Commedia Acting Tip: Try It Italian Style
At one of my alma maters (The Dell’arte School) , one of the school’s rehearsal mantras when a scene or a play isn’t working right is to rehearse it “Italian style.”
By this they mean to perform the scene or the play as loud and as fast as you can, and with as much energy as you can muster. Pedal to the metal, full out, like a freight train, and without a let-up or a break or a breath. On a scale of 1 to 10, you should be performing at the fabled Spinal Tap “11” At the end of the performance you should be out of breath and tired and NOT able to do another run-through.
It’s not that they expect your final play will or should be performed at this absolute breakneck speed– for a play to work there must be rhythm, and changes in that rhythm, otherwise even the most beautiful work will eventually become dull.
But by practicing it Italian style, you are getting rid of the thinking and the pauses and the subtextual naturalistic flavors that riddle most contemporary plays and movies. In truth, most work never gets above the scale of 6 or 7 in intensity and energy.
By doing it Italian style, you are remembering the sense of energy and importance and immediacy that is at the heart of playing these characters. You end up physically exhillarated from doing the work at breakneck speed, and with your theatre partners you end up conspiring (breathing together) as well as perspiring. And who knows, you might just find one or two places in your play where yes, that part should be performed absolutely as fast and as loud as possible.
In commedia dell’arte scenarios, the smallest points should be treated as if they were life and death, and in fact much of your comedy will come from just that- the character’s over-reaction to the situation.
In 1997 I went back to Dell’arte for a month long master class with Daniel Stein (who in a weird coincidence, is now firmly ensconced as the Head of Physical Theatre at my other alma mater, Trinity Rep Consortium in Providence, RI.) Daniel, who was a student of Etienne Decroux, and is a master corporeal mime and teacher in his own right, had a great metaphor that is a propo so I will repeat it here.
(I paraphrase- I’m sure Daniel is more eloquent at telling it than I am.)
“Making Theatre is like making coffee. You take your water (your life) and pass it through your beans (your technique) and you end up with a third substance, coffee (theatre), that is an amalgamation of both of the two materials, but is not the same.
Now the Italians, they take the purest water they can find, they heat it up to an impossibly high degree, and then they take the strongest and richest beans they can find, and they don’t just pass the water through the beans, they PRESS it through using great amounts of force to create a delicious and very strong cup of espresso.
And that’s why American theatre is the way it is.”
How do you like to make your coffee? Tell us in the comments below.