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”.

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2014 – Sexfiaskon och en stol (sex/six-failures and a chair)


This was a fall production from the second year students at Kulturama’s physical theatre program in the fall of 2014. The show played in Stockholm with three shows.

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Sexfiaskon och en stol (Sex/six-failures and a chair)


Text and directing – Micke Klingvall

Zanni – Yosefin Bouhler
Pantalone – Per Mollan
Flavio – Mårten Gunnarsson
Flavia – Malin Andersson
Capitano – Axel Boberg
Signora – Manuela Bjelke

Click here to see a trailer of Sexfiaskon och en Stol.

This was a fall show for the second year class of physical theatre 2014/15 at Kulturama in Stockholm. It opened at Kulturama in Stockholm 16/12-2014 and played three shows.


The show is a classic Commedia dell’Arte, with of lots of play, lots of audience participation and some acrobatics. It was the first production for the students. We focused much on finding the play with the masks and the Commedia dell’Arte attitude.
The plot is based on the Signora who seeks seduce Flavio just as Flavia enters and misunderstands the situation. Then Capitano enters also wanting Signora, but gets caught by Pantalone who is looking for Signora who has been buying to much clothes. And so on…


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Commercialism in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)


The classical way is to wait until the hat is full before the show starts. The advantage with this way is that once “the hat is full” the actors don’t have to think about it and can concentrate on the show itself. The flip side is that not many people nowadays are ready to give money for a show they have not seen and they might not even have the time to stay to see the show.
The most usual way is to ask for money after the show is over. Hopefully the show has gathered a great crowd. Now people are happy and are willing to give some money for the show. Unfortunately it seldom works that way. Usually most part of the audience sense that it’s time to be asked for money and they leave the show in the middle of the final song while the actors are looked up on stage. So if we want to pass the hat at the end of the show we better promise something extra at the end of the show, maybe even after the final song. Another way is to go out in the audience just before the final song or even the final itself. It may be suddenly in the middle of the show spontaneous or not. Or as a part of the show, for example: “We must have enough money to make the marriage possible (Here is a chance for having another ending depending on how much money it brings). The best way, at least is it what I think, is to pass the hat in the middle of the show. We can’t trust that it is always possible. The actors that are not on stage at the moment can be doing the sound effects, have to be ready to jump onto the stage etc. Another problem that may occur is that an actor who is out in the audience may not be able to come back in time for his or her entrance. We never know what will happen out there in the audience, an old lady may be looking forever in her handbag for her purse; someone starts a discussion with a mask and so on.
One way it to give the audience some kind of reward, like letting someone up on stage or just give the person applause.  This work perfectly in Italy where people seems to love to be in center of attraction, but in Sweden it seems to be the other way around. People are very shy.KK38One of the great things with street theatre is that it is free. We shall not forget that. We can never force or demand payment from anyone, doesn’t matter how hungry we are. I guess we all have seen a street artists that more or less demand money saying something like: -“This is my job!”.  As if that was the audience’s problem.

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Commercialism in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)


Commedia dell’Arte is commercial by nature. One of the earliest names on Commedia dell’Arte was Commedia Merceraria (One of the many early names it has). The troupes played it in order to make money as any profession would. Commedia dell’Arte was born long before the romantic era with its idea about “the artist” as someone who don’t need prosaic things like respect, food or money as long as he could practice his art. This hypocritical view on the artist is still more or less reign.
So please let us see Commedia dell’Arte for what it is: a very practical art form with actors that not only want to survive, but also live well.

In practice this means that we have to use the idea, especially when playing in the street. If we want to earn any money at all we have to take that in consideration already when we prepare a show. It is not enough to just put a hat or a box in front of the stage for people to give money in. We must also find ways to remind the audience of the hat. It is not of greediness people don’t give. They might forget about it, they are sometimes too involved in the show itself or they are too shy to get up in front of the audience to give their contribution.
If the show is not bought by a festival or similar we will have to go “hat in hand”. That raises lots of questions: When in the show is it most effective? Can we make it to an integrated part of the show? Should it be done after the show, or even before? Is it possible for an actor or a mask to walk around in the audience during the show? Can that be part of the show?TS08

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Mask technique in Commedia dell’Arte in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)


