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Commedia Dell’arte And The Roots Of Slapstick

Chronos Theater Offers Four-Day Workshop On 16th Century Comic Technique

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


Companion Viewing

"Duck Soup" (1933)

"The Taming of the Shrew" (1976, American Conservatory Theater)

"The Simpsons" (1989-2014)

Chronos Theatre Group has a mission "to connect diverse modern audiences with theater and performing arts from various world cultures and time periods." Starting Dec. 27 it will be offering a four-day workshop on commedia dell’arte.

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 "Gilligan's Island."

"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," Celeste Innocenti explained.

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 the Chronos Theatre Group. She wanted to offer a workshop on commedia dell’arte.

"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," Innocenti said.

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.

Photo caption:

A 19th century drawing depicting the costumes of the commedia dell'arte stock characters.

Commedia has given us Patalone, the miserable old miser — think of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" or Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons." Ill Dottore is the dork who acts like he knows what he's doing but really doesn't have a clue like the character Fez in "That 70s Show." While Arlechinno is the wisecracking prankster like Groucho Marx or Hawkeye Pierce in "M*ASH." 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" or Charlie in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

Besides sitcoms, commedia influenced Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, musical theatre, and improv comedy. This highly theatrical style places these stock characters in improvised scenarios. Innocenti pointed out that the term slapstick has its roots in a commedia prop: "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."

The original commedia 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. On its website, Chronos brags about Rupnik's credentials: "Trained in traditional commedia dell'arte techniques, Ivan Rupnik has taught previous workshops for Chronos Theatre Group and has directed two productions. He was an advisor on commedia for past Chronos performances, including UCSD-TV's Opera Talk ('Pagliacci') and a production of 'The Coffee Shop' by Carlo Goldoni. Ivan lives part of the year in Encinitas and commutes to work in his home country, Slovenia, where he has worked as a professional actor and ensemble member of Mladinsko Slovensko Theater for over a quarter of a century."

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The many faces of Ivan Rupnik. Trained in traditional commedia dell'arte techniques, Rupnik has taught previous workshops for Chronos Theatre Group and has directed two productions. He was an advisor on commedia for past Chronos performances, including UCSD-TV's Opera Talk (Pagliacci) and a production of The Coffee Shop by Carlo Goldoni. He will be teaching the Chronos workshop on commedia dell'arte that begins Dec. 27.

Rupnik said comedy is far more difficult than drama, and with commedia it begins with an actor’s body movement.

"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, so that’s always the same problem," he said.

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.

"It’s not everyday walk, it’s not everyday run, not everyday talk, so it is a research, also of the voice 'Oooh,' what’s the 'EEEE!'," he said.

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.

"The eyes are always the first impression when you saw someone on the stage from the audience so the eyes, rolling eyes, express a lot," Rupnik said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Some of the masks used in the performance of commedia dell'arte.

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.

"This is part of an actor’s tool kit, it is just as much as knowing Shakespearean iambic pentameter," Innocenti said. "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, appreciate the 400 years of technique that went into that pratfall or one-liner.

Check out the Chronos Theatre Group's past commedia dell'arte work. The upcoming workshop begins on Dec. 27 and is open to all ages and skill levels. Cost is $125.

And Innocenti cites this as one of her favorite examples of a modern version of commedia courtesy of Sid Caesar and company.


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