Article by Dr Olly Crick

Having performed, directed and thought a lot about commedia and its place in the modern world, here are my conclusions and an impossible plan which I would like you to join in with: every County and City round the world deserves its own commedia company, so join in and make it happen. Why?

Firstly, you wouldn’t have read this far or found this page if you weren’t interested in Commedia, and secondly the plan I offer to you and the world below is the fruit of what about 30 years thinking about commedia has produced and, in my opinion, plays to all its strengths. Commedia works best within a local geographic contact, with the audience knowing where the roles come from in their keep it local .

The Accepted Strengths of Commedia

1. It is funny and has broad comic appeal, and highly capable of tragicomedy. 2. It has a strong visual appeal, attractive to most audiences and appeals to a wide age range.

3. Its stock types are, with a bit of work, immediately recognisable to any audience.

4. It easily assimilates, song, dance, stage combat, acrobatics and other virtuoso displays of skill, all of which audiences admire and enjoy.

5. (the masks, costumes, characters are all recyclable from show to show)

Some Useful Observations

1 The historical names and origins of the characters function as a barrier to contemporary audiences. From working with Old Spot Theatre (2004-14) an experiment to relocate the characters in Gloucestershire, complete with localised names and professions, proved successful. Pantalone di Bisognosi, representing the best and worst of Venetian mercantile culture means a lot to an audience in Italy, but to an English audience? We have enough trouble with the names from Shakespeare.

2 That the historical masks all originated in adjacent regions, all of which had ‘attitude’ to the other regions. Each mask both represents for and caricatures people from that region, or area within that region. Commedia is ‘theatre of place’. You have ‘beef’ with the next town along, much in the same way your ‘team’ is better than the next town’s ‘team’. And they have ‘beef’ with you. Think of Romeo and Juliet..two families with ‘beef’.

3 That one historical reason for the success of the genre was that each character occupied a single rung on a social hierarchy, with its own social class or gendered social class, so that the performance of a full troupe performatively shows the working of a complete society. Every member of the audience will have a representative of their social class on stage and sees how society works from that point of view. They will also, of course, have ‘attitude’ to the other social classes being performed in front of them. Commedia is a comic performance of a full societal spectrum from the Aristocracy or ruling classes, through the bourgeoisie to the working classes and precariat.

4 That though we remember the gags and laughter from a Commedia show best, it is a strong storyline that an audience engages with, that both keeps the audience’s attention for longer stretches than a series of good gags, and is the skeleton upon which the gags are based.

5 Politics is not something to back away from in a show. In my examination of current practice there are three models of commedia performance upon which to base your shows: entertainment, engagement and ideological. I strongly suggest that the ‘engagement’ model is the way forward for commedia. For those who are worried about being ‘political’, and alienating your audiences, I suggest that you actually mean ‘ideological’, because no one likes being preached to. Politics can be seen as the discussion or negotiation over the availability of resources, and that, mainly, is the business of most drama. Another useful definition of politics is ‘the performance of ethics’.

So…. What do you do now?

Think on the following when constructing a show:

1 Keep the hierarchical commedia system intact but transpose it your region. Who is the equivalent of Pantalone and Brighella, for example? What are their names? Where do they come from within your region? How do they speak, and in what dialect?

2 What are the characteristics and received ‘wisdom’ of each regionally based role, and who are their regional allies and enemies? What are their needs, wants, passions and fears?

3 What is the social hierarchy encompassing your regional based types?

a. Have you created a hierarchy for your whole region, or just the bit you are interested in? Have you got power figures, middle classes and lower classes? Below is an example chart of how Old Spot Theatre adapted their characters. b. There is an issue with the historical social types, in that the models 90% of commedia teaching is carried out through, and a 100% of the Masks commedia is performed with, are based on Renaissance and Baroque power structures and recreations of Renaissance and Baroque masks. These masks do not quite correspond with today’s types, so thought may be required to note what today’s societal hierarchy is (an examination of UK census class divisions, for example, is useful here), what are its types, and which ones are masked (and whether we have to design new masks).

4 Use a conventional 3 act neo-classical comic structure to build you story: Act 1 Introduction; Act 2, complication; Act 3, further complication and resolution.

5 Each mask, based in a region, will have an immediate reaction to any change in the allocation of resources.

a. For yourselves, how does each member in your hierarchy react to a particular stimulus that matters to your County? Maybe the council offers the choice of a new leisure centre or a new railway station; a factory is being closed and relocated ; there is a lack of affordable housing etc.

b. Research the issues associated with your and map them onto the socially appropriate roles within your cast.

6 An unmasked role shows human ambition, and the full range of human wants and needs, proposing the actions that start and develop a plot, and they exist in fictional dramatic time. A masked role is a fixed type and can only see things from their point of view, being locked into that position by the societal coding present with the mask-object’s design. A mask can simultaneously exist in dramatic time, and in the same time-flow as an audience.

7 As Commedia characters are social types only, their animation on stage is entirely dependent upon the actor portraying them. In rehearsal the question that should eb foregrounded for each actor, is who is your ‘Pantalone’, ‘Doctor’, ‘Lover’ etc. Archetypal psychology from Jung indicates, perhaps, that the Masks’ drivers are basic human needs. Otherwise ‘archetype’ is an imprecise term and has been used spuriously to define ‘depth’ within a mask. A mask cannot be a stereotype because it is animated by the individuality of the actor performing them: they are simultaneously an individual representing the agency of their class, and a symbolic representation of that class.

8 Other Things of Relevance

a. Order of creation: Storyline, Storyline related gags, music, character related gags, surreal gags.

b. You must have both masked and unmasked roles within your cast. With a small cast (of course) a workable approach is that each actor plays three roles: a major role, a supporting plot related role and a chorus role. Of the first two one should be masked, and one unmasked, to aid multi-rolling.


Apply from your local Arts Council for a grant to pilot a community Commedia dell’Arte company, reflecting through a comic framework the needs and wants of a community: three weeks of rehearsals and a week of shows, at a variety of traditional, community and non-traditional venues. And if appropriate I will get involved and help… Good luck!

Olly Crick: