Master Class with Antonio Fava

People who make theatre do it neither in homage to the past nor aiming for future beatification; they do it (or at least they should) for the audience present in that very moment that wants to have a good time. Whatever it’s about and wherever it’s done, theatre takes place in the now, in movement, wherever speech and silence, action and stillness, reveal a present moment underway.

Antonio Fava
The Comic Mask in Commedia dell’Arte, p. 13

I was given a scholarship to study with Maestro Fava for the first two weeks of June. The class met at the Philadelphia Ethical Society off of Rittenhouse Square, a place in which I had had one of my first tastes of the Philly theatre scene, when in 1994, I performed a segment of my play Psychodrama as part of the “Last Mondays” series by the now defunct theatre group, Potlatch. The building has a big open room on the first floor, very suitable for ballroom dancing, or classes in commedia dell’arte. When I entered the room on the first day, I noticed the inscription above the little ornamental stage at the far end: “The place where we meet to seek the highest is holy ground”. Beneath that inscription, Fava had arranged all his masks in row racing out, like some strange little company of ghouls watching us from the lip of the stage, their bodies submerged beneath. The masks were each hand made from leather, and were works of art in themselves, even though they represented the comical and sometimes grotesque features of the commedia characters they represented.

Fava was lounging in front of the stage with his 10 year old son, Farruccio. He is a stout man, round and bearded, with glasses he wears with a chain around his neck. Seeing him, I was struck by a pattern: I have been deeply affected recently by three men all of the same physical type. Slava Dolgachev in 2002, my Russian master teacher of Stanislavsky and realism; Art Larabee, my Quaker role model and now Antonio Fava. And I saw that their shape was my own: broad and stocky, cut from the Hobbit’s cloth. Fava frequently dressed in t-shirts with their collars cut away, ballet dancer style, and with curious grey shapes on them. It wasn’t until mid-way through the first week I discovered these were patches. The thrifty actor, preserving his favorite shirts, was inadvertently reminding us of the costumes of the zanni, the commedia servants, covered in patches head to foot.

Farruccio was a contrast, a little black-haired, bespectacled wire of a boy who had the ability to disappear when the classes started. He was buried in the Italian translation of a Harry Potter book. Through the two weeks I spent in this workshop, I was continually taken with the relationship between father and son. Fava himself grew up at the side of his own Dad, who was a commedia actor of the early to mid 20th century in Italy. The story of commedia dell’arte as a form is in some sense the story of families of actors forming companies, generation to generation. And of course, watching the two of them tell jokes in Italian and play during breaks, I thought of Griffen, an American boy growing up in a family of actors.

There were 28 students. About half from the Philly theatre community, including two artistic directors – Blanka Zizka of the Wilma Theatre, and Charles McMahon of the Lantern. Both showed remarkable courage to be there at all, given their status in the community and the frequently humbling nature of commedia training. The rest of us were from around the U.S., Italy and Spain. The one Spaniard and the Italians had studied with Fava before, and so acted like “master students”, frequently giving us good examples to follow. On that first day, I felt an old feeling arise in me: the need, in this large group, to attract attention to myself. I resisted as best I could.

This class constituted my third exploration of actor-generated, improv based, ensemble theatre. First came Revival, a Quaker exploration, then Long-Form Improvisation, a form I am continuing to explore, and now the ancient form of commedia dell’arte, perhaps the precursor to all the rest. Each of these forms shares this in common: they challenge actors to make choices on their own. They force us to take stands, make decisions, stick our necks out, fall, get up and keep going – what we should be doing all the time, but sometimes wait to be invited. From the beginning, Fava hammered home the point that commedia is theatre like any other form of theatre. You pay for a ticket, you sit in your seat, the curtain opens, you watch the play. His insistence on this seemed borne of a frustration that many regard commedia as something other than “real” theatre. More than once he made fun of “intellectuals” who lifted their noses at his beloved art. Fava insists that commedia is slighted because it lacks a lot of written texts that can be studied. As such, it is not suited for the academy. Indeed, commedia dell’arte is in many respects anti-academic and anti-intellectual, relying as it does on the virtues of spontaneous comic invention rather than well-wrought texts, disciplined physical and vocal performance rather than deep thinking, and a celebration of egalitarianism over hierarchical structures.

