A Fellow Named Meng

The other day I posted about the superstitions that exist in western theatre, so in the interests of balance and world theatre traditions, today I have an extract from The Illuminated Lantern: A Short History of Chinese Opera which, not surprisingly, covers the same but in Chinese theatre.

In western theater, a number of superstitions have grown up among performers. Many words and phrases are avoided backstage, as they are said to cause bad luck. For example, actors never say “Good Luck” to each other, they say, “break a leg.” Whistling backstage is also said to bring bad luck. As is, most curiously, saying “Macbeth.” When one wishes to discuss Macbeth in the theater, one should always refer to it as “the Scottish play.” In Chinese Opera, similar superstitions exist.

The words Meng and Keng are particularly important. One should never say Meng at the back of the stage, nor Keng at the front of the stage. These prohibitions stem from the story of Yu Meng, a legendary jester who is said to have impersonated a famous scholar at the court as long ago as 403 B.C. The king was so impressed by the impersonation that lavish favors were bestowed (though respectfully declined).

Yu Meng

Yu Meng

Another superstition involves the doll that Chinese Opera troupes use to represent babies on stage. These dolls possess the soul of the child they represent. Before and after each performance with these dolls, the actors would pay their respects to it. During the performance, it was always left facing the sky, and afterwards, it was always packed facing the earth. The film Attack of the Joyful Goddess explores this superstition in violent, bloody detail.

Since the Opera often concerns itself with the supernatural world, it’s players must be ever more respectful of the laws of that world, and ritual and ceremony must be performed properly and with respect. Tales like the one which begins Hocus Pocus are often told of Chinese Opera troupes who visit a remote town and give a performance, only to find in the morning that the town did not exist and that they were entertaining ghosts. It is traditional that during some Taoist ceremonies, and especially during the Ghost Festival in the seventh month, an Opera Troupe would perform in front of the shrine, to entertain the spirits of that place. Ultimate Vampire begins with a performance of this type. These days, a TV may often be seen facing a shrine to provide similar entertainment to the gods. Though if I were an angry spirit, I can only imagine the suffering I would inflict on anyone who decided to set up a TV in front of MY shrine.

T'ang Ming Huang

T’ang Ming Huang

The Patron Saint of Chinese Opera is T’ang Ming Huang. A figure or tablet of T’ang Ming Huang is set up in every theater, and incense was burnt to him before every performance. He was believed to have the power to make each actor perform well or badly. Military actors typically honor another tablet, representing the spirit Wu Ch’ang. This spirit was believed to possess special abilities, including the cruelty needed to wage a successful campaign. Four famous generals from the Warring States period were said to have this spirit’s ability bestowed upon them.

Opening a new theater is a special occasion for ceremony, to ‘purify’ the stage, and drive away devils and harmful spirits. The stage must be doused in dog’s blood or chicken’s blood, while actors appear on the stage dressed as spirits, carrying whips, tablets, and masks. This ceremony thus drives away the devils, placates them, and ensures that they do not appear on stage again.

Break A Leg

il_570xN.354411704_5aerA bit of a silly post today. Theatre is full is superstitions and actors are said to be equally full of superstition.  I have been doing a little bit of a trawl through these, prompted by a new series being published in the UK Guardian, My dressing roomwhere actors are interviewed – not surprisingly – in their dressing rooms. What struck me as I read them, is that they all have their rituals, totems or preparations (read superstitions) that go with them wherever they are performing.

(They are worth a read regardless of the superstition bits as they give a lovely insight to the world of the professional actor).


One of my favourite superstitions is the tradition of telling someone to ‘break a leg’ before they go on stage, rather than wishing them ‘good luck’. There are many purported reasons for this rather violent idiom, but my favourite is this one. In the early days of Music Hall (Europe)/Vaudeville (US) the producers would book more performers than could possibly perform in the given time of the show, since “bad” acts could be pulled before their completion. In order to ensure that the producers didn’t start paying people who hadn’t actually performed, there was a general policy that a performer did NOT get paid unless they actually appeared onstage. So the phrase “break a leg” referred to breaking the visual plane of the “legs,” or curtains that lined the side of the stage. In other words, “Hope you break a leg and get onstage, so that you get paid.”

