On 9th February, Bromsgrove Drama department welcomed Didi Hopkins, the country’s foremost practitioner of Commedia.
Didi worked with over 50 Drama students in 4 sessions from Year 9 to the Upper 6th form, training them in the use of masks, the creation of character and improvisation. Didi is regularly in demand as a Commedia adviser to the RSC and the National Theatre and worked closely with Richard Bean on the international award-winning “One Man Two Governors”. Assisting Didi in creating short improvised performances with the students was also Elliott Ross, an actor who appeared with the RSC last year and a specialist in clowning and physical theatre.
Commedia Del ‘Arte or ‘the comedy of the artisan’ emerged ‘fully formed’ in the middle of the 16th Century – some say in Venice or Bologna but it was just as likely to have developed in any Italian town which had a square or market place. It was the first truly professional theatre and combined the physical skills of the street performer – tumbling, acrobatics, juggling, with the plots and characters of Classical Roman comedy and the prose writings of the Renaissance.
Its essence lies in the hierachy of its stock characters from the powerful Magnifico to the lowly, bumbling servant, Zanni. Performances were improvised around very tightly rehearsed ‘lazzi’ or ‘routines’ that could be physical, verbal and musical in style. Some characters were always played in a particular mask but others were unmasked.
Although in its purest form it is rarely seen performed in Britain today, there are still a number of professional troupes working in Italy and France. Its influences in theatre and performance are absolutely everywhere, however. Manuel the waiter in Fawlty Towers is an archetypal ‘Zanni’ figure, Darth Vader an all-powerful Magnifico.
Training in Commedia is not only of enormous benefit to an actor, developing highly complex physical skills and the ability to connect quickly and effectively with an audience, but it is now increasingly being used as a business tool in companies across Europe to train executives to think quickly and creatively ‘on their feet’.