This weekend I’ve been doing a Commedia dell’Arte course on Zoom with my favorite Dark Clown teacher. It’s been about as weird as that sentence sounds and I’ve loved it. It’s made me think a lot about emotions (or as I’ve been saying this week, EMOOOOOOOshhhionss).

I’ve been thinking about how infectious and essential they are. How transformative they can be for public speaking and the way we communicate and engage with each other.

First a brief history lesson for you. Commedia Dell’Arte was a from of popular theatre that started in Venice in the 16th Century, the direct translation is “comedy of the profession”. It was the first democratic form of theatre and the first time women were allowed to perform. Traveling troupes of actors would each have a set character and would wear masks and distinct costumes. The set characters in each improvised sketch and scenario represented everyone in society, from foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado.

I’m sure many of you have never heard of it but it has influenced every form of theatre, from Shakespeare to sitcoms, and is a template for all classical and modern texts. It’s the origin of the clown, vaudeville, slap stick comedy, Punch and Judy and many many cartoons. Think Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd — they are classic Commedia characters.

I’m the President of a Toastmaster’s club but aside from that the last year my public speaking has extended to the odd PowerPoint presentation at work over Zoom, like most people. I am not an actor and I’m not in the theatre, but I wanted to do it because playing the Commedia characters takes a deep understanding of physical theatre, comic timing, and extravagant displays of emotion. It requires you to start with your body, not your mind. And being stuck on Zoom for a year means I have lost that connection, that ability to use anything below the neck as a tool for communication. I’ve been so reliant on my voice that it feels unbelievable that we were once able to walk on stage and make someone laugh with just a look. To communicate everything we needed to with one facial expression.

There are 7 main emotions that can be read on our faces, and they are the same for every culture across the world.

They are:

  • Joy
  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Love
  • Laughter

To use these emotions in your next speech you don’t need to do any acting at all. You just have to live the emotion as you, that’s where the truth is. That’s the authentic piece of you that you bring to meet your words. Think about what emotion you’re trying to convey with your speech or your presentation or your story. Now, what if you let yourself feel it first? Then took a moment of silence and made eye contact with the audience and let them see it?

There are no real words in Commedia dell’Arte shows, just “Grammelot” which is the fancy word for theatre gibberish. It means nothing but when said with emotion everyone instantly understands it, no matter what language they speak. Because the actors started with the emotion and then used the words to convey it, not the other way around.

I’ve found the course super challenging and outside of my comfort zone but also strangely familiar. I’m starting to understand why we find certain things funny, why some speeches move us and others barely register. It is ingrained within each of us to connect with and reflect others’ emotions. We have it in each of us to use those emotions and let them play across our faces. There are so many more ways for us to communicate aside from our words and I would highly encourage you to give it try, or at the very least, give it a feeling, then a thought.

Start with emotion, then let the words find you.