Stage strategies (Part 2)


The second group of strategies he call dividing the stage:

  • Windows are the easiest way to divide the stage. By using windows on the backdrop (as talked about in THE STAGE), where a mask can look out, we work on height. The mask in the window is also fixed to one place on stage. The mask in the window can on his own decide whether he is seen of the others or not, by using or not using reactions to what is happening down on the stage.
  • Stepping back is when one or more masks steps back to one upstage corner where they are passive onlookers to the action on stage. This convention allows the masks upstage not being seen by the other masks. They must be very careful not using to big reactions.
  • Tunnel vision is a convention where a mask makes an entire without seeing or registers the other masks. This way he has a separate moment with the audience before Interacting with the other masks. The masks that are already on stage can choose to see him and react to him, ignore him or not see him at all. The mask that not is seen does not exist for the other masks. Like in the classic scene when two Innamorati run around looking for each other on the same stage.
  • Private confabs allow a mask to bring another mask to the side of the stage to have a confidential conversation. There they can talk without the other masks hearing or observing them. They take down their movements and act as if they didn’t see or hear the masks on the side. It may also work for to masks just to bend down and act in another level, when they for example stand in between other masks.
  • Parallel actions are when we have to actions going on at the same time. They are always autonomous and work as sovereign actions on stage. But they are still depending on each other either they contrast each other or they work simultaneous. One of the most common examples is when two Innamorati have each monologue saying the same things with different words or contrasting each other without seeing each other.
  • Asides are the classical aparte lines when a mask simply takes a step out (or even just a turn of the head) to the audience for a brief moment and addresses them. The rest of the action on stage stops so that the actor doing the aside doesn’t have to deal with the other masks during his aparte.


Other related posts about Commedia dell’Arte is:
The content in  Commedia dell’Arte
The roots to all popular western comedy
Commedia dell’Arte lecture

Back to PART 1

Filed in Performance structure | Comment Now

Stage strategies (Part 1)


Whether we believe in Commedia dell’Arte as in totally improvised genre or not, there is always an element of improvisation in it. As an actor one can only be in control of two other elements at the same time. One of these elements is always the audience since they are an active part in Commedia dell’Arte. That leaves us with only one mask to interact with simultaneous. Therefore we need strategies to deal with situations when there are more masks on stage.
The stage is also usually very small; wish is also a reason for dividing the stage, as we talked about in the STAGE.

Here we can take help from Tim Fitzpatrick who has studied strategies to solve situations like this. He has divided the plot in segments and has made a system of different techniques to create binary relations. Most of the time we use this strategies or conventions without thinking about it, but it still very good to have in the back of our heads when we start improvising.TS61

  • The first group of strategies he calls paired masks:
    Unison masks is about two or more masks that acts together as one unit, but still as individual masks. The masks in the unit can either be active or passive listeners, but they always act together.
  • Subordinated masks are when a third mask becomes something of a listener on stage. This is used when a mask is indispensable for a scene, either for plot or comical reasons, but don’t have anything specific to do. The classic example is when Arlecchino is eating cherries and spitting out the stones while the lovers have a love scene. He is necessary both for comical reasons, the contrast between the actions, and for the plot, he might need to see the love scene.
  • Fixed staging might be the most simple, but also the most (at least for the actors) boring solution. By fixing the movements on stage the actors always knows where the focus is, but they have no space for improvisation. This is mostly applied in mass scenes, the opening and the finale.
  • Fixed activities are rather how a lazzo works. Here we are talking about rehearsed gag or segments in a play. It can start anytime an actor give the cue, the other actors prepared for it and know focuses places on the stage.

Go to PART 2

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte, Performance structure | 1 Comment

The Stage


Traditionally a Commedia dell’Arte stage was used to be a banco, made of wood, about two meters tall and not much bigger than a horse driven cart, about 3 x 4 meters. It usually had a simple backdrop and where very easy to transport, but it could also be much more elaborated with walls and a roof over the stage.

