Siding with the underdogs

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In a recent blog post on The Stage, Lyn Gardner argued that community theatre might not be glamorous, but it changes lives. I’m reluctant to lump community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre together, as Lyn Gardner does, but I do see why she groups them together, and I recognise that she is tapping into a very delicate matter. I would even say that, as far as the performing arts are concerned, this is THE elephant in the room.
No matter how sophisticated our practice and aesthetic research, no matter how liberal and democratic our field is convinced to be, the bottom line is that there are practices that for no particular reasons do not enjoy the prestige and the status of others. Community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre (only to name a few) are hardly ever seen as aesthetic experiences in their own right.

Before I go any further with this, I should come out: as a performer, my first audiences were children; I learned the ropes of the profession with children and teenagers, and I loved every minute of working with them. Theatre for young audiences is a field very close to my heart. I often see mild condescension from those who are not aware of the research behind a good show for young audiences. And I have to bite my tongue every time I hear a practitioner contemplating putting on a “kids’ show” simply because there is funding available (this usually makes for boring shows at best, patronising at worst). While community theatre at least enjoys considerable scholarly attention, theatre for young audiences is still an under-researched area.

If theatre in any shape or form has ever changed the lives of participants or theatregoers, any practitioner worth her salt would know that theatre practice alone cannot turn a life around and that burdening theatre with this type of expectation is dangerous. But the thing that puzzles me the most is that when community theatre or theatre for children are finally considered, they have to justify their existence as an instrument of something else: of education, rehabilitation, social cohesion or, at the very least, as the training ground for future Olivier Award winners. I am not referring to the necessary and valuable dialogue with schools, prisons, and other institutions. There is a difference between mediation and defensive justifications.
No other art seem to be so obsessed with the need to justify its presence. I might be out of touch with debates in other fields, but I don’t hear visual artists fretting around their legitimacy or their impact on communities and individuals. We, theatre practitioners and scholars, seem to be compelled to jump head first into the efficacy trap: but how do you measure the affective and intellectual impact of watching and making theatre?

The truth is that community theatre, amateur theatre, and theatre for young audiences are underdogs for a reason: they are practices with an extraordinary subversive potential. They rock the boat. They deprive the sites of culture of their privilege; they close the gap between production and fruition. They demonstrate that inventiveness, creativity, play are not just for specialists and that communication goes beyond the purchase of a cultural product created elsewhere by someone else. They remind us that individuals who are not frequent theatregoers are still sophisticated audience members who engage with live performance in extraordinary and unexpected ways. If this does not unsettle the theatre industry, what does?

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A Labour of Love

valle-occupato

Teatro c’è quando Dioniso danza.

Teatro Valle  Occupato

 

I’m not going to lie. The recent developments in US politics have left quite a mark. Although part of me feared the outcome (I grew up in Berlusconi’s Italy after all and I am well aware that our democracies are not immune from this type of pernicious populism), I wasn’t prepared for the excruciating soul-searching the European and US Left went through in the  past couple of weeks. The election of Donald Trump to office compelled us all to stop and think about our actions, allegiances, and beliefs. It was necessary and bloody painful. Many have written about it. Among many others, Rosi Braidotti and Yanis Varoufakis provided some of the most lucid and articulate reflections on the matter. Very different perspectives, yet both contributions are worth reading. I’m concerned, but not in a panic just yet. To paraphrase Giorgio Gaber, I’m not afraid of Donald Trump per se, I’m afraid of the Donald Trump in us. I’m afraid of what Trumpism legitimated in the US and beyond. The unleashing of misogyny and racism, the condoning of bullying and aggressiveness. Similarly to what Berlusconism did in Italy, Trumpism is giving free rein to the worst in our culture (our, yes: the power of American culture over the rest of the world should not be downplayed).

In the meantime, I, like many of you, live in a state of almost perpetual dissociation. I watch heart-shattering footage from Syria and Yemen, I witness the mounting paranoia around the influx of migrants in Europe, I hear racist, misogynist, and homophobic discourse legitimated on mainstream media (‘let him work and judge him by his policies’). Yet, I go on working, teaching, and writing. And research sometimes helps. Political theatre always believes that oppression is not inevitable and that we can inhabit this planet without slaughtering one another. It often offers fleeting glimmers of hope.

In the past couple of days, I have been going through my material on the occupation of Teatro Valle. The occupation ended in 2014 but it can still teach us a thing or two. The occupied Valle was living proof that in dark times only a leap of faith can save us, that debate is productive, that the encounter of living, breathing, thinking bodies cannot be substituted with any surrogate, that live performance still matters. But the thing I found most striking this week is the way the occupiers articulated their protest as a labour of love. Throughout their writings, the Valle activists incorporated love, care, and desire into their political discourse.  Occupying a historic venue meant looking after it (occupare, occuparsi). Sharing practice and learning a craft was the equivalent of a sentimental education. Opening the venue meant creating the conditions for the encounter of individuals and communities. An encounter moved by desire even when rife with conflicts and contradictions. An encounter that exposed vulnerabilities and passions. A politics of affect, if you like to borrow Brian Massumi’s definition. In the writings and practice of the occupied Valle, love is a radical political concept. A ray of light in dark times.

