The global pandemic has led to greater awareness of the role of theatre in a broader sociocultural context, inspiring the community of theatre professionals to adapt creatively to changing conditions. In the present state of cultural emergency, theatre and criticism can no longer be limited to well-written reviews, aesthetic digressions and dramaturgical analyses. Now more than ever, the theoretical basis of theatre, as well as the possibilities of performance and production, must be expanded in order to reflect current values and priorities. Clearly, the commitment to build new social models is crucial in a country like Italy, where the strong influence of contingencies such as new populism, old fascism and omnipresent organized crime has never been fully acknowledged. Italy is a country that is eternally suspended between glorification and the abyss, between long-awaited timid signs of change and stagnation of the past, leading to disastrous failures. Artistic expression, including theatrical performance and criticism, must therefore be part of a larger collective organic process. Speaking in a polyphonic voice, the theatre community can more effectively suggest new models of social interaction and develop alternative views of the broader social ecosystem, of which theatre is a part.
Keywords: Society, sociology, post pandemic theatre, Italy, cultural value.
In late January 2022, I heard of the closure in Pontedera of the Workcenter, overseen by Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. In a letter dated 31 January 2022, Richards acknowledged the strained socioeconomic conditions due to the pandemic, the further cuts in funding by the National Theatre of Tuscany and the fact that Mario Biagini had left the research project a few days previously. Thus, with great serenity, the artist who had continued in the footsteps of Grotowski himself in the Le Vallicelle workspace declared the termination of a theatrical endeavor that had spanned 35 years.
This event strikes me as very significant and possibly even symbolic. The Workcenter, the workshop par excellence, closed down at the same time that Odin Teatret in Denmark was also experiencing a complex phase of transition. Leaving aside for a moment the sorrow that one feels for the demise of such significant enterprises, it is worth reflecting on the significance and the possible ramifications of events like this.
In a recent essay dedicated to the politics of the performance, the historian and theatre scholar Marco De Marinis analyses the relationship between the city and the theatre. He points out that the great theatrical revolutions took place in marginal places, often in suburban areas or in small towns far from big cities, such as Opole, Holstembro and Pontedera. This tendency, starting with Jacques Copeau’s decision to move his company to a village in Burgundy, seems indicative of a certain desire to be detached from theatrical institutions, traditions and conventions.
An apparent incompatibility between large urban centers, on the one hand, and small suburban towns, on the other hand, might therefore explain recurrent attempts which still emerge to reject the city. Such rejection is reminiscent of what the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk terms apolitology: a constant attempt to estrange or distance oneself from the city and the broader community of the polis, and from the agora with its practice of free speech or parrhesia (11).
“In short,” writes De Marinis, “to the archetypal image of a theatre installed in the very centre of the city, constituting its beating heart like the Theatre of Dionysus, another equally archetypal image . . . should be added, namely to that of the chariot of Thespis who brings the theatre to the most remote villages of Attica” (32). Theatre workshops can thus be connected to this second, nomadic and secluded locale.
De Marinis states that “the workshop is not the city: it can be inside the city but even in this case it does not belong to it, except physically. In the microcosm of the workshop, the twentieth-century actor distances himself from the polis and its everyday life, to elaborate diversity and difference” (36). This is why the closure of Jerzy Grotowski’s Workcenter and the transformation of the Odin are symbolic: the historical phase which positions the theatre as secluded from the city, the community and the social context has come to an end.
Before providing further perspective, I briefly pause to recount my own recent professional experience. Since January 2021, I have been collaborating as a dramaturg with the National Theatre of Genoa, the second public theatre of Italy established in 1951, only four years after the Piccolo Teatro of Milan. In this role, I constantly ask myself the following questions. What is the role of the theatre? What is the purpose of all these buildings? For example, the National Theatre of Genoa has four venues in the centre and on the outskirts of the city. Is it enough to have a good artistic programme? Is it enough to stage well-made productions for the institution to fulfil its role? I have concluded that these questions can only be answered inconclusively or negatively, and that the role of the theatre as a public cultural institution needs to be re-examined.
Especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatre must undertake the difficult task of rebuilding the agora and of rediscovering and reinventing the community. The theatre is a place where, when everything works properly, a citizen enters as an individual and leaves as a part of a community. It could be noted that such an observation is not new; however, I am also claiming that we are required once more to consider models of sociology, but not the sociology of the Theatre (with a capital T), nor the sociology of the spectacle, as these areas of study have been put aside and abandoned for some time now.
In October 1986, historian Claudio Meldolesi wrote the seminal essay “At the Borders of Theatre and Sociology,” analyzing in detail the reflections of numerous scholars such as Gurvitch, Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Goffman, Schechner, Duvignaud, Brecht and, of course, Grotowski. Due to limitations of space, I cannot discuss Meldolesi’s essay at length but, rather, reiterate his important point that historical periods following major world wars and revolutions—for example, post 1915–22, post 1940–48 and post 1968–73—have been crucial and determinant. As Meldolesi observed, “the relationship between theatre and sociology was reconsidered each time that theatres and sociologists perceived a return to normal” (86). In other words, rather than resigning themselves to the new situation, both artists and social scientists alike began to explore the wide range of human behaviours attested in newly normalized social contexts.
In recent months, we have begun a return to normality after the crisis of the pandemic. Although war has since erupted in the Ukraine, the COVID crisis, another grim period of widespread suffering, has come to an end, after having disrupted many forms of social, cultural and psychological expression. In fact, it could also be argued that a return to sociology is currently underway. To quote Meldolesi once more:
The sociology of the theatre can acquire a meaning beyond the obvious sociological reading of theatrical phenomena, such that the theatre is capable of carrying out its own sociological action. . . . The general expression of theatre therefore seems to rely on two non-coincident entities, civilization and society, such that the former nourishes the theatre, while the latter embodies the spectacular results of contemporary theatre. When it is nurtured by civilization, theatre does not simply reflect society, but rather produces society.141
In his in-depth study, “Places of Performance,” Marvin Carlson observed that
theatres have been located in the commercial centres of cities, in the most elegant residential areas, in the working-class neighbourhoods and in the most disreputable and socially marginal situations. They have been highly prominent clandestine hideaways whose location was known only to a few initiates. They have been designed as temples of art, seeking to remove their audiences from the concerns or even any visual echoes of everyday life, and they have been created out of the very texture of that life, out of the raw material of streets, markets and factories, foregrounding for spectators the non-theatrical cultural associations of these locations.199
Carlson considers the role and function of a Place of Performance, especially that of a so-called public place financed by public revenues—that is, state funds—like most Italian theatres, whether they are historically pre-existing, transformed or adapted. Central to this model are two key conceptual structures: ideology—that is, the set of culture-specific beliefs which frame the performance event—and its so-called heterotopic development, identified by Foucault as a pathway or process to question both the spaces in which we live and the socio-cultural community to which we belong (16).
Interestingly, theatres are typically quite stable institutions, yet they exist within the dynamic context of the city in fluctuation. The stability of theatre as an element, as this tendency is termed by Marvin Carlson, “does not mean that its urban role is stable but rather that it has been able to accommodate itself to a variety of urban functions as the city around it has changed” (200).
Thus, the aim of current theatre professionals is not simply to take the theatre out of the city or to move performance outside of the theatre halls and into the street; a practice which reached its peak with The Living Theatre and still energizes contemporary theatre practice. Likewise, theatre professionals have moved beyond the numerous forms of participatory theatre that comprise the so-called social theatre, which aims in part to create micro-communities.
As scholar and critic Francesca Serrazanetti has observed, artists have successfully generated specific projects and utilized a number of innovative strategies by reinventing their relationship with the city (qtd. in Carlini et al. 67). During the twentieth century, the reinvention of the allocated theatrical setting allowed artists to create a performance space with a variety of styles, ranging from extreme simplification to complex engineering. In recent decades, productions have also been influenced by a transformation of the two external areas farthest removed from the performative core of the theatre hall.
The first of these intermediate spaces is designed for theatre staff and actors as well as for the general public. It includes restaurants, bookshops, work areas and other such facilities, and it consequently attracts a broad sector of the public and a wide range of audiences. At the same time, the space is designed in such as way as to lessen the sharp divide between public and private facilities, so that theatres remain open throughout the day.