The backdrops had usually two or three entrances representing the doors of the vecchi’s houses, wish where painted on it. It made the stage depicting a city square. The houses usually had painted window that could open so the actors could talk from within the houses.


Nowadays most stages have just a bright colored backdrop with entrances so that it easier can be seen from across a big plaza. Since there is nothing painted on it the plot can always be anywhere or nowhere. As Commedia dell’Arte nowadays is for the most part representing archetypes of our inner life (See HERE) it seems more adequate.
The two or three entrances still have to be there for the mask’s entries and exits.  Whether we use a blank or painted backdrop the stage is always bare, allowing the actors to use their skills to give energy and play to the stage and let them be the visual focus.

To keep the stage for Commedia dell’Arte small is beneficial first of all to keep up tempo. Distances on stage have a tendency to take time.  On a small stage there is only one step to move from one place to another, representing a much greater distance. So for a mask to move fast or run it is a question of how many steps the mask takes per second rather than how much space each step covers.
Since the stage is so small and the actor have obviously very little space to move in, there are several conventions making the audience agree the actors are in different places or distances from each other on stage (and also to be able to act two and two). I have written more about STAGE STRATEGIES here.
The shallow stage also helps the actors in their entries and exits. Not only because of the timing and short distances, but it also helps the mask in their constant contact with the audience or when leaving the stage by not having to turn their backs to the audience in order to look for the exit.

CdAScen03Then there is naturally different ways when raising the stage OUTDOORS or INDOORS.

Other related posts about Commedia dell’Arte is:
The content in  Commedia dell’Arte
The roots to all popular western comedy
Commedia dell’Arte lecture

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte | 2 Comments

Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


Acrobatics and slapstick (together with the music) may be the most used discipline in Commedia dell’Arte. They work with symmetries, physical turns or physically exaggerated reactions or positions. Acrobatics is a way to stylize and it is used, just as the music, to heighten the atmosphere. Both acrobatics and slapstick can also be used to physically carry the plot or as storytelling, but mostly is just used as a joke in itself.
Then one of the advantages in comparison with verbal comedy is that it doesn’t slow down the pace of the show since one doesn’t have to wait in laughter in order to be heard. In that way we can build joke after joke before the audience have recovered from the last one, and build up the frenzy that are so vital for all Vulgar Comedy. It also helps us giving the audiences surprises when we don’t give them time to think ahead. With the right timing this is the place for building up real convulsive laughter.
For the same reason – among other reasons – it is important not to “sell in” different acrobatic numbers or figures as in circus and kill all opportunities for surprise. I must always come in organically or as the obvious way to express or do something and then just be an elevated part of the acting. It can be both annoying and embarrassing with this “selling” that promise a much higher level. The more we sell the number the more we promise. And if we don’t deliver the audience will lose its confidence in us. Kult77 When we, by selling in every acrobatic number, we are moving the focus to the numbers instead of the plot. Therefore we are also crossing the limit between theatre and jugglery. The focus for the latter is the tricks and numbers they perform whereas theatre is focusing on its plots and its characters. It is just as important how to end an acrobatic figure without clumsiness at the end. If we look down on the floor, take those extra steps or stop for a second to concentrate after an acrobatic figure we kill the elegance of it at the same time. It is as we tell the audience that we are not really able to do it, a little like a singing a song out of key or end a beautiful song on a weird cord.
Even when we not are using the acrobatics it is an asset for the actor to know, or give the audience the feeling of always being ready to do a flip or just a great leap. This feeling of opportunity is one of the basics in Commedia dell’Arte. It creates the impression of freedom, that the masks are not restrained by the laws of nature or gravity. It is a way for the mask and for laughter itself to acknowledge their immortality and hopefully to share it with the audience.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | Comment Now

Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


All disciplines are not equally easy to use in Commedia dell’Arte. As an example on a problematic discipline we can look at mime or rather mimed objects. All objects on stage should be real. If we start to mime object on stage we also start to experiment with different acting styles at the same time. That may very well start a chaos in the audience since the style of Commedia dell’Arte is so expressive, so fast, so big and the style is also very often new to the audience how are fully occupied getting in to the style. It is an unnecessary difficulty for the audience to keep track of mimed objects as well.
Off course there are lots of exceptions, like when a mask is imagining or fantasize an object; or when a an object is too small to see like “Arlecchino and the fly”; or when something is not happening here and now on stage; or using gestures to show what he does or have in front of him.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | Comment Now

Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


The music is off course the most central of all disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte. It is there to heighten the performance and it helps up the atmosphere of feast that is so characteristic in Commedia dell’Arte.

I the very first descriptions of Commedia dell’Arte shows one could read about the use of music. It had several madrigals for four or even five voices. Many of the first operas were based on Commedia dell’Arte as well, with the use of mask, plots and crude lazzi.
We usually start with an opening song that gives a sort of atmosphere of fest and joy. It also presents the masks, the plot and gives a feeling for the sort of play that will happen. The music also involves the audience physically; they are clapping hands or sing along. The music in itself gives a feeling of involvement.
In the rest of the show the music is used in songs where the masks get the chance to express their feelings or point of views, or in choirs or antiphons that helps moving the plot forward. We also use the music instrumentally as mod music, background music or sound effects. In all these ways to use the music it is describing and clarifies or emphasize what is happening on stage. The show ends in a song that sums up the plot and returns the mood to the initial atmosphere of a fest.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | 2 Comments

Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte


Commedia dell’Arte is sprung from a time long before circus and theatre were divided as separate genres, when all sorts of stage disciplines could be played on the same stage without one having to be better or more refined than the other. Therefore all sorts of disciplines were incorporated in a Commedia dell’Arte performance, like dance, acrobatics, music, fencing, stilts, juggling etc.

They are either user to move the action forward or to highlight the show. Just like the singing and dancing in a musical. There is a danger to use different kind of disciplines as stop in the show just to show off.


The same rules apply for most disciplines. They come into the performance as a part of it either they are there to amplify, aestheticize, tell the story, stylize a scene, create an atmosphere, crack a joke or just is there for its own sake. This goes for tight rope dancers, fire artists, animal trainer, yoyo artists… all disciplines that can be used in Commedia dell’Arte.

Here you can read about few of the disciplines:
Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Acting style, Disciplines | 2 Comments

Improvisation in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 3)


Much of the art in playing Commedia dell’Arte has to do with being constantly on the alert, always ready to jump in to the action or leave space for another mask. This does not just apply when we are on stage. We must all the time be ready if we are needed on stage for a sudden introduced lazzo. We have fist and most the happy circumstance that unexpected things on stage happen. Every time we play, especially outdoors, we have to count on that something “goes wrong”. It may be scenography that falls, dogs that barks, actors does make mistakes, skinheads entering the stage, masks that fall of and so on. This is the actor’s gifts from God.
If the actor only is ready and skillful enough to use the situation it might very well be what lifts a mediocre, tiring performance. It may wake actors who until then have played a well-rehearsed without being ready to take any risks. The obstacles can naturally not be insurmountable.TS60

Another important aspect is that is more or less impossible for a mask to improvise with more than one mask at the same time, since the masks also constantly are improvising with the audience. To keep contact with more the two at the same time, knowing where they are on stage, seeing their reactions, giving them reactions, using a very narrow field of view through the mask is too great of a task.
Therefore there are seldom many masks on stage at the same time, except in opening and closing scenes off course, in Commedia dell’Arte. That doesn’t mean that we are not working as a group the whole time. It is important to work from a group feeling either we are on stage or not. Not just because of the atmosphere we create around us but also for the actor’s feeling of security.
Since it is not always only two masks on stage we have to develop strategies in order to improvise with only one mask or “unit of masks” on stage and create “binary relations”. See more HERE.

