My name is Kate Meehan, and I'm guilty of shoddy character choices.
I was the first person in our company to play Ruffiana, an older female stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte. This was some twelve years ago, and when I played her, I went straight for the laughs. Ruffiana translates to "lady pimp," and in my young mind, the joke was that she was a woman deprived of her sexual comeliness after decades of hard use. I played her drunk, raunchy, sexually forward and repulsive. It was an easy choice - prostitutes in America are one-dimensional figures, depicted as the very definition of desperate, powerless women. What few madams we have in our cultural lexicon - Miss Jessie at the Chicken Ranch, Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, are anomalies in a history of male-run brothels filled with downtrodden women.
It set the tone for how she was played by everyone after me. Genevieve Kinney, who's been performing with us for a decade, played her once and determined never to do it again, finding the role too sad and pathetic for her to enjoy performing.
But we use Ruffiana relatively frequently, as a female counterpart to Pantalone. We don't perform her as someone scheming for money - she has always been secure in her position, as depleted as it may be. From a purely mathmatical format, the way we've played her doesn't work. Pantalone works because he is a high status character playing low. Ruffiana, as we've played her, is a character of questionable status (is she a high status character?) playing low, isn't structured enough to fit with the rest of her stock character friends. The tidiness of status is what makes Commedia easy for all audiences. Our Ruffiana broke that mold, because of my sloppy choices.
But I'm already sort of ahead of myself. Let me back up.
First, we might want to talk about gender in Commedia dell'Arte. I'll not cite my sources, but I'll provide a tidy list of additional reading at the end for scholars who are interested in being picky about that kind of thing.
It's probably not surprising that the current Commedia dell'Arte practice is dominated by male voices, with notable exceptions in Joan Schirle of the Dell'Arte School, Didi Hopkins out of the UK, Katrien Van Beurden from the Netherlands, Judith Chaffee in Boston, and a crew of younger women who are beginning to carve out reputations for themselves. Corrina Di Niro out of Australia and Franchesca Chilcote, for example. Many of us attended an International Commedia dell'Arte conference in Canada a couple of years ago, presumably about gender, and Joan found the imbalance of male to female voices included in the festival worthy of calling out at the conference wrap-up.
That's not to say that the men of Commedia dell'Arte are masochistic, repressive jerks. Quite the contrary. They're fantastically supportive of us ladies. But recent dialogue within the community has the Ladies of Commedia more interested in the performance of gender. As a performance style entirely based on stereotype, the way we play our women defines how we see women in our society. If our oldest female character is defined by the absence of sexual power and is depicted as sloppy and pathetic, what does it say about us?
Historical Context: Old School Commedia Chix.
Italy, particularly Venice, was home to a cultural phenomenon known as the cortigane oneste. They were super high-class courtesans that drew customers from the European elite, known for being sharp of wit, excellent singers and dancers, politically savvy, fabulously literate and wildly independent. They were among the first women granted entry into elite male-dominated intellectual societies. They grew fabulously rich, and their independence scandalized the wives of powerful men, who, despite their position, were still confined to their private chambers and deprived of their voices.
It is generally presumed that many of Commedia's best actresses were cortigiane, and many of
them went on to manage some of the most powerful troupes in Europe. Vittoria Piisimi (pictured right) was one of the first internationally famous actresses, attracting Henri III of France, who became a patron of her company, I Gelosi, which she co-managed until starting a new troupe, Uniti, in 1579. I Gelosi's new prima donna, Isabella Andreini, worked closely with Vittoria, and the two tended each other's companies while one of them left on maternity leave.
Together, they created one of the most genius acts of early marketing when their troupes were hired to perform during the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando de'Medici. Their troupes were supposed to go up after a giant indoor naval battle, and they weren't about to get shown up by some tiny canon and machina. They held a much-publicized "argument" over which show they should perform (one starring Isabella, or one starring Vittoria), which led to them going "head to head" the following weekend.
(If you're interested in this stuff, here's a short paper about the cortigiane and some key actresses.)
Back to the Point: Ruffiana
As a "lady pimp," the Ruffiana of antiquity would have been a member of the cortigiane
oneste, freed from the social stigma and onus bestowed on women in the sex industry in America. She would have been a scholar, a performer, and a trend-setter. She would be independent, wealthy, and would have her fingers in the hair of every powerful man in town. Her retirement from the sex industry, then, would be more of a matter of choice. Rather than being a drunk, sad shadow of her formerly enticing self, she would be a Grade A Cougar.
From a performer's standpoint, this gives her much more to play with. She can use all the subtlty and cunning of Columbina without ever having to be submissive. She can utilize elements of Smirildina's sexuality and Isabella's poise. In plot structure, we now have a new vehicle to steer the storyline.
This new Ruffiana is someone that Genevieve is excited to play. As a mother of a talented young man, an artistic polymath, a woman in her fifties that can strip down to her skivvies onstage and grab everyone's attention, Genevieve is the perfect performer to shape our new Ruffiana. I'm thrilled to get to be a part of the process.
Joan Schirle's chapter on Gender in the Routledge Companion to Commedia dell'Arte
Olly Crick and John Rudlin's book, Commedia dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes
Susan Griffin's The Book of Courtesans: A Catalogue of their Virtues
Margaret Rosenthal's The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in 16th Century Venice.
Laura Anna Stortoni's Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtesans
Martha Feldman's The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives
Lynne Lawner's Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance