Italian Theatre Today: Not a System, and so Many Transformations

Roberto Canziani*


Far from being a system, the Italian scene is an agglomeration where historical events, linguistic varieties, places of creation, small and large legislative provisions and artists’ personality shake the theatres and their audiences in an animated chaos. This paper is an account of the various trends and outstanding figures, as well as an account of the economic (financing), juridical (legislation) and sociological (increasing segmentation of the audience) components that determined the course of Italian theatre in the past few seasons.
Keywords: Italian theatre, regia critica, teatro civile, FUS, playwriting in Italy, Italian theatre awards

Italy is the country of the 1,000 kilometers. This is the distance that separates the municipal theatre in the bilingual city of Bolzano (between the northern snow-capped Alps) from the Greek theatre of Syracuse, in southern Sicily (an open-air theatre a few steps from the Mediterranean Sea), one of the most beautiful in Magna Graecia.

But Italy is also the country of the 1,000 languages. Italian history has meant that every region, even every single city, developed its own way of speaking. Only television, from the 1950s onwards, has succeeded in strengthening a common spoken language, the national standard. But local dialects and languages survive everywhere and are practiced briskly.

So, no surprise that Italy can also count on 1,000 different theatres and 1,000 different, constantly evolving ways of doing theatre. Far from being a system (like the French or German ones), the Italian scene is an agglomeration where historical events, linguistic varieties, places of creation, small and large legislative provisions, and outstanding artists shake the theatres and their audiences in an animated chaos. It is not always easy to analyze the physiognomy of this theatre scene or to observe its internal flows.

The horizon on which this paper will be spread is short; less than ten years. In such a limited period, the forces of transformation may appear fast and surprising, but it is likely that they will prove less incisive in time. This paper will give an account of what happened in the most recent seasons, but it will also be necessary to refer to long-term phenomena. The action of economic (financing), juridical (legislation) and sociological (increasing segmentation of the audience) components co-determines the transformations of artistic languages and can be appreciated only over a longer period of time. Only such a long-term analysis can take into account the adaptation of artists and publics to innovation.[1]

1. From the State to the Theatres

Our starting point is not an artistic event, but a legislative measure. Signed on July 1,  2014, and then published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale (the official journal of the Italian Republic), a major decree gives new shape to the criteria for the assignment of the FUS (Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo, the main economic source with which the Italian State supports theatre, music, dance, circus activities and traveling shows).

This is an institutional and legislative act, but with artistic consequences too. In fact:

  1. it gives (hopefully) lasting rules to theatrical activity, which in Italy has never had a framework law (legge-quadro) but only temporary measures (circolari), and
  2. by virtue of a mathematical algorithm (much discussed, to tell the truth), it creates new criteria, qualitative and quantitative, in the comparative financing that the public administration reserves to the single theatres: those criteria were firm from 1985 (the year of birth of the FUS; more than 30 years ago) and based on the artistic discretion of a commission.

In this way, the 1 July 2014 decree tends to direct and affect new models of creation, production and distribution, given the crucial fact that Italian theatre activities (even those of the so-called “independent theatre”) depend on the FUS and/or on other parallel public allocations from regional governments, which are modeled on the FUS criteria.

The decree was implemented in the three-year period 2015–17, and it is currently applying to the three-year period 2018–20. It is not difficult to imagine how some of its determinations (an emphasis on multidisciplinary performances, support for artists under 35 years of age, new rules for national theatres and for those of relevant cultural interest, attention to audience development and education of young performers) are driving forces for the choices that companies and theatres are currently making[2].

Only in 2020, at the end of the second three-year period, will it be possible to understand whether the decree gave a systemic character to the fluidity of the Italian theatre scene. However, it is clear that other forces are acting at the same time; forces of a markedly artistic nature and which have an energy that has accumulated over time.

