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Il Dottore Explains It To Us All

by Stanley Allan Sherman, Roving Classical Commedia University* (*Totally Unaccredited)

Roving Classical Commedia University (www.commediau.com) founded in 2001, is committed to keeping Commedia Dell'Arte alive as close to its original form as possible. Stanley Allan Sherman, together with special experts in different areas of Commedia Dell' Arte, teach 12-day intensives in New York City. This article is by Mr. Sherman, who can be reached at il-dottore@commediau.com.


This 1880's print by Maurice Sand, is Sand's vision of "Dottore Baloardo" as he believed he looked in 1653. There were many different Dottores. An earlier Dottore "Dottore Graziano" or "Gratiano," in Latin GRATIANVS, was one that Flaminio Scala used as a stock character in his scenarios published in 1611. There actually was an historical GRATIANVS who lived as a monk in Bologna around the 12th century. He is known for being the first to codify and write the nearly 4,000 canons of Church law, in use by the Catholic Church until 1917.

Dating back to somewhere around the 1530's as near as we can tell, in Italy, Commedia Dell'Arte is credited with many breakthroughs: Working from a scenario, it was the first improvisational theatre; the first time women broke the barrier of playing on stage in Europe; it was strong political theatre and a true theatre for the masses as well as for the elite. Commedia Dell'Arte uses drama, dance, comedy, physical comedy, juggling, masks, music, poetry, scatological humor, song, slack rope walking, stilts, tumbling, and most importantly, the art of improvisation. Being a great Commedia Dell'Arte actor requires exploiting your assets and deficits and those of your fellow actors. You will find the Commedia Dell'Arte actor also using the assets and deficits of their props, audience, sometimes animals--everything that is happening around them.

All the skills a Commedia Dell'Arte actor needs may be why Commedia Dell'Arte is so difficult to do and why Commedia Dell'Arte is not thriving today, why it died--but it never really died. You can say it transformed into playwrights like Shakespeare, Moliere, Marivaux, Beaumarchais, Goldoni, and Gozzi to name a few. Several of their plays are based on Commedia Dell'Arte scenarios. You will also find stock characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte in situation comedies on television today. In order for this form to work the actor needs to exploit his or her multi-talents. A Commedia Actor is much more than a triple threat. The theatrical edge the actor must play at for Commedia Dell'Arte to work is very high. The Actor must be constantly jumping out into the void, that improvisational unknown, and be able to balance and play with all elements physical and emotional.

"...They begin to argue, then to exchange blows. Pantalone strikes Brighella and bites him on the arm. Threatening to beat him again, Pantalone goes off saying he will speak to Franceschina about him [Brighella]. Brighella responds by promising to avenge the bite..."

-- scenario by Flaminio Scala 1611 "Il Cavadente"

This is one of the more descriptive sections from a scenario that Commedia Dell'Arte Actors chose to work from.

If you are performing Commedia Dell'Arte from a script, it is not Commedia Dell'Arte, it is a play using aspects of Commedia. To experience Commedia Dell'Arte you must work from a scenario, which is a script of action points to action points. The length of a scenario is just a few pages. Yet performing a scenario can be three or more hours of jam-packed entertainment. There are also lazzi within the show. Bits of comic physical and/or verbal business where the actors know exactly every movement and every breath they are going to do. The lines in a scenario, how a team of characters gets from action point one to point two, the drive of the scenes is all up to the actors. What you have is a production where every show is different even though the plot is the same. (Of course there were many different scenarios.) This makes for a stage that is totally alive because the actors and their fellow actors actions, lines are in constant creation.

The actors in the company essentially create this living, breathing event as one. They must work together giving, seeing, listening feeling and taking action. This is another muscle the actor needs to develop for the show to function at the level so it is alive. I learned a great deal when I was in an Off Broadway Show for several years. It involved some audience participation and improvisation. It's a talent to be able to work with your fellow actors. The actors must be able to give and trust their company of actors to be able to toss the ball to their fellow players. A show is a game of catch. You are thrown the ball, then you toss and play with it and you toss it back or to someone else. It is amazing how many actors feel a need to hang onto the ball and leave the fellow actors stranded on stage. This also gets into using your fellow actors assets and deficits. Which even works in stranded acting relationship. But the Commedia Actor always put the show first--they knew how to play catch but better than that they knew how to juggle all of the elements of the show with each other, listening and reacting with their whole body and soul at all times, for themselves and the show.

Frequently when we see Commedia Dell'Arte we find a complete concentration on the political, sexual/scatological humor or a form of slapstick--physical comedy. Commedia Dell'Arte is very bold, the political and scatological aspects were often much more subtle than is perceived today. The political Commedia Dell'Arte theatre I have seen has an over concentration of delivering political statements. It usually just preaches to the converted and bad theatre. Scatology can be very powerful when used right. It is explosive and with all explosives it can blow up in your face to the point of being sad and not funny. Often time's scatology is over used gratuitous sexual or body function humor, which is not Commedia Dell'Arte. Great scatology is subtle, blatantly subtle and in some cases just out right blatant. Outright blatant scatology that works theatrically is difficult.

