Commedia dell’Arte is a form of theatre that originated in Italy in the mid-16th century and flourished throughout Europe for centuries. It is studied in drama schools, universities and conservatoires worldwide. Its influence is widely recognised beyond the realm of live performance and contemporary theatre. Indeed, commedia had a massive impact on western popular culture on a much broader scale including visual art, cinema, cartoons, and even TV.
There are multiple reasons behind its popularity and longevity. Improvisation, slapstick and use of masks are undoubtedly fundamental aspects of this ancient form of theatre, but not necessary the most valuable for us today. I believe that commedia’s true gift to contemporary performers and theatre makers is the notion of Actor as Creator. This is a fundamental stage principle acknowledging that actors are not only interpreters of a given text but also creators of original material for the stage.
Through the exploration of Commedia techniques, my practice aims to demonstrate how performers, directors and theatre practitioners can utilize Commedia dell’Arte as a fertile ground to develop devised performances today. Devised work can be defined as a performance created without an existing script. This type of work is the result of a collaborative process in which all artists involved explore a specific event or topic of interest, and develop a performance.
The way I integrate commedia into my devising process can be described as a reinvention of the traditional commedia Masks. I use lowercase – masks – to indicate the leather objects used in performance, and uppercase – Masks – when I refer to commedia dell’Arte’s characters, often called fixed types, stock characters or archetypes.
But how can these Masks, developed in 16th century Italy, be useful to contemporary theatre makers? Can they be used to reflect on the absurdities, weaknesses and faults of our society as effectively as they did back then?
I think they can. I see commedia’s traditional Masks as templates to be used to create our own masks. These are the product of our creativity and stemmed from the observation of our world. As the commedianti did in the 16th and 17th century, we have to make our stories and our characters relevant to contemporary audiences.
After all commedia dell’Arte was the 'contemporary theatre' of that time!
In devising my latest solo show, Don't You Dare! I utilized historical texts, newspaper articles, contemporary politicians’ speeches, plays as well as autobiographical material. After a first stage of improvisation, I integrated commedia dell’Arte’s techniques to work on each character refining their voice and physicality.
The traditional masks of commedia dell'Arte offered me a framework to develop a clear physical vocabulary for my characters and a specific style for my performance. I called these characters experiential Masks. I chose the adjective experiential for two reasons. First, they stemmed from the actor’s life experience: familiar people, places and situations. Second, the actor experiences the process of creating new masks. As sculpturers would transform a block of marble or carpenters a piece of wood, so actors transform their body, voice and memories. These Masks are created by the actors in response to their world, culture and experiences.
As the commedianti did in the 16th century, I did not attempt to reproduce real life and believable characters as faithfully as possible. I simply observed real people and events, and selected specific traits and qualities. By magnifying these qualities, I developed ‘bigger-than-life’ characters transforming the ‘literal’ - real events, people and places - into the ‘non-literal’. commedia dell’Arte’s techniques and principles offered the tools to develop a theatrical version of the observed world.
I believe that a rigorous study and practice of commedia dell’Arte is very important. However, this is only the starting point of the creative process. The work with commedia masks becomes really exciting when performers use them to develop characters and stories related to their world and life experience. This means to place the Actor at the heart of the creative process. Commedia is, after all - an actor's theatre!