On that first day, Fava posited that commedia invented the modern theatre: it was the first to charge a fee to see a play, the first to form companies of artists, the first to create guilds or unions to represent theatre professionals. Commedia dell’arte, according to Fava, is most accurately translated as “theatre of profession” – professional theatre. And he consistently celebrated its “professionalism”. “Commedia’s first idea” said Fava, “was that theatre is a product and it’s possible to sell it”. He also stressed its deep appreciation for the populace. “We have a mania for the audience” he said. “Commedia must be spectacular. Laughter cleans out the suffering of the people.” I was reminded of the John Lahr quote, that frivolity is man’s refusal to suffer.

The two weeks I spent with him and the others were the most intensive training I have had since drama school, some 20 years ago. It was exhausting, and I was frequently dripping with sweat by the end of the first hour. It was also a relentless exercise in feeling like a total dork. Blanka turned to me on the first day, as we were making spastic fools of ourselves trying to get the hang of the grand zanni walk and said, “It’s terrifying. But I love it.” Fava would begin by spending an hour and a half instructing the entire group in a particular character, their postures and movements. He was exacting and precise. Then he would have the whole group doing exercises in this character. This first hour and a half tended to taste of the asylum a bit. Then a break. Then another hour and a half in which he usually talked smaller groups through demos, which they would then perform as we all watched. He never asked anyone up. He would say something like, “Two or three, please” and those feeling brave and crazy would get up. We gradually learned we each would be seen. So right away we were performing – from the very first class. Then lunch for an hour. Then more small groups. Then he would assign the canovacci; the larger scenarios based on the characters or situations we had been studying that day. We would have an hour to rehearse something to show, then guests were invited in and we would perform these large and frequently unwieldy scenarios. Fava’s response to our work was always loud, lusty and genuine. He was amused by our choices, even when they were bizarre, and fascinated by our mistakes. He managed to create an extraordinarily supportive environment in a room full of self-conscious theatre people making fools of themselves over and over. This is no small feat.

During the two weeks he progressed through the four broad “families” of commedia characters: the zanni (servants), the old men, capitano, and the lovers. Then he introduced variations.

Week One.

Zanni. We began with the character that gave birth to the famous Harlequin, or Arlecchino. But Fava insisted over and over that Arlecchino was just one zanni among many. “There are no stars in commedia dell’arte!” he would shout. “This fetish about Arlecchino is someone else’s mistake!” The first zanni performances tended toward mute and awkward miming. “Talk to us!” Fava would shout, “Zanni doesn’t know how to mime!” My first commedia performance was of a zanni who was convinced he was pregnant. Bloating out my stomach, I ran on stage and shouted out to the audience, “Help! I’m going to have a baby!” Then the other two students on stage and I created some comic mayhem involving a birth and my nursing one of the other zanni. I think these were the biggest laughs I got for the whole two weeks. I blew my commedia wad too soon. Fava, who was in hysterics throughout, corrected me afterwards saying that an actual birth onstage was impossible. “The joke of course would have to do with gas” he said. And no zanni can actually breast feed another zanni. In fact, nothing can happen in commedia that cannot happen in real life. Something may happen to make it appear that one zanni is breast feeding another. “Maybe a joke with jugs of wine over your shoulders” said Fava. He then spoke about the “contagion” that commedia uses, of behavior, of language, or rhythm, of emotion. It reminded me of Tolstoy’s idea that works of art “infect” the spectator with feeling.

The Lovers. I found these characters the hardest to do well. They come closest to “serious” characters, and their concerns and desires are indeed very real in the context of a commedia play. Yet it is almost impossible not to parody them while playing. I was reminded of the pervasive irony in our culture. It’s nearly impossible for us to take a great feeling seriously. Our TV shows have taught us to mock each other. But you can’t mock the Lovers. Their humor walks a fine line between dramatic realism and parody. “You walk to the edge of parody, but you don’t jump” said Fava.

