11 Chapter 11: Other Theater Traditions

There are many forms of theater outside of the modern, Western tradition. Here are (only a very few) examples of other theater forms.

As you view the following materials, consider…

  • How are they similar to other performances that we have discussed? How are they different?
  • What technical areas are represented?
  • What is required of the actor?
  • Compare the examples below to each other—are there similarities?
  • How would you categorize them within the theater/dance/music/visual arts spectrum? Do they emphasize one or more elements over the others?

Example 1: Commedia dell’arte (Italy)

Commedia dell’arte was a popular Renaissance theater form that originated in Italy and that was performed throughout Europe in the 16th–18th centuries. It was fun, physical, silly, and even rude and was a clever combination of simple stories, “stock” characters, and improvisation. The traveling troupes were skilled practitioners of their art, and audiences were delighted by the shenanigans depicted on stage. In addition to the main story, there might be music, acrobatics, and mime performed as well. Even when the actors performed in a different dialect or language from that of the audience, the theatergoers could still follow the story due to the exaggerated movement, specific stereotype figures, and familiar (if not outrageous) situations in which the characters found themselves.

Characters in the Commedia tradition were straightforward and were not deeply developed; they were “types” that generally fell into one of the following categories: powerful, wealthy old men; the servants; the young lovers; and the clowns/comedic figures. Standard masks and costumes were an important part of identifying the characters and allowed actors to play several roles. Props and backgrounds were simple (like the literal “slapstick”), were improvised, or might even be imaginary.

Do you think that you could captivate an audience? Try your skills as a Commedia player in the game, “Commedia dell’arte: Masks, masters, and servants.”

Commedia dell'Arte title with a set in the background

Even today, we can see the influence of Commedia dell’arte in the slapstick physical comedy of characters like Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Chan, and Mr. Bean; in the situational humor of sit-coms; and in the single-dimensional characters inhabiting many popular cartoons.



Suggested Readings:

Example 2: Karagöz (Türkiye)

“Karagöz is a form of shadow theatre in Turkey in which figures known as tasvirs made of camel or ox hide in the shape of people or things are held on rods in front of a light source to cast their shadows onto a cotton screen. A play begins with the projection of an introductory figure to set the scene and suggest the themes of the drama before it vanishes to the shrill sound of a whistle, giving way to a main performance that may incorporate singing, tambourine music, poetry, myth, tongue-twisters, and riddles. The usually comic stories feature the main characters Karagöz and Hacivat and a host of others, including a cabaret chanteuse called Kantocu and an illusionist-acrobat named Hokkabaz, and abound in puns and imitations of regional accents. The puppets are manipulated by one lead artist, the Hayali, who may have one or more apprentice-assistants who are learning the craft by helping to create the tasvirs and accompanying the action with music.

“Once played widely at coffeehouses, gardens, and public squares, especially during the holy month of Ramazan [Ramadan], as well as during circumcision feasts, Karagöz is found today mostly in performance halls, schools and malls in larger cities where it still draws audiences. The traditional theatre strengthens a sense of cultural identity while bringing people closer together through entertainment.”

“Karagöz.” UNESCO—Intangible Cultural Heritage. Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey, 2009. https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/karagz-00180.

As you watch examples of Karagöz, consider what role the various arts play in these productions and what specialized skills might be required of the puppeteers/actors during performance.


The next video, “Garbage Monster,” is a modern interpretation of traditional Karagöz. Based on environmental awareness, the story takes the audience on a journey from land to sea, from the bottom of the ocean, and into the stomach of the Garbage Monster. The show has received awards from puppet festivals in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Hungary. Shown in split-screen, you can watch the actor/director/playwright behind the scenes alongside of the action that the audience sees.


Suggested Reading:

  • Turkey (Nicolas, Michèle, and Mevlüt Õzhan. “Turkey.” Translated by Kathy Foley. World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts. UNIMA International, September 13, 2017. https://wepa.unima.org/en/turkey/)

Example 3: Theatrical Traditions on the African Continent

While there are many, many traditions and forms of theater to be found within the bounds of Africa, there are some similarities that might be considered when discussing precolonial theatrical forms and postcolonial trends. One of the key ideas is that theater was, and continues to be, central to community. Early theater was inextricably linked to storytelling, spirituality, celebration and commemoration, and identity. So, viewed through this lens, the emphasis is largely on the process or transformative effects of the performance rather than focusing on an end product; the value was in the activity itself. Audience and “performers” were active participants in the performance, and it was common to have back-and-forth interactions. Music and dance were often part of the event, and masks, body art, and costumes also played a vital role in the dramatic forms.

Major changes to theatrical traditions came with the colonization of the continent by Asian and European countries. In many cases, local and regional practices were suppressed and lost, as the colonists’ own traditions were absorbed or replaced them. Over time, and particularly into the 20th century, as the peoples have regained their independence, there has been an emphasis on exploring traditions and evolving them to reflect modern sensibilities and realities.

  • Read “The Roots of African Theatre Ritual and Orality in the Pre-Colonial Period” (Diakhaté, Ousmane, and Hansel Ndumbe Eyoh. “The Roots of African Theatre Ritual and Orality in the Pre-Colonial Period.” Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques. The IATC (International Association of Theatre Critics) Journal, Issue 15, March 5, 2017. https://www.critical-stages.org/15/the-roots-of-african-theatre-ritual-and-orality-in-the-pre-colonial-period/. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.)
  • Watch

These customs and the puppet-makers’ innovative designs would provide the inspiration for the South-African Handspring Puppet Company’s designs for the blockbuster stage production “War Horse.”

  • Watch

Recommended Readings and Videos:


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