In Defense of la Commedia dell'Arte

A disclaimer: I do not claim to be any sort of authority on the art and history of the traditional Italian commedia dell'arte.

An opinion: No one is, really. Not anymore. There simply weren't enough written records kept (indeed, this contributed to the genre's definition) and the oral tradition is -- by its nature -- subject to evolution in any and all aspects.

A philosophical theory: Commedia dell'arte theatre exists as we make it, and is defined by a method and process more than by specific style elements or traditional strictures. It is in essence a living tradition, one that influences and is influenced by the life and art that surrounds it.

Allora. I feel that there exists in my community here in the United States (and possibly all over the western hemisphere, but I write to what I know) a prejudice against the commedia dell'arte. Perhaps it's futile to address this possibility, given how small a percentage of the population has any idea what the commedia dell'arte is, even in concept, but I'm a theatre artist. Futile pursuits are what I was born to pursue. Plus, it riles me somewhat that the people who are aware of the commedia dell'arte are somehow unaware of its nature. (Just look at this riling on my forearms. And that's only the part that shows!) The Cd'A (went there - for the Twitter crowd) has gotten a bad rap.

Rep? Rap. Rap? A rep, rap, the reppie the reppie to the rep rep rap and I don't stop.

I've had two profound experiences with the genre and its practitioners in the past year, and both have fueled my desire to set the record a bit straighter, but especially the latter. First, in January we began two months' work on a commedia dell'arte and clown production called The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. In this production we worked with two Italian artists, Angelo Crotti and Andrea Brugnera, and learned much about how the commedia dell'arte informed all of their work. Most recently, our study-abroad, cutural-immersion extravaganza, In Bocca al Lupo, concluded its 2009 program, in which the students received training from both these artists as well as we members of Zuppa del Giorno, and performed an original Scala scenario, semi-improvised, in Italian, in two Italian towns. This program is one that always yields surprising, dramatic results; this year, for me, it proved to be tremendously inspirational.

The problem with some people's perception of the commedia dell'arte is, in my opinion, that they perceive it to be juvenile, gross and pandering to the public. There are other factors involved that typical western audiences can have trouble digesting -- the use of masks, the lack of script -- but primarily the problem seems to lie in the commedia dell'arte being stuck with a stigma of being the lowest common denominator in theatre . . . both in terms of content and execution. And, worse yet, this perception is perpetuated by numerous well-intentioned(?) artists. I recall a performance I saw a couple of years ago in which a prop of fake linked sausages was performing with more truth than almost all of the other actors. Shakespeare suffers from similar widespread abuse -- people basing their work on their experience of the form rather than on an understanding of the function. The difference is, with commedia dell'arte theatre there's no one reminding you and insisting that it's really quite good when done well. Well, there's me, today, and there's this guy, pretty much always. And many others, but nothing like the masses of famous Shakespeare scholars and advocates.

We had a diverse group of students for In Bocca al Lupo this year, just as we did the first time we ran the program, in 2006 -- from undergrad theatre students to middle-aged non-actors, and even one professional actor who was close to my age (but even she is from Australia, where absolutely everything is strange and backward and strange). As if sadists, we threw them into intensive classes the day after their plane arrived: hours of Italian immersion class and then they were introduced to Angelo Crotti, who promptly worked our bodies so hard that the next day you couldn't help but feel that you were somehow being punished, perhaps for being so complacent a human being as to not regularly imitate the walk of an alligator for at least ten minutes every day. Heather and I attended all these classes with the students (though we had trained with Angelo extensively before, how could we turn down the opportunity to do so again?) and experienced first hand their struggles and responses. As we began to see, from the very first day, this was not a group that shrunk from challenge.