img_1557_FotorOf course one of the other most famous theatrical superstitions is not saying the word ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre, but referring to it as The Scottish Play. Theatrical folklore has it that, as revenge for Shakespeare’s inclusion of a number of accurate spells within the play, a coven of witches cursed it for all eternity. Whether or not you believe this explanation is irrelevant, though, because the ill-fortune associated with the play is backed up by many examples over its four hundred year history. Initially, King James banned the play for five years because he had such a dislike for it, but there are also more bloody examples: there was an unpleasant and lethal riot after one showing in 19th century New York and one Lady Macbeth fell off the front of the stage while sleepwalking, dropping nearly twenty feet. Even Lawrence Olivier wasn’t free from the curse, as one of his performances was enlivened by a falling stage weight which landed only inches from him mid-performance. Having said this, I quite like the more prosaic options –  that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays and, therefore, more chances for someone to get injured – or, and the one I believe most likely is that, due to the plays popularity, it was often run by theatres that were in debt and as a last attempt to increase audience numbers; the theatres normally went bankrupt soon after.

There a good number of other superstitions, involving not whistling on stage, not wearing the colour blue and a number involving ghosts.  You can read about some of them here and here, the latter coming from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, one of America’s most respected theatre companies and now associated with one of the worlds greatest english speaking actors, John Malkovich.

There is also an eminently readable blog post by The London Bluebird which covers superstitions and traditions in London’s West End, including theatre cats and hauntings.

Grand Designs #2

When I started Reading Room it was based solely here, on WordPress. Slowly it spread to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, which became a source of material. Recently I added Tumblr in an attempt to reach my students in another way, but unwittingly I tapped into another fascinating source.  There are some great Tumblrs that curate theatre designs by the hundreds and I’m going to share a few today – for inspiration more than anything else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne Tumblr I follow is yeahtheatresetsandprops who posts regularly and has a great and varied selection of set designs from Europe and the US. The above design is by Troy Hourie for The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Peter Weiss’ play, Marat/Sade. The one below is from the brand new American PsychoThe Musical which has just opened at The Donmar in London, starring Matt Smith – he of Dr Who fame (with rave reviews, I should add). The design is by Es Devlin and has garnered equally great plaudits as Smith has for his performance in the show.

tumblr_mxrld3nrC81qlpqbyo3_1280Another I follow is Everything Scenic who posts some lovely designs and videos too. One beautiful design that struck me is this one, for Sunday in the Park with George, by David Farley.


Another is for a rather wet version of Metamorphosis (Ovid, rather than Kafka), designed by Daniel Ostling at the Arena Stage in Washington DC.


Everything Scenic also posts some unedited video, straight from the stage manager, like this one that shows the stage machinery used in Billy Elliot, the musical. 

Another Tumblr I follow is the bizarrely named Glut and Decadencewho also posts some great photo sets of scenic design. These are for a production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for Theatre For A New Audience (New York) directed by Julie Taymor (of Lion King fame) and designed by Es Devlin:




Having Some Self-Respect!

In July I wrote a post, Body Talk, which dealt with how theatre has been used around the world by the global movement to end violence against women and girls. It’s focus was Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, and  a play touring in China, Our Vaginas, Ourselves. A week or so ago, The Atlantic published an article by Gabrielle Jaffee which takes the debate back to China:

Performing The Vagina Monologues in China

The ongoing controversy of the iconic play reflects feminism’s struggle to establish a toehold in a still conservative society.

“When I first heard about The Vagina Monologues, I was shocked. I thought, how could someone give a play a name like that?” says Xiao Hang. That was five years ago, when Xiao Hang was, by her own admission, “mainstream and quite conservative.” But after volunteering for an NGO in her sophomore year at college, she began to see society through a different lens. She no longer thinks, as she once did, that “it isn’t elegant to talk about your vagina in public.” In fact, she thinks it’s vital to.

Today Xiao Hang is one of the organizers behind Bcome, the Beijing-based feminist group which has put on around a dozen performances of The Monologues this year to mark the ten-year anniversary of its first showing in China. Performed in over 150 countries worldwide in some 50 different languages, Eve Ensler’s play was first shown in the Mainland at Guangzhou’s Sun Yatsen University in 2003.

In their offices just outside Beijing’s third ring road, Xiao Hang and Bcome’s other volunteers are preparing leaflets to send out for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The leaflets have titles such as “20 Misconceptions about Sexual Violence,” “The ABCs of Feminism,” and “Resist Verbal Abuse.”