2.1. Evolution of Stage Direction

The end of the twentieth century was marked in the Italian theatre by the model of the regìa critica (critical direction). Directors such as Giorgio Strehler (1921–97), Luca Ronconi (1933–2015) and Massimo Castri (1943-2013) defined a typically Italian model of staging. The regista critico was not only the final guarantor of the various components involved in the construction of a show. These directors also took on the role of dramaturg (they applied themselves to the dramatic application of texts), of pedagogue (for the actors) and artistic manager (they directed the most important national theatres, the programmes of which they shaped with their choices). In fact, they also became sort of co-authors, along with the playwrights, of the work being produced. Sometimes they rose above the writer in visibility.

This is what happened in some of the last works by Luca Ronconi, before his death, La modestia (Modesty, 2011) and Il panico (Panic, 2013), in which the personality of the director captured  the attention of the public much more than the Argentine dramatist Rafael Spregelburd (who was not well known in Italy then). Today, the model of regìa critica is less pervasive, but the artistic charisma of Ronconi and his interest in non-dramatic texts (novels, scientific and economic essays) have left a profound mark on those who have inherited his legacy.

Video 1
Il Panico, by Rafael Spregelburd, dir. Luca Ronconi, Piccolo Teatro Milano (2013)

Mario Martone and Antonio Latella are two directors working today in this vein; although this is modulated, in the case of Martone, by many parallel experiences in the fields of cinema and opera. Martone directed the public permanent theatres of Rome and Turin. He distinguished himself by presenting productions based upon non-canonical titles, such as a piece based upon the philosophical writings of the nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi (Operette morali, 2011), and by staging radical literary recreations, like his extremely popular Carmen (a 2015 production, after Prosper Mérimée’s short novel, but set entirely in Naples after the Second World War).

Latella has been directing the theatre Section of the Venice Biennale since 2017 and has received much acclaim with his work of re-encoding cult movies, from Gone with the Wind (Francamente me ne infischio, 2011) to Die Sehnsucht von Veronika Voss (Ti regalo la mia morte, Veronika, 2015) or very popular novels for children (Pinocchio, 2017).

Christian La Rosa in Pinocchio, directed by Antonio Latella (2017). Photo: Brunella Giolivo

Next to them, it is worth mentioning also the directors of the immediately preceding generation, such as Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (who was appointed artistic director of the permanent Teatro di Roma in 2019), Federico Tiezzi and Cesare Lievi. We should also note other directors of the same generation as Martone and Latella, such as: Valerio Binasco (now at the head of the Turin Theatre), Arturo Cirillo, and, as  part of the progressive affirmation of female directors within Italian theatre, such figures as Cristina Pezzoli, Veronica Cruciani and Serena Sinigaglia.

There are other figures that today receive the director’s label in Italy. However, their modus operandi is somewhat different from the one explained above. Romeo Castellucci (co-founder of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio), Emma Dante and Pippo Delbono are not inclined to stage extant texts; rather, they concentrate on the creation of a very individual and original dramaturgy.

Pippo Delbono, who has often dealt with the issue of his own social marginality (as in Barboni / Homeless People, 1997), recently brought to the stage his relationship with the Catholic faith (Vangelo / The Gospel, 2015). In his recent work La gioia (Joy, 2018), his own depressive illness was the artistic driving force. This piece achieved a strong emotional connection with audiences.

Video 2
La Gioia, dir. Pippo Delbono (2018)

Romeo Castellucci constructs refined dramatic scenographies, almost the theatrical counterpart of conceptual art, in which the action is often set in nightmarish landscapes. Such works tend to disturb the viewer profoundly. His productions include Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio (On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, 2011) and Go down, Moses (2014).

Video 3
Go Down, Moses, dir. Romeo Castellucci (2014)

Emma Dante works primarily with carefully selected performer ensembles. It is from the improvisational work of these groups that her shows draw their strength. Bestie di scena (Stage Beasts, 2017) and the recent Eracle (2018) are enhanced by the Mediterranean climate, reflecting her ability to read her own land of origin, Sicily, especially Palermo.

With their works, which are based on scenic procedures much more than verbal expression, Delbono, Castellucci and Dante are the Italian names most known internationally today. They are also highly appreciated as opera directors.

