The Theatre Leads, and Criticism Follows: Interview with Italian Theatre Critic Andrea Porcheddu

by Margherita Laera*

In this interview I talk to Italian theatre critic, dramaturg and university professor Andrea Porcheddu. Porcheddu considers the role of criticism during the pandemic, the duty to pass the baton to new generations, Italian criticism’s blind spots and the budding debates about equality, diversity and inclusion happening in Italy. As a recently appointed dramaturg at the National Theatre of Genoa, Porcheddu brings criticism inside the institution, championing the role of “critical actions.”

Andrea Porcheddu. Photo: Matilde Pisani

Andrea, can you give us an insight into your working life?

I have a degree in Philosophy of Law, but I settled into the theatre very early on in my life. After a very fleeting experience as a 20-year-old “director,” I started writing. My first review was in 1988. And I’ve been going to the theatre ever since. Over time, I have understood, all of us have understood, that in order to be a theatre critic, we also have to apply our work to different areas of this field. One cannot live off criticism alone. As far as I am concerned, I taught Methodology of Criticism at the Sapienza University in Rome and, again in education, I have held and still often run workshops for young critics, such as those I have done for many years at Biennale Teatro in Venice.

Biennale Teatro Venice – with Thomas Ostermeier and Eduard Louis (and the interpreter). Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Porcheddu

This year, in particular, I organised a workshop in Venice with educator and critic Roberta Ferraresi. It is a training practice that my generation has not been able to take advantage of: rather than teaching us the trade and passing the baton, our “fathers,” the generation of great critics of Italian theatre who came before me, saw subsequent generations as a danger.

Historically, that passage used to take place in the editorial office: there was a flanking between the Critic/Editor in Chief and Deputy. But this tradition, due to many reasons, such as developments in journalism, has failed. So, my generation—I am thinking of colleagues such as Massimo Marino, Oliviero Ponte di Pino, Antonio Audino and others—also took on the task of probing the possibility of teaching.

In Italian universities, the Methodology of Criticism Chairs were often Theatre History Chairs called by another name. Instead, little by little, in recent times, they have become professorships in Methodology of Criticism again in our country. So, in my professional career, doing criticism also means doing pedagogy and training, writing books or essays.

Secondly, we must look at the theatrical environment, of which criticism is a part today. We can say that, symbolically since the end of the 1960s, critics have gradually abandoned editorial offices to be based in theatres: we have all been involved as consultants, translators, interlocutors, offering our “external perspective,” our ability to act as “critical friends” of artists’ activities. This aspect of our job does not exclude becoming an artistic director: for example, for three years I directed a small festival in Veneto, I was artistic director of the National Theatre of Bahrain, a consultant for publishing houses or public institutions, I was part of international juries, and so on.

Teatro Gustavo Modena in Genova. Photo: Matilde Pisani

In January 2021, I had the pleasure and honour of being appointed dramaturg at the National Theatre of Genoa, working with Artistic Director Davide Livermore. The dramaturg is still a rather “evasive” figure in Italy, but this is a topic that is beyond the focus of our conversation, so maybe we’ll talk about it another time. However, I would like to remember a phrase that Milo Rau said to me recently: “Critical thoughts are no longer enough. We must get on with critical actions.” So, here we go: I am trying.

I believe that today, in doing the work of the critic, it is important to try to act. Clearly there are no solutions or formulas, but I believe it is increasingly necessary to bring critical thinking as an active perspective within theatres. In this perspective, writing reviews is no longer possible. The urgency of writing reviews disappears, also because, obviously, you cannot review while also being employed by a producing venue: it becomes inconvenient, unethical and, while taking on more “active roles,” a minimum of professionalism requires us to refrain from judging the work of others. I continue with my collaborations with print and online publications, such as the weekly L’Espresso or the glistatigenerali.it website, but I only write features and columns on general theatre and criticism-related issues, without reviewing productions.