“We’ve already done lots of online and print promotions as well as panel discussions. The Vagina Monologues is new, fresh and attention-grabbing,” says Ai Ke, another organizer. “It’s not just a play, it’s a tool for spreading feminism, a method for public education.”

To prepare the script, the organizers translated from the English version, took parts from past Mandarin versions, and created original scenes through a series of workshops they ran last year. At the beginning of each workshop, they voted on which topic they wanted to discuss (“We’re very democratic,” laughs Xiao Hang), noted down their own experiences, and gave key words to the scriptwriters. “We wanted to localize the play as much as possible, so we added issues such as the obsession and anxiety over virginity,” explains Ai Ke.

With their script complete, Bcome’s committee organized shows at Beijing’s LGBT center, at culture cafes, and at an art space where they performed to an audience of 400. They also put on the play for a community of migrant sex workers (“This helped us better understand them and write a scene about their lives”) and organized college campus productions—including a now notorious rendition by female students at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU).

The BFSU students caused an internet storm earlier this month when, in an effort to promote their version of the Monologues, they posted pictures of themselves holding up messages from their vaginas to the popular social network RenRen. Written in English, Chinese and Korean, the messages ranged from “My vagina says: I want freedom” and “My vagina says: I want respect” to “My vagina says: You need to be invited to get in.” The images were soon reposted on Sina Weibo and picked up by local media outlets, who focused on the girl’s “confessions.”  A video of the images received over 2 million views on Sina.


The wave of online misogyny that followed was nasty. Commenters focused on the women’s looks (“Seeing their faces, I’ve lost all interests in their vaginas” said one @Taoist_Mua), others expressed shock that students at one of the country’s top universities could have written such things (“How could BFSU admit such vulgar girls?” @冬天的亭子) or simply resorted to pure name-calling (“These ignorant grandstanding tarts” @保护地球绿色家园). One user, @shendeon, even exclaimed, “If my daughter did this, I’d slap her across the face.”


These reactions only seemed to validate the need for performances of The Vagina Monologues in China. The critics “have this image that female university students must be pure,” says Xiao Hang. “They were terrified because women in China never talk about sex in public.”

Bcome received mostly positive feedback for their other performances of The Vagina Monologues, which included a traditional xiangsheng (comic dialogue) about different kinds of moaning when reaching a climax and an interactive section where audience members were invited to share their stories. “Some people laughed, some people were so moved that they cried,” says Ai Ke. Several people came up to her afterwards and thanked her for the “growing experience” they had, or for convincing them that they were not “odd” for thinking about such things.

However, Ai Ke admits that the people who came to watch the play were probably already open-minded. In China, this isn’t surprising: There’s a difference between intellectual elites performing in the safe environment of the student union or culture cafes and the opinions of the public at large, which the BFSU students were exposed to online.

Chinese government repression plays a key role, too. While the last decade has seen The Vagina Monologues performed many times at universities across the country, a professional production in Shanghai was banned in 2004 after hundreds of tickets had been sold and a 2009 production was forced to call the show “The V Monologues” instead of the full name. Bcome found that “as soon as the word vagina was mentioned,” official theaters and even some small independent outfits such as Beijing’s Peng Hao and Mu Ma theaters refused them.

The Monologues’s checkered history in China reflects the inconsistent approach towards sex and sexuality in the country. While the government continues to crack down on pornography and vulgarity, reform and opening of the last few decades has coincided with more liberal attitudes towards sex. Indeed, in China, sexuality is on view everywhere: Even state-run news outlets like Xinhua and the People’s Daily use soft porn slide-shows to bump up click rates.

But just because there’s more flesh on view than during the puritan past, that doesn’t necessarily women’s sexual rights have improved. Using the “v-word” is still a taboo in China. “China is still a male dominated world,” says Ai Ke. “The sexual freedom gained in the last few years has been for men. The pleasure that women can get from sex is so seldom talked about.”

And it’s not just the female right to enjoy sex that has become an important feminist issue in China: There’s also the right to protect their bodies. Around a quarter of China’s female population suffers from domestic abuse, according to the All-China Women’s Federation, but there is no law specifically targeting the crime.

Women are beginning to speak out. Last year, after the official Sina Weibo account of the Shanghai Subway Line 2 posted a photo of a passenger in a revealing dress with the caption “dressed like that, it’s no wonder you get harassed. There are many perverts on the subway, can’t catch them all. Girl, have some self-respect!” many net users were outraged. For their part, Bcome organized flash mob readings of the Monologues scene “My Short Skirt” on the Beijing subway. [click the image below for video the performance].