With the acceleration of this trend, the distinction between director, author and performer begins to be less and less pronounced. Artists who appear to combine these different functions include Roberto Latini and Licia Lanera.

In the last five years, an intense harmony has been created between the younger audience and the pop solutions of the duo Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte (aka Ricci/Forte), thanks to shows in which the soundtrack becomes a dramaturgical thread.

We should also note the regenerative work carried out on world masterpieces by Massimiliano Civica (Euripides’ Alcestis, 2014), Alessandro Serra (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, 2017) and Leonardo Lidi (Ibsen’s Ghosts, 2018), which becomes the basis for absolutely contemporary new theatre works.

Macbettu, dir. Alessandro Serra (2017). Photo: Alessandro Serra
3.1. Evolution of Acting on Stage

During the twentieth century, the tradition of the Italian grande attore retained its primary role on the stages. In recent years, some elderly actors have consolidated this tradition, being themselves at the centre of the appeal. Particularly notable are male actors Umberto Orsini and Carlo Cecchi, and female actors Giulia Lazzarini and Anna Maria Guarnieri (in 2019, the two women worked together on Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace). Each of these actors is over 80 years old. However, their attractive power is still very strong. Gabriele Laviahas merged his neuroses as an actor with a wide culture as a director and loves to descend into the characters of the Great Crisis between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Strindberg and Pirandello are his warhorses). Alessandro Gassman (the son of the famous actor Vittorio) also operates between acting and directing. In addition, Massimo De Francovich, Isa Danieli and Piera Degli Esposti are valued for the quality of their interpretations.

There are younger actors, in their fifties or sixties, who have been able to divide their activity between theatre, cinema and television. Indeed, one medium has often been able to illuminate the other in their careers. These include Luca Zingaretti (the popular Commissario Montalbano of the investigative series on TV), Alessandro Haber, Ottavia Piccolo, Anna Bonaiuto, Angela Finocchiaro, Giuseppe Battiston, Paolo Pierobon and the younger Lino Guanciale.

Massimo Popolizio in Un nemico del popolo (2019). Photo: Giuseppe Distefano

By contrast, other interpreters have preferred to focus their career almost exclusively on the theatre, achieving very high-quality results. This is the case of Massimo Popolizio and Maria Paiato (both perform in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, probably the best show of the current season in Italy). Determination, wisdom and ambiguity are the traits that respectively define the work of actresses Maddalena Crippa, Sonia Bergamasco and Silvia Calderoni (especially in her/hisMdlsx (Middlesex) by Motus, 2015).

Silvia Calderoni in Mdlsx (Middlesex) by Motus (2015). Photo: Simone Stanislai

For the same reasons indicated in 2.2., many artists with strong performance skills choose to create their own writing paths. A strongly expressionist style, linked to his place of origin (the outskirts of the city of Naples) and to his own bodily vitality, brought Mimmo Borrelli to prominence. His La Cupa (2018) is a violent story which encompasses song, myth and blasphemy.

Video 4
La Cupa by Mimmo Borrelli (2018)

Marta Cuscunà bases her creations on the political gender battle and women’s resistance. Her work employs animatronic techniques(mechanically animated puppets, rather than digital or electronic stage props). With Sorry, Boys (2016) and Il canto della caduta (Chant of the Fall, 2018), she has achieved critically acclaimed results.

Marta Cuscunà in Il canto della caduta (2017). Photo: Daniele Borghello

Italian actors have often fallen victim to the habit of over-acting. Among those who have recently established themselves, a form of interpretative décalage manages to remove any suspicion of self-conscious “acting.” Daria Deflorian and Antonio Tagliarini privilege the immediacy of dialogue and voice, accompanied by the dismantling of textual linearity, also based on new writing horizons (Ce ne andiamo per non darvi altre preoccupazioni / We leave, avoiding you further Worries, 2013) and Il cielo non è fondale / The Sky is not a Backdrop, 2016). Deflorian and Tagliarini have just won the Riccione Prize for dramaturgical innovation (see also 5).