A dialog works as follows: the first mask to speak first turns to the mask he speaks to, in order to show him and the audience who he is talking to. The he turns his mask to the audience and acts and says what he has to say. The other mask looks at the mask that speaks so the audience understands that he is listening. When the fist mask is ready he turns back to the second mask to give him the focus. The second mask turns out to the audience to answer or react to what is said.
This technique is not only used for dialogs it has to be used for every reaction the masks have. If the for example find something on the floor it first see is turns out the mask to give the audience its reaction. If he chooses to pick it up or choose not to, he must show the audience his decision and the reason for it. It is these small reactions that build the plot in Commedia dell’Arte, since we can’t follow the face of the actor and since we see the bodies of the actors through the masks. See HERE
This “takes” (the turn of the head out to the audience) or “body takes” (a bigger turn using the whole body) are the mask’s windows to the audience. It is here the audience can follow the inner life of the mask. It uses the takes when it speaks, reacts, change state of emotions even when it speaks direct to the audience. In this way the mask technique reminds of puppet theatre or the way cartoons are drawn.

But the masks are not puppets or cartons. They are flesh and blood. It is therefore extremely important that the actor behind the mask really sees and communicates with the audience he or she is reacting to.
If the actor is too fast to see or chooses not to see the audience, the audience will not see the mask and its intentions. The content of the show and the mask’s/actor’s loses its value and he becomes as dead as the puppet in puppet theatre. Both the mask and the puppet are just pieces of dead matter until and actor fills it with life.Kult87

Commedia dell’Arte is a kind of theatre with no idea about a 4:th wall and it is constantly in contact with its audience. The most important focus for the actor is always the audience. If the mask loses the contact with the audience it dies or playing something else than Commedia dell’Arte.
Obviously the actors have to be in contact with its colleagues on stage, but that contact is secondary to the contact with the audience. Every mask uses all the time the other masks as their sounding board in its dialog with the audience.

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Mask technique in Commedia dell’Arte in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)


First of all we must establish that the mask technique is used by every mask in Commedia dell’Arte, consequently also the masks that don’t actually have a mask in their face. That is so all masks are playing in the same “world”, the same way, with the same energy and size. It does not work to have some masks (those without masks in their faces) act in another way then the rest.
The mask also has the power to emphasize those who don’t wear a mask by the contrast between the stylized, static and the living face. This demands off course that that the actors without masks act with the same energy and technique as those with a mask.

One of the most important aspects of the mask technique is that the mask does not work in all angles. For example the audience will not be able to follow the masks emotions and intentions in profile as it don’t see the face of the mask. It depends on the fact that we can’t see the eyes of the mask when the mask is turned too much to a side. The static face of the masks also disappears when the mask is in profile. This is even more important as we are so much used to look at each other’s faces and communicate with our faces. See HERE.TS40
The mask is communicating with the audience almost only when it is turned to it, so that the audience can see the actors eyes and follow the reactions of the mask. Therefore does the mask turn to the audience every time it speaks, reacts or change emotional state. This obviously feels awkward for the actor, who is used to react in the direction of the stage or who he or she is talking to. This can also be quite difficult since the mask usually has rather small eyeholes and the sight is limited.
Since Commedia dell’Arte is played without a “4:th wall this is perceived as quite natural for the audiences. Sometimes the audience doesn’t even notice the technique.

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Entrees, sorties and sidelines in Commedia dell’Arte


Some of the special conventions in Commedia dell’Arte are the use of entrees, sorties and sidelines. An entrée always have to be exaggerated and articulate. I don’t just have to be so full of energy that the mask entering the stage takes over the focus and raise the level of performance; it also has to present the character of the mask, emotional state and business. In the old times the actors could get extra paid for every entree applause.
Sometimes I have used small trampolines behind the backdrop to help the actors get the right energy at the entrée. Every time a mask comes on the stage he bounces off from the hidden trampoline and sort of flies on to the stage.