It is interesting to reflect on how reviewing has changed through a different perspective; for example, by thinking about the recent lockdown due to the pandemic. Obviously, after that long and very hard period—especially hard for artists, actors and, consequently, for critics—the critical gaze can only be a “softened,” “supportive” gaze. You cannot, morally, evaluate a show without taking into account the context in which that show was born; it is often work born out of the emergency, rehearsed in someone’s living room, without any economic or structural support. Taking into account these conditions forces us to write positively about productions, by encouraging rather than criticizing. But such an approach collides with the purpose of the critical gaze, it collides with analysis, evaluation and judgment, which for me are the founding elements of critical practice.

Without judgment there is no criticism: at the cost of paying for it in terms of loneliness and antipathy, we the critics must exercise judgment, otherwise criticism is no longer criticism. Today, however, we are forced to make judgments that always take into account what, in court, are called “generic mitigating circumstances.” Are we facing a weakened criticism? I do not have an answer. We know well that there is a thriving school of thought that says that criticism must overcome judgment, which must rather accompany the artistic path: “to have done with the judgement of God,” argued the poet, Antonin Artaud. And then, perhaps, in this historical phase, a “tolerant” or at least “lenient” criticism being morally necessary, perhaps it is better to roll up your sleeves and radically immerse yourself in theatrical action.

Sherpa_by Ronald Schimmelpfenning. Directed by Giorgina Pi, G8Project. Photo: Matilde Pisani

What do you see in the style of theatrical criticism practiced by your colleagues who haven’t made the leap like you, who are still writing reviews? How would you characterize and describe Italian theatre critics’ work?

I see a complicated and interesting scenario in Italy—it’s certainly not easy. On the one hand, there are the newspapers. I am thinking of Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore, where the veterans still operate—they are all retired, while continuing to be head critics. They know how to do their job well, despite the limited space and the sporadic opportunities of publication. They obviously continued to write, even in the lockdown, perhaps with a little more understanding and openness. We may or may not agree with their critical view, but they are certainly points of reference. On the other hand, then, there is the whole multifaceted world of websites and blogs. Here, in my opinion, we are experiencing a moment of crisis: on the one hand, it’s an economic crisis, because they are editorial initiatives that arose from voluntary work and have continued with great difficulty, and on the other, I would say it is like a middle-age crisis. These are experiences born ten or twenty years ago and which can hardly afford to keep going only by publishing critical analysis of contemporary theatre. It is a long conversation, I am not going to address it here, but what I notice is that many of these realities are increasingly dedicating themselves to other activities, such as audience development or areas of pedagogical or promotional nature.

In addition to writing reviews, what other initiatives do these online publications take?

They often do audience development seminars, public engagement initiatives and the like. These initiatives are commissioned by subsidised venues and festivals themselves. Some publications are also involved in long-term activities with schools. I am thinking of significant publications, which also function as cultural associations, such as: Ateatro.it, which has also been active for some time as a training hub for theatre operators; Altrevelocita.it or Stratagemmi.it, the Milanese magazine that combines an academic approach with theatre criticism and projects for audience development, engagement and education.

I am thinking of a lively magazine like Teatroecritica.net, which is attentive to what is happening in Italian theatre and promotes various workshops at festivals. Critics are often called upon to organise panel discussions with artists, to share pedagogies of spectatorship, to give life to cultural, editorial and engagement activities on behalf of those theatrical venues, festivals, artists and producers who can afford them.

Rome, interview with Willem Dafoe. Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Porcheddu

If critics do not discuss the meaning of criticism, what do they discuss? What are the big debates today, in your opinion?

There has been much discussion, during the lockdown, about “online theatre,” about streaming shows and so on. This has been discussed a lot, perhaps too much. Some colleagues claimed that this was the theatre of the future and that we had finally found a way to bring the theatre to life and really bring the show to everyone. Then, fortunately, as soon as the theatres reopened, the phenomenon shrank: the theatre is the last space in which we can meet live, face to face—it is good for theatre to keep this as its prerogative. Then, there is some discussion about aesthetics, reflecting on current trends, formulas or emerging artists. There is discussion around the meaning of making theatre. But I feel a lack of profound, articulated, systematic reflection, even in dialectical or confrontational terms. It seems to me that we are all quite in agreement with each other, and we are certainly too tired, I would say exhausted, to tackle such broad issues.

