'Commedia dell'arte' Comes to Harvard

“This is my body,” Silvio Castiglioni says, pointing to himself.

“But in the theater, this is my body,” he says, waving his arms over the whole stage.

For Castiglioni, space is sentient, and movement has meaning.

Castiglioni is one of Italy’s most famous theater personalities and its foremost proponent of commedia dell’arte.

Commedia is a form of early modern Italian comedy in which actors wearing masks improvise scenes on themes of love, jealousy and old age.

Invited by Harvard’s Office for the Arts to teach the basic techniques of commedia to undergraduates, Castiglioni began a series of three evening workshops at Adams House earlier this week.

As a warm-up exercise, he asked the students to imitate a series of exaggerated body movements and facial expressions, which embodied emotions such as pity and grimace, joy and anger. One by one, each of the students then led the rest of the group with their own emotional caricatures.

Commedia, which has origins in Greek mime and Roman comedy, was widely performed in Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries, but has since waned in popularity.

“[Commedia] is still very useful,” Castiglioni says. “Maybe not the content of the stories, but the techniques and the knowledge of the stage can still be used by the actor today.”

One exercise aimed to familiarize the students with the emotional intensity of commedia.

In two separate groups, the students mimicked a leader representing an abstract entity, like “Mr. Yes” and “Mr. No,” or “father” and “daughter.” The group leaders were asked to release their unconscious feelings with improvised gestures, while the other students imitated their movements. Each actor’s emotions were magnified and reinforced by their mirror images, and their individual identities became part of a larger emotional entity.

“Don’t think—that’s the most important thing,” Castiglioni says. “Don’t lose your unconscious reactions.”

He occasionally stopped the groups when one leader lost the spontaneity in his or her movements. But most of the time, Castiglioni simply watched the groups as they acted and reacted with each other, heightening to emotional climaxes only to dissolve and start again.

“You’re without character. You’re not male. You’re not female. Not macho. Not womanly. You’re just humankind walking,” Castiglioni said as the students lined up and walked from the back to the front of the stage.

At the end of the Monday workshop, many students said the workshops were challenging but enjoyable

“He started us off with an exercise that seemed to be too much at first,” said former Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club President Daniel A. Cozzens ’03, “but that’s the way to do it. It’s trial by fire.”

According to Castiglioni, the workshops aimed to give the students a taste of commedia. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Castiglioni planned to bring in the masks, the most important and exciting aspect of the commedia.

The visit marked Castiglioni’s first time in the U.S. Castiglioni said that working with Harvard students was a unique experience.

“They’re full of enthusiasm and energy,” he says. “Some of them are quite experienced.

“It’s easy for me,” he says. “I put on the fire, and they burn.”


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