Using Commedia dell’Arte to Motivate Student Learning

An Experience in the Lehman Summer Arts Academy

by Brian Leahy Doyle


In February 2002, David Gantz, of Lehman College’s College Now program, asked Ken Ross, technical director and resident lighting designer of Lehman’s Theatre and Dance Program, and me to create a “page-to-stage” experience for Lehman’s Summer Arts Academy. As teacher and director, my job was to select a play that the students would read, analyze and discuss in a classroom setting and, ultimately, produce in Lehman’s Studio Theatre.


Before beginning this project, certain concerns and questions arose during my preproduction/curriculum planning process, all of which affected my choice of the play — or plays — I would select to teach and direct. While I knew our prospective students, as a whole, would be motivated and possess a high academic caliber (eligibility for participation was limited to those who had scored at least 75 on the ELA), I had to ask myself, “What sort of theatre or performance experience might any of them possess?” Important to casting, “What might be the male-female ratio of students enrolling in the Summer Arts Academy?” “Would the students be able to meet the vocal or physical demands of a modern or a classical script?” “What script would they find fun to study and perform in?” “What play would I find fun to direct?”


I finally gravitated toward two seventeenth century, Molière one-act plays —The Flying Doctor and The Imaginary Cuckold — whose origins were influenced by the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational style of acting that has influenced the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and “Saturday Night Live.” With their simple characters and plots, these two plays make few demands upon young, inexperienced actors. Also, by choosing these plays, I could overcome any problems casting according to gender by having all of the actors wear half-masks based on Commedia characters. With two casts of actors, I could rehearse with one group while the other group created their masks, constructed and painted the sets or hung lighting instruments under the supervision of Laurie Degen, who designed the lighting. Finally, these two plays are both sheer fun, and each is under thirty minutes’ playing time!


An added bonus: each student researched, designed and built his or her own mask as part of the final grade, resulting in ripples of pride, self-confidence and self-esteem. They saw with their eyes what their minds and hands could create.


It was up to our audiences to see what our souls and bodies might create, and the Summer Arts Academy students rose to the challenge by bringing Molière’s characters to life. As I taught and directed my student actors, I found the following resources to be invaluable in my efforts to bring these plays from page to stage:

Playing Commedia (Heinemann Drama, 2000), by Barry Grantham, is an excellent training guide of commedia techniques replete with warm-up games, mime and movement exercises, word games and background information on the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte characters. History and expertise all in one nifty package.


Mask Improvisation for Actor Training and Performance (Northwestern University Press, 1996), by Sears A. Eldredge, features dozens of improvisations for training as well as designing and constructing masks. This book also contains valuable information on the historical evolution of the mask. It’s ideal for anyone who would like to teach a class on acting with a mask or who has an interest in mask-making.


Assistant Professor Brian Leahy Doyle, who teaches acting, directing, voice and speech and theatre history in the Lehman College Theatre Program, believes that theatre training can be invaluable in instilling and developing communication skills and self-esteem in young students.


A freelance director and dramaturg, Brian is a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America, the Association of Theatre Movement Educators and the American Society of Theatre Research. As a director, Brian’s work has been seen at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the Whole Theatre, Riverside Shakespeare, the Irish Arts Center and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, where he directed the New York premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron J. Kernis’s The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine. He most recently directed John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in Lehman College’s Lovinger Theatre.