Marketplaces in sixteenth-century Europe thronged with barkers and costermongers calling their wares and travelling shows where mountebanks staged miraculous recoveries amidst masks and music. Within this carnival atmosphere, improvised theatre naturally thrived as a popular pastime. Rude, funny and satirical, commedia dell’arte established itself across the piazzas of Italy from the 1530’s onwards. The term arte signified that the comedy was performed by professional actors – who could sing, dance, mime, clown, juggle and tumble their way through the improvised shows. The players lampooned social stereotypes according to their status or regional origin. These evolved into the larger than life stock characters easily recognisable by audiences across a crowded market place. An actor would often play the same character for the whole of his or her working life.
Updated from an article originally written for Teaching Drama magazine, this PDF introduces the background to the Italian improvised theatre of the 16th to 17th centuries and shows how it still influences theatre and TV today. Activities suitable for Key Stages 3-5 and adults include: Status Gap, Master and Servant, Pantalone and Arlecchino, Character Body Parts, Throw Your Face, Grammelot and Canovaccio. A new page outlines examples of the lazzi (comic business) which Commedia dell’arte was famous for.