The Poetry of the Commedia Dell’Arte

Exploring the art of writing for improvisation


Monday 24 May, 6pm – Friday 28 May, 4pm


Peter Oswald and Howard Gayton


Studio 1, Dartington Trust, South Devon


£465 Non-residential | £685 Residential – see below for information on what’s included

about this course

This course is about exploring and creating written text through Commedia, fooling, and fun. Through the week we will explore each of the core Commedia stock types – Zanni (servants), Pantalone, First and Second Lovers, Captains, Harlequin and Columbina.

Commedia dell’arte was a popular form of theatre in 16th-18th century Europe, using masks to create a set of stock exaggerated characters, giving the performers the freedom to express themselves more fully. Widely known as an improvised art form, it has a rich history of combining improvised fooling with written text. This workshop will use Commedia as the basis for an exploration of writing and performing text.

The workshops will start with play, playing, finding the game, and having fun, with silliness being the bedrock of Commedia. With guidance from Peter Oswald, you will create text for each character type arising out of improvised scenarios.

Having explored the physicality of each character, we will look at scene creation through improvised scenarios, and on writing from improvisations. This course will guide participants towards creating their own scenes, with a particular focus on verse, heightened text, and how to create fast-paced prose that zings back and forth between characters.

What you will learn

On this course, you will learn about the background and key character types in Commedia, and how to use them to devise text through fooling and fun.

Each day we will explore one of the character types of the Commedia dell’arte, exploring their physicality, masks, and their role within the Commedia pantheon. We will look at miserly and grouchy Pantalone, the flamboyant and boastful Capitano, the coquettish Columbina, the fidgety Harlequin, and the over-emotional, over-lusty Lovers. These explorations will be guided into short scene developments at the end of the morning.

Through the afternoon sessions, Peter Oswald will explain his process in writing short scenes from the morning improvisations, explaining where his inspiration comes from. At the end of each day will see participants write and show very short scenarios, which will build through the week.

The course will provide participants with an understanding of the role and playfulness of each Commedia character type and how they interact and will provide an insight into how to develop scenarios and learn new approaches to writing from improvisations.

We will have a lot of fun!

About the tutors

Howard Gayton

Howard is a part-time PhD student at Exeter University Drama Department, conducting a Practice Research study of The Fool and Fooling. His background is in Commedia Dell’Arte, and he was a founding member of the Internationally renowned British Commedia company, Ophaboom Theatre. He also works in Puppetry, teaching at the Curious School of Puppetry, and is the Commedia Module Teacher at E15 Acting School.

Peter Oswald

Peter is a verse playwright. He was Writer in Residence at Shakespeare’s Globe from 1998 to 2005 and his plays have been performed there, at the NT, in the West End, on Broadway and around the world. His thirty-year association with Tom Morris is currently bearing fruit in CYRANO at the Bristol Old Vic.


On this course, lunch will be provided on Tuesday-Thursday. These communal meals are a vital part of the learning experience and we strongly recommend you attend them.

Tea and coffee will be available throughout the course.


We recommend that if possible, you stay on-site during your course. All our courses are best experienced holistically: through working, relaxing, eating and staying with other course participants and tutors.

Our beautiful rooms have all the character and personality you’d expect, but not at the expense of comfort. With easy access to our wider estate, they are the perfect place to relax and recharge.

Breakfast and dinner each day – made with fresh, locally-sourced produce by our award-winning team – are included: one less thing to worry about during your stay.

Choose this option by selecting ‘residential’ at checkout (head to ‘Book now’, below). Please note:

– Accommodation is available at a discounted rate for course attendees.
– For this course, you must book for 4 nights, arriving on Monday 24 and departing on Friday 28 May.
– Dinner on Monday, breakfast and dinner on Tuesday – Thursday and breakfast on Friday morning are all included.
– Check-in for all rooms is from 3pm on the day of arrival.
– Check-out for all departures is 11am on the day of departure.
– Accommodation is booked on a first come, first served basis only.

Book now

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Select a time below to begin your online booking. You will receive an e-ticket for this event. Please note that individual orders will be restricted to six tickets per booking (on the assumption this rule will apply post-lockdown). No tickets will be available on the door as the box office remains closed due to Covid-19. You are welcome to email us at with any queries you have.

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