The Commedia dell’Arte is a masked form of physical theatre that involves broad comedy and highly structured improvisation. It is satirical theatre, which is embodied by actors who wear very specific masks that represent character types.
The stock characters became known simply as the masks. It is a style that emerged during the renaissance following the plague, “Black Death.” Because it arose in a society struggling with inequity at a time of, death, starvation and economic upheaval it is highly dramatic and intense but humorous in a witty cutting way.
Thus, we find the major themes of the Commedia to be based on death, love, hunger and greed. The commedia is a style that, although comic, rests essentially in tragedy and revolves around fundamental themes such as fear: fear of death, fear of life, fear or everything. It is cruel, in the present, and without remorse.
This style lends itself to the Visual Arts classroom because it requires visual representation to carry essential message. The drama thrives on a system of signs and symbols. The masks are central to the meaning of the play. Because of this it is a great style for collaborative learning projects that operate between the subjects of Drama and the Visual Arts. This would work especially well if some or all of the students were enrolled in both subjects.
Jacques Lecoq integrated the mask work of the Commedia dell’Arte into his system of training actors. The plays are situated at the highest level of emotional and psychological intensity.
The Commedia dell’Arte, as Lecoq sums it up,
is a style where the play is in play; c’est le jue qui est en jeu.