The Commedia dell’Arte was a travelling troupe of players that would put on humorous improv-based productions throughout Italy in the 16th century. It was the birth of Improvisation as a performance art and theatre students forever since have celebrated this fun and creative form.
Performances took place on temporary stages, often in the streets. The better troupes performed in palaces and became internationally famous. The performances would have music, dance, witty dialogue, and all kinds of silliness. Players would take input from audiences about who, when , and where and improv a scene based upon their character, often making fun of local officials and current affairs.
Each player would have a stock characters, stock situations, and memorized speeches. A stock characters refers to fictional character based on a common social stereotype. An example is Pantalone was a rich old man that was also very stingy. His mask would have a long curved nose. Think Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. The actor’s would wear masks that covered the upper half of the face and costumes that would signify their character. They would move in a specific way that was often associated with an animal. They also had a special paddle called a SLAPSTICK. A slapstick was a paddle much like you would see at a fraternity but it had two thin pieces of wood on either side so that when smacked lightly, it would make a LOUD noise.
Much of the humor would have been physical in nature. Think the Three Stooges! A stock joke that the actor’s set up for each other might be that after a scene Pantalone, being so stingy, would bend over to pick up a penny in the street. As he was old, he would bend from the waist, so that his rear end stuck out. Harlequin would sneak up behind him and smack him on the rear with a paddle, not really hurting him, but it sounded good! Pantalone would send himself flying to the ground to roars of laughter. When he got up, Harlequin would be gone, and Pantalone would be left to blame someone in the audience.