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Physical Theatre and Commedia Dell’arte – An Interview With Wyckham Avery

Q: How did you start in physical theatre?

A: When I was a teenager I was very lucky to have worked with Dan Hurlin who is a phenomenal performance artist, writer and teacher. We didn’t talk about the work as a genre like ‘physical theatre’ or ‘realism’ or ‘absurdism’ we just worked very physically. He taught me that acting was sweaty and theatre didn’t have to look like real life. As I got older and found myself wanting more than what my Stanislavsky-based work was giving me, I started searching for other styles that paralleled my work with Dan, which eventually brought me to the Dell’ Arte International School of Physical Theatre.

Q: What is physical comedy and what are its distinguishing factors? https://www.haytheatre.com/ .

A: Physical comedy is telling a comedic story with one’s body insteaad of relying on words. Words can be used, but the actor doesn’t rely on the words to get the story across. It’s slapstick from commedia dell’ arte, the old school Jerry Lewis kind of thing. Things need to be big in physical comedy. Most physical comedy these days is seen in cartoons, everything from Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner to the feature films like “Shrek.” One of my favorite movies is “The Triplets of Bellville” which is an animated film that came out of Europe a few years ago. There is a little dialogue in the film and the bodies and movements of these cartoon characters are so filled with meaning and visual stimuli in their performance it’s amazing. It’s an interesting study in how physical theatre or performance works and how you tell stories, physically, as opposed to verbally.

Q: What is Commedia Dell’arte?

A: Commedia Dell’arte is a Renaissance Italian form of theatre and the term means the “comedy of art.” It was popular in the 15th and 16th Centuries when troops of actors performed traditional stock characters, mostly in three-quarter mask. The traits of these stock characters were familiar to the audience, the style of acting was improvisatory, but actors didn’t start cold as they would in an improv game these days. The gist of each particular scenario was standard, but what exactly transpired was improvised. As these actors had worked together for years and knew each other’s work and characters well there was a platform to work on, literally and figuratively. They performed wherever they could gain an audience’s attention – whether it was on a platform or wagon. They didn’t draw a highbrow audience paying lots of dollars to see them. They had to pull in an audience and then pass a hat to collect coins.

The influences of Commedia are here today. You can see it in The Marx Brothers. You’ll even find Commedia’s stock characters and plotlines in Shakespeare’s comedies such as “Love’s Labors Lost.” All art forms either change with the times or die off, and in a sense, that’s what’s happened to Commedia. Very few companies still work in the Commedia style, but I think actors can learn a great deal from working in that style. I’m excited about an advanced Camp Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Company for teens this summer that I will teach. We’ll work with a group of teenagers on improvisation, mask, and physical comedy and create a Commedia play.

Q: What distinguishes Commedia Dell’arte from other forms of performance?

A: Commedia Dell’arte is fifty percent physical and fifty percent verbal. Because it’s in mask, it has to be incredibly physical, some of the actors might be tumblers or dancers. Broad physical gestures are integrated with witty speech so that actors aren’t standing around talking or expressing their emotions through small gestures.

There was no such thing as a black box theatre during the Renaissance; audience members couldn’t watch an actor’s deep pain or joy through the actor’s eyes. There was no – lights down on the audience and spotlights on the stage. This was the time of lit audiences. Finding ways of amplifying, communicating to the audience, what actors were doing or experiencing was necessary. There were no programs for the audience; they couldn’t read in advance that this guy was playing this or that character. The things that we take for granted now didn’t exist then.

Performers had to fight to get an audience in the Renaissance. They had to draw them in. If they were performing outside on a wagon, they had to get people’s attention, they had to work with the audience. There were 2,000 people in the Globe. It was a very different audience than we have today. People walked around selling oranges and beer and if audiences couldn’t hear, see, or understand the actors or story, they could lose interest and their attention. Today it’s easy to keep the attention of the audience because there’s nothing else to look at. The lights are out and the only place to look is straight ahead. But that wasn’t always the case. There were a lot of distractions for the audiences, they were checking out what the royalty was wearing.