In another commedia innovation, Fava said that it was the first type of theatre to employ actresses. Sometimes an actress playing a Lover would do a kind of strip tease, not so much for the titillation, but to prove to the audience that she was indeed a woman. This desire to play on the novelty of women on stage led to the Lovers not wearing masks, and this, in turn, led to the innovation of other maskless characters (the zanni Pedrolino, the Signora). During this class, Fava spoke about the first consequence of commedia’s professionalisation was specialization: actors specialized in particular roles. Companies would hire you as the Capitano, or the Lover, and you would play no other role in any of their plays, unless you grew out of it. During our work on Capitano, Fava talked about actors beginning as Lovers, then growing older and over the years becoming Capitano, or one of the old men.

I began to observe some particularly American handicaps with commedia. I think the extremity the form requires makes some American actors fear they’re acting badly. This is a pernicious side-effect of our being steeped in realism, in which we are taught to do less, to lose our self-consciousness. But commedia requires a kind of self-consciousness, especially when one is learning it. We must monitor ourselves to be sure we are doing the steps, the posture, the character correctly. And American actors have the bad habit (also, I think, related to realism) of speaking simultaneously with another actor on stage, as we might in real life. This kills potentially good moments in commedia, which requires a highly refined ability to discern when to lead, when to follow, when to speak, when to listen. American actors also tended to stand in thoughtful, observant poses – a kind of on-stage “neutral” born in most cases out of not having the faintest idea what to do next (I speak from experience). “No, “ said Fava, gently, “the characters’ interior lives are always visible.”

Capitano. We all had great fun with this cowardly blowhard with diarrhea mouth. I noticed that in all cases Fava instructed us almost entirely through the body, with mask work being an after-thought. In my brief experience with this form before, the masks had been the focal point. But Fava said “Please don’t make a religion of the mask,” and he did a comic rendition of a person worshiping the mask before putting it on, “you know, you don’t have to burn incense in your dressing room before you put it on.” His main points about the mask were the proper way to put it on and take it off without hurting the mask itself, that it must always be visible to the audience (no turning upstage), and it must be ”alive”. I gathered that this ability to make a mask come to life was an innate talent. I observed some for whom the mask was a piece of leather covering their faces, and others who seemed to be channeling something mysterious and dynamic through the mask. The ones who had studied with Fava before clearly had a leg up mask-wise. Later, Fava taught us the gag of removing the masks for a moment on stage, as if something had gone very wrong in the play. But even then, the mask is never obscured. I also noticed that when actors played too angry, even if that anger was comic, it disrupted something at play. Fava called this “going over the mask”. There is a childlike essence in commedia that anger squashes. Anger in commedia must clearly be beautiful pretense.

Pantalone. Learning the first of the old men, Fava taught us the heel-toe walk. Of all the mistakes we made, this one was most common. For some reason, perhaps because we began with zanni who do the opposite, many of us struggled with this simple detail for both the old men. Fava waited until mid-way through the second week before giving individual instruction. Commedia could be a grim class indeed with a ballet-master type minaret at the helm, constantly leaping up and scolding our missed details. Fava waited until the exercise was over, identified choices and details he liked and corrected ones that were problematic. In his inattention to individual mistakes in physical execution, Fava seemed to be stressing a support for our commitment to the spirit of the thing presented. He seemed to be saying that the energy coming from within trumps the precision of the exterior, though when he explained details of the characters he was incredibly precise. Or perhaps he was overwhelmed by the myriad of mistakes he was witnessing, and in the interest of time chose instead to enjoy the successes, even if he had to reach for them. But I do remember him saying, “I will teach you correctly, and you will make mistakes. This is okay, it is the only way to learn.” By the middle of the second week, we began to stop mid-exercise and self correct, and by the end of the second week he was doing a lot more individual adjustments.

