Interview with Tony Kishawi
Three Common Mistakes in Teaching Commedia
A common mistake for teaching Commedia is that the the art department of the drama department get really excited and they say oh let’s work together we’ll make the masks in art and we’ll use them in the drama, meaning that we’ll make our own Commedia masks. Even though this is a good idea of joining the different departments together it actually is is not the best idea for the performance element, because if the students making the masks they are there with the clay and the paper mache and it takes quite a long time. Keeping up the enthusiasm is difficult but when they get to put it on, after it’s finished, when they put it on they’re wearing their creation, which has the opposite effect! When you wear masks you’re actually free of your inhibitions one would hope that you do things from behind the mask that you wouldn’t normally do, this is the common understanding of working with masks. So if a student is wearing their creation they’re opening up their soul, they’re saying, “Well I made this and here I am wearing it, this is a reflection of me”. So it has the opposite effect, if you had some students who made the masks and then gave them to the drama department, maybe this might be different, because the wearer is not taking responsibility for what the mask looks like or what the artist decided to do. I often recommend not to do to bring the two departments together.
The researching of Commedia is not the best thing to send your students to do. I’ve seen drama teachers say “Okay we’re going to do Commedia, so in the first week go to the computers see what you can find out about Commedia”, and of course they learn about the characters and they learn about the period and all those things. What you’re doing is filling their heads full of information of what they ‘should’ be doing in other words they’re looking for tips and tricks and stuff of what they’re going to do if they are going to perform. This fills their mind with things that they don’t need to know at this stage. My recommendation is you work with the masks first look at the mask face-to-face just look at take the mask, don’t worry about the history, put the mask on look in the mirror, find out what that mask character is by improvisation and experimentation. Once the students have discovered the mask themselves, they then can go back to the history. The research comes after the fact, of course the history is important but I much prefer the students say “So that’s why I did that when I was wearing that mask because in history it says that this is that type of character hey I found that I found that myself”. Just by working and rehearsing with the mask.
The assessment task, most teachers will set improvisation as their assessment task because the common knowledge is that Commedia is an improvised art form. I think that this is a very very difficult task to give your students. I myself now, with the experienced actors that been working with for six or so more years, would find it very difficult, if I was to give them an assessment task of saying “Okay go and pull a theme out of a hat and go away the rehearsal five minutes come back and perform”. This takes a lifetime of experience to be able to pull this off successfully. I try and discourage teachers from setting that kind of assessment task. I’d much prefer they say work on a theme and let them rehearse it and rehearse it and reverse it, then when they get to perform it, allow them to integrate some heckling from the audience or ad-libbing from the audience and then let them jump back to the script and then maybe back to ad-libbing with the audience. The improvisation only takes place during their performance in relationship with their audience. Working with a live audience is where Commedia really excels.
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