation of text and movement, the creation of silhouettes in the body, and holding still while action is happening in another part of the stage.

So. After that first crack at Commedia we were sent back to the rehearsal room to work on a second theme “You Trick Someone Into Doing Something”. This time around we had a bit more success, coming up with stuff such asfasting nuns lusting after a cream cake, the aforementioned robbers trying to trick a guard and steal a diamond necklace, and daughters plotting to trick their inheritance from their father’s new wife. My group came up with the idea of getting grandma to jump off a cliff so we could claim her life insurance. We ended up spending two weeks on this theme, by which time the teachers had started putting word out of the in-house presentation at the end of term, and of selecting pieces to go in the presentation.

This raised the stakes considerably. Now it was not only “Lets make a piece that works” but it was “Lets make a piece that works that can be presented to the first-years”. For all of week 7, we didn’t have any classes except for alexander technique, acrobatics and voice, so it all became creation, creation, creation – we had about five more hours of rehearsal a day. The teachers watched our work at the end of the week, on Friday, cut several pieces, then told us to work on all the remaining Commedia pieces, plus a few of the platform movies, and present them again on Monday. This totaled thirteen pieces. At that point the two Commedia pieces I was in, the funeral and the cliff, was still in contention, so I had to put in an eight-hour rehearsal day on sunday.

The presentation was on Thursday, so anxieties were running high around Lispa. Unfortunately, maybe because we had all focused too much on plotting and structuring that week, the presentation on Monday was a bit of a catastrophe, with all the mask pieces becoming long and ponderous, sacrificing the playfulness that was just there a week ago. One of my pieces (the granny and cliff one) didn’t even present because we had run into a rut over the weekend. Sensing that we had hit a trough, the teachers advised us all to keep working on them, and said they will take a look again on Thursday before the presentation to see which ones are fit for show. Whoa.

I was dreading a bit the following two days, fearing the stress and anxiety of the last push and concerted effort to make good pieces. In the end though, it turned out to be fairly civilized, and my cliff piece actually came up with something completely different and fun (three grandchildren fighting for granny’s gold medallion, and in their attempts to kill granny, all end up falling out the window to their deaths. In increasingly hilarious ways, of course). Due to the lack of scheduling conflicts, this piece also had more rehearsal time, which definitely helped. The funeral piece on the other hand, had only half the rehearsal time, but it had always been strong, and after adding the different ways that we were thwarted by the corpse in getting the ring (think rigor mortis), we definitely had a screamer in our hands. With Melissa, Steve, Giuli, Brad, and Inigo in this group, there was never going to be a shortage of ideas, but the presence of such strong personalities also meant that we were just as likely to disagree on ideas, and that sometimes hindered our progress and made things stressful.

Presentation went as well as we could have hoped. The first-years were enthusiastic about our performances, and under our encouragement, gave us very useful feedback. It was interesting to see that while they warmed readily to the platform movies, they were a bit more hesitant about the mask pieces. One girl said “The Commedia pieces felt a bit distant to me… Am I supposed to laugh at those people? Or am I supposed to see myself in these characters and empathise with them? Are these situations supposed to be from real life?”

Commedia Dell’Arte were traveling improvisational theatres in the 16-18th century that played to the common people. The stories and characters they play come from real life. If we haven’t managed to do that yet, well, that means we still have a lot of work to do. And as Thomas always says, we have a lifetime.

“Our job is – in keeping with the exhortation of the great Italian poet Savinio – “to tell our own story”. Our task as intellectuals, as persons who mount the pulpit or the stage, and who, most importantly, address to young people, our task is not just to teach them method, like how to use the arms, how to control breathing, how to use the stomach, the voice, the falsetto, the contracampo. It’s not enough to teach a technique or a style: we have to show them what is happening around us. They have to be able to tell their own story. A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance” – Dario Fo, Nobel Lecture



  1. Really pleased that the presentation went as well as you had hoped after what was evidently a mountain of work and not a little heart-searching. Hope you can now enjoy a well-deserved break and come back refreshed to write some more! Seems to me you really caught the essence of commedia dell’arte: at least, your insight certainly helped mine.

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