As an associate director for the Sydney Theatre Company, over the last several months I have acquired the role to construct a workshop about the Italian theatrical tradition of ‘Commedia Dell ‘Arte’ to be administered across NSW schools. Having worked alongside Ali Landvatter, founder of the alumni commedia Tut’Zanni Theatre Company and specialist of Commedia Dell ‘Arte, evident in her published work “Exploring Modern Commedia Dell ‘Arte,” I also have attained similar finesse in the discipline.The following concept statement, designed to cater for the learning needs of students participating, conceptualises the theatrical experience.
The Program Outline Commedia Dell ‘Arte is a unique theatre tradition that essentially cannot be taught overnight but takes years to master the understanding and skill of performance. Despite the commitment required, the Sydney Theatre Company has constructed an hour-long workshop directed to teaching senior students the primary aspects of the theatre through actively engaging them to transform from merely observers but partaking actors.The program has been constructed resourcefully requiring two instructors, the portable props they will bring with them and outlining the fundamentals, conventions and concept designs throughout the hour, in the most efficient manner.
Upon arrival at the college, the class of students will be immediately briefed on the historical context and an analysis of Commedia Dell ‘Arte before being divided equally into two groups, to rotate after thirty minutes, beginning with the study of the stock characters, their masks and costume, and the second group focusing on the set and technical aspects of the humorous theatre.The understanding is that tuition on a more direct and personal level will not only control the class but also allow for a more enhanced grade of teaching. Historical Context and Analysis To begin the workshop all the students will gather in one central room to watch the two tutors dress up and perform a sample of Commedia Dell ‘Arte illustrating that it is improvised, exaggerated and therefore humorous. At the conclusion of the piece, the tutors will introduce themselves and ask the audience if they notice anything usual.Perhaps their uniform, the absurdity of their masks, specific techniques such as the over emphasise on every part of their behaviour and conclude that the workshop today will explore Commedia Dell ‘Arte and by the end, hopefully have taught everyone something new about 16th Century Italian humour. Amongst this introduction, Commedia Dell ‘Arte will be given a background understanding; professional actors travelled in troupes across Italy and performed throughout despite language barriers.
Traditionally, as Italian dialect did differ from region to region, this would be problematic, and further, in this comedic theatre il Capitano would have spoken in Spanish and I’Arlecchino in complete and utter gibberish; however the focus was placed on physical agenda rather than on spoken text. Commedia Dell ‘Arte continued to flourish beyond Italy and across Europe, and today these stock character types have elements found internationally in figures including Bip, the white faced clown, deconstructed by Marcel Marceau and stereotypes of American Clown routines.Stock Characters In this workshop the stock characters of Commedia Dell ‘Arte will be introduced and recognised in their mask, costume and exaggeration.
To begin, a student will be asked to model a mask and the garments of a specific character to the rest of the audience as they distinguish its prominent features. The teacher will guide the class through a range of characters through explanation and ask the students to pick their favourite character to act later.Information covers a variety of aspects in relation to costume; garments alternated from tight to loose and contrasted in colour for emphasis and exaggeration, masks represented own individual character recognition such as their great menacing nose which served as a sexual innuendo. Commedia Dell ‘Arte conventions were recognised and adhered to regardless of where the actors toured, and similarly, students will develop a dearth of understanding in the character types.According to renowned Commedia Dell ‘Arte Maestro Antonio Fava, the stock characters could be divided into four main categories; the servants, the old men, the young lovers and the boasting Captains. Though hundreds of character types did exist, all can be deemed into these particular derivatives and could even be said to be apart of specific Italian regions such as the old greedy man Magnifico. In Italian, Magnifico is symbolic of one that is great, grand and generous, however, he is the exact opposite in his pursuit of power over the economy and his family.
His given name is determined by dialect and geography; however, the most famous Magnifico is the Venetian, Pantalone. The name is also a contraction of “pianta il leone”, which translates to he who plants the lion, a symbol of the Venetian Republic. Venetian merchants “planted the lion” in southern and Mediterranean markets and is reason for the thriving economy at the turn of the first century. Pantalone, therefore, is the representative of Venice as he is a Venetian merchant.
In the activity where students act the characters in Commedia Dell ‘Arte, his character should be expressed across student’s countenance and demeanour; a shrewd, cunning, vulgar, and proud character, such as that of what Venice was deemed to be at the time of the first and second century. The audience was able to pick up from each persons dress which character type they were representing. Stock characters are familiar to the audniece and reocnigsbale thorugh their customer, exaggeration and caricatured Set Design and Technical AspectsThe second workshop has a focus on the conventions of set design and technical aspects of Commedia Dell ‘Arte. There are no elaborate set designs in Commedia Dell ‘Arte, instead, they are minimalistic with rarely anything more than a market or street scene predominantly held in the outdoors.
Alternately, there was a major focus on props and the acting itself. Commedia Dell ‘Arte had a profound form of improvisational through its technical aspects, the combined use of slapstick, practiced lazzi and an overarching physical vibrant atmosphere, presented humour.The first exercise will focus on the use of lazzi; memorised set pieces that often have little to do with the plot, but have been practiced fastidiously and ensure the entertainment and pace of the work. To prepare for Commedia it is important to get students to start thinking about jokes and other various items of entertainment such as tongue twisters that they can perform. Students will form group to work on this set lazzi.
After this, a hand out of a list of nonsense words will be given to students and they will be asked to create a short improvised scene in these groups that is based around and features that word. The scene could tell the story of the origin or meaning of the word. This is a form of Slapstick theatre, which is believed to have originated from Commedia Dell ‘Arte. Slapstick is a form of low comedy that asks for little, if any intellectual skill but has a focus on exaggeration, ridiculous and physical theatre.
Masks force actors to project their characters’ emotions through their body. Physical theatre involves dance, music, acrobats, obscene gestures and anything alike to form slapstick to be incorporated in their acts. The workshop will conclude as students are finally given a topic moments before they perform to the class and they must endeavour to bring humour to the crowd though the lazzi practiced, slapstick humour and physical obscenities.