Dottore. In Dottore I found the comic spirit of the Full Professor I have written about and explored in Psychodrama (the therapy, not the play). Fava describes Dottore as an “Everythingologist”. His addiction to the audience is the same Pantalone’s addiction to money. In Dottore, I found my commedia role. By the end of the workshop, during the awkward moment in canovacci prep when we would cast ourselves, I was being cast by others as Dottore. I enjoyed a wee bit of pride when I discovered that Dottore is one of two roles Fava specializes in (the other is a 1st zanni named Pulcinella). Through Dottore, all the chips on my shoulder about critics, academics and intellectuals were given a comic vent.

Dottore is one of the characters that brings direct audience interaction into play. Fava said it’s okay to involve the audience this way, but you must never have an actual conversation, or ask a real question, it is always rhetorical, so the actor remains in control and the audience feels safe. He told us to avoid anything which might offend anyone in the audience, such as references to actual religions or politicians (he was contemptuous of some political commedia he saw once). Obscenity and poo-poo humor, however, has a glorious role to play in commedia. But Fava made sure we understood that when something was obscene in commedia, it was obscene by accident. “The audience sees it as obscene, not the characters involved.” Obscenity is not to be confused with lust and appetite and desire which are frequent engines driving plots and characters. But in a typically European fashion, Fava did not regard anything about these drives as obscene, only human. How enlightened.

During this day, Fava reminisced about audiences when his father was performing. “Sometimes they would leap on stage to fix something that wasn’t going well, or call another character onstage if they were bored with the action.” Wistful pause. “Today audiences are . . . polite.” He went on. “The audience is your only guide to success or failure. Every commedia character is in continual contact with the audience, even when another character is clearly the center of focus, even when your character is asleep. A mask can never go dead. If any mask, from any tradition, looks out upon the audience without motion the effect is always horrifying. It will turn into the mask of death.”

It was during Dottore that I learned that escalation is a key concept in commedia. Every joke, lazzi, character, must be in an escalation towards the apex of the play, the moment just before the resolution at the end of the third act. When a commedia character takes a step backwards, in terms of energy or intention, they are diminished.

Week 2.

Bottcocci (Slapsticks). Farruccio re-appeared, as a combat partner for his Dad as he demonstrated the proper way for us to beat each other with bottocci. I was reminded of how much Griff loves to wrestle with me, and to practice rudimentary stage combat. With the Bottocci, Fava spoke about things and objects in commedia. Nothing is ever mimed, and Fava demanded that we use real objects in our scenes, even though there was very little lying around the Ethical Society to use. He said that good mask work is a kind of animism – bringing life to something lifeless – and that in commedia the same is true of the way we use objects and props. We aim to give them a spirit of their own, not so that they become “magical” and fly about the room, an idea Fava said was anti-commedia, but so they acquire a kind of stage presence. Obvious objects like this would be Capitano’s sword, Pantalone’s money bag or a letter sent from one Lover to another. Commedia is always practical, never metaphysical, but in a divine paradox the practical things of life attain a magical energy – a kind of “personhood” – when used adroitly by skilled commedia actors.

Maskless Zanni and Signora. We explored the fey valet Pedrolino and his beautiful, scheming mistress Signora. She is usually the young wife of one of the old man, and has a highly feminized gate which resembles Capitano’s. The two are often involved in trysts, and are similarly absurd. Signora, for instance, is often played with great pratfalls – think Lucielle Ball – and is commonly costumed with big, big hair. Pedrolino and Signora are played without masks, and Fava said must be played by actors of the same gender. A pity. Both cry out for great drag performers.

Lovers in masks. We examined the Lovers when in disguise. I figured out the key to performing them well. The actor needs to have compassion for their situation, must not regard it as stupid or absurd, must, in a way, find the passionate Lover in themselves. If that search makes the actor uncomfortable, playing a Lover will be difficult, and the actor will tend towards mockery.

