The cast and crew of The Servant of Two Masters would like to wish you a happy commedia dell’arte day! Celebrated every February 25th, commedia dell’arte day is an international celebration hosted by the Italian cultural association SAT. SAT has held this annual celebration since 2005, in a effort to help Italy and the United Nations (UNESCO) honor commedia as an official piece of “Intangible Cultural Heritage“.
This year, the largest part of the commedia dell’arte day celebration is being held in Istanbul. Running from the 17th to the 28th of February, the commedia dell’arte celebration features a long list of commedia performances, presentations, workshops, and a carnival parade.
As The Servant of Two Masters is built on the commedia tradition, we are happy to add just a small part to this celebration!
Before we headed off for the Thanksgiving holiday, Director Stephanie Breinholt and myself put our Servant of Two Masters’ cast through a “commedia bootcamp” – a day dedicated to learning the history, characters, physicality and movement styles of commedia dell’arte. This bootcamp will serve as the foundation for the style and physical world of our eventual production.
At the end of commedia dell’arte’s 200 year reign in Italy, there came a man name Carlo Goldoni. Born in 1707, Goldoni had a love of theatre from his childhood. However, though Goldoni had made his theatrical start writing typical commedia scenarios, with little or no alteration from the accepted traditions, he was concerned that commedia did not fully represent the Italian way of life and manners. So he decided to make a change.
Building off of the works of the Greeks as well as more contemporary playwrights such as Moliere, Goldoni set out to reform the Italian theatre. Believeing that reform happened through providing strong examples instead of simply ideas, Goldoni started to create his own plays. Goldoni became famous for his hybrid style which combined the beloved nature of commedia dell’arte with the style and wit of Moliere. Some of his big changes included replacing the improvisational nature with written scripts, removing the masks so that the actors faces could be seen and reinventing the nature of the lazzi. Legend has it that every time he finished a play he said, “Good. But not yet Moliere.”
The Servant of Two Masters is Goldoni’s most beloved script. It has been translated into many languages and has been adapted for theatres, film and televisions around the world.
As is typical, Stephanie held a two-part audition. For the first part, interested actors came in and either did a prepared monologue or a cold-read (where they read a scene from the script of Servant). This is pretty normal in the audition world.
Then things really got interesting. For the second part – the Callbacks – Stephanie had the group of actors she was thinking about casting come in for a 4 hour improvisation and reading extravaganza.
The first hour was focused on the lazzi (physical comedy) part of the show. The actors were divided into groups and given a certain prompt (i.e.: you are about to get on a roller coaster ride and one member of your group is too frightened to sit down). The groups then had 10 minutes to plan and prepare a scene, which they then performed in front of the whole group. Stephanie was particularly looking for the actors who made strong and interesting character choices and who were willing to push the physical comedy.
I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard during a callback. Ever.
And since we caught it all on video, it means we get to share the experience with you. So here’s a sneak peek at two of the improvs:
For the second hour, Stephanie pulled out the kazoos. Yes, I said the kazoos. Since part of the Stephanie’s vision includes the cast creating all the music for the show through kazoos, she wanted to see how creative the actors could be through song and dance. Again, the actors were divided into groups, given a musical genre (i.e. Country) and then given time to plan and prepare a “musical offering.”
Kazoos + Riverdance = lots of laughter.
Here’s a look at two of the groups.
We concluded the day with the actors reading scenes from the script, vying for the different roles. At the end, we had so many great actors to choose from…and came up with one fantastically creative cast.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see a Stephanie Breinholt show at BYU, then you know that she loves to take classical texts and bring them to life with big, bold choices. Her upcoming production of The Servant of Two Masters is no different.
In Stephanie’s original pitch for the show, she described the following:
“I would like the piece to feel like a 3-D version of a cartoon…The feel of the show that I’m currently looking for can best be described through the following clip from Strictly Ballroom:
The elements that strike me about the clip are broad strokes of character that are matched in design elements, extreme non-realistic lighting when appropriate, larger than life costume and makeup choices and movement, and the theatricality of the environment.”
As you can imagine, the design team is pretty excited about this. Check back to see how they are using Stephanie’s vision to create our crazy comical Servant world.
Now that you have met the servants, here’s a peek at the other two categories of characters that make up any classic commedia dell’arte play.
The two most common father characters are Pantalone and Dottore (The Doctor).
Pantalone, the Venetian merchant, is a old and miserly. Usually the father of the female lover, he has one goal in life: to make as much money as possible. In order to reach his goal, he often tries to marry his daughter off to the richest suitor available, even if she does not care for him. He also believes himself to be quite the ladies man.
Dottore is Pantalone’s best friend and sidekick. Hailing from the city of Bologna, the city in Italy known for its university, Dottore believes himself to be quite the scholar. However, even though he is often found spouting off (often incorrect) Latin phrases, Dottore is the most likely to be tricked by the other characters.
The plot of most commedia plays revolves around the plight of the Lovers. Always separated by some seemingly insurmountable obstacles – such as a father promising one or both to another – the Lovers often engage the help of their servants in their quest to be together. Young and naive ,the Lovers are nevertheless witty, handsome and well-educated. Always dressed in the top fashion of the day, the Lovers are the only characters to remain un-masked.
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.
“I’d like to see how I’ll manage to serve two masters.” Illustration from “The Complete Comedies of Carlo Goldoni” (1830)
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.