Change of season

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In Sardinia, autumn is the season of new beginnings. After the harvest, it’s time to plan the year ahead. During the summer months we revel the warm evenings; we endure long idle afternoon hours sheltering from a merciless sun; we long for the sea. We secretly await September to bring some respite from the heat. Then Cabidanni arrives. Cabidanni is the Sardinian for September. Caput anni: the beginning of the year. Anything of importance is always deferred to cabidanni: house maintenance, weddings, studies, diets. September is the real start of the year; a new start without the pomp, the expectations, and the inevitable anticlimax of New Year’s Day.

I submitted my thesis a year ago and I was awarded my PhD this spring. I enjoyed a glorious Bristolian summer. The most extraordinary feature was the amount of time suddenly at my disposal. Beyond my nine-to-five job, I felt I had all the time in the world: guilt-free weekends, reading fiction, long chats with friends, and some long-overdue family time.

September, time of new beginnings, is the time to get back into teaching and research. The break from academia was beneficial in many ways. Finding an academic routine healthier than the one I experienced during the PhD and, crucially, more productive and efficient is not an easy task. There are exciting projects in the pipeline.

As I start my new career, one of my theatrical heroes passed away. I’ve never been able to comment on the news of the day, but Dario Fo’s passing is one of those events that marks the end of a cultural era. The world celebrates him, and rightly so. There isn’t much I can add here. Yet, if I have to single out someone, Dario Fo and Franca Rame are, without a doubt, the practitioners that made me fall in love with the theatre. In the darkest moments of my doctorate, their work reminded me why live performance matters. Their practice informed my understanding of the relationship between art and politics; their plays shaped me as a researcher and as a practitioner. Once again, I have to go back to their work. If you haven’t seen Mistero Buffo, here it is.

Notes on Idiot-Syncrasy

Procurad’e moderare is one of the most popular Sardinian protest songs. It was written during the anti-feudal uprisings of 1794 and it has become one of the most-loved songs in Sardinian language. It starts with a threat to the land owners (barones): if they don’t change their ways the people will soon revolt. But the land owners are soon put on one side, and the focus shifts on su populu, the people. An impoverished and exploited people who has suffered non only the landowners’ greed but also its own ‘ancient indolence’ (indolenzia antiga). A people that finally wakes up (finalmente despertadu) and acknowledges it is in chains (s’abbizzat ch’est in cadenas). Call me an old leftie, but it gets me every time. And I wasn’t expecting to hear it here in Bristol, at the Arnolfini during Mayfest, of all places. And yet, this is how Idiot-Syncrasy begins. Igor and Moreno step on stage, they stand still  and observe the audience for what seemed a long time. It’s a moment of playful scrutiny, cheeky smiles and complicit gazes go back and forth between the stage and the auditorium. It’s a silence we are not used to, a stillness we find difficult to endure in a world where we desperately cling to our smartphones at the slightest inkling of boredom. No, let’s stop for a moment, let’s look at each other and enjoy the silence. First come the silence, the stillness, the gaze, the discovery of each other, perfect strangers sharing the same room for the next sixty minutes. We might as well spare a few moments to see what we look like.

Then the protest song fills the room. Igor and Moreno sing beautifully and they linger on the song in the same way they stretched the exchange with the audience at the opening of the piece. Verses are repeated several times. They savour the words. We rejoice in their voices. I might be wrong but I have the feeling that the protest song was lost on the British audience. No matter. From the protest song comes the jumping. A quiet and subtle bouncing at first which grows and develops throughout the piece. The choreography is stripped bare. The jumping is explored from every angle. Igor and Moreno are technically skilled dancers, but they do not indulge in their own virtuosity. They are after the essential. They wear everyday clothes, no make up, a white vinyl floor covers the stage, white backdrop and three white wings add dynamicity to the space. Warm white lights, no music, just white noise. The jumping is interrupted only towards the end when singing comes back. This time the performers sing to each other, they hug, they hold one another as the light dims. It’s an intimate and moving moment. In dark times, stop and think about what you actually need. Look after what you hold dear. Look at the world around you. A protest song will bring us together to fight injustice, but looking at each other, holding each other, that’s what will keep us afloat.

How to close an institution

The absence is justified, I promise. I’m currently finishing chapter four of the thesis. It has been a fascinating journey. I immersed myself in the extraordinary practice of Giuliano Scabia and Compagnia della Fortezza and I had the opportunity  to finally study Italian anti-psychiatry with the necessary attention. Of all the incredible intellectual and political practice developed in Italy between the 1960s and the 1970s, anti-psychiatry is one of the richest, and undoubtedly one of the movements that radically changed the face of Italian society.