Brighella and 1st and 2nd zanni. Fava had us examine the power relationship between the 1st and 2nd zanni, and introduced us to Brighella, a conniving and somewhat sinister zanni related to the carnival charlatans that originally shared the town square with the actors before commedia moved indoors. (Fava, by the way, was offended ay my suggestion that we perform our canovacci outside one day. “Never!” he said, “commedia is real theatre! You sit in your seat, the curtain opens . . . “ ) At the apex of the play, Brighella, or his antecedents, would hawk some product or elixir, and would not proceed to the play’s conclusion until the small inventory had been sold. I noticed on this day that the best performances had a kind of “pop” to them, a flashbulb moment of precise and suspended stillness which fixes the character in my mind, before the actor whirls away into more zaniness.

The canovacci. At three o’clock, Fava would assign the canovacci (scenes or schemes), then he would frequently tinkle away on an enormous grand piano on the stage while Farruccio practiced soccer kicks with a rolled up sock, and we struggled with his assigned plot, and with each other in developing a story, lazzi, casting and rehearsing. At four, for the final hour of each class, Fava threw the doors open. We would perform in three or four large groups for each other and a handful of guests invited in from the outside. These were usually friends of class participants, enticed to witness an hour of comedy for free.

Commedia is unforgiving in pace and self-indulgence. The canovacci frequently succumbed to over-complicated plots, got bogged down in details, lost contact with the audience or were crippled by a performance or two (or six) which sucked the life out everything around them. Many of us were unable to simultaneously perform what we had rehearsed AND physically represent the character we were playing. This was us learning by our mistakes, with Fava roaring from a chair in the middle of the impromptu audience. The canovacci were occasionally funny, more often weird and dream-like and sometimes agonizing (we each had our turn in at least one of those). For reasons that had partly to do with Fava’s accent, partly to do with our wanting to resemble the skilled Europeans among us and partly to do with our own insecurity, most of us Americans inevitably performed using absurd accents from somewhere in between Milan and Madrid. We usually sounded like Chef Boyardee or Speedy Gonzales. Blanka’s accent was particularly interesting since her English is already inflected with Czech, then it would get layered with some Speedy Gonzales and she ended up with something truly original, but hard to pin down. This never bothered Fava very much, though he urged us to use our own voices. “The mix of languages we have in this class” he would say – the Italians occasionally performed in Italian, “it is very true to commedia. The Italian actors will speak in dialects from their region, which are sometimes impossible for the audience or the other actors to fully understand. Remember, Italy is a very young country. In fact, it is really more of an opinion than a country.”

Fava had a charming way of using the word “terrible”. A particularly strange canovacci would end, and he would stand up and smile, then turn to someone in the audience and say quietly, conspiratorially, “Yes, yes, that was . . . that was terrible . . . terrible, wasn’t it . . . but fascinating!” Then he would turn to the class and always begin by identifying something which he liked, which worked. Then he examined aspects which were “incorrect”. “Remember,” he would say, as much for the outsiders watching as for us, “we are not here to practice making clear stories. In one hour it is impossible. In my company we will work for two hours to come up with two minutes we can perform. We are here only to practice the characters and the invention of lazzi.” In the second week, Fava encouraged us to leap on stage and save a moment that was going poorly, even if it meant breaking what had been rehearsed. “You can apologize later.”

The best moments in the canovacci relied not only on the skilful representation of the character, but also on a refined ability of the performer’s giving and taking, leading and following, both with the other actors and the audience. Commedia requires actors who aren’t afraid to lead, to seize a moment and make it their own, and who also know when someone else is doing so and stand back, or be led into the comedy another is creating. I tell my students that acting is about “multi-tasking” – doing several things at the same time. Commedia is multi-tasking on steroids. Early on, the canovacci would frequently degenerate into riots with everyone screaming comically at the same time. Our default mode when in comic crisis (as we often found ourselves) was to make noise, any kind of noise. But as we got better at working with each other, and a little more comfortable with the characters, we began to be able to sort ourselves out, to bring focus to moments, to give way for a particular lazzi at a particular moment in the story. We gained confidence, and learned that paradoxically the ensemble needed us to be the center of attention occasionally.