The second external area is the outer core of the theatre, which utilizes the space to encourage a stronger and more intimate connection with the urban public setting. Because there are no sharp separations between entrances, foyers, cafes and the street, a direct connection is established between the outside and the inside. The key motivation for new theatrical projects and renovations is usually to promote the social functions of the theatre within the community, with open spaces that are as appealing as possible to the largest number of people. The appearance of the building should suggest a place that is welcoming to everyone, whose purpose to promote an exchange of ideas, learning and creativity can be perceived immediately.
According to such a conceptualization, theatres have a permanence; they are alive and present, having been designed to include spaces that are used and experienced by many different people in various situations. Those who use these spaces then bring their experience back to their own social context, integrating and transforming it. The main issue to be addressed, therefore, is how to re-invent more strategically both the form and function of the public theatre, starting from its very bricks and foundations to the design of its buildings and, finally, to the specific locations of the theatre complex within the community. This kind of restructuring will prompt much careful thought about a possible sociology of theatres as a theoretical study that could lead to an immediate critical intervention.
In Italy, apart from some notable exceptions, widespread fatigue and confusion still predominate following the long periods of restrictions and lockdowns. As many spectators are still reluctant to return to the theatre, artists and other theatre professionals have experienced difficulty in finding a source of motivation and discovering renewed meaning in theatrical activities, a state of mind that also has affected theatre criticism.
Although theatre critics have been remarkably active in spite of challenging conditions, they too have been limited by a traditional lack of space set aside for their work in the national newspapers, as well as very meager financial compensation for their work; indeed, critics who publish their work online rarely receive any remuneration at all. Thus, it would not be surprising if their enthusiasm for work were to decrease. People go out less frequently, and when they do go out, they choose almost exclusively Italian shows; equally problematic, those of us who live in Italy, critics included, rarely have a clear idea of important events developing abroad. The critical gaze, faced with these obvious contradictions, naturally becomes more empathetic, good-natured, forgiving and participatory.
These are broad generalizations, and of course there are some substantial exceptions, and yet it seems to be a very pervasive trend. The pandemic seems to have had a catastrophic effect on creativity and the imagination, and the ethical, aesthetic and political discussions of theatrical criticism have become lethargic. Critical thought has wasted away and languished in a slack network, replaced by a type of criticism dissatisfied, perhaps, with the proposals currently available, but too sympathetic with the plight of struggling artists to further intensify the situation and challenge it by encouraging innovation.
At present the theatre community is experiencing a complex phase of discontent with the legislative system, as the government has based its initiatives of support mainly on quantitative factors. The dominant model and approach reward the theatre to the extent that it emulates a business model which provides satisfactory invoicing, economic and box office data, and audiences are increasingly turned into customers.
The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need to rebuild the community. It is now obvious how pointless and insignificant particular shows and theatrical products were, as they now appear to be obsolete. In many theatres, responses are being developed to make the most of these new possibilities and social functions. In the present state of cultural emergency, criticism can no longer be limited to well-written reviews, aesthetic digressions and dramaturgical analyses. Now more than ever, criticism must expand its focus and priorities. Here I am thinking, apart from anthropology, semiotics and reception theory, about issues of urban planning, architecture, environmental policies, economics, psychology and, above all, sociocultural policies.
Clearly, the commitment to build new social models is crucial in a country like Italy, where the strong influence of contingencies such as new populism, old fascism and omnipresent organized crime has never been fully acknowledged. Italy is a country that is eternally suspended between glorification and the abyss, between long-awaited timid signs of change and stagnation of the past, leading to disastrous failures. Artistic expression, including theatrical performance and criticism, must therefore reflect on collective organic processes, suggest new models of social interaction and develop alternative views of the more encompassing social ecosystem of which theatre is a part.