Here is John Foot’s beautiful, short introduction to the work of Franco Basaglia. Enjoy!

Research, Politics and Paywalls

‘Il Valle non c’è più’. ‘the Valle is no more’, said F. bitterly at the end of his intervention to what was arguably the most heated debate at the 2014 Euronomade meeting in Passignano sul Trasimeno. We were a large group, at least fifty people, crammed outside the auditorium under the afternoon sun. Few seconds of silence followed F.’s words.The thought of having lost the physical and symbolic centre of of an extraordinary movement suddenly hit us. One thing is reading about it on the paper, another one listening to the occupiers’ voice.Ruminating over the end of the occupation might not be the most useful activity, and yet, this is perhaps the right moment to start reflecting upon the Valle’s achievements, potential and setbacks. At Euronomade we only begun to scratch the surface.

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For those among you who do not know the Valle Occupato’s story, you can have a look at the special issue of Theatrama or at the documentary Occupying the Commons, both good introductions for the English speaking public. I have been following the occupation since the very first days, albeit from afar.  Their work was so unique and inspiring, and yet so little known in British theatre circles. I got in touch with the occupiers in the summer of 2012 but I managed to visit them only in March 2014. It was a difficult moment. The Angelo Mai collective had been evicted only a week before my arrival, the dialogue with Rome City Council was at a standstill, and the authorities had just rejected the Teatro Valle’s application for legal personality. Tension was palpable. And yet I found many occupiers willing to talk to me, happy to answer my questions or to have me around during assemblies. Considering the circumstances, they had been incredibly generous with their time.

I went to the Valle out of curiosity and political solidarity, and with the best of intentions. I wanted ask questions, to understand, to listen. I hoped I could be able to help. I listened, I asked my questions, I observed, I tried to understand. Helping, though, was a different matter altogether, and I left the Valle feeling in debt, a debt I could not repay. I justified my trip to Rome telling myself that academic writing that could potentially amplify artistic practice. And in part, it is true. My paper on Teatro Valle at the IFTR Conference gathered quite a crowd, and the Q&A went far beyond the allocated fifteen minutes, eventually taking up most of our lunch break. Researchers from all over the world wanted to know more, to understand, to dig deeper to see if the Valle’s story could illuminate other political and artistic practices.Yet, I cannot help wondering if I am the best person to tell this story. What perspective can I possibly bring? How do I relate my reflection to the occupiers’ struggle? Although sympathetic, I am outside of that struggle. I cannot consider myself an activist. And I cannot shrug the feeling that my research parasitically exploits their work.

Three years of observing and listening to the occupied Valle – and indeed the other occupied arts spaces all over Italy -were bound to have an impact on my practice too. The rich debate around the commons, the backbone of Valle Occupato, eventually compelled me to radically reconsider the nature of academic work and scholarly research. What can research give back to struggle or to an artistic practice if only other scholars listen to our conference papers? How can we engage in a broader discussion if our articles hide behind a paywall or are available only to the lucky few affiliated to an academic institution? Who are we writing for? Does our work benefit anyone or anything except an increasingly self-referential academia? When I stepped into the occupied theatre I expected to encounter a lively political experiment. What I could not foresee is that the occupation would slowly but irreversibly transform my understanding of scholarship, my conception of the researcher’s function, my view of academic institutions. And that, at the same time, it would confirm that there is still a higher education worth fighting for.

Constellations

There was a certain thematic unity in the way the Monday session developed. Seminars, discussions and lectures somehow seemed to shed light on one another in unexpected ways.
From our Theatre and Democracy seminar with Bernadette Mayler, to the dissertation workshop with David Kornhaber, and Freddie Rokem’s lecture at the end of the day, we kept finding, discussing and analysing images from Bertolt Brecht’s exile. Brecht and Margarete Steffin working on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; Brecht playing chess with Walter Benjamin in Svendborg; Brecht far from the theatre where he belonged, with writing alone to voice his frustration. These images kept floating around us all day long, every time we looked at them we discovered something new, not only about B.B., but also about the remarkable circle of intellectuals and artists that gathered in Svendborg between 1933 and 1939, the six years between Hitler’s “resistible rise” to power and the abyss of WWII.
The images triggered some of the most fascinating discussions of the summer school about the nature of artistic collaboration, political commitment and resistance.

With Freddie Rokem we talked again about Brecht’s exile, but also about dramatic writing and practice (Weigel as the author of Courage), and we stopped to reflect upon the relationship between dramaturgy, interpretation and adaptation. “Dramaturgy is about changing the rules of the game as you go along”, says Freddie Rokem, it’s a hermeneutic process that exploits the aporias in the text, it displaces signs to create new meaning.

One image seems to stand out among the others, a synthesis of our reflections on text and dramaturgy, war and exile, collaboration and creation. A dialectical image? The aesthetic embodiment of dialectics at a standstill? Courage lugging her cart endlessly around the revolving stage, strenuously marching against the course of history.