Ce ne andiamo per non darvi altre preoccupazioni, by Daria Deflorian and Antonio Tagliarini (2013). Photo: Gabriele Zanon

The same inclination is present in the texts written for himself by Oscar De Summa. Everyday popular language, with its clichés and its vulgarity, has become the signature of the works of Babilonia Teatri (from the initial Made in Italy, 2007, to the more recent Calcinculo / Kicks in the Ass, 2018).

Video 5
Calcinculo, by Babilonia Teatri (2018)
4.1. Evolution of Production Formats

Despite this large base of directors and actors, theatre occupies an increasingly less important place in the Italian system of culture and entertainment. The competition of reproduced and digital creations remains unbeatable. One answer to this crisis, and to the reduced finance available for the production of theatre works, has been the rise of the monodrama.

In Italy, the phenomenon is often intertwined with the growing interest in a theatre of civic commitment, which aims to analyse recent history, often in the form of a journalistic inquiry. This type of theatre, totally different from the works of the stand-up comedians, exploits mainly non-dramatic forms. This begins in the 1990s with the artists that we can consider founders of this teatro civile: Marco Paolini, Marco Baliani, Laura Curino and Ascanio Celestini (all of whom are still producing theatre). This genre has been enriched by other performers, who today are the problematic cantors of contemporary Italy; theatre-makers such as: Davide Enia (L’abisso / The Abyss, 2018 ), Giuliana Musso (La fabbrica dei preti / The Priests’ Factory, 2012) and Mario Perrotta (Nel nome del padre / In the name of the Father, 2019). Such artists often cultivate the great variety of languages that characterizes Italy. Saverio La Ruina, for example, is the spokesperson for a theatre of the South.

Marco Paolini in Nel tempo degli dei (2018). Photo: Gianluca Moretto

An inverse response to the spread of these solo shows has been the growth of professional young companies. In the 1970s, Italian theatre experienced a period of great collective invention. Some historical groups from that period remain active. These include Teatro dell’Elfo and Le Albe (the company founded by Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari), to which the transgressive performances of Motus were added later.

In addition to these companies, the last decade has seen the emergence of young companies (such as Sotterraneo, Carrozzeria Orfeo, Vico Quarto Mazzini, Teatro dei Gordi, Oyes and Collettivo Controcanto), which have been born from common training experiences, usually in academies and theatre schools, sometimes also in social centers and spaces occupied by combative political-cultural movements.  Notable production by one of these companies were Virgilio brucia (Virgil’s Burning, 2014) and Socrate il sopravvissuto, (Socrates, the Survivor, 2016), in which the Anagoor company, exploring their love for the ancient world, opened up a peculiar horizon of interchange between classical and contemporary culture, craftsmanship and technology.

Video 6
Virgilio Brucia, by Anagoor (2014)

Attempts to make a theatre that is simultaneously more familiar to social groups that are typically socially excluded and also capable of more direct engagement with the general public have given rise to a new production model. Engaging with such international influences as the research-led theatre of the German company Rimini Protokoll (in which the theatre-makers bring to the stage  “Experten des Alltags” / “Experts of the Everyday”) and the sensory theatre of the Colombian Enrique Vargas, Italian practitioners are elaborating formulas of participatory theatre. The projects are always designed by a director or a relevant performer, but, within the group of performers, the professional component always leaves more space for non-professional and amateurs, who, with their direct experience, enliven the themes and generate interest within the audience.

Video 7
Socrate Il Sopravvissuto, by Anagoor (2016)
5. Evolution in Playwriting

This theme is very articulate and could not be solved in a few lines. The preponderant presence of digital technology has weakened theatrical publishing (and not only the one founded on paper); only three Italian publishing houses seem today devoted to the publication of theatrical texts: Titivillus (, Editoria & Spettacolo ( and Cue Press (, which has a primary interest in digital publishing and interactive eBooks). New writers, therefore, rely upon play writing competitions, although the resultant publications are expensive and poorly distributed. Even the winners of contests specifically dedicated to dramaturgy (such as the Riccione Prize and the Hystrio – Scritture di scena Prize) find it difficult to get their works into production. For this reason, especially in the independent theatre, we are witnessing the creation of showcase projects or studi (lasting some tens of minutes), which are intended to bring the work to the early attention of expert juries (such as the and the Scenario Prizes).

