My first job in the theatre was to usher for the Late Night Jazz Series at New York’s Public Theater. Invariably, the highlight of these evenings for me would come in a moment of improvisation. For the uninitiated, the improvised sections of an ensemble jazz performance can seem like a free-for-all. It can seem like the players have abandoned any pretense of playing an actual song and are just making it up as they go. In fact, these moments are only possible because of a tightly held, broadly understood sense of roles and musical structure shared by the entire ensemble. As the performance cracks open into improvisation, a series of agreements come to the fore that keep both the soloist and the rest of the band from flying off into some musical limbo from which they may not find their way back.
For instance, the improvisation is taking place within a contained musical structure. The key, the time signature, the chord progression and the melody are all established before the improvisations begin. The players collectively maintain those elements throughout the flight. Each also knows the role their instrument plays in support of the moment. When a soloist takes off, a piano or guitar will lay in a sense of the chords, the bass player
will lay down the tempo, the melody instruments lay back to create space, and everyone will ride the wave of inspiration all the way to the end before picking up the song again.
Tonight’s performance will be similarly a balance of structure and improvisation. In fact, Servant was first created as a “comic scenario” by Goldoni in 1743. That scenario left big open spaces in which the players could improvise. It laid down the characters, the setting and the plot, but left the rest to the company to invent. When Connie Congdon and this company set about adapting the play for contemporary audiences they, again, laid down the structural agreements of the play with the full expectation that it would open up, in performance, into flights of improvisation. Yes, there is a text. There are characters with names
and relationships. There is a plot. And there are lines that will be spoken verbatim every night. But there are also invitations to improvisation embedded throughout.
As with the instruments in a jazz ensemble, a commedia ensemble is a selection of stock characters that all play defined roles. A piano can play chords. A horn cannot. An Arlecchino serves. A Pantalone hoards. The Inamorati love, the Dottore bloviate. So, commedia performers start with a strong sense of their roles in any given moment—scripted or not—and the ensemble can rely on each other in the same way the jazz band does.
There is also a very well developed history of commedia routines, or lazzi, which the players deploy. Just as musical structure has measures and chords, these routines have shape and substance that not only keep the company able to move forward through an improvised moment, but also tell you where it ends. Think about The Three Stooges for a moment, and what immediately jumps to mind? It’s probably not a storyline but a routine, a
bit, a lazzo. Most likely one of the three of them bopping each other with real force at a terrific pace that seems to build to some climactic comedic moment and then dissipate instantly back into the progress of the threadbare plot. Commedia has acquired literally hundreds of such lazzi and their shape and structure are known to the players. They can instantly move into and out of these lazzi as one though they were unscripted and unplanned.
As with the improvised jazz solo, the shared mastery of these agreements, roles and rules provide the grounding that allows the moment to take flight. How it flies, where it goes and how they are going to bring it back are the unknowns. The players are just making that up as they go.
David Dower is the Director of Artistic Programs at ArtsEmerson.