Back to Part 1 or Part 2

Filed in Acting style | 2 Comments

Improvisation in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)


When I work with Commedia dell’Arte I don’t let improvisation be the most important, even though it still is important. I do this for three reasons; Commedia dell’Arte is played from a plot, even though it is of less importance when it comes to why we play; there are very few actors with that tremendous improvisation skills; the fixed elements – the acrobatics, the music, battute, concetti, all forms of disciplines, lazzi – is what I find most interesting in Commedia dell’Arte.
One more thing that makes Commedia dell’Arte is rhythm. We can look at Commedia dell’Arte as a musical representation. Every scene in a performance, every mask all the way down to every gesture or line is sat within a rhythm. It is important to let the audience breath with the performance. This rhythm is what builds up the show to a musical performance. There are rhythm, crescendos and pauses in breathing; therefore it is vital that the actor first listen to the rhythm of the performance before he starts to improvise.
I always start up by creating highly firm scenery, most of the time we are even working from a written script. This gives the actor the security he needs to be able to come back to the rhythm at any time in the play. The actor also learns when not to improvise. The more the actor has to fall back on the more free he can be in his improvisations, without risking to ruin the rhythm of the performance.Callot04
It is when we are getting closer to the opening of a play, having all the firmly fixed sceneries in the actor’s backbone, that we start to fly, in other words we let the improvisations free. This is where we start to use test audiences in order to be sure the play is constantly aimed to it, listening to it and improvising to it by reacting to it. We also start to put ”monkey spanners in the works” in order to force the actors to start improvising so the acting won’t get too static

Continue to Part 3
or back to Part 1

Filed in Acting style | 1 Comment

Improvisation in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)


How much in a Commedia dell’Arte show during the renaissance that was improvised is something we will never know. What we know is that a lot was written down: lazzi, burle, some monologues and dialogs, battute, concetti and we can also read from some actors own notes. Commedia dell’Arte is also built on various disciplines such as music, dance, acrobatics, fencing and different circus skills that are impossible to improvise. But they never used ready scripts.

It is easy to understand, in our text based theatre world, that is the lack of scripts that have fed the myth about Commedia dell’Arte as a throughout improvised theatre form. Many scholars have speculated in how the eccentric idea come up to start improvising or playing theatre without having a text as base, as if theatre wasn’t born long before it was written down. (See HERE) Let us here and now determine that it is not a text that makes theatre and that it is not the absence of a text that creates improvisations. Or to recite Flaminio Scala from the prologue to Il finto marito, from 1619:

For this reason, then, oration, or even locution, and words alone, have little to do with imitation, because even the smallest gesture at the right moment, and made with feeling, can achieve a greater effect than all the philosophy of Aristotle or the rhetoric or Demosthenes and Cicero.TS23

What we can be sure of is that it gave the notion that it was improvised, as all good theatre. That is something most theatre thinkers at the time agreed on, but then they were practitioners as well. Cecchini in his book from 1628 talks much about timing and coordination in building a play for example.
The theory about how much was improvised is that the actors composed already rehearsed and prepared parts in a play with in the frame of the scenario. It was made in a way so that the actor had the freedom to alter the parts he used in a play. We can also hold in mind that Cecchini and Perrucci both talked about how the improvising actor must have a good memory.
Plots, tricks and characters from literary and oral traditions were often stolen and put into different scenarios. Since originality was not the most important attribute for an artist to steal from other authors or groups was not looked upon as something particularly bad. Copyright was not invented yet. It could even be seen as an achievement to, in a refined way, steal and incorporate something already written or played.
It is not relevant for us here today to know how much was improvised to understand how to play Commedia dell’Arte today. We must find our own way in to the work or to quote Tim Fitzpatrik “actors – trained for their task – playing with a limited preparation”.

Continue to Part 2 or Part 3

Back to Acting style in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Acting style | 2 Comments