Instead, I like to think that we can take our cue from Byung-Chul Han when he talks about the disappearance of rituals—we could ask ourselves, again and again, what kind of ritual is theatre? A political ritual, an esoteric ritual, an anthropological ritual? Maybe we should talk about this too. Finally, it must be said that in this great crisis, we have often discussed with each other in “trade union” terms, tackling our social demands, requesting protection and support for theatre industry workers, whose fate has clearly highlighted the structural fragility of the Italian system. These are serious matters, which affect everyday life and which have emerged in all their unresolved urgency.

Critics have been important spokespersons for the demands of theatre industry workers. However, despite their urgency, these are issues of a contingent nature: a broader reflection on the meaning and value of criticism seems to me to be latent. The International Critics Association could perhaps give an extra stimulus to reflect, even in Italy, on who we are and what we do.

Change le monde trouve la guerre, by Fabrice Murgia. In the picture: Alice Torriani and Emanuele Righi. Directed by Thea Dellavalle, G8 Project 4. Photo: Federico Pitto

In the U.K., the big debates are around equality, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, anti-ablism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, as well as feminism. This discourse seems to me almost totally absent in Italy, even if I see some seeds, some sprouts, for example with an organization like Amleta, which champions women’s roles in Italian theatre.

I agree. There is a very strong grassroots movement, which is active on various fronts and which pushes to address issues of great importance; for example, gender and women’s rights—equal wages, equal roles, representation in the directions and institutions and so on. Moreover, there is a lot of theatre surfing the wave of our historical moment’s demands, trends and fashions, making cultural and political engagement into a bit of a rhetorical exercise. This is not the case with Amleta, of course, an association that is making a very serious and valuable contribution.

In this sense, I agree with you: criticism seems to me missing. There have been times when critics have given direction to the stage and helped the stage to grow, even in recent times. Now, it seems to me that the stage is way ahead of criticism, in relation to the questions you were asking. It seems to me, in general, that critics are chasing the stage, taking stimuli from the stage, instead of trying to disseminate the message or to take part in a serious debate. For example, few critics have raised racial issues in relation to Italian theatre. In Italy, we have a white theatre for white audiences. Full stop. And we do not perceive this as a scandal in the slightest: it has always been like this, right? Gradually, however, actors of various ethnic backgrounds begin to get noticed, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Teatro Ivo Chiesa, Genova. Photo: Matilde Pisani

The other aspect to think carefully about is the function of language, another fundamental issue. Italian is, to put it bluntly, a language that is geared towards the masculine. But I, for one, feel the lack of an adequate vocabulary to articulate the present and its notions. So, we grasp, we feel the need, to bring necessary improvements and corrections to our language. The proposals that are gaining ground are debatable: adding a neutral gender by using asterisks or the schwa vowel—which does not exist in standard Italian—sound like successive approximations to me, they are attempts that do not solve the problem. But, at least, now we are all a little more careful: we force the language to adapt to renewed sensibilities.

Finally, if I may, I would like to emphasize the importance of “crisis” thinking, to use a definition by Edgard Morin, as well as critical thinking. This is the kind of thought that emerges from situations of crisis. We live in a serious and constant economic, social, cultural, environmental and, obviously, health crisis. Perhaps, critical thinking must update itself to crisis thinking, to enrich itself with the complexity of the present crisis. So, and I return to the initial discourse, critical thinking also means, in fact, finding actions that can be coherent and effective within the crisis. Starting from this crisis, new visions, new languages, new poetics, new sensibilities can be developed.

