2019 March letter from Ben - The Commedia Connection.

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With this post I launch “Letters from Ben”, the replacement for the monthly newsletter we used to generate. At the beginning of each month I will post a rumination of sorts about the work Bright Invention is doing some area. My goal is to create a personal connection to you through writing. I hope you like it. Feel free to comment and ask questions!

As some of you know, Bright Invention is an extension of a strange collision of concerns of mine. On the one hand, a concern for the extraordinary genius of the actor; how we are descended from a lineage of celebrities, vagabonds, eccentrics and seers beginning with tribal shamen, who were healers as well as performers. On the other hand, an interest in the economic pressures on the modern American performing artist; how commercial forces dehumanize this most human of all artists, turning us into things which are bought and sold, and capitalizing on our ambition and vulnerability for profit.

Antonio Fava

Antonio Fava

Recently, in preparing our show we are calling Improvasushi!, I began to understand that what I am interested in doing is a 21st century version of the Renaissance Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte. And the more I explored this connection, the more excited I became. I studied commedia for two extraordinary weeks in 2006 with the acknowledged master of the form, Antonio Fava. I was entranced, not only by Fava’s energetic and elaborate teaching style, but by the boldness and creativity of commedia itself. You can read about this experience more fully in my personal blog here. For Fava, commedia the performance style cannot be understood without understanding commedia the economic entity. “Commedia dell arte means ‘professional theatre!’” Fava would bellow. And he explained that these companies (and they called themselves companies) were the first western example of professional actors.

A commedia company arrives

A commedia company arrives

I left that experience regarding the commedia actor as heroic: perfecting the performance of stock characters within unscripted plots - the shows were enormous structured improvisations - and at the same time, being occasionally persecuted by prelates and nobility, suspicious of these actors with bawdy senses of humor, and smarting from the satire they put on display. The shows, Fava explained, were not only un-scripted, they were calibrated and adapted to the specific audiences they were being performed for. They were breathtakingly immediate and personal to the people watching on that day (always in the day of course - no electricity.) I found myself moved and inspired.

Our ensemble Bright Invention practices and performs long form improvisation. What’s that, you ask? Well, good luck finding a succinct definition, and if you do please let me know. Here’s a short Medium article about long form improv which also has some useful links. And here’s my little snapshot:

  • Short form improv is what most people think of when you say “improv”: short, absurd and silly scenes and sketches based on audience suggestions.

  • If short form uses clever ideas to generate laughs, long form explores deep relationships to reveal shared humanity. Long form is based in realism, short form is not.

  • Long form is often funny, but it doesn’t have to be. Once improvisation is freed from the requirement to be funny, entire galaxies of experience open up.

  • Long form is “long” because the relationships between characters developed in shows continue through the entire show. This is seldom the case in short form.

  • Short form is often a means to an end, the end being scripted sketch comedy based on improv. Long form is the end itself.

But our ensemble is also dedicated to “expanding the genre” and it is in this vein that we will begin to merge our work with some of the traditions and approaches of the commedia companies. We will begin to include rehearsed performance in our improvised long form shows. As with the commedia companies our shows will begin and end with rehearsed music and song. And we will soon begin to develop lazzi - rehearsed, solo set pieces sometimes comic, sometimes not, performed by individual members of the ensemble, and inserted into our shows. What these little solos are, and how they appear in our shows remains to be seen. But what I am sure of is that they will showcase the remarkable range of talent in our ensemble, from music and singing, to spoken word poetry, to dance and circus performance, to clown and physical comedy.

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

What we won’t borrow from commedia are the masks and precisely organized performances of stock characters. But we do strive to have the same sense of immediate and personal audience connection that commedia companies thrived on. And, as with these extraordinary Renaissance ensembles, we are determined to explore new paradigms to support the economic needs of the modern American actor through our corporate training work.

Stay tuned!