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An Italian

comedy tradition

Ideas & videos on acting style for companies considering this new musical.


“That Emperor’s Fool” is a modern book musical, but we intend it to have an unusual quality:  the characters, the costumes, the makeup — and the acting style — are to be quite exaggerated, in keeping with our story's farcical plot.


A possible model is Commedia dell'Arte or "improvised comedy," the first secular form of  theatre in Europe, which originated in Renaissance Italy and remained popular in Europe for centuries. 

Commedia is perhap too exaggerated for this musical. A few examples of Commedia acting style are not to be copied, but may help suggest an acting style for "That Emperor's Fool," as director and actors may decide.


A bit of history   Performed by traveling troupes of actors including the first women on stage, Commedia featured over-the-top characters, exaggerated acting styles, and farcical plot outlines to which the actors improvised. Each actor specialized in one role, a stock character with unique expression, gesture, and acting style, and sometimes became famous for their role. All the traditional Commedia characters, except the lovers, wore unique character masks. We suggest very stylized makeup instead of masks, to keep this musical accessible to modern audiences.


Commedia's influence has lasted through the centuries in plays, operas, film, and even today’s television sitcoms. Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters,” was written in 1745 and often still performed, was based on Commedia.

Recent world tour   The best recent Commedia production was Carlo Gozzi’s “The King Stag,” written in 1762 and performed by Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre (ART) in 2000. The show went on to tour worldwide as “one of the best loved and most successful of ART productions.” Julie Taymor, who did the Commedia-style costumes, masks, and puppetry for this production, was subsequently chosen to direct Walt Disney’s stage version of “The Lion King,” which included striking aspects of Commedia and won Taymor a Tony award for best director. 

Images of Commedia

Several images (immediately below) show Commedia dell’Arte as it appeared centuries ago, along with some videos (further below) reproducing the acting style. The images and videos are not to be followed slavishly, but to inspire and give a unique flare of Commedia to this musical. All of Commedia's characters, except the lovers, had grotesque masks unique to each character. To keep this musical contemporary, however, stylized makeup should replace masks.

Troupes of Commedia actors traveled from town to town, set up their stage of boards and backdrop, and performed. From which comes the theatrical expression "tread the boards."

commedia 1_edited.jpg

Typical Commedia masks indicate how exaggerated the characters were. To keep our musical accessible to contemporary audiences, stylized makeup should be used

instead of masks.

Commedia 2_edited.jpg

Three Commedia characters, including the fool at right.

Commedia 4_edited.jpg

More Commedia stock characters. Actors specialized in one character and fashioned the unique costume, mask, and acting style for their character.

Commedia 3_edited.jpg

Acting style in Commedia dell'Arte

Below is a written description of Commedia followed by videos on its acting style.


A written explanation of how Commedia works in practice.  Click link.

Video of traditional Commedia acting style by uncostumed modern students.     Time 9:21

Historical overview of Commedia     Time: 2:19

Emotion in Commedia   Time 3:35

Short Commedia sketches by modern actors    Time 20:07

directed by Italian Commedia expert

Imagine the courtship duet of Espi and Professor Kunkel, who pantomime with the invisible "cloth" in Act 1, when you watch the lovers in the video below, starting at 0:33

More Commedia sketches by modern actors   Time 22:13

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