Commercialism in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)

KK39

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)

TS26

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)

Kult72

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

TS28

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.

Kult29

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)

Kult65

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.

Kult25

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)

Tea03

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.

KK48

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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No 4:th wall in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)

Tea17

In most theatre today there is an idea that the audience is supposed to sit down passively and don’t disturb the performance. We shut down the light in the house, demand total silence of the audience and then act like if there was a 4:th wall between the audience and the actors pretending there is another reality on stage. In the Royal theatre in Sweden it has gone so far that an actor in a Bergman directed play stopped the performance complaining that the audience where coughing. Read more HERE.
In Commedia dell’Arte the concept that the actors are trying to create their own reality upon the stage for the audience the watch, or rather peep at, does not exist. Everyone knows all the time that it is theatre and no one has to pretend that we are located somewhere else than at the theatre, city square, platform etc. There is no need for verfremdung in Commedia dell’Arte since one of the cornerstones in distance. We can talk about three levels of reality: the masks that wear masks, the masks that don’t wear masks and the audience.

TS03

To explain how it works I usually, when I lecture in Commedia dell’Arte, tell a little story about when I walked on a path in the forest, one of those covered with pine-needles that prickles ones feet. All around there is tall pines (I show with my hands) and it smells in that special way that one only can be found in a pine forest. –“You know that mixture of wood and grass, that smells when it is really hot?” (By now the audience usually nodes or shows that they know what I am talking about.) I was barefoot so I had to avoid all the pine cones everywhere. (Now I am up on my feet miming the whole thing) Here I abrupt the story. The illusion have been complete, everyone have been with me on that path in the forest. But I have never been trying to pretend that I have been somewhere else than where we are. I have told my audience about my walk and they have used their imagination to, using their inner eye, be there in the forest with me. They have probably also added some blueberry sprigs or heard birds singing.
Commedia dell’Arte is, in the same way, a narrative form of theatre. We tell the audience what we are doing all the time and we do the things we do in order to tell a story (or a situation), but we don’t always use words to do it. For example when Arlecchino does a back flip because someone gave him a punch on the nose (and everyone can see that it wasn’t even close to the mask) or when all the masks comes in with torches in their hands fumbling their way on stage just to tell the audience that it is dark, then the audience adds the fragments or the logic that is needed to create the believability in the story. In this way we are telling the audience what we are doing and we never try to make them believe that they are somewhere else or make them forget that they are watching a piece of theatre. Still they fill in the gaps and create the story with us. This also makes Commedia dell’Arte a very theatrical form of theatre.
Much of the comedy in Commedia dell’Arte is also based on that everyone, the masks, the actor, the audience knows that they are doing/watching theatre and play with that fact. It can be Dottore who keep putting on his glasses and every time notices the audience that he had forgotten or the cast that threatens to start all over again just because the audience are laughing too much and therefore are destroying the beautiful show they trying to play.

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Sound and sound effects

Kult62

Commedia dell’Arte can very well be played without words, but never without sound, not even for a short moment. That is because it is street theatre.
Sound has the ability to draw attention to it. I usually do an experiment in class when I teach Commedia dell’Arte. I focus the class on a spot on the wall, something outside the window or just the back wall. When everyone is looking I clap my hands or make some kind of noise behind their backs. Suddenly everyone turn around facing the sound. But if I make the same clap or noise when the class is watching a video or they are focusing on something that has a sound they will not turn around if, off course, the sound of the noise is not too loud.
Naturally this also applies to Commedia dell’Arte when played on the street. A dog’s bark, an engine’s roar, any sound will draw the attention from the show. The antidote is to constantly make some sort of sound from the stage to keep the attention there. And as said it doesn’t have to be talking. It can very well be voice illustrations, sound effects etc.

Sound effects are a very effect full tool for Commedia dell’Arte that is nowadays used more and more. What we are talking about is the kind of sound effects that follows a movement, high lightens a fall etc. It seems to have come as an influence from cartoons that use it in the same way.
With the help of sound effects we can easily pronouns the rhythm in a physical or acrobatic segment, help us give the feeling of prolonging an arm or a leg or just make simple movements look more spectacular.

