Meeting the Characters: The Servants

by Janine Sobeck, dramaturg

In writing The Servant of Two Masters, Carlo Goldoni used several classic commedia dell’arte characters to tell his hilarious story.  Many of these characters, often described as “stock characters,” are still used in theatre and film today.  Let’s see who you recognize.

First up there are the servants, or the Zanni.  With names like Truffaldino, Arlecchino, Smeraldina and Pulcinella, the servants are usually defined as astute tricksters.  The bottom of the pecking order, zanni come from the countryside (most often the city of Bergamo) and represented the poor farm and immigrant workers of Italy.

The zanni are often mischevious and are ruled by their survival instincts – especially by hunger.  Led by their stomachs instead of their brains, the zanni provide most of the comic relief in any commedia style play.  In fact, their main purpose in the storyline is to be the “principal contributor to any confusion.” Misunderstanding, tricks, pranks and continuous attempts to pull one over their masters led to extreme physical comedy known as lazzi.  The most common lazzi involves the use of a batacchio or slapstick, when the zanni receives punishment from his master for one of his tricks.

The zanni are loveable in their stupidity and often interact directly with the audience, ensuring their sympathy.  The greater the scrape -and the more impossible the situation – the more you root for them to succeed.

Next up, we’ll meet their masters…

Quick Facts: Servant of Two Masters

by Janine Sobeck, dramaturg

Mistaken identity.

“I’d like to see how I’ll manage to serve two masters.”
Illustration from “The Complete Comedies of Carlo Goldoni” (1830)

Broken engagements.

Lovers reunited.

Mass chaos.

And in the middle of it all, one very hungry servant.

If you’ve never heard of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni), then you are in for a treat.  So let’s give you a little insider’s scoop.

Servant is written in the style of commedia dell’arte, a hilarious Italian Renaissance theatrical genre.

Commedia is famous for several distinct features:

  • Improvisation: the actors had an outline of the scenes, and the overall story line, but would improvise the lines.
  • Stock Characters: every play used a variation of the same character type – the miserly father, the young lovers, the crazy servants, etc.
  • Masks: each character had a specific mask that made him/her instantaneously recognizable to the audience
  • Physical comedy or lazzi: this is the style of theatre that introduced “zany” and “slapstick comedy” to our vocabulary (the father character would carry around a slapstick – two pieces of wood fashioned together so that it would make a “slapping” sound –  and beat the servant characters)

A traditional slapstick

Since the traditional commedia characters feature so prominently in Servant of Two Masters, I’ll spend my next couple of posts introducing you to them.  I think you’ll be surprised at how many of them are familiar to you.

Ready, Set, Devise!

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

How do you start rehearsing on a play without a script?

Selections from Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief opens this February in the Margetts theatre at BYU and although we’ve started rehearsals, we don’t yet have a script. Instead we are creating a story through a process called devising.

Gone Missing is a devised piece created by The Civilians, a New York based theatre troupe. Inspired by the attacks on 9/11, they wanted to create a story about loss and losing things. They went around their city (Manhattan) and asked whomever they could find, “What is an object you have lost?” They collected the stories, formed them into monologues, created characters and put them together into a larger piece of theatre full of song, film, and interesting anecdotes that bring new meaning into the idea of “loss.” Inspired by this piece our director, Professor Lindsay Adamson Livingston, decided that we should try this in our own community of Provo, UT.

Production photo from The Civillian’s “Gone Missing”

Recently, we were privileged to work with a representative from The Civilians, Emily Ackerman. She sent us out into Provo to interview people. We took the stories we found and presented them in our daily workshops. When we found stories we liked we matched them with stories of similar themes or characters to create a moment. As we continue, we will choose which moments will make it into the show, slowly piecing together our story.

We are aiming to have a first draft of the script in mid-October. But until then we get to go out and collect stories.

So… what’s an object you’ve lost?

A Playwright’s Perspective: Why Afghanistan?