“Most people just looked awkward, tried to not to look us in the eyes and instead fiddled with their phones,” admits Xiao Hang. Perhaps asking people to face sexual issues directly remains too much to ask for in China.

More reassuring, though, is what happened after each of their performances. When the women approached passengers with a petition to support legislating against domestic violence, they collected over 10,000 signatures in 15 hours. That, at least, is something to celebrate.

Keep Calm And Make Theatre

Today I want to give a shout out to a couple training and learning opportunities that are happening, physically or online, in the coming year.

Patronlogo_FotorTeaching – and learning – theatre in an international context is an immense privilege. Many of you reading Theatre Room, students and teachers, will be doing so in this setting. As a result, it is likely that you have heard of ISTA, the International Schools Theatre Association which is an international arts organisation, a global community of young people, teachers and artists that operates on every continent. ISTA began life in 1978 with just one High School Festival in Europe. Today ISTA holds over 30 annual Festivals and training programmes worldwide,  with a membership of more than 200 schools.

298My own school have been members for many years and it is a vital part of how we promote theatre in our school and connect with theatre makers across the region.  In the last couple of years ISTA has launched a summer training programme for young people (aged 15 to 19), called The Academy, which is a two or four week intensive international summer theatre Festival, held in the south of France. It is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in all things theatre, training and working with professional theatre practitioners from around the world. I’d be there in a flash, but sadly. I’m slightly (ahem) above the upper age limit. Click the image above for more details.


The other opportunity I’d like to mention is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) taking place in March. A MOOC is an online course (usually free) with unlimited participation and open access via the web.  They are becoming an increasingly popular way to take short courses in a globally accessible way.


This MOOC is an introduction to physical actor training, with a focus on biomechanics. It takes place over three weeks with participants expected to commit 4 hours per week. It is being led by an old friend of mine, Jonathan Pitches, who is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds in the UK. Again click the image above for more information.


Future Learnwhich is hosting the above MOOC is also hosting two others in the new year that may be of interest to theatre makers, young and old. Firstly there is Shakespeare’s Hamlet: text, performance, and culturewhere academics from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon introduce aspects of the most famous play ever written – its origins, texts, and history.  The other is Shakespeare and his World which explores Shakespeare, his works and the world he lived in.

Get clicking!

Just Epic

A quick post today, just to share a few collected video resources about Bertolt Brecht and his theatre.

The first set is from a BBC documentary made 25 years ago, but still a useful source of all things Brechtian. Sadly the whole documentary is no longer available. The final fourth clip is from the same documentary, but from a different source and shows Helene Weigel (Brecht’s second wife and acclaimed actresses of the period) explaining Epic theatre.





The second set come from the National Theatre in the UK and were filmed when they were mounting a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage:




The next is an interesting and eclectic small film called The Brecht Document which details Brecht’s and is composed of what its writer/director Warren Leming calls “fragments” from a two-year stay in Berlin,Germany which he made in 1986/87. The final couple of minutes are from The Jewish Wife (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich), one of Brecht’s most haunting texts.


This one is Eric Bentley, the eminent critic, playwright and translator on the life of – and his work with – the legendary Brecht.


And finally, and perhaps most extraordinarily, a recording of Brecht’s testimony to, and questioning by, the House Com­mit­tee on Un-​Ame­ri­can Ac­tivi­tes (The McCarthy witch hunts), hours before he returned to Germany.


Mandela, Apartheid And The Theatre Of The Fight


The death of Nelson Mandela two days ago has, quite rightly, brought about a slew of obituaries, articles and opinion pieces from around the world. One particularly caught my attention, written by Emily Mann for the LA Times. It talks about the great man’s unwitting, yet powerful effect on theatre. I’m posting it today simply as a tribute, but is worthy of a read and I whole heartedly suggest that the plays Mann talks about are worth a read too.

I especially recommend Athol Fugard’s The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (which was also written by Fugard in collaboration with Winston Ntshona and John Kani). The former is set in an unnamed prison, clearly based on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for twenty-seven years. It focuses on two cellmates, one whose successful appeal means that his release draws near and one who must remain in prison for many years to come. The latter is a beautiful elegy about the loss of identity and how oppression can make desperate people do desperate things. The play’s protagonist, Sizwe Banzi, is forced to steal the identity papers, and thus the identity, of a dead man in order to get work in apartheid era South Africa.