Equally important is the sorties. Just before a mask leaves the stage he turns out in a fast “tag” to bid farewell to his audience. It is not just because he wants to be sure he hat the audience’s favor when he leaves, but also to tell them where he is going, what he thinks about it, and what his mood is and so on…
Even if the form of the sortie is important can it be highly unmotivated. From the same idea that the mask may never enter the stage if he doesn’t have anything to do there he may just unmotivated leave the stage when he has done his business. Either the mask just leaves the stage or it finds an silly or simple motivation on the spot. But still the form of the sortie and what it says is important.


An aparte is just Italian for a sideline or an “aside”. In Commedia dell’Arte, with its mask technique, a mask does an aparte when it – for I short while – let’s go of the action on stage, take a step forward to the audience, and deliver a line or two, then steps back and continue as nothing has happened.  Meanwhile the other masks either freezes or continue their actions quietly without carrying the plot forward. This is a way for a mask to comment on what is happening undisturbed. The actor may even chose to take of the mask in order to make his comment from another angle than what the mask is able to.
Note that it is not really the same thing as in a melodrama for instance, where it is used to help the plot forward, while in Commedia dell’Arte it is more used for just a gag or a lazzo. And since Commedia dell’Arte, with its loss of the 4:th wall, as a form is in constant dialog with the audience is not needed in the same way. Read More

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No 4:th wall in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 3)


We can take in the audience in the performance either as an organism in itself or turn to different individuals in the audience. The show becomes a play between the audience and the masks on stage. In this play the both become both producers and consumers of the show.
There is a great difference between different audiences and they demand to be treated different. We can be assured that some of our prejudices will inure when it comes to differences in national stereotypes. That was something that Kompani Komedi experienced when we played AAARRGH!!! – Capitano Catastrofo Collosalle in Italy. As Swedes we were carful not to make anyone in the audience think that we would have them coming up on the stage and embarrass themselves. The Italians on the other hand took every chance they could see to come up on the stage with the actors. We learned pretty soon how to listen in an audience. After all its them we are going to play with.
But most audiences – at least in northern Europe – have a limit to how much they want to participate and we have to respect that. As I see it the limit is when the actors are exposing individuals in the audience. It is the actor how gets paid to show himself and his art, not the audience. It can destroy the whole experience for someone to be worrying about being dragged up on the stage or having an actor in his lap to embarrass him.
The audience is not prepared to act and is therefore in a weaker positon than usual. It is therefore a fastidious task for the actor to estimate how wants to and who doesn’t want to be a part of the performance.


Off course there are also limits to how much we can let the audience to interact. There are always some drunk how wants to take over the show or parts of the audience becomes one big mass and their rhythm comes to control the performance. The agreement between the audience and the actors has to be on the actors conditions. If not: the focus risk to be moved into the audience and the actors won’t be able to deliver.
There are no rules for how to do it. We always have adapted to the situation.
Much is about rhythm, to create one where the audience feels comfortable and then adjust it to the needs of the show. It is a good piece of advice to early in the performance talk with the audience in a real dialog to help them into the show. Here is where a prologue has its place where we can use our intuition and sensitivity to scan what audience there is that night. No audience is like the other to use a worn phrase.
We must always assume that the audience is on our side, that they have come to have fun and that they are willing to help us create a good atmosphere around the show.

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No 4:th wall in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)


One convention in Commedia dell’Arte is to take of the mask in the middle of the play explaining that a mistake has been made and he will now be repeating the gag or trick or blaming the director/author when a gag didn’t work.
And theatre is no need for an actor who is not on stage to run and hide from the audience. They can very well take of their masks and go and sit in the audience or even better pass the hat. Changing clothes and so on may be done in front of the audience. No one would believe that there would be someone else under the mask anyway. We all know that is just theatre the whole time.
Sometimes, especially when playing indoors, it may be an idea not to show these things, since modern audiences are not used to it. The risk is that is takes too much of the audience’s attention.


When I tell about my little walk in the forest (see PART 1) I keep eye contact with the audience. I can even ask questions to the audience, that they are answering. I am in dialog with the audience, without losing the illusion of the walk in the forest. In the same way is the audience in Commedia dell’Arte always a present, active and important part of the show. It is therefore very essential to see and listen to the audience the whole time. We must actively incorporate the audience in the show by listen to them and react to every little detail they say or do. It is in fact much more important to listen to the audience that to our fellow masks. In that way we are inviting the audience into the show.

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