A Two Week Residency
Several years ago, I participated in a two week, curated, creative residency at an arts centre in Western Sydney. We had pitched the following exploration:
‘To explore Commedia’s relevance to contemporary Australian theatre’
Our theory was that, because Commedia is based on real-life, we could find a “new Commedia” by spending time observing people and replicating them within the theatre space. We’d simply go out on the street and look for people we thought were Zanni (servants), those we thought were Vecchio (masters), etcetera, etcetera; and find versions of them that might fit within a “commedia-esque” structure.
So we sat on the street and in the local shopping mall and then came back and performed the characters we saw. Because Commedia, on the surface, seems to be based on socio-economic factors we looked at those we thought were poor and those we thought were wealthy and we attempted to translate them into “new” Commedia characters.
We worked for two weeks on this enquiry and at the end of the residency we were completely and utterly lost. We’d given it a lot of thought, chewed through a lot of butchers paper and tried a lot of stuff, but nothing seemed to be working. The characters were stereotypes of the people we’d seen but they felt untrue and even a little insulting to the people they were based on.
We even presented a short performance at the end and it went terribly. As I type this I’m cringing at the results of our time in that space.
So… where did we go wrong?
Renaissance Thinking - not so different? Some Historical Context.
Commedia is based on the social hierarchies of the time in which it emerged but it is a mistake to think that every aspect of their worldview was vastly different from ours. The 21st century Western worldview is, probably, more informed by social developments in Italy during the renaissance than any other place or time in history. Italy from the medieval period right through the renaissance (the period in which Commedia arrives on the scene) exhibited a type of proto-capitalism. Trade was relatively free between city-states and aspirational workers moved freely between the city and the country, desiring to improve their economic status (1). Mobility and unrestricted growth was the mantra of this golden age of continental trade. These factors led to a lot of wealth coming into Italy, creating fertile ground for the developments of the renaissance itself.
Out of this early modern aspiration emerges Commedia dell’Arte and Zanni: a migrant from the country who comes to the city striving for a betterment of his circumstances. All the other characters are built on this foundation (2).
An Aspirational Everyman
The problem with our creative laboratory was our grand assumption (informed by an Anglo-centric view of social hierarchy) that the power structures being suggested by Commedia were impassable. We saw social mobility as an impossibility and the characters as static. We reduced Zanni to a bumbling imbecile void of aspiration and in doing so lost the dignity of the character.
Why is this important?
If we are to find a “contemporary Australian Commedia dell’Arte” we must acknowledge that life is full of micro-hierarchies which we move through fluidly, in and out. Just as the social hierarchies of the Renaissance were flexible, as the everyman of this time moved between master and servant, our own hierarchies are moveable and able to be challenged. Commedia for a modern audience must capture this.
Everyone you see is at some point in their life, Zanni. We all need food and a place to sleep and we all have a desire for more. Zanni is greedy and so are we. Despite our trials, we all succeed in the face of insurmountable challenge, so does Zanni.
At a recent adult workshop, I watched one of our participants struggle to use a travel card while getting off the bus. The actor (masked as Zagna, the female Zanni) struggled to get the travel card out of her back pocket. She writhed and thrusted and jumped all to no avail. The scene finished with her realising she could just rub her butt on the travel card detector, doing so and then walking off chuffed.
This short lazzi did not require a designation of hierarchy. The character could’ve been rich, poor, educated, uneducated, elite or common. This Zagna had a universal quality, her struggles are real and her Zagna-logic brilliantly saves the day.
Above: students in our recent Commedia masterclass series at 107 Projects.
In our search for a contemporary-Australian Commedia, we were looking for some great, overarching hierarchy within contemporary Australian society. We assumed it could be found by looking at socio-economic status - poor people and rich people, and so we judged the people we saw on the street and ended up mocking poverty and failing to be funny.
Instead, maybe we should have asked questions of the micro-hierarchies we see every day, in which people move between servant and master with renaissance fluidity:
Instead of bundling humanity into inflexible categories, the true spirit of Commedia reflects the eternal struggle of human beings as they claw their way to betterment through life, death and taxes. If we can recognise the micro-hierarchies of everyday life then maybe we can create a theatre that unites us all in the human struggle. Maybe we might find that this form already offers everything we need for a contemporary, Australian Commedia.
(1) Goldthwaite, Richard A., The economy of Renaissance Florence. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 341.
(2) Crick, Olly, “The Coming Together” in Judith Chaffee, and Oliver Crick (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell'Arte (Taylor and Francis, 2014), 228.