Nelson Mandela dies: His legacy to the arts

Many people know that Nelson Mandela’s life inspired novels, poems, plays and films, but few people know how powerful his effect on the theater was and how powerful the theater’s effect was on him.

The theater served as a mirror to Mandela, each side influencing and reflecting the other, placing them both in time.

At the height of the apartheid era, the Market Theater in Johannesburg and the Space Theatre in Cape Town, both defiantly nonracial venues in a racially divided country, produced shattering plays about black life under the apartheid regime.


These plays premiered in South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s and then flooded onto the world stages. The plays triggered global outrage at the South African government and support for the struggle for freedom Mandela represented.

Athol Fugard’s “The Island” and “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead” (co-created with actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani) and “Master Harold and the Boys”; Percy Mtwa, Barney Simon and Mbongeni Ngema’s “Woza Albert”; and Ngema’s “Sarafina” along with many other plays of staggering power sparked a conflagration of local and international protest and helped Mandela bring down the apartheid government.

As Fugard once said to me and others, “I sometimes have to subscribe to the old cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. It certainly was true in this case.”

Mandela’s arts legacy reaches beyond the apartheid era. He continued to inspire theater makers around the world to write those plays that would expose social injustice.

One of my plays, “Greensboro, a Requiem,” is about the Ku Klux Klan massacre of a multiracial group of anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, N.C., in 1978. It brought national attention to the event and to the shocking acquittals of the Klan by an all-white jury.

In its wake, the play inspired the mayor and the city of Greensboro to convene America’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on Mandela and the Rev. Desmond Tutu’s commission in South Africa.

The citizens of Greensboro, as in South Africa, chose to face painful truths about their past so they could enter a future together with a mutually agreed-upon history and a new understanding of each other’s lives. This, too, is Mandela’s legacy. A play can inspire social change.

During Mandela’s long life on the world stage, his influence has been multifaceted and his reach long. His profound contribution to the arts, both the work influenced by him and for him, made not only world but theater history, and his legacy continues to inspire those who work in the theater for social justice.

1990. Nelson Mandela as he is freed from prison after 27 years

1990. Nelson Mandela as he is freed from prison after 27 years


He’s Behind You

Something quite strange happens to British theatre at this time of the year. Up and down the country they get taken over by men dressed as women, women dressed as boys, people in animal costumes (quite often a horse or a cow), custard pies and all playing to packed houses. From the land that gave Shakespeare to the world and is still exporting the finest theatre around the globe, what is all this about?



Princess Elizabeth as the ‘Principal Boy’ in pantomime

Well, its Pantomime, a peculiarly British theatre form that is a good few centuries old and is very much part of the cultural landscape – theatre for everyone.  Only this week, photographs emerged of the current queen appearing as the ‘principal boy’ in pantomimes, taken between 1942 and 1944. As a child I fondly remember been taken to the theatre every Christmas, on a family outing, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grand-parents and cousins, to see the local pantomime. With an older, more jaundiced eye, I have tended to frown at the tradition, as not being ‘real’ theatre, but it remains unarguably popular. Last year, the largest producer of the seasonal offering had in excess of 30 shows going on across the country, with a take of £25 million. So what exactly is it, in terms of form and what is its history? According to Professor Jane Moody, from the University of York, in her article It’s Behind You – A look into the history of pantomime

The story of pantomime is a tale of dragons and serpents. It features men dressed as women, and women masquerading as young men. Pantomime presents a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over adversity after danger and virtual despair. It has its roots in ancient Greece, and via Italy and France, insinuates itself into Britain. Pantomime’s unique fusion of eccentricity, ambiguity and absurdity has much to tell us about [British] national identity.


According to writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, pantomime is the only art form ever invented in England. It’s a splendid witticism, albeit untrue. Pantomime has become quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea or a good Indian curry.

