Why teach Commedia!

Masks are a fantastic acting tool. Whether an actor ends up performing masked theatre or not, engaging in mask work can elevate an actor’s skills, and while the gregarious extroverted actor stands to gain from working with masks, the benefits to all budding actors can be remarkable.
Shy, sensitive actors can learn to come out of themselves with the aid of a mask. It is likely that they play up to a mask character because the character is so clearly defined; once the mask goes on, there is a clear expectation of what that mask character is to do.
It is a caricature, an exaggerated character, so the actor has to rise to that level. It means that they can be loud and large in their movements — which may have been something that they were too intimidated to do before (thinking that they should be more subtle in their acting). Mask work gives them a chance to ‘go over the top’, to play it at 110 percent.
More broadly, there is freedom in wearing a mask; the actor can do something from behind a mask that he wouldn’t normally do. This is something that most people understand. Beyond that, if an actor has created a mask character so successfully thathe has found his improvisational dialogue, then he won’t need to go away and learn any new lines. He can be in character and know what to say. He’ll have the ability towalk into a scene and be spontaneous because the Mask is doing the actions, ratherthan the actor himself. Soon the actor realises that he can improvise; that he can make up dialog impulsively — and captivate an audience.
23 Mask work enables the actor to build a confidence that no other exercise seems to be able to. Students of masks get the feeling — even in the drama classroom — of having the audience in the palm of their hands. In time, and with their fellow performers, actors start to experiment with slapstick, clowning, and other simple comic routines, along with the ad-libbed dialog. They improvise freely.
Once this happens, the teacher can take the student to a mirror and ask them to form the same expression on their face as they see on the mask. The actor can then slowly lift the mask and see how close they have come to making that expression. The actor can use the same voice that they discovered through the mask. It can then be explained that they have used the mask as a tool to get to the character, and that now they can go onstage and be an exaggerated, improvisational, confident actor who can display a strong physicality in their performance.
Students’ eyes light up when they realise the possibilities, and that’s a successful end in itself.
Thus, studying masks is not just for masked performance. It can be very, very good actor training.
Commedia is the perfect medium for drama teaching. In so many high school drama classes the students are intimidated by their own peer groups. The drama class has a stigma of being for students who aspire to stardom, and drama students are sometimes ridiculed outside of the class. Within the class itself there are also cliques.
The ‘cool’ kids get up and do every exercise well, while the more shyer students hang back and are always last to get up.
However, when masks come into play this situation is often reversed; the shy students shine from behind the mask because they’ve discovered some freedom, and the confident ones may get a bit lost, because they can’t use the tricks that they usually do, as the mask gets in the way. I’ve seen students throw masks across the room in frustration! The shy students watch the others struggling, and they get a little lift, thinking, ‘hey, they can’t do this, but I can.’