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

Believe it or not, when I started writing A Second Birth I didn’t think twice about setting it in Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I brought the script into my first workshop in Playwriting 1 and I saw the faces go slack in astonishment that I think it finally hit me. After we let out, my professor pulled me aside and said, “What on earth possessed you to undertake this story?” I shrugged. “You have some guts, Ariel” he said.

Forty-eight drafts and two years later, the script has grown and changed but I still get the same question, “Why Afghanistan?”

In October of 2010, I had no idea what to write about. I mean, I was really having difficulty, so when my dad sent me a copy of the article “Afghan Boys are Prized, so Girls Live the Part” I thought a great story had fallen into my lap and I knew I had to write it. I connected to these people. I wanted to tell their story. Wherever we are, or how different our culture, we still have the same emotions, desires, and needs. We care for the same things. I wanted to show the people not the stereotype. I love making the world smaller through love, learning about new cultures, and reaching out to them with an increased understanding.

image courtesy of

Another reason, I chose to tell this story is because I have always been interested in writing about gender. It has interested me personally (being a woman in a man’s world), but I had never really had an opportunity to explore the issue of our divine nature as men and women. I believe that God has given us divine roles that are separate, unique, and incredible, but equal. Setting a play about this in Afghanistan doesn’t dismiss the God aspect of gender, in fact it brings the issue to the forefront. This interested me. Because my characters are Muslim it allowed God, or Allah, to be a part of the discussion. I feel like when discussing gender this is a voice that cannot be left out.

In our modern world, we have lived with the stereotypes of men and women for a long, long time. This has resulted in a great backlash where people pick extremes: either there is nothing different between the genders (it is something society has placed on us) or that they are so different that they are never going to be able to understand each other (that we each have our roles and should stick to them). I would argue it’s more complicated than that. Bacha posh is an Afghani solution to the strict rules surrounding gender. Staging the practice allowed me to explore these issues and to attempt to figure out what gender really is, how important it is, and how much it shapes our lives.

Of Football, Kites and Goats: Sports in Afghanistan

by Katrina Forsythe, dramaturg

The Lions of Khorasan made it to the SAFF Final match in 2011.

Nasim and Yasir in A Second Birth play soccer with their friends—though they follow the European tradition of calling it football. While the Afghani people love their football (the national team was founded in 1922—just three years after they became an independent nation), there are other sports that are, perhaps, less familiar to an American audience.

Kite Flying

Thanks to the book The Kite Runner, we know that Afghani children like to fly kites. But this is not Mary Poppins’ kite flying. The traditional kite in Afghanistan is huge—four to six feet wide—and the string is enhanced with razors and broken glass. The point of the game is to cut the string of the other kites in the air. This means you have to get your kite up quick, and get it close to the other players’ kites without losing your own string. If you can cut down someone else’s kite, it belongs to you.

image courtesy of


My favorite Afghani sport is called goat catching or Buzkashi. Imagine a no-holds-barred American football game on horses with a goat carcass instead of a ball, and you have a vague idea of what buzkashi is. Both horses and riders train for years before they ever make it into an actual match, and broken limbs are quite common. The dead goat rarely makes it through the game in one piece.

Henna: An Afghani Bride Tradition

by Katrina Forsythe, dramaturg

In Afghanistan, when a girl gets married, her hands and feet are painted with henna. It symbolizes her transition from single girl to married woman, with all that implies. The process takes hours, and the effects last for weeks.

Example of Afghani Wedding Henna.
Image courtesy of

This is an easy way to identify a recently married bride. The henna is made from ground up plant fibers soaked in water. The paste is applied like frosting on a cake through a hole the size of a needle’s eye. It goes on a dark brown, almost black, but after it dries—it’s best if you don’t touch anything for a few hours—the dark part flakes off and a dark orange-brown dye is left behind. Traditional patterns include leaves and flowers, swirls and paisley patterns. The groom’s name written on the bride’s hands is also a popular choice. The dye stands out darkest on the hands and feet, but a bride will often have henna on both sides of her hands and up to her elbows, as well as on her feet up to her calves. The henna has a sweet, slightly sharp smell, which lingers until the dye has completely worn off.