Pantomime’s history is a story of border crossings, as plots and performers slip across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Panto season

By complete coincidence, given my post last week, pantomime has its roots in Commedia dell’arte, which spread across Europe in the 16th Century, from Italy to France, and by the middle of the 17th century began to be popular in England. Soon after, the Commedia characters started to appear in english plays and on english stages. The history of Pantomime is well documented, and one of the best and accessible is from the Victoria and Albert Museum which covers the tradition in good detail:

  1. Early Pantomime – The transformation from Commedia to Pantomime
  2. Pantomime Acts – Which explains all about the Pantomime Dame, The Principal Boy and the animal impersonations.
  3. The Origin of Popular Pantomime Stories
  4. Victorian Pantomime – The development of the form and the introduction of ‘stars’ into the lead roles.

Accompanying the lecture below by Professor Jane Moody, which looks at the history of pantomime – part lecture and part performance – there is also the article mentioned above, It’s Behind You, which deals in another historical aspects.


If you want a sound-bite (slightly patronising) outline, watch this one:


But it will come as no surprise, that despite its continuing popularity, the tradition is changing and some claim, beyond recognition. Has the Christmas pantomime had its day? written by Gillian Orr in The Independent and Curtain falls on traditional panto – oh yes it does! written Jasper Copping in The Telegraph both discuss what has changed and why. But despite this, the audiences still roll in. My own nephews, who have to be torn away from their computers, tablets, phones usually kicking and screaming, still love to go to the ‘Panto’ and are duly taken by my sister, with grandparents in tow.



The current copy of Timeout London lists a total of 24, yes 24, Pantomimes happening across the city alone this year – and these are just the professional ones. Thousands of amateur groups get in on the act too – a nationwide outbreak of cross-dressing, if you will.

Having said that Pantomime is peculiarly british, they do take place elsewhere in the english speaking world, usually where the British used to rule – Canada and Australia being good examples. Even in Hong Kong, we have a traditional Pantomime performed every year by the The Hong Kong Players. I have to say though, I do find this a colonial hangover, an anachronism, and for me, somewhat embarrassing.

Playing The Fool

I realised this week that I sometimes miss the blatantly obvious when I am writing this blog. Once a week I set aside time to explore the things from Twitter that I have mined during the previous 7 days as well as trawl through the tried and trusted sites, blogs and people who feed Theatre Room. Also, I am often prompted by questions from my students and debates and discussions that happen in the classroom and studio as well as discussions with theatre teaching colleagues.

At the moment, all of my senior students are involved with research projects of one kind or another and I have quietly being doing some background research of my own to support them. And so it was that I came to the realisation above. One of my students, Grace, is exploring Commedia dell’Arte for her Independent  Project and although I know have referred in passing to the tradition, I don’t think I have devoted a post to it. So here it is.

hb_1980.67There are lots of bits and bobs on the internet about Commedia, some more useful than others, but a general Google search will throw all these up. One of the best on-line histories comes from theatredatabase.com and can be found here. However, the best sources of information still remain (much to my surprise and occasionally to my students’ chagrin) printed texts. The best list of these can be found here, complied by Jonathon Becker on his website theatre-masks.com. Of all of these, there are two that stand out. 254682Firstly there is Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook by John Rudlin which is a bit of a bible, in my opinion. One review on Amazon says It is not an esoteric bible of secret facts which will allow anyone to become a commedia performer.It is an actor’s manual and, if you cannot find adequate live teaching of the form, it is one of the best books you can find to start with. I couldn’t agree more!  The other one I always recommend to students is Playing Commedia by Barry Grantham. It has a section on different types of warm-ups and games specific to 9781854594662_Fotorskills and/or characters and there is another section with a history of each character which is invaluable. There are lots others available, some more practical, some more academic, but these two are my favourites. In fact the number of books still in print says much about the tradition itself – it is alive and flourishing. One company that specialises is Faction of Foolsbased at Gallaudet University in Washington DC.

Commedia is classed by UNESCO as a piece of Intangible World Cultural Heritage and as such there is even a World Commedia dell’Arte Day, 25th February every year. A look at the report produced for the 2013 day shows just how wide-spread (5 continents) Commedia practitioners are.

I want to share a series of videos produced by the National Theatre in the UK, which are a great little resource.






The workshops in the video are led by Didi Hopkins from Commediaworks, a UK based organisation that aims to keep the [Commedia] flame alive and burning bright. To this extent, they worked with Richard Bean, the writer of the internationally successful modern reworking of Carlo Goldoni’s classic The Servant of Two Masters, in the form of One Man, Two Governors.  You can read Goldoni’s original text here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Goldoni is often accused of ‘killing’ Commedia, by writing it down – committing an oral, improvised art, to the page. Hopkins and her partner in Commediaworks, Ninian Kinnier-Wilson, wrote the programme/play bill notes for One Man, Two Governors where they challenged the notion of Goldoni as ‘murderer’.

