11 Devising and Performance Ideas for Commedia dell Arte

Here are some of the ideas I’ve collected over the years to help you sequence a series of practical lessons on Commedia:

1. Explore the Stock Characters – Go through each of the main stock characters in Commedia including how they walk, talk, stand, dress etc. Get the students to fill out a table identifying each of these.

2. Tell Jokes & Say Tongue Twisters – To prepare for Commedia it is important to get students to start thinking about jokes, what makes them funny and how they are told. Get the students to think of ones that they know or give them a selection to say to the class. Tongue-twisters are a great way to warm-up for any vocal performance. They can also be incorporated into Commedia performances as part of the dialogue.

3. Create a Nonsense Scene – Provide the students with a series of nonsense words and get them to create a short improvised scene that is based around and features that word. The scene could tell the story of the origin or meaning of the word.

4. Create a Comic Scene – Create short, comic scenes that illustrate the origins of morals or sayings. For example, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

5. Watch some “Lazzi” – Lazzi is the Italian word for “comic accidents” and can be done with real props or mime. Watch a few of the famous comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers and some more modern day comedians such as Lano & Woodley. Focus on how they draw out the dramatic tension of the scene.

6. Practice “Lazzi” – Have a go at stage fighting both with and without props, comic retrievals (e.g. trying to pick up a pencil but it keeps “running away” from you because it’s attached to a string and someone is pulling it away), trips and falls are always fun. Have the kids come up with some rules as to how best to perform the lazzi and have them teach it to the class. Acting in Person and In Style has some fantastic suggestions for this as does  John Rudlin’s Commedia dell Arte An Actor’s Handbook book.

7. Experiment with Dance, Music and Acrobatics – Commedia performances often incorporated live music, dance and acrobatic skills. This is a fantastic opportunity to seek out the musicians in your class and give them a special role. Likewise with the dancers and anyone who has acrobatic or a specific party trick up their sleeve. Look at the effect of each of these elements on the performance and how it could help or hinder a scene (think about mood and atmosphere here).

8. Devise Improvised Scenarios – Once students have an idea of the stock characters start providing them with opportunities to incorporate lazzi into a dramatic structure. Provide them with some scenarios that were typical of the Commedia era. Create some more modern versions of scenes to provide an opportunity to discuss how masked performance is still translatable, relatable and performable (??) in this day and age.

9. Practise Scripted Scenarios – Use some traditional scripted scenes to give students the opportunity to understand the tone and language of the characters from the Commedia period and how they may like to differentiate their tone and language for their own character in either a traditional or modern day scene. John Rudlin’s book Commedia dell Arte An Actor’s Handbook is a fantastic resource for this.

10. Devise Your Own Scenario – Once students understand the components of Commedia, have them form groups and devise an original performance based around the concepts of Commedia. That is, an original stock character modelled on an animal, a master/servant relationship, a clear conflict that is played out using lazzi, utilising a traditional stage space (long and rectangular) and elements of production such as costume, lighting and sound to help with dramatic meaning and audience engagement.

and finally,

11. Find An Appreciative Audience – Give your students a reason to be creating the performance. Whilst it is fantastic to be able to perform to your classmates, a much larger, varied audience is always good. You might like to suggest a couple of performance opportunities in front of different audiences and get them to reflect on the reaction from each. I’ve taken my students to the local area Hospital School for the last couple of Commedia performances to perform for sick kids and it has always been a really enjoyable outing.

Image Credit: Charlie Chaplin, twm1340, (CC BY-SA 2.0)