Commedia dell’Arte was a very pragmatic art form. The purpose for the actors to act was simply to amuse their audiences, make money, and reach a better social status. But that didn’t make it dull or futile. It was just that the romantic ideas of art as something more elevated, where the actor should be driven by “higher” visions and ideals was not yet invented. It came first by the end of the nineteenth century.
If we look at the first contract among professional actors that we have (from 1545 by the company “Maphios” in Padua, Italy) we can see an almost socialistic collective under the direction of a capocomico, whose responsibility it was to lead and prepare the rehearsals. They shared all the money they earned equal and they even had put aside some money as insurance if anyone of them got ill. If they were to spend any of the money it had to be a consensus agreement.
In the contract there is also an item preventing actors to leave the troupe while the contract was valid.
This contract also indicates that this was not the first contract for a group of actors. It shows that it was already a functioning tradition to live under the mentorship of a wealthy protector and preventing actors to leave for other companies shows us that there were already other companies established.
Some actors where freelance as early as the mid-fifteen hundreds, while others jumped from company to company. They could also work alone, join smaller constellations or create temporary companies.
The competition among companies was tough and it was not always fair.
The name “dell’Arte” also means “by guild” (See HERE). And as in many cases nowadays (at least in Sweden) the guild’s or actors union’s aim is as well as to help the actors within their trade to minimize competition from companies outside their own guild. They worked to get a monopoly on the best squares or towns where they were, and they did not hesitate to throw out competing companies.
The rich and more famous companies were not so considered about the rules. They had connections higher up in society and were able to use them. Here is a quote from a letter to Don Pedro Enriques, duke of Milano from the actress Isabella Andreini:
…”if they now have planned to raise a stage in the public square to play a comedy, or rather disfigure it, I ask you therefore to write to Signore Podestà and ask him not to approve to it.”
Even if the actors of Commedia dell’Arte were professional most of them could not live solidly on their acting. They had to – much like actors to day – be a Jack of many trades, like organizing public feasts, Musicians, private teachers or help the duke with public relations. Even a famous actor like Flaminio Scala worked for a while as perfume dealer.