Tours of Tuscany

Tours of Tuscany
Join this small group tour and immerse yourself in the current of sensation for a week of food, wine and culture in Tuscany.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Australian Commedia Festival

THE world premiere of a work by a man who embodies the history and spirit of the commedia dell' arte theatre tradition was going to take place outdoors this weekend in an amphitheatre, alongside Lake Macdonald in Cooroy, Queensland.

Antonio Fava, who runs a school in Italy teaching the subtle skills of the classic commedia masks, was to have presented Pulcinellata Nera, a "little opera in words, lazzi [jokes] and music in the style of the Neapolitan commedia dell'arte", bringing to the Sunshine Coast hinterland the best of this centuries-old tradition.

That plan came unstuck. The idea of Pulcinella and all the other zanni from the classic tales of love and deception, greed and trickery, gathering in Gympie, which was to have been the centre of a weekend festival for actors, teachers and audiences, was too ambitious.

Organiser Tony Kishawi, a commedia aficionado and teacher, was faced with the impending cancellation of all the workshops, lectures and performances of his inaugural Australasian commedia dell'arte festival.

But, in the comic tradition, just when all looked hopeless, a surprising intervention turned around the plot. It's now heading for a happy ending which, Kishawi hopes, will also be a beginning.

Today and across the weekend, the Australasian Commedia dell'Arte Festival, celebrating the living tradition of this exuberant theatre, will be held at the Kelvin Grove campus of Queensland University of Technology as part of Brisbane Italian Week.

It was fortuitous coincidence, Kishawi says, that Italian Week this year was scheduled for the same weekend, and when he started talking to Alessandro Sorbello, producer of Italian Week, he realised that event, which is supported by the Italian government and the Brisbane City Council, provided the perfect framework on which to construct and develop his commedia festival.

"Commedia is like stamp collecting," Kishawi says. "Those who know about it are passionate, but it's hard to know how to sell it."

The most recognisable element of commedia is the masks that distinguish the different character types, from the young lovers, always foiled in their love-making, to the old miserly Pantalone, who beats up his poor servant Arlecchino (precursor of the romantic Harlequin) but inevitably is tricked in the end.

Kishawi was drawn to the commedia tradition by the masks. Brought up in a performing family and trained at the Victorian College of the Arts, Kishawi began to develop his own mask work as a street performer, eventually realising he would need to train in Italy with Fava if he were to understand the art properly.

"It felt like I was at home," he says of the time he spent learning commedia skills in Italy. "Fava is really the keeper of the form, he just emanates the essence of commedia, and I was able to understand."

Back in Australia, Kishawi set about trying to develop a commedia troupe, lecturing in drama schools as he sought out like-minded people with whom to work. For many years he lived and worked out of a circus bus, touring across the country, until eventually he settled in Gympie, where he creates performances for the boutique Heritage Theatre.

It was meeting a couple of other commedia experts - performers Antonio (Giri) Mazzella and Giovanni (Sanjiva) Margio - in Perth at the Northbridge Festival that set in train the chain of events that have led to Kishawi planning this commedia festival.

Mazzella and Margio, who run the Commedia Academy of Australia, will be performing today and tomorrow at the festival, presenting both traditional commedia and their contemporary Australian version.

The traditional part is explaining to audiences the different characters and how the tradition developed. The contemporary part is their irreverent performance under the guise of the Black Nonnas: tough women dressed in widow's weeds, "escaped from the suburbs, on the hunt for cheap coffee and husbands, preferably with very large tractors", Mazzella says.

Margio describes this kind of performance as "theatre of the wolf: if I don't eat you, you are going to eat me".

"There's no hunger in Australia except what you feel 10 minutes before the barbie is ready, but that hunger is what fuelled the commedia actors, what pushed their performance," Mazzella says. "If they didn't work, if it wasn't good, if the audience weren't grabbed, then the performers didn't eat."

Margio says when they teach commedia, they cannot be so strict about technique that they kill the gut impulse of actors. "It's about teaching the spirit of commedia, and then taking that into its modern form."

The actors have devoted their lives to commedia, touring Australia and overseas with their traditional and contemporary shows. They get cross at the continuing ignorance of people who are delighted by the performances, but then ask, "But what's your day job?"

"It's a profession but we have to keep explaining it," Mazzella says. "We have seen an exciting surge of interest in commedia productions. Many people have heard about it, but they've never seen it performed. Hopefully this festival will start to redress that lack."

Kishawi says he is talking to other venues in Brisbane and there are positive signs this new festival will continue. With its place as part of Italian Week, there is now a platform on which to build. With the Italians already involved and interest being shown from the US where there is a strong commedia presence, Kishawi is confident the idea is a good one. He is launching a book on teaching commedia, called Spirit of the Mask, this weekend at the festival.

"Everyone knows the classic gags of commedia, but learning to perform takes years of experience," Kishawi says. "I always say it's like pilots and flying time: you have to do it for many years to have the best skills."

The Commedia dell'Arte Festival, part of Brisbane Italian Week, is at Woodward Theatre, Queensland University of Technology, until Sunday. Antonio Fava performs Pulcinellata Nera on Sunday, 4pm and 7pm.

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