After a three-year hiatus of improvisation-focused performances due to the pandemic, Western Washington University will return on Feb. 9, 2024 with the Commedia dell'arte-style production "Masks Play."
The Commedia format, developed during the Renaissance period in Italy and Spain, is a unique style of performance based on easily recognizable masked archetypes, such as the braggart soldier or the young lovers, said Kamarie Chapman, an instructor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Western.
“You don’t get to necessarily use your facial expressions because you’re behind a mask, so Commedia is a lot of physical acting. There’s often tumbling. It’s often based in comedy,” said Chapman.
Unlike many other performance styles, Commedia largely focuses on improvisational acting, where the actors come up with their dialogue and actions on the spot rather than beforehand.
“It’s improv, so not only are the actors creating the characters that are behind masks, and making their bodies big and exaggerated and rumbling and tumbling around, but they’re also improv-ing within that moment,” said Chapman.
Western’s Commedia performance will be constructed by the actors and director, working together to build a basic framework for the production, and then using the situation and reactions from the crowd to create the rest.
Rich Brown, the director of "Masks Play" and the chair of Western’s Department of Theatre and Dance described how he enjoys the process of collaboratively designing the performance. This process is called devising and is one of Brown’s specialties.
"Masks Play" will also feature six emotion masks in addition to the Commedia archetype masks. These masks are fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Western held a Commedia-style performance each summer around Fourth of July celebrations, as well as a performance held in fall quarter.
“We had a big tradition of doing Commedia here at Western that the pandemic came and just wiped out,” said Brown.
Although auditions for "Masks Play" are now closed, the Department of Theatre and Dance will hold seven mainstage productions this year, Brown said, each of which will be open to student auditions.
Information on upcoming audition slots and performances can be found in Monday Matters, the department's weekly newsletter.
Participating in one of these performances requires a significant commitment of time, often requiring upwards of 60 hours of rehearsal, Brown said.
Drew Winston, a third-year Western student and cast member in "Masks Play,” said despite the commitment, the hours spent working on these projects can give a unique sense of community and fellowship.
“When you’re working super hard on a show for 20 hours a week on top of doing a full course load, you get to know the people that you’re around really well,” Winston said. “You get to build these really cool experiences in the theater with them, but also it’s terrible when the show is over and you don’t get to see them every day.”
"Masks Play" contains a mixture of first-, second-, third- and fourth-year Western students, with ten total cast members, Brown said.
“When you go see theater, you see different aspects of life, and you can update your knowledge and get a better understanding of how people work,” said Michael Martin, a fourth-year student at Western and cast member of "Masks Play."
One unique aspect of theater comes from how the show can change at each performance, said Bryer Ramsey, a second-year student at Western and another actor in “Masks Play,” particularly in an improvisation-focused show such as "Masks Play," where mistakes and accidents can become a new experience for the audience.
“I think it’s more important than ever to understand that humans are allowed to be humans and they’re allowed to make mistakes and that no one is going to be perfect all the time,” said Ramsey. “Something beautiful about theater is there is no theater unless there’s a problem in a show.”
More information on “Masks Play” can be found here.
Joshua Grambo (he/him) is a campus news reporter and journalism/news editorial major in his second year at Western. Outside of the Front, Joshua enjoys reading, playing dungeons and dragons, spending time with family, and working on craft projects. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.