After intensive physical training and an introduction to the characters and mask work, Angelo ended his (too) few days with us by creating an on-the-spot scenario. It was a little like taking a trip inside his brain, and I know I was often struggling to keep up, so I can only imagine what my fellow actors thought of it. It was fascinating, though, because we got to superimpose Angelo's years of experience on our own relative ignorance, and try to reconcile the two. Watch as gli studenti -- Maureen Arscott, Beth Burkhauser, Marti Cate, Gemma Cavoli, Brian Jones, Becky Lighthizer, Carolyn Ruggiero, Heather Stuart and Addam Wawrzonek -- learn from a master:

Forgive our efforts at acting and mask work (for most of us, it is the first time for both or either, and everyone's just trying to do as they were asked here) but, more importantly, watch the glimpses of Angelo's work the lesson affords. The only thing lacking here is him in mask, which is an incredibly effective thing. It works when he does it because he can be believed. With all the artifice and style and for all the funny fun he's having, he can be believed. Angelo is not, perhaps, the most gentle of teachers. Yet as we reached the end of our time with him, the lessons he repeated were less to do with Arlecchino's stance or needing to put more energy into it, and more and more to do with a repeated imperative: "You must believe in what you are doing."

Angelo's other big axiom, oft repeated while we were working on R&J, is "all is for the audience." This is one that I tend to shy away from a bit, because I've been trained on some instinctive level to perceive working for the audience as pandering. What's interesting is the way in which this axiom can easily be perverted in the same way the commedia dell'arte style can, by putting emphasis on form over function. Ergo, pandering. Of course, as with most things, we have to practice the form over and over again before understanding the function. My understanding of what Angelo means, as far as I've gotten with it, is that the actor must be absolutely generous with the audience in this work. The form is to keep the mask presented forward; the function, to not only maintain the connection with the audience, but make that connection as strong and inclusive as possible.

Fast forward now, through two weeks' continued training and rehearsal, through more Italian lessons and great exercises from Andrea in character development and creation, through innumerable personal experiences (good and bad [sorry: helpful and less-helpful]), through even an initial performance of our scenario (The Two Faithful Notaries) in which we hit all the important plot points with clarity, yet somehow failed to create actual theatre. Fast forward to our second and final performance, in Orvieto. For whatever reason, we had an audience of five adults, one toddler. We held the curtain for about thirty minutes in hopes of more (not unexpected, that: Italy, after all), which is a tough time for actors in general, but especially difficult prior to an intensely physical, comic performance. At last we parted the curtains for our tiny audience.

You know that question about trees in forests and the existential quandary of an unwitnessed fall?

It was a brilliant show. Brilliant. I venture to say everyone of us learned from it and surprised ourselves. It felt to me more like the work that we set out to do with Zuppa del Giorno than even many of our own shows have. There's video of it, but I don't have it and I suspect it's pretty terrible (yes, even worse than my handheld digital camera work) and besides, video always leaves out the best thing about live performance: the direct, real-time communication with an audience. So you'll just have to believe me about how everyone, across the board, ultimately found the show together, and brought characters to life instead of simply getting them "right," and improvised golden bits of true comedy, and lived all the wants and needs and instinctive responses out loud, and on a grand, beautifully physical scale. You have to believe me because it's true, and because that belief is what I've been carrying around with me since I returned to the US of A, and it will make you smile like I do just to think of it.

At its best, the commedia dell'arte offers all the most enjoyable parts of theatre, dance, stand-up, circus (and a little you-name-it, always) in a format that is utterly inviting and inclusive. There's two sides to every coin, of course, and as one of the first recorded commercially motivated theatre genres it can be terrible. We can make it formal beyond repair, or pandering to laughter and coinage, or simply a mess. That's very easy to do. When we make it great, however, there's nothing like it. There are many contributing factors to such greatness. Lots and lots of technical work and training ought to go into any performer taking it on. It's a very difficult form, in my opinion, and as with circus part of the trick is in making it look easy. Most important of all of that, however, is belief. Believing in what you're doing and feeling, the audience's belief in you and your belief in them, and believing in the commedia dell'arte itself.

My point? Just to draw a little attention to what I consider to still be a rather neglected and abused form. Maybe also to say: Make gooder art, everyone. The things we create aren't always magic, but on those occasions when they are . . . hoo-boy . . .