If people have a vague notion about commedia dell'arte, particularly musicians, they tend to imagine clowns, grotesque, perhaps mute, definitely unfortunate to a dark extreme. This would have been true for me as well, had I not become serious about Baroque music and found myself reading the excellently detailed and fascinating research published about commedia dell'arte actresses and music, particularly that of musicologist Anne MacNeil, and about Monteverdi's Arianna and the tragically premature death of its lead singer, which led to Virginia Andreini, a commedia dell'arte actress, singing the premiere. But first, to head off any misunderstandings, this workshop is not about clowning, although several of the course's 20 participants are professional clowns and came to the program by way of serious clown coaches (yeah, that's a thing and they sound terrifying), who hold Fava in high regard. Commedia dell'arte is a theatrical art form, first developed in Italy during the Renaissance, which is improvised (although this term deserves big scare quotes) and is played by a company of actors each of whom specialize in one of a number of characters that are part of the commedia dell'arte universe, such as zanni or servants (Harlequin, Brighella, Pulcinella, etc.) and innamorati lovers (Isabella & Flavio or Flaminia & Leandro, etc), to name a few. Each character observes a set of conventions - 'physical masks' - that, in some cases, includes a literal mask, but in all cases means rules governing use of body, some of which are techniques to ensure clarity for the audience and others of which represent an idealized self-conception of early modern Italian society and social order in terms of education, money, and beauty - all wrapped together in a story which starts out with balance among its characters, becomes complicated and out of balance, and ends with return to balance.
Fava however has spent a good part of the first two days telling us repeatedly that commedia is not clowning: we are not playing caricatures; there is no miming or abstraction; and although our walks are stylized, we shouldn't walk like marionettes. And, spoiler alert, it's embarassingly hard to avoid any and all of these things, especially when wondering whether or not one is walking 'correctly' makes being funny very difficult...but I digress. Rather he explains that commedia is a 'spectacle of reality'; just as volcanos show us what is in reality at the center of the earth. This 'explosion' should not destroy what is real by becoming surreal or mocking. Pure externalization of what a character feels under complicated circumstances becomes funny, plain and simple, as he says, "Simple, but not easy." Currently unintuitive and awkward, but we have a month, so...
Each of the first two days, we've been introduced to character types, learned the history and social function of commedia, and done basic acrobatics. In the afternoon, Fava throws us into the deep end with impromptu short 'schticks' as well as longer structures developed over about two and a half hours in which a 'company' - a group of three or four participants - flesh out a totally vague scenario (for example, two servants are in the park, two lovers appear, there is a misunderstanding, the servants perform some physical comedy bits, help correct the misunderstanding, and the lovers end back in each other's arms), first coming to an agreement about plot details, then improvising dialogue to fit, an exercise that reflects published versions of commedia dell'arte plays dating from the first Golden Age of commedia in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
At this point, I should confess that I'm not a theatre person. Of course, I've performed shows that require acting, but I am first and foremost a singer. I was grateful to discover more of my kind in the workshop, and still others who are not performers of any kind, but it's a logical question to ask why I'm doing this to myself, especially now that I'm here and my sense of being unprepared for this challenge has produced the most spectacular anxiety dreams. The simple, open-hearted answer is that I believe interrupting one's comfortable path and learning new things is generally good, because it gives one new ways of thinking. Formerly unsolved problems or inconceivable realities suddenly appear with the benefit of new skills and ideas.
The more complicated, specific answer is that, as someone who has dedicated myself to making a major contribution to Baroque and contemporary music performance , I've continually found myself believing that great interpretations of music emerge out of a magical alchemy of rules and creativity, preconceived plans between performers and individual freedoms, and while I find the former of these ways of behaving and thinking easy to conform to, the latter - simply having the safe place to be bold and brave and learn how risk works, so that when the opportunity comes, I'm ready - it's escaped me. So - here I am. No lava yet, but I'll be sharing more of Antonio's insights about theatre and how improvisation works in this blog, so if you're interested, keep reading. Shaw out.