Commedia Dell’Arte – Singapore Style
3 July 2018 – In our efforts to share our love for Italian culture with a wider audience, we have partnered with the National Library Board to organise a series entitled Ciao! Hello from Italy! This consists of free workshops or demonstrations about different aspects of Italian culture.
In the July edition, we were honoured to collaborate with the Embassy of Italy in Singapore and Alce Nero, our co-sponsor, to bring Marco Luly (commedia dell’arte maestro) and Roger Jenkins (actor and story-teller) together to give the public a taste of commedia dell’arte at the Esplanade library.
This performance tradition “emerged in Northern Italy in the 15th century“, and it comprises improvised dialogue and stock characters which are indicated by leather masks.
The event started with a lecture-demonstration, with Jenkins vividly painting the origins of the art form. He then introduced some of the stock characters as Luly donned various masks, demonstrated the physical characteristics of the character, and interacted with Jenkins in order to give us a sense of the characters’ personalities.
Next, both performers gave the audience an insight into the improvisational process; something that the commedia dell’arte actors would have done back in the day. Once they have decided on the characters and the general situation, the scene started and both actors had to instinctively respond to each other.
To make things interesting, Jenkins donned wooden masks that he has collected across Southeast Asia to assume the various characters. While those masks would not have been in a traditional commedia dell’arte performance, it was lovely to see both artists from different traditions communicating and jointly entertaining the audience.
Additionally, they wittily added local references into their improvised skits, such as Jenkins playing Pantalone, a miserly merchant, whose wines are named after local landmarks, to make the audience laugh.
While it may seem odd at first, such a practice would not be out of place in the tradition. In fact, as Jennifer Meagher (Collection Management Specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) notes, “actors were at liberty to tailor a performance to their audience, allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor that would otherwise be censored.”
The event ended with a little audience participation. Jenkins told a story about making soup, and whenever a new character was introduced, he picked an audience member who would then get a chance to wear a mask and assumed a character. While the simple story did not require much action from the participants, they got a chance to experience the physical requirements for mask work.
The audience clearly enjoyed themselves as many of them stayed behind to ask the performers some questions, while taking the opportunity to take some photos with the masks on.
Isaac Tan is the communications executive for FABItalia Lifestyle and The Italian Quarter. He is also a freelance actor, tutor, and independent theatre critic.