The non-place as defined by Marc Augé has become a widely used construct, but we might consider whether or not it would be desirable to return to the idea of so-called real places. Perhaps we should, and without taking too long to do so, as many important tasks must be completed in these outposts of a hypothetically re-balanced society, starting from the concrete activity of those who create theatre, study theatre and engage in theatre criticism. We need to return to reality, to history and to the Hic et Nunc, an essential component of theatre. As the critic Oliviero Ponte di Pino has suggested,
like the individual, a public space also has a clear identity, one that is defined and expressed through a coherent network of activities performed in situ and integrated within a larger ecosystem. The evolution of these spaces constitutes a political problem: on the one hand, conditions for safeguarding their public functions must be met, and their “social and cultural added value” must be protected; on the other hand, specific requirements to create and maintain these spaces must be clearly defined and incorporated within a more encompassing action plan.qtd. in Carlini et al. 145
At this point, we might ask how such disparate elements could be integrated. As a first step, I suggest that grass-roots initiatives in the field can prompt evolution and change in the context of the city. The community of theatre professionals should keep track of any such movements that would help the theatre transform the local environment. In the Italian context, several such examples come to mind; notably, the Kepler-452 group from Bologna, the artivists who, in a project dedicated to Marx’s Das Kapital, participated in the assemblies of the factory collective of GKN, a British automotive company whose managers fired 442 workers in a car parts factory near Florence, simply by sending workers email, devoid of emotion or human contact. On a more positive note, a permanent theatre has been built inside a maximum-security prison at Volterra, a small village in Tuscany, a project that was finally approved after thirty years of lobbying by the director Armando Punzo and his company. Equally impressive, the NEST group operates in an abandoned gym which has been converted and saved from ruin. Located in the eastern Neapolitan suburb of San Giovanni a Teduccio, the theatre has become a cultural and social reference point for the entire local community.
Contemporary Italian writers have also undertaken a number of creative projects which address, with deep feeling, current social problems. For example, the well-known Italian storyteller, author and actor Ascanio Celestini has maintained for some years now that the theatre must be a place where great things happen. This is why, for example, he has consistently stood by and supported Ilaria Cucchi, a courageous woman who fought for thirteen years to obtain justice after her brother, Stefano Cucchi, was beaten to death in a cell in a Carabinieri military station.
The playwright and actor Davide Enia has frequently visited the island of Lampedusa, where he has observed, interviewed and written about the people whose lives have been affected by the daily arrivals of clandestine immigrants. Enia’s work in the field served as an inspiration for his play entitled The Abyss, a show of great drama and beauty. As he explained to me,
It is said that the Greeks had a sense of measure and restraint because they knew how to face the abyss. Thus, the play I have written is nothing new. Instead, it returns with strength and pride to the origin of the theatre and focuses on absolute values in a contemporary context. We shouldn’t be afraid to recognize values, as this requires us to acknowledge that we all have traumas; we must each face our traumas and name them in order to question our paternalistic point of view, and thus gain understanding. Sometimes we need new categories to describe new events, and new words that have not yet been articulated to describe entities in the world. After the performance many people often stay behind to talk and to embrace me. When this happens, I realize that something has occurred which transcends the mere work and creates a sense of community. This, to me, represents a return to the very origin of theatre, and to a community that engages in dialogue and endeavors to change peoples’ attitudes about the present.
I would also like to cite examples of socially engaged artists outside of Italy. Milo Rau, the Swiss director and director of NTGent, has managed to bring an adaptation of The Oresteia to Mosul, with Iraqi actors and musicians who were victims of war, and also staged Antigone in the Amazon, giving voice to the indigenous tribes of this region. Milo Rau also created a film-documentary-performance dedicated to The New Gospel in the Southern Italian city of Matera and the fields of Puglia, the making of which I had the opportunity to observe closely.
Rau chose to work in Matera, the locale where Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson had both made films on the same theme, The Gospel According to Matthew and The Passion of the Christ, respectively. Rau assigned the role of Jesus to the trade unionist and political activist from Cameroon, Yvan Sagnet. The project led to a denunciation of the caporalato, a widespread system of criminal hiring, exploitation and control of immigrant workers, which perhaps had an even greater value than the excellent artistic result.
As Milo Rau has maintained in our conversation,
A show must go to places where there are no cultural or theatrical infrastructures, as well as to conflict zones. However, we when we tour internationally