In Italy we have to re-imagine what it means to be Italian in such a way as to make the theatre more representative of the Italians of the future. So what do you think is happening in the Italian theatre in this sense?

It is a theme that I have followed closely. Ever since, at the end of the 1980s, I had become very close to the work of the Teatro delle Albe in Ravenna, which was one of the first companies in Italy to involve migrants in theatrical creation. But we must not forget that Italy is a structurally fascist country: it is undeniable that there is also a reactionary theatrical establishment and criticism, who is reluctant to deal with creative paths that focus on disability, discomfort, marginality. Certain theatricalities are still confined to the realm of spontaneity, am dram, education, or – in the best cases – to an underground brand of research theatre.

Ermanna Montanari, Mere Ubu in Senegal. Teatro Delle Able. Directed by Marco Martinelli. Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Porcheddu

Or to applied theatre . . .

I have dealt a lot with applied and socially engaged theatre in recent years, also publishing several books. I lived and saw, in certain expressions of applied theatre, the best art theatre, the best innovation of the languages ​​of our time. So much so that I had coined an expression, which was then serenely rejected by scholars, namely the expression “socially engaged art theatre” [teatro sociale d’arte]. It was my intention to say that, in front of certain shows, we recorded a very high creativity together with a very strong social, cultural, inclusive value. Prisoners, disabled people, immigrants, marginalized identities: some Italian theatre-makers have dealt with these constituencies with great acumen and with undoubted success, combining professionalism and non-professionalism with extraordinary poetic-political results. But, even in this case, there is still a lot to do: we have never seen Black actors and actresses interpret, say, Pirandello.

Why not texts by Black dramatists, perhaps even written in Italian by second-generation writers?

Exactly; I am thinking of texts by authors less represented parts of the world, which hardly find space on Italian stages—I believe that very few have had the good fortune to see texts by Wole Soyinka or Derek Walcott on stage, just to mention a few names, the most famous ones. We are very late in this respect. And then, I think of second-generation authors. We find them in music, more frequently in literature, but still not so much in the theatre.

This is really the most pressing issue—it is the future. That’s where, in my opinion, criticism can really lead, by encouraging and raising a generation of ethnically diverse writers, but also critics, directors and actors, to represent a new idea of Italian society and culture.

True. But these are still minority battles: much of society is still impermeable, or even reluctant on this issue. Immigration is seen as a threat, not as an opportunity. But critics can still work to develop and promote complex critical thinking, which is the only type of thinking that can strengthen the autonomy of individual consciousness. We could work towards strengthening liminal and marginal spaces of solidarity and sharing, to think of a theatre that, therefore, sees its habitus in inclusive practice and foresees its objective in the quality of artistic production.

Andrea Porcheddu. Photo: Matilde Pisani

Only by combining process and product at a high-quality level can we imagine, through theatre, an innovative cultural system, capable of thinking about the future. We have never needed a profoundly meaningful theatre so much like today, a theatre that is neither self-referential posturing nor redundant spectacular virtuosity.

Theatre must help citizens to find the “square,” to be together after a long closure, and it must be the place where the community continues to question itself. Brecht wrote in The Exception and the Rule: “. . . do not find it natural what happens every day. Do not say of anything: ‘it is natural’ in these times of bloody bewilderment, orderly disorder, planned arbitrariness, inhuman humanity, so that nothing can be seen as an immutable thing.”

In short, even if the world is like this, it doesn’t mean it won’t change, maybe, at least a little, for the better. 


*Margherita Laera is a Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent, co-Director of the European Theatre Research Network and Online Editor of Theatre Journal and Theatre Topics. She is the author of Theatre and Translation (Red Globe Press, 2019) and Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy (Peter Lang, 2013), and editor of Theatre and Adaptation: Return, Rewrite, Repeat (Bloomsbury, 2014). Margherita also works as a theatre translator from and into Italian and English. She won the TaPRA Early Career Research Prize for 2018.

Copyright © 2021 Andrea Porcheddu
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