Did Goldoni Murder Commedia?

When Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters, some say he killed Commedia dell’Arte. Was it alive? What was it? And why was a playwright accused of its murder?

Commedia dell’Arte, or Comedy of the Guild, was the first professional theatre in Europe, appearing in the 1550s in Northern Europe. Actors were paid a fair wage. A round of applause on your exit line meant you often got extra money… and on stage, for the first time, there were women. Before Commedia, Literary Societies, populated with academics, often performed amateur theatre, and there were professional entertainers – jongleurs – but there was no professional theatre. Commedia dell’Arte seems to have been a marriage between the academics and the jongleurs, between ideas and skills, between mind and body, and between high and low class. It was originally known as ‘Commedia all’Improviso’, the players taking the roles of different types found in society, from lowly servants to middle class professionals and lofty aristocrats. These types were clearly defined and contrasted to help the actors with their improvisation: high masters with low servants, lost lovers with knowing maids, cunning servants with stupid masters. As there was no written play, the actors worked from a scenario or running-order pinned up behind the stage, detailing entrances and exits of the players and the main points to be conveyed in the scene.

101203ArlecchinoTraditional themes involved riches and poverty, power and servitude, barrenness and fertility, wisdom and folly, and, of course, life and death – powerful reasons to drive characters through their stories.
There was no central hero in the Commedia dell’Arte, rather each character had a storyline with a beginning, middle and end to their plight, and all these stories were woven together to end, usually with a marriage, in the final scene. As well as socially, the characters were also divided by whether or not they were masked. The masked characters are cyclical and end the story back in their rightful places; the unmasked are linear and go on a journey from one state to finish in another. Both sets of characters have lessons to learn on the way about life, love, justice and society – all topics that would concern their audience.


Commedia actors studied hard for their parts, and learned quantities of text. The unmasked lovers learned love poems and duets; the professionals were familiar with business ideas of the day, the latest interests of the academic societies, and could speak Latin, Greek and Hebrew like their equivalents in the audience. The braggart Captain had speeches of valour and ridiculous long Spanish names. The players of the servants had to practise tumbling and set piece gags, or ‘lazzi’. All this had to be retained and inserted into scenes when appropriate and at the drop of a hat.

Commedia all’Improviso was a literate and visual theatre, speaking the ideas of the Renaissance literary society and using the vulgar visuals of the illiterate lower classes, combining the two to speak to the whole audience. Sound commercial sense! It also meant that the players of the Commedia all’Improviso were truly skilled. Trained to a very high level in their chosen roles, they were more than just actors, they were artisans of the theatre: the Commedia dell’Arte.


So why was Goldoni accused of killing Commedia dell’Arte?

Others, including Molière and Marivaux, had made text plays in the style of Commedia dell’Arte. But by the 1740s the Commedia was old. At its birth two hundred years before, it had sprung to life fully formed and travelled the courts and countryside of Europe, speaking secrets and introducing theatre to many of the countries it visited. It had a purpose. By Goldoni’s time it had forgotten that purpose and was wrapped not in the sharp ideas of the Renaissance but in the fluffy gauze of the Rococo of Watteau and the fairytales of Gozzi. It was not a murder, it was a mercy killing. Commedia was resurrected and brought back to life two centuries later by the Piccolo Teatro of Milan when, in 1947, Giorgio Strehler, Jacques Lecoq and mask-maker Amleto Sartori picked up Goldoni’s script and pieced together, through information and research, a new template for understanding the form, the characters and the rhythms of Commedia dell’Arte. It is a tradition that has influenced theatre, actors and playwrights and its strong imprint can be seen in Restoration comedy, melodrama, music hall, vaudeville, circus, pantomime and in the Zanni of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Mr Bean, and beyond. The work goes on.


Goldoni the playwright is innocent of the murder of Commedia dell’Arte. By writing down what he witnessed in his rich and theatrical Venetian landscape, he helped to preserve it and keep the flame alive. He tried to bring together two traditions of European theatre – the playwrights’ theatre, and Commedia – the actors’ theatre. Viva la Commedia!

If you would like to know more about One Man, Two Govenors, you can download the education pack that accompanies the show here.