Callot08

There is usually a small music stand beside the stage. There are instruments stored when they are not used on stage and there are also the sound effects made. A common basic set of instruments could be three drums in different sizes, a crash cymbal, a triangle, a “push-and-pull-flute” and a rattle. On top of that it can be filled with as much instruments as one needs.

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Tempo or rhythm

Kult60

Commedia dell’Arte is always fast, it is always moving forward and there are no dead moments in it. Except from the fact that it is comedy and it requires a comedy tempo, it is a consequence of that it is street theatre. No dead moments can be allowed in the streets. There is always too much happening around the stage that competes with the action on the stage. Kids and dogs are playing; cars are driving by or drunks that fight. If we, from the stage, give up our focus to them we have to either work hard to take it back or it will simply disperse. And we give them the focus as soon as we leave a dead moment on the stage.
It is important that the masks constantly move the action forward and not get stuck even when they are standing still, repeating themselves or waiting for other masks to get ready with whatever they are doing. In the moment the audience can figure out what will happen next they will lose interest and give their focus to the street scene instead.

If we play indoors we naturally don’t have that problem when people have paid for their seats and there are no distractions around. But still: it is Commedia dell’Arte we are playing and it has its roots in street theatre. Even if we have the possibility to adapt to the situation when we play indoors (and we have to, or it will be a sort of running-and-screaming-and-waving-arms-in-the-air-theatre) so that we don’t play an energy level designed for realistic/psychological theatre. Commedia dell’Arte is still high energy theatre.

Kult82

This style of acting also demands an unusually rapid tempo so that the big gestures and movements and distinct pictures not shall perceived as stupid, over exaggerated children’s theatre. We also have to bear in mind that Commedia dell’Arte is Vulgar Comedy and that a sense of frenzy always is a part of what makes up the genre.

The actor on the other hand must not think too much about tempo. He should be thinking in terms of rhythm, which is much more useful to him. There is always a risk that tempo gets confused with stress if we don’t instead speak of rhythm. We can always start rehearsing in a slow rhythm and then increase it as we go along, but we cannot be speaking of tempo and speed. It only confuses the actors.

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Size and visual narrating

KK28

It’s important to be seen when playing on the street. Therefore we must be big and distinct in movement. We must always make sure that we communicate on such a large distance that we, not only attract audiences to come forward, but also to make them laugh. We bend our bodies in extreme positions and there we move in exaggerated versions of normal movements to be more obvious at great distances. It is not just to be clear and distinct that we take out our movements to a maximum, but first of all is because the mask demands it of us. For our bodies to play “in the same world” as the mask, with its exaggerated face features, they have to use movements and poses big enough to match the mask.

Tea02

It is not just because of the image of a Commedia dell’Arte performance that the actors work extremely big. It also has to do with how we, the audience, receive the performance. We don’t just see the clear, huge gestures and large movements. We also perceive the qualities and power through the actor’s muscles, not just through their intellect and mentality. It enhances the power and the motion of the acting on stage. As an audience our everyday fears and become absorbed by the actor’s vitality and energy that meet us. We ourselves become part of the creativity that flows against us since the language of the body does not pass through the filters of the brain.
This can be perceived as frightening or intimidating in a society where we are used to hide our bodily expressions. All of a sudden we react intuitive and animal like on what is happening on stage. It is out of this fear one of the strongest criticism of Commedia dell’Arte, and Vulgar Comedy too, grows.
Commedia dell’Arte is first and foremost street theatre and the acting style has developed out of this. Therefore Commedia dell’Arte is based on visual ways of expression and narrating. On the street it is, all the time, important to use big gestures and movements and to be distinctly visual in narrating.

Kult47

One of my favorite expressions when I direct a Commedia dell’Arte piece is: “I can’t see what you say” I have been told. I it might be something that… It is not just because it is a part of the genera itself as the visual understanding is important. A spectator on the street usually just gives a show a glimpse to see if he likes the show or not. He has no time for listening to the lines to try to understand the plot. But he has time to take in a picture from the show. It is therefore important that we always create a picture that tells what is going on, on stage. When the psychological actor looks for memories or emotions to find the character, or when the intellectual actor uses the text to find underlying metaphors. Then the physical Commedia dell’Arte actor looks for pictures for what is happening to the masks, they want and think. In that way they move the plot forward and externalize their impressions visually.

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