DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
Acclaimed comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks once said about the art of comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
With a healthy dose of comedy (and hopefully minimal tragedy), Chautauqua Theater Company’s company-developed production Commedia premieres at 4 p.m. Thursday, July 22 at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
The show is modeled after the Italian comedy style commedia dell’arte, a form of entertainment that emphasizes a group of stock characters. The participating actors improvise dialogue and actions to match the scenarios they have laid out.
CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba is directing the show and is both eager and anxious to see how the show will play out in real time, since every show has the potential to be different.
“I’m terrified, I’m shocked — I’m giddy with terror,” Borba said. “I don’t work like this. I love to work with comedy; I also like to work with a rehearsal room that is controlled chaos. But you always have a script; even if you’re playing with that script — you always have a script.”
Known for its emotive masks, commedia dell’arte thrives off heat-of-the-moment reactions and knee-jerk responses in dialogue. The actors received training in using the masks from one of Borba’s good friends, Jed Diamond.
Diamond and Borba both graduated from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts acting program. Diamond is also the head of the acting program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“Comedy and tragedy share a fundamental similarity, believe it or not, which is really that the imagined circumstances and the characters are extreme,” Diamond said. “There’s an old saying: Rehearse comedy like drama.”
Choosing Commedia was intentional on Borba’s part after the tumultuous year of 2020.
“I really felt we needed at least one of our shows to be joyous and playful, primarily because we have been in isolation as a country, as a world, as a community,” Borba said. “ … The entire team is so creative, and I think at the perfect time, because we’re coming out of (quarantine) and everybody is loaded with creative energy that’s exploding.”
During the weekend of July 4, Diamond trained the actors in the art of improv and how to use the masks to their advantage.
“We essentially play games that start the actors in a very physical, impulsive, active place, and then we start changing the circumstances of different games or more complicated theatrical games that they have to just commit very deeply right away,” Diamond said. “The idea of the games is to sort of strip away false pretense on the actors or performance and get to true authentic commitment to a strong want and action.”
No matter what kind of energy or attitude the actors have, once they put on the masks, their entire demeanor is subject to change.
“There’s something about the masks themselves, that people will tell you about that they cannot fully explain, but they are magical,” Borba said. “We are treating them as such. There’s a deep respect for the power of the mask; we have a ritual where we get into them, and a ritual where we get out of them. There’s been a lot of conversation about listening to the mask, and listening to the mask on the day. This has been vitally important.”
In the training process, Diamond described the actors’ biggest obstacle as themselves.
“When actors get up to improv, one of the big traps is that actors try to be clever and funny,” Diamond said. “They’re in front of people, the class is watching, so they start trying to have clever things to do, or they’re pretending in a way that is not really authentic. It’s all fakery. The question is: How inauthentic is the fakery?”
Diamond also pointed to the situational comedy (sitcom) as a natural progression of the commedia dell’arte art form, citing comedians like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Carol Burnett as performers who utilized stock characters in their respective shows.
“Even though it’s scripted, they’ll become improvisational because they start working inside the character together so well and that’s when it starts to really be fun,” Diamond said. “They just are in this childlike place, in this place of total play, and they’re very focused on the other so they can’t do it without the other person. That gets them into this kind of heightened state of alertness and imagination.”
Expect stories of love, betrayal and a lot of laughs, but make sure to also expect the unexpected. Not only does the audience not know what’s going to happen next, neither do the cast.
“We are intentionally walking on a tightrope, and that is the thrill of it,” Borba said. “ … If we can capture 10% of what was happening, and with the creativity that’s happening in the rehearsal room, it’s going to be a show that no one will ever forget.”