But how quickly the learned bits became stale, and how deep was our desire to simply repeat what we had learned, or imitate another’s success. How we longed for the skillfully performed accident, the exquisite mix of precision and spontaneity. “Commedia is BIG, FAST AND PRECISE!” Fava bellowed half way through the second week. It requires the immediate discovery of the thing rehearsed (another paradox), so that it is fresh for both actor and audience. And whatever is learned must get developed, elaborated, tweaked somehow, so that it surprises. Fava talked a great deal about the “code” in commedia. By this I think he meant that in the beginning of the play actors teach the audience the “code” or “rules” behind the comedy they are watching. At first, the jokes that live within this code are funny enough if performed well. But by the third act the code must begin to get bent and distorted, so that the audience is surprised. An example of this would be the gag in which the actors stop and take their masks off to deal with a contrived “disaster”. This only works if the audience is somehow taught that the masks don’t come off. If they come off too soon, the code is broken too early and everything is thrown into a kind of uncertainty which kills humor.

The rehearsal process for the canovacci was as much a learning experience as the skill of commedia itself. How we longed for directors! And it was interesting to see the directors among us, or the directorially inclined, struggle to restrain themselves from imposing order, allowing us all to live in the chaos a bit. But even then, we began to acknowledge that some were particularly good at seeing things from the outside, and we were glad for their ability to bring shape and sequence to our developing scene, especially when 3:50 rolled around and we were still only half-way through.

I ended up having mixed feelings about the “public” nature of the canovacci. On the one hand, I am all for the reinforcement of the “service” aspect of acting. By inviting strangers into our mix, Fava was saying, look, this is who you do it for. We are here to learn how to perform for the public, not to amuse each other (even though we provided almost all of the laughter when the canovacci were performed). I have often fantasized about teaching a class in which the students went up in front of an audience once a month. But on the other hand, given the extreme nature of what we doing, it felt a little premature. I think a great deal of the shouting and chaos the first week was motivated by the (tiny) audiences that came to watch. I seldom saw anyone from the outside have a great big belly laugh at anything we did. There were plenty of concerned stares though, and some smiles and chuckles. I might have invited folks in for the second week, after we had gotten a little more skilled.

The Grand Canovacci were performed Saturday June 17th in a cavernous auditorium on the Penn campus. Some of us were fighting colds (which I came down with the week after the workshop – imagine all those masks getting passed around . . . ) and all of us were burnt out. Fava assigned us three elaborate plots, and off we went to spend the day rehearsing them, before we performed them for each other and the largest outside audience yet. I wish I could say that something magical happened, and all the pieces flew into place, and we were transformed into crack commedia actors, ready for an international tour. The truth is, we succumbed to the mistakes we had been wrestling with all along, and though there were moments of high comedy, there also long stretches when I heard the Twilight Zone music in my head. This is not a slight on anyone’s effort or talent, and is in no way a criticism of Fava’s teaching, which is sublime. It is only an acknowledgement of how hard it is to do commedia well, and that we were all beginners even at the end.

But more important than any subjective assessment of whether what we did was any “good” (an irrelevant term in the theatre anyway), was the mutual admiration and shared sense of accomplishment among us. And there’s not doubt that Fava has turned most of us into fervent advocates for this challenging and wonderful form, and no doubt that each of us acquired skills and abilities we didn’t have when we arrived. Fava accomplished something great: the teaching both of things tangible – like the precise physical requirements of each character, and of things intangible – like the great love one must have for all humanity to bring these strange and magnificent people to life, and the courage required to do them justice on stage. And he taught us the great virtue of forgiveness, for when we failed, we were never reprimanded, only encouraged to try again. This is a gift to be held close to one’s heart. I myself can’t wait to try my hand at teaching commedia, knowing what I know now. And the thought of having a month or two under his guidance, playing Dottore or Capitano or Zanni, working on one long commedia play to be performed for an extended run . . . well . . . I can always dream.