Advice for the Newbie Commedia Director

Some children in masks.

I was going through some old stuff I’d written, and came across this  “Advice For the Director” that  I’d written in 2002 on a discussion list for theatre about somebody tackling a commedia project for the first time with newbie actors as well.  I think it sums up my take on acting in physical comedy and commedia dell’arte plays very well, especially for people who are NOT professionals.

I remind you that Commedia Dell’Arte LITERALLY means, “Theatre of The Skilled”– so kids, don’t try this at home.  But if you must, follow my advice below, and very few
people will likely get hurt.

I wrote this in January 2002

The true thing about Commedia is that it’s very difficult to do well.

Commedia is like improvising standup comedy and doing ballet all at once.
The stylized movement, the technical mask work, the extreme choices,
followed by the freedom to improvise your lines, your movements, and your
behaviors. It’s really easy for it to fall flat.

As a first time commedia director working with first time commedia actors,
I  would really focus on the  acting–

NOT the stylized movement.
NOT the technical mask work
NOT the costumes

You don’t have the time to teach the kind of physical and rigorous
discipline and virtuosity that those things require– (and Commedia is the
kind of thing where if the audience is focusing on your costumes, then
you’ve already lost the battle.)

I’d focus on the acting– specifically the physicality of the acting, and
their goals.

If you had to simplify Commedia to one word, it would be APPETITE.
APPETITE  for power, food, sex, money. (Depending on the character)

Every character has an APPETITE, and every character is frustrated in what
they want. They don’t get it. PANTALONE wants to bed down with Isabella,
but he never quite gets to. ARLECHINO wants to eat the food, that he stole
from PANTALONE’s table, but he can never find the chance to . (and then
finally, the food gets taken away from him, or stolen, or crushed to
pieces  in his attempt to hide it from PANTALONE, or eaten by gulls, or an
audience  member. Whatever.

Like a sitcom, the actors never change their basic situation. At the end
of  the play, they are all back where they started.

Concentrate on what the characters want, and the crazy outlandish things
that they do to get it. And that they show these wants PHYSICALLY.

I wouldn’t focus on crazy LAZZI because those require virtuosity that your
actors probably don’t have. If you can build a simple routine, do it, but
don’t focus on it. Focus on their APPETITES and how they never get filled.

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