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COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE is the common name for a type of theater, fully called commedia dell'arte all'improvviso ('comedy through the art of improvisation.') It was popular in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. In the days when literacy was rare and books even rarer, actors often had to rely on improvisation and concoct a show on the spot. The commedia dell'arte evolved as a way to create a winning piece every time, following a relatively set structure and utilizing stock characters the actors could specialize in playing. It is often said to have begun in Italy during the renaissance, but there is much evidence suggesting the commedia dell'arte to be a lot older, with origins in the Ancient Greek and Roman theaters.
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