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The Commedia Academy Story 
Giovanni (Sanjiva) Margio | Antonio (Giri) Mazzella


The Commedia Academy Story

Since 1981 Giovanni Sanjiva Margio and Antonio Giri Mazzella have been performing together inspired by vibrant Italian cultural traditions.
Commedia Academy of Australia is their platform for presenting this lively and hilarious ancient art in today’s Australia.

Early Days

It all started in Perth in the early 80’s when Giovanni and Antonio joined a larger group of circus performers and set off on a tour of Australia. They called themselves “The Flying Mortadellas”-Australia’s smallest Latin Circus.
After many wild successes performing at gigs such as Adelaide’s Italian Communist Party Family Day Barbeque, they knew they were on a winning formula of zany archetypical characters performing traditional Italian songs.
Eventually the wheels fell of the bus (literally), so they returned to WA where Giovanni and Antonio helped create The Red Herring Theatre Collective in Fremantle . Under the direction of Christine Mearing, the group underwent arduous corporeal theatre training, Martha Grahame Dance technique, eastern movement meditations, theatre improvisation, and Commedia Dell’ Arte maskwork resulting in the creation of popular theatre works for Perth City Council’s first ever Community Arts programs(1984).

I Papaveri

It was around this time that Kavisha Mazzella joined Giovanni and Antonio to create ” I Papaveri”- a musical theatre ensemble performing beautiful folk music, as well as raucous cabaret numbers, commedia characters and storytelling. Today they are mostly known for creating the popular cabaret characters “The Black Nonnas,“ who have gone on to perform to national acclaim at such events as Australia’s largest music festival-Woodford Folk Festival, the National Folk Festival in Canberra, as well as on national radio and television.

Giovanni’s and Antonio’s desire to further their understanding of Commedia Dell’ Arte led them to research mask and movement traditions in Indonesia, India and Italy-notably studying under Maestro Antonio Fava of Teatro del Vicolo.

Commedia Academy of Australia

On their return to Australia in 1992 they created Commedia Academy of Australia with a firm commitment to share the artistic traditions of mask and movement to a new generation of Australians.
Since then whether they are performing the traditional Italian Masks, their own creations such as The Black Nonnas, or one of their numerous solo projects, they have delighted thousands of people around the world.


Commedia spirit unmasked


Brisbane is hosting a festival of Italy's comic archetypes


The world premiere of a work by a man who embodies the history and spirit of the commedia dell'arte theatre tradition was going to take place outdoors this weekend in an amphitheatre, alongside Lake Macdonald in Cooroy, Queensland.

Antonio Fava, who runs a school in Italy teaching the subtle skills of the classic commedia masks, was to have presented Pulcinellata Nera, a "little opera in words, lazzi [jokes] and music in the style of the Neapolitan commedia dell'arte", bringing to the Sunshine Coast hinterland the best of this centuries-old tradition.

The plan came unstuck. The idea of Pulcinella and all the other zanni from the classic tales of love and deception, greed and trickery, gathering in Gympie, which was to have been the centre of a week-end festival for actors, teachers and audiences, was too ambitious.
Organiser Tony Kishawi, a commedia aficionado and teacher, was faced with the impending cancellation of all the workshops, lectures and performances of his inaugural Australasian commedia dell’arte festival.

But in the comic tradition, just when all looked hopeless, a surprising intervention turned around the plot. It’s now heading for a happy ending which, Kishawi hopes, will also be a beginning.

Today and across the weekend, the Australasian Commedia dell’Arte Festival, celebrating the living tradition of this exuberant theatre, will be held at the Kelvin Grove campus of Queensland University of Technology as part of Brisbane Italian Week.
It was fortuitous coincidence, Kishawi says, that Italian Week this year was scheduled for the same weekend and when he started talking to Alessandro Sorbello, producer of Italian Week, he realized that event, which is supported by the Italian government and the Brisbane City Council, provided the perfect framework on which to construct and develop his commedia festival.
“Commedia is like stamp collecting,” Kishawi says. “Those who know about it are passionate, but it’s hard to know how to sell it.”
“The most recognizable element of commedia is the masks that distinguish the different character types, from the young lovers, always foiled in their love-making, to the old miserly Pantalone, who beats up his poor servant Arlecchino (precursor of the romantic Harleguin) but inevitably is tricked in the end.”
“Kishawi was drawn to the commedia tradition by the masks. Brought up in a performing family and trained at the Victorian College of the Arts, Kishawi began to develop his own mask work as a street performer, eventually realizing he would need to train in Italy with Fava if he were to understand the art properly.
“It felt like I was at home,” he says of the time he spent learning commedia skills in Italy. “Fava is really the keeper of the form, he just emanates the essence of commedia, and I was able to understand.”
Back in Australia, Kishawi set about trying to develop a commedia troupe, lecturing in drama schools as he sought out like-minded people with whom to work. For many years he lived and worked out of a circus bus, touring across the country, until eventually he settled in Gympie, where he creates performances for the boutique Heritage Theatre.

It was meeting a couple of other commedia experts – performers Antonio (Giri) Mazzella and Giovanni (Sanjiva) Margio – in Perth at the Northbridge Festival that set in train the chain of events that have led to Kishawi planning this commedia festival.

Mazzella and Margio, who run the Commedia Academy of Australia, will be performing today and tomorrow at the festival, presenting both traditional commedia and their contemporary Australian version.

The traditional part is explaining to the audiences the different characters and how the tradition developed. The contemporary part is their irreverent performance under the guise of the Black Nonnas: tough women dressed in widow’s weeds, “escaped from the suburbs, on the hunt for cheap coffee and husbands, preferably with very large tractors”, Mazzella says.

Margio describes this kind of performance as “theatre of the wolf: if I don’t eat you, you are going to eat me”.

“There’s no hunger in Australia except what you feel 10 minutes before the Barbie is ready, but that hunger is what fuelled the commedia actors, what pushed their performance,” Mazzella says. “If they didn’t work, if it wasn’t good, if the audience weren’t grabbed, then the performers didn’t eat.”.

Margio says when they teach commedia, they cannot be so strict about technique that they kill the gut impulse of actors. “It’s about teaching the spirit of commedia, and then taking that into its modern form.”.

The actors have devoted their lives to commedia, touring Australia and overseas with their traditional and contemporary shows. They get cross at the continuing ignorance of people who are delighted by the performances, but then ask, “But what’s your day job?”

“It’s a profession but we have to keep explaining it,” Mazzella says. “We have seen an exciting surge of interest in commedia productions. Many people have heard about it, but they’ve never seen it performed. Hopefully this festival will start to redress that lack.”

Kishawi says he is talking to other venues in Brisbane and there are positive signs this new festival will continue. With its place as part of Italian Week, there is now a platform on which to build. With the Italians already involved and interest being shown from the US where there is a strong commedia presence, Kishawi is confident the idea is a good one. He's launching a book on teaching commedia, called Spirit of the Mask, this weekend at the festival.

“Everyone knows the classic gags of commedia, but learning to perform takes years of experience,” Kishawi says. “I always say it’s like pilots and flying time: you have to do it for many years to have the best skills.”

The Commedia dell’Arte Festival, part of Brisbane Italian Week, is at Woodward Theatre, Queensland University of Technology, until Sunday. Antonio Fava performs Pulcinellata Nera on Sunday, 4pm and 7pm.

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