Monday, May 21, 2007

Commedia dell'Artemisia Interview #1: Mask-Maker Jonathan Becker

Long time blog readers will remember the film noir and absurdism interview series we conducted in the weeks leading up to the opening of Kill Me Like You Mean It. Well, as we countdown to the opening of Commedia dell'Artemisia at the Pretentious Festival, we wanted to bring in some of the country's leading experts on mask design, commedia dell'arte, Moliere, and verse playwriting to share their thoughts.

Today I'd like to introduce you to Jonathan Becker: actor, teaching artist, dancer, puppeteer, puppet designer, dancer, fight choreographer and...mask-maker! I've been teaching Commedia and directing with Jonathan's neoprene masks (purchased at since 2004. The masks have been dropped, kicked, left out in the sun and in blizzards, and forced to absorb gallons about gallons of actor-sweat and they still look like they've been freshly cast (unfortunately, they've since lost that new mask smell...). In addition to the complete set of Commedia masks he offers, Jonathan has a variety of other character and decorative masks available. (I might add, that his Commedia masks do double duty as my living room's wall decorations.) And if you don't like anything he shows on the site, you can do what Disney and Lincoln Center did: order a custom mask.

And here's what he has to say...

1. How do you define Commedia dell'Arte?

Hmmmmm… The Commedia is so many things. I would define the Commedia as the ultimate human comedy. It is an outrageous celebration of the foibles of humanity. The Commedia is forever contemporary given that it is based on archetypes and universal themes. It is trickery at its finest.

Everything in the commedia is a ruse even the act of story telling. One thinks one is off to see a play but in the end it is what the characters of the commedia choose to give that evening that is the experience of the audience.

As a style, in the commedia, it is the style itself that’s in play. It is different in other forms of theatre. For example, it is the text in Shakespeare, the story in a melodrama, and the characters in Contemporary American Realism. The style itself is what is important in the commedia.

In commedia you have an actor playing an actor playing a character having a direct conversation with the audience.

2. What do you think is the most common misconception of Commedia?

That it is an historical form of theatre that needs to played as such and that it is based completely in improvisation.

3. Where does the inspiration for your Commedia masks come from?

The masks are based on both the historical forms of the traditional commedia masks but also on the animals that are closest to the charters in personality and temperament.

4. Tell us about Neoprene. What are the advantages of working with this material as a sculptor and as an actor?

Neoprene is an industrial latex compound that cures to a mostly rigid form. It’s original application was as an additive for adhesives. Someone figured out that it could be used to make masks. I wish it had been me then I’d feel like a smart person.

In a neoprene mask the wall of the mask turns out to be about 1/8” thick and is slightly flexible. This material has been being used by mask makers here in the US for about 18 years. It provides for a very professional grade working mask. Its greatest asset is that the masks can be made in an affordable way.

The weight and feel of the mask is similar to that of a leather mask. The masks are padded and strapped. The wear on the mask will depend on the care that it gets and how many times it is exposed to extreme cold and extreme heat. For the most part, neoprene masks are pretty much indestructible. I toured with a company that had to make changes so quickly that the masks were often thrown on the floor over and over again and those masks would last a year or more of constant touring and playing 250 or so performances a year.

5. Why do you think Commedia dell'Arte is an important training for contemporary actors?

Commedia is an important training tool because it involves the use of masks which are designed as living sculpture. This means that in order to support the mask and maintain the life of the sculpture the actor must always be in a constant state of honest discovery. It is impossible to lie under a mask. Learning to play commedia is like learning to play the violin. One has to be a virtuoso to pull it off. It is hugely technical and an absolute mastery of the technique must be had in order to play.

The actor must have a true mastery of the principles of the craft of performance to succeed at the commedia.

6. You teach workshops which fuse both Grotowski-based and Lecoq-based actor training. How do you reconcile the two distinct styles in your own work and pedagogy?

Do you have an hour… here is the short answer:

I fuse them. Lecoq is all about space and rhythm which involves a relationship to the audience since they are part of the space. The physical conditioning of the plateau work and the attention to the kinesthetic and intuitive sense of physical impulse is second to none in the Grotowski work. I use the two at different points in the training process and to accomplish different goals depending on the outcome I am reaching for.

7. Do you have a favorite Commedia character to play? Why?

I most often play Pantelone because he is closer to me in real life but I love playing Tartaglia. The simple stupidity of this character appeals to me.

8. While Commedia-inspired groups like the Mime Troupe have been around for decades and while some elements of Commedia-esque satire have been absorbed by the sketch comedy world of SNL and such, do you think that we'll ever see a traditional masked traveling Commedia troupe dealing with contemporary material?

I would hope so. But I’m not sure that it can happen in our culture. We in America do not have a tradition of masked performance and so have a difficult time relating to masked styles of performance. The masks of our culture are Darth Vader, Freddy from Friday the Thirteenth and evil clown masks for Halloween. It’s difficult. Maybe if we tire of the virtual world we will long for something else and truly theatrical forms of performance will begin to flourish.

9. What can Commedia and its legacy teach us about creating contemporary satire?

Situation is the basis for comedy and the universal is what is funny. That it is ultimately the physical nature of the comedy the rings true and is most exciting. I always think of Lucile Ball, Bill Cosby, Rhett Skelton, Archie Bunker (all of the characters in this sit com) oh and
stupid and ridiculous are a good place to start when solving most problems.

10. Anything you'd like to plug?

Sure… Buy lots of masks from or just send me all your money. That works too.

...In addition to today's interview, you can look forward to hearing from Christopher Bayes, one of the country's leading teachers of clown and Commedia and Kirk Wood Bromley, New York's most prolific verse playwright. Have another interview suggestion? Comment away...

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