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Didi Hopkins: Commedia Dell’arte Specialist

7 July 2017 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Didi Hopkins helped craft the National Theatre’s mega hit One Man, Two Guvnors using her background in Commedia Dell’arte, a 16th Century theatrical tradition, to shape appealing, timeless characters. Commedia Dell’arte mixes mask work, movement and improvisation to tell satirical stories about archetypical characters that reflect universal power struggles. As a Commedia Dell’arte specialist, Didi teaches performance skills to National Theatre and RSC actors, animation students and even business CEOs. London Calling asked Didi to pull away the mask and reveal all about this ancient art form.

London Calling: Hi Didi, please can you give our readers a potted history of Commedia Dell’arte?

Didi Hopkins: It started in Venice at a time when the city was the beating heart of Europe. Many different cultures were living there, trading there, and travelling through the city. The Renaissance was coming to fruition. Big thinkers and artists were repositioning their ideas about who they were in relationship to the world, because the planet was being discovered in a new way.

Commedia came from that backdrop of curiosity. In Venice they had aristocratic literary societies who performed the royal court plays. These societies sought to go further with these plays and make them more relevant. You also had street performers who worked in market places and sold trinkets and potions. They had to use theatrics to draw in a crowd in order to earn their money. Venice had a huge tradition of mask and carnival and, at certain times of the year, people could put on a mask and not be who they really were. All sorts of things used to happen through the masking of who you might be and who you might become. The tradition of mask, the plays of the literary societies and the street performers all collided and created Commedia Dell’arte.

LC: Why was Commedia Dell’arte revolutionary?

DH: It was the first time women performed on stage. Everyone was paid an equal wage and there was an extra bit in the pot for the horse and the company itself. The companies looked after themselves in a democratic way, giving everyone an opportunity to feel equal. Commedia was originally performed in market squares, piazzas, courtly areas and even tennis courts! The extraordinary thing about it (apart from being performed in public spaces, so people wouldn’t need to buy a ticket) was that everybody’s story was as important as everybody else’s - just like in Downton Abbey! Shakespeare was writing Hamlet at the time, where all the character’s stories feed into Hamlet’s central trajectory. In Commedia, it would not only be Hamlet’s story, but also his mother’s, his uncle’s, Rosencrantz’s, Guildenstern’s and all the servant’s, running in parallel like a soap opera, to magnify that everyone had as much right to be part of humanity as everyone else did. Everyone had a value. That was revolutionary.


Image Credit: Commediaworks

LC: How did the use of improvisation evolve in Commedia?

DH: Commedia is an oral tradition. The use of improvisation came out of some people not being able to read. The improvisation was not like Whose Line Is It Anyway? They had familiar scenarios - Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night - but they would improvise their way through them. They would rehearse then improvise around the argument, action and linear line of the play. It meant they were hugely prepared. The improvisation also came from the idea that if you are performing in a market place and something happens, you don’t just carry on as if it hasn’t happened, you acknowledge it. It meant the actors were alive; looking and listening in a different way because they didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next.

LC: Is performing behind a mask very different from performing without a mask?

DH: There are two sorts of masks in Commedia. One works well in profile, and one works well front on. You have to know what kind of mask you are wearing and what picture you are drawing with it in space. You aim towards the pictures. Whether you are masked or unmasked in Commedia you still use your physical training because the language and articulation of the body speaks as much of the story as the words do. If you’re wearing a mask it’s a bit like wearing a blindfold with the eye sockets cut out. It demands that you move your neck and head differently to the rest of your body because wearing a mask is not an ordinary thing to do, it’s extraordinary. When something becomes extraordinary you have to be aware of what you’re creating in front of others and why. What is the picture you’re building? How does the mask relate to that?

 
Image Credit: Tessa Wallis


LC: Why is the Master/Servant relationship so important in Commedia?

DH: That is what society is made of: bosses and workers; masters and servants. In Downton Abbey the butler is in charge of everyone who lives downstairs, but he is a servant to everyone upstairs. It’s about our position in society and how we respond, react and play different roles within that status quo. Mirroring the reality of society is hugely important in Commedia, but it’s also exaggerated. It’s about making the audience aware of that hierarchy in the story we’re telling. Everybody works for somebody, unless you’re at the top. The Queen of England serves the state but she’s got nobody above her, nor does Mr Trump.

Didi Hopkins will be leading a Commedia Dell’arte Workshop in Hackney from August 14-18.
 
For videos of Didi’s workshops please see the National Theatre’s Commedia Dell’arte channel.

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