Daria Deflorian in Il cielo non è un fondale (2016). Photo: Elizabet Carecchio

Nevertheless, in the last few years, despite the restrictions outlined above, Lucia Calamaro (who follows a random movement of thoughts, not the linearity of a pragmatic dialogue, in works from L’origine del mondo / The origin of the World, 2012, to La vita ferma / The Still Life, 2016) has managed to establish herself. A special case is also that of the prolific Stefano Massini, whose original and epic rewrite of the Lehman Brother’ saga became an international phenomenon[3].

Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, dir. Luca Ronconi. Piccolo Teatro Milano (2015). Photo: Attilio Marasco
6. Evolution in Contexts (Festivals and Awards)

The names that have appeared so far in this paper have also appeared one or more times in the lists of the finalists of the major Italian theatre awards. The Ubu Awards, the Hystrio Awards, the ANCT Awards, and the selections made by Rete Critica web jury are today a compass for finding one’s way in the Italian theatre. Until the last decade, this role was played by festivals, which continue to perform their function as collectors of styles and modes of production. However, they are subject to the economic determinations of local administrations (their main source of economic supports) and, today, tend rather to carry out touristic functions, as is the case of the world-renowned Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto.

Events of strong appeal such as RomaEuropa (in Rome), Vie (in Modena) and the Venice Biennale theatre festival are entrusted with the task of presenting international creations in Italy. Others, instead, perform scouting activities, such as Drodesera and Colline Torinesi (in the North), Santarcangelo dei Teatri (in central Italy), Primavera dei Teatri (in the South), or more thematized initiatives (like the Bassano Opera Festival). These festivals often focus on a multi-disciplinary horizon (as envisioned by the decree mentioned at the beginning of this paper). Consequently, choreographed movement and music have been increasingly prominent components in recent theatre works.

Many creators with a dance background are guests of the billboards that were traditionally reserved for the theatre. Alessandro Sciarroni, Chiara Bersani, Silvia Gribaudi and Francesca Pennini (with her company, Collettivo Cinetico) are the main exponents of a phenomenon that stands as a ferry between languages that many still consider separate. Notably, their creations represent an interesting line of development that is redefining the future taste of the audiences.

Age, by Collettivo Cinetico (2014). Photo: Marco Davolio


[1]In his studies, Everett M. Rogers suggests a scheme which might enable us to analyze the audience’s accommodation to technological innovation within the theatre. Within recent developments of the arts, especially the performing arts, the mutual presence of performers and audience is an essential aspect. See my contribution to this theme in When Audience is a Plural Noun.

[2]The recent consequences of the decree are examined in a volume by Mimma Gallina and Oliviero Ponte di Pino, Oltre il decreto, Buone pratiche tra teatro e politica, FrancoAngeli, 2016.

[3]Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy (2015) has been staged all over the world. In addition to reviews in the New York Times, The Times, The Guardian and the Financial Times, this National Theatre (of Great Britain) production (directed by Sam Mendes) also prompted commentary in the specialized economics publication The Economist. 


*Roberto Canziani is a researcher, critic and project manager in contemporary performing art. He is based in Italy and teaches at University of Udine, Accademia nazionale d’arte drammatica “Silvio d’Amico” in Rome, and Accademia “Nico Pepe” in Udine. He regularly writes for a newspaper (Il Piccolo, Trieste), a quarterly (Hystrio, Milan) and several periodicals. His research and books mainly focus on Italian Contemporary Theatre, International Dramaturgy (notably, Harold Pinter) and Audience Development. He is a jury member of the major Italian theatre Awards (Premi Ubu, Premi Rete Critica, Premi Hystrio) and a founder of the and the Prizes. He is also a blogger (QuanteScene!,

Copyright © 2019 Roberto Canziani
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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