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Chronos Theater Offers Commedia Dell'Arte Workshop

December 19, 2014 3:34 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando gets a preview of Chronos Theater's workshop on commedia dell'arte.

Related Story: Commedia Dell'arte And The Roots Of Slapstick


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: Chronos Theater is dedicated to connecting modern audiences with works from around the world and through time. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews a workshop on commedia dell’arte to find out how a 16th century Italian comedy style connects with people in the new millennium.

Did you know that we get the term slapstick comes from a 16th century Italian style of comedy?

A slap stick is something that Arlechinno would have had and it makes this noise like you’re being slapped. A lot of comedy had to do with slapping people on the rear end, it’s so broad.

Find out more when KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews a commedia dell’arte workshop from Chronos Theater. That’s coming up on Morning Edition.

If you’ve watched an American sitcom, then you’ve already had your first lesson in the 16th century theater style of commedia dell’arte. Just think of Giligan’s Island says Celeste Innocenti.

CELESTE INNOCENTI: These are very broad characters that people can recognize upon first glance, you know what their mannerisms are, how they should dress, you know how Gilligan has to wear that shirt and the hat… so from a long distance they are identifiable.

And they had to be. Commedia dell’arte started in Italy as performers traveled from town to town and performed outdoors. So they had to be sure that no matter where an audience member was or how educated they were, they would clearly understand what was happening on stage. Innocenti is the artistic director of Chronos Theater. She wanted to offer a workshop on commedia dell’arte.

CELESTE INNOCENTI: It’s a four-day workshop which will allow students a chance to learn about the characters, about the masks, about the movement in other words to learn a little bit about the commedia tradition and to learn how they as actor can apply themselves to developing the characters.

Commedia Dell Arte relies on stock characters defined by distinctive masks, costumes, movement, and language. These stock characters have held true for centuries and refuse to go out of style no matter how we strive for political correctness. Commedia has given us Patalone, the miserable old miser -- think of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice or Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

CLIP Burns: Think of the economy as a car and the rich man as the driver…

Ill Dottore is the dork who acts like he knows what he's doing but really he doesn't like the character Fez in That 70s Show. While Arlechinno is the wisecracking prankster like Groucho Marx.

CLIP You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle

Columbina is the wise but rather square type, like Mary Richards in the Mary Tyler Moore Show; and The Zanni is a kind of goofball who’s of low standing like Edith Bunker in All in the Family.

CLIP Oh Archie

Besides sitcoms, commedia influenced Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, musical theatre, and improv comedy. This highly theatrical style places these stock characters in improvised scenarios. The original performers considered themselves craftsmen rather than artists, and worked hard at fine tuning their comic technique.

Ivan Rupnik will be teaching the Chronos workshop on commedia dell’arte . He says comedy is far more difficult than drama, and with commedia it begins with an actor’s body movement.

IVAN RUPNIK: For us actors it’s always how we actually come to the stage, not to say the first line to the other actor, actually how you enter, how you walk, where are your hands.

For Rupnik, commedia is not about imitating what’s been done before but rather about inventing something new to define a character and enthrall an audience.

IVAN RUPNIK: It’s not everyday walk it’s not every day run not everyday talk so it is a research also of the voice Oooh, what’s the EEEE!

Facial gymnastics accompany Rupnik’s vocal acrobatics to heighten the comic effect of his demonstration. He next demonstrates that even with the traditional commedia mask covering half of his face, he can still convey volumes with his eyes.

IVAN RUPNIK: The eyes are always the first impression when you saw someone on the stage from the audience so the eyes express a lot.

Rupnik makes the mask come alive with big eye movements. He is an actor who is in complete control of the tools his face and body provide. And that’s precisely why Celeste Innocenti wanted to offer a workshop on Commedia dell’arte.

CELESTE INNOCENTI: To learn control, and to earn character. If you make sharp decisions and sharp character decisions that’s from an individual level, but on a second level an actor doesn’t work alone and so really what commedia teaches you is timing, and working with others in a comedic way and if it’s sharp timing and it works then everybody laughs.

So the next time you turn on a TV sitcom, maybe you’ll appreciate the 400 years of technique that went into that pratfall or one-liner.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

TAG: Chronos Theater’s Commedia Dell’arte workshop begins on Dec. 27. For more information go to Beth’s Cinema Junkie blog at