A Playwright’s Perspective: Creating a World

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

I’m not a playwright who really pictures things. If you asked me about any of my characters, I would be able to tell you all about what they think, who they are, and how they sound, but ask me what their hair color is and I stare at you like you have three heads. I am one of those people who will read a book and picture the characters as faceless blobs until the movie comes out to tell me what they look like. It’s terrible, I know. Especially when it came to casting. I’m just glad I didn’t have to make the final decision.

I find that this attribute is actually a talent in some ways. For example, because I didn’t have a specific image of each character, it didn’t break my heart when the director’s, dramaturg’s, and stage manager’s opinion on who should play a part all differed with mine. I just figured they knew what they were talking about and I trusted their judgment.

It also came in handy when director George Nelson approached me with the idea to set the play on a turntable. A turntable?! Usually world premieres are fairly true to script and not very conceptual, so when the idea of a turntable was mentioned… well, to say I was surprised would be an understatement. But I nodded my head and urged George to pursue his vision for the piece.

And it is fantastic.

The ideas that each member of the cast and crew have contributed make the words come to life. They create the world. And although I may not see where everything is headed or I may hear the characters deliver a line differently in my head, I love what this team has done with the script they were given.

I look forward to seeing what the next production will be like.

A Playwright’s Perspective: Tech Week

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

Tech week. Each night it becomes more real.

Every layer we add to the production (set, costumes, lights, music) helps me to see the world more clearly.

I came into production photos last Wednesday and saw the costumes for the first time. The whole cast was in Afghani clothing. I was surprised. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s not like they were going to perform the play in street clothes! And I did set the piece in Afghanistan. I didn’t recognize any of the actors, but all it took was close to solidify them into the characters they had already become: Nasima, Yasir, Laila, Azadeh, Zeman, and Hoda.

Last night, I saw the lights and heard the music for the first time. I was in shock. I really don’t know why these things surprise me, but they make me SO excited. I have waited so long to see the piece realized and then all of a sudden, one flick of a switch and it is. The combination of the presentational, vibrantly colored lighting and the hauntingly beautiful music translated me immediately to the far away land of the Middle East.

I can’t believe it. We’re getting so close…

A Playwright’s Perspective: Lessons Learned

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

When I sit down to write a play, it is usually to work out problems I am struggling with. I like to create characters to voice different sides of an issue to help me approach a dilemma in a logical way, and to solidify my opinions on it. So, my characters usually reflect parts of myself.

Through this process, I begin to see the world more clearly, but I also discover many more questions.

I have lived with A Second Birth and its characters for a long time and they have helped me discover many things about myself and the world. First, it has given me a testimony of the divine role of women, the calling of womanhood, and my personal place as a daughter of God. When I was growing up, I had amazing examples of strong women. Both of my grandmothers are incredibly intelligent, confident, and courageous. Both graduated from prestigious universities and held important roles in their fields (a court reporter and a psychiatric nurse who went on to found the BYU nursing school). My mother managed to raise us while running an incredibly successful medical practice. Some of my fondest memories are listening to her answer emergency calls as we ran errands or visiting the newborns as I accompanied her on her rounds at the hospital. I learned a lot from these women. But most importantly, I learned that I, as a woman, could do anything.

(Image courtsey of

This lesson hasn’t always translated as positively in my life. Sometimes I find myself exalting women over men because of the trials that they have to face to get to the same place. At the same time, like Nasima, I find myself frustrated at being “limited.” A Second Birth helped me strengthen a weakness in my testimony and build faith in the words of prophets which state “…fathers and mothers [men and women] are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (The Family Proclamation to the World).

As I wrote this play, the Spirit guided me and answered many of my prayers. I hope each member of the audience finds a character to identify with in the play and/or a character that helps them take a look at an issue in a way that they have never thought of before. I hope the Spirit will be there.