Panini Players bring mask-making playwright to campus

    About 30 people gathered in Northwestern University Library Friday to hear actor, playwright and mask-maker Antonio Fava lecture on his work in the field of Commedia dell’Arte.

    Commedia dell’Arte is a style of theater that features masked characters, which often exaggerate societal stereotypes. These characters, such as the old man, the young lovers or the servant, appear throughout the centuries in Commedia works, though their stories and actions are changed each time they are performed.

    The Commedia movement, Fava said, saw its first performances in the 1530s, and inspired the advent of professional theater, improvisation and the professional actress. Fava’s visit came after The Panini Players, Northwestern’s Commedia dell’Arte troupe, worked to fund the trip through NUnite, a diversity initiative that gives grants for collaborations between student groups.

    The collection, Commedia dell'Arte: The Work of Antonio Fava, highlights Fava's work in Italian theater and mask tradition. The masks are currently in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. Five of Fava’s masks have been at Northwestern since 2007 and were purchased through a grant from The Estate of Dorothy Adams, according to Dan Zellner, the project manager for the collections.

    In his career, Fava said he estimates he has made hundreds of variations of each mask.

    Fava founded and runs the International School of the Comic Actor in Italy. He also authored “The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte,” which was published by Northwestern University Press.

    “The key is, you mustn’t ignore the existence of the audience,” Fava said, explaining that each improvisation is tailored to the audience’s reaction and mood. Because of this, the actors must fully embody their characters to give the audience the best possible experience, calling each actor the “maestro of their character.”

    During the lecture, Fava often broke in and out of character, engaging the audience with history and live demonstrations with the masks.

    “In Italian, when we say ‘maschera,’ we don’t typically mean the object that goes over your face,” Fava explained, as he demonstrated while in character. “We mean the entire character.”


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