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Isabella Andreini: The Improv Queen

Isabella Andreini

The Improv Queen

(1562–1604, Italy)

Isabella was the most famous actress in the commedia dell’arte.

Commedia was all the rage during the Renaissance—a combination of stock characters, physical comedy and fart jokes, woven by actors into a loose plotline.

What was most bizarre about commedia was that… women were allowed to perform!!

Gasps all around!

Scholar Kathleen McGill even posits that women’s presence in commedia was the driving force behind the development of comedic improvisation.

Women brought to the stage both a rich oral tradition with “a facility for eloquent dialogue” and a preference for team-driven, “socially collaborative forms.”



Back to Isabella.

She started performing when she was eleven (in a production of Annie, one can only assume).

And when she was fourteen (FOURTEEN! CAN YOU IMAGINE DOING ANYTHING AT FOURTEEN), Isabella joined a commedia troupe called I Gelosi (The Jealous Ones).

This was a big-deal troupe. They performed for the wealthy elite of Italy and France—kings and dukes and Medicis.

Isabella was cast as the stock character of the Innamorata, one of the two young lovers. This part was usually kind of dull.

All of the other actors got to play the big, weird, broad characters, and she had to look pretty and infatuated and a little boring.

But Isabella was like, eff that. I want to have fun, too.

She started improvising even wilder ideas for the Innamorata character. She used dialects. She spoke in multiple languages. She could mimic anyone in the troupe.

Soon, Isabella was convincingly playing male and female roles, sometimes quick-changing in and out of multiple characters in the same scene.

She was a superstar talent.

When she was just 16, Isabella married fellow actor Francesco Andreini, who was, of course, 30, because everything is creepy all the time.

Francesco later became the director of I Gelosi and Isabella’s status in the troupe increased even more.

She created a signature performance piece called Pazzia d'Isabella (The Madness of Isabella).

In this improvised one-woman play, Isabella went slowly mad on stage performing her greatest hits: speaking in other languages, imitating dialects, playing multiple characters, and generally losing her shit and then regaining it in a dramatic tour de force.

She performed to great acclaim, but her biggest moment was when her show was included as part of the wedding celebration for Ferdinand de' Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589.

Theatrical critic Tommaso Garzoni fawned over Isabella:

“The gracious Isabella, dignity of the scene, ornament of the stage, a superb spectacle no less of virtu than of beauty, has so illuminated the style of her profession, that while the world lasts, while the centuries endure, while times and seasons have life, every voice, every language, every cry, will echo the celebrated name of Isabella.”

Geez, is he trying to sleep with her or what?

But yes, Isabella was an outstanding improviser, the best in the biz, and nothing could keep her away from comedy, not even giving birth to SEVEN kids and by all accounts being a great mom!

She performed up until her death in 1604 at the age of 42, when she suffered a fatal miscarriage.

A public state funeral was held for Isabella, and memorial coins were engraved, with one side showing her as a powerful ruler and the other side showing her as the Roman goddess of fame with the words aeterna fama.

Isabella’s fame was indeed so eternal that the stock character of the Innamoratawas renamed in her honor. She was known as “Isabella” forevermore.

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