The one time I saw blatant scatology work was with a female clown (whose name I am sorry I cannot remember); she was using her breasts as puppets. It worked because the characters, plot and puppetry were excellent. In my solo show I developed a form of spitting 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 streams of water out of my mouth at once. That was in 1973; it stayed in my show for decades. It was a great moment in the show and worked because it was needed at that moment. We saw a video of a European Commedia Company stuck in slapstick. The hits, kicks or slaps were so over used it was boring. My teacher Jacque Lecoq taught you could hit someone once, more than once it should be, fifty, one hundred or one thousand times, an absurd number. This has to do with any repeatable action. Four or five times is not as relevant, just dissipating the energy of the scene. There is also the famous rule of three--but the rule of one time or one thousand times is stronger theatrically. When you hit someone or use scatology it must be supported by the action, plot and play. Politics, scatology and hits or slaps are very important parts of Commedia Dell'Arte but only one small piece of the whole. All of these fundamentals must be balanced with the show and juggled among actors.

As with all theatre, if an element, or elements, are off balance, it affects the whole show and usually in a negative. Of course all theatre is playing with balance and off balance. The functioning of different elements together makes Commedia Dell'Arte work. It is easy to get distracted and concentrate too much on the politics, scatology and slapstick. One must get the foundation of Commedia Dell'Arte down, understanding the history of the time, the geography of Italy.

In those days Italy was not a single unified country, but an amalgamation of monarchies: kingdoms, dukedoms, states and the Venetian Republic an oligarchy. It is essential to understand the historical context of the Commedia Dell'Arte, the power of the Vatican, the Roman inquisition and Spanish occupation of the Kingdom of Naples were palpable. Where the individual characters are from and there station in life has a strong influence on their interrelationship, how they treat each other and their motivation. Old Pantalone, for example is a merchant from the Venetian Republic on the Adriatic Sea. The comic servant Arlequino is from lower Bergamo, the furthest inland outpost of the Venetian Republic. The cowardly braggart soldier Il Capitano could be a foreigner from Spain. The Venetian Republic was first and foremost interested in trade; they cooperated with the crusades in return for seaports throughout the Mediterranean; they befriended the Jews as bankers, and created a Jewish quarter known as the Ghetto. Do not forget the high arts and craftsmanship of the Venetian--Guilds, techniques in leather, wood, metal and glass, some of which are now lost and cannot be reproduced today. All these cultural aspects of history affect the characters and therefore the way you play them, including of course the political and scatological humor. You must be exploring the characters, movements, songs, dance, object manipulation, lazzi etc. physically. Just studying the history alone will not make you a Commedia Dell'Arte actor.

One of my contributions to the Roving Classical Commedia University* (*Totally Unaccredited) is as the Commedia Dell'Arte leather mask maker. In developing my mask making techniques I had to understand the inner workings of the characters from a full emotional base. This is an example of what goes into the development of character or inner soul of Pantalone from the start of the drawing and sculpting to the completed mask. Pantalone can be made up of many emotions that I put into the mask i.e. greed, loneliness, fear, sexual drive, desire, anger, insecurity, possible sicknesses, anger, love of money and several others all at the same time. So when the actor puts on the Pantalone mask there are several emotional layers to work from for the mask to come alive. You see and the actor will experience the multi-dimensions of the character fully coming alive as Pantalone. When a mask is dead on stage you will see a mask on an actors face. When a mask is working or the actor is wholly connected you will see only the complete character totally involved in every moment. The mask will magically look like it is actually changing expressions.

Commedia Dell'Arte existed even before it became known by that term. But many details about it are missing. Based on our perceptions and experiences we have a common vision of what the early days of Commedia Dell'Arte must have been like. Complementing one another's input and bringing in specialist, each of us, having a different expertise in Commedia Dell'Arte, results in what it has been and what it may have really been like. One surprise that we did not expect in our classes is our range of students including professionals, teachers, and students with ages from 16 to 65. This works well enhancing the learning experience and the art form. Commedia Dell'Arte companies had a similar range--being made up of singles and families. Most actors played one character his or her whole life. Commedia Dell'Arte was popular with the masses, patronized by the aristocrats and even participated in by nobility. Flaminio Scala who was of noble birth wrote and acted in the scenario "IL Cavadente", (IL Cavadente is improper Italian) which Carlo Mazzone-Clementi translated as "The Tooths Puller" which is improper English. It is often referred to as the "The Dentist".

Having seen Commedia Dell'Arte in the United States, it never impressed me as an art form that could make it on the commercial stage until I saw our students perform the first act of "The Tooths Puller". We have been cleaning up our English translation of the scenario "The Tooths Puller," which our historian Hovey Burgess has a copy of in the original Italian from 1611. The audiences from rural Maine, after an hour and a half of "The Tooths Puller," wanted to see the next two acts. After observing this, I believe it is possible to see a commercial Commedia Dell'Arte production working exclusively from a scenario. There have been attempts at Commedia Dell'Arte productions but these for the most part have been scripted shows: not working from a scenario but a set script using elements of Commedia Dell'Arte. One can imagine working purely from a scenario, the difference it would make in the show, the actors and the audience.

Discovering classical Commedia Dell'Arte is about creating the magic moments of theatre, which should be the entire experience. You will then know one of our foundations that help make up theatre today: Finding what it takes to make a scenario come alive. Understanding the Commedia Dell'Arte character inside of you. These are just a few of the basics. The bottom line with Commedia Dell'Arte is: is the magic happening or not? If your sides are hurting from laughter and tears are rolling down your face--you are seeing great Commedia Dell'Arte. The next night the actors and company are creating a different show with the same characters and scenario.

Copyright 2006, Stanley Allan Sherman, il-dottore@commediau.com

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