The 411: Commedia Dell’arte

A look into one of Italy’s most well known art forms, Commedia Dell’arte.


What is it?

A form of improvised theatre that originated in 16th century, Italy. Commedia Dell’arte or ‘Comedy of Craft’, is known for its masks, & comedic stories. It is performed particularly by a theatre troupe and can be performed anywhere: theatre spaces, on the street or even your backyard. 

What is it like?

A Commedia Dell’arte play is performed using improvisation, which are based on preconceived situations or scenarios written in a simple script called, ‘Canovaccio’. The Canovaccio contains a list of scenes or a brief plot outline. With the lack of details, this leaves the rest of the show to the actors to add to the story and the show rests on their performance. Commedia Dell’arte plays typically revolve around comedic & melodramatic subjects such as good versus evil, bizarre love triangles or embarrassing misunderstandings. A play would sometimes have a scene unrelated to the plot and entirely devoted to comic relief. The comic relief or the lazzi, would perform tricks, pantomime or slapstick humour.

The roles of Commedia Dell’arte are stock characters, each with their own respective characteristics, physicalities & mask type. Where facial expressions are usually used to communicate a character’s thoughts & emotions, Commedia Dell’arte expresses this differently. Because of the use of masks, actors use large and highly stylised gestures and movements that allow the audience to identify a character and understand what is going on in the scene.

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*No mask is used.


How is Commedia Dell’arte useful for the actor?

Commedia Dell’arte is a great foundation for anyone who aspires to act or be an actor. For an established actor, it’s also a way to go back to the roots of performance.

The characters of Commedia Dell’arte are exaggerated and precise. Actors learn to take on a role and all its specificities; from movement to facial expressions to voice. It’s also with this highly physical style of performance that teaches actors to act with their bodies and engage with the entirety of the scene. They learn not to be just a, ‘talking head’, but an engaging performer. And it is usually from experiencing such an exaggerated style of acting that we can begin to explore the more subtle & realistic way to act.

As Commedia Dell’arte is always performed with other people, actors learn how to work with each other. As there is no fixed script, actors work together on-the-go to develop the story. They learn not to say ‘no’ and instead, say ‘yes’. They learn to give and accept stimuli to move a scene forward.

What makes Commedia Dell’arte so special is freedom. With improvisation, anything can happen in a scene. Actors can play a character as big as they want to. How engaging and exciting the performance is, rests on whatever limitations the actors set up for themselves. Language is no barrier either as the actor doesn’t even need dialogue to act. The body is what’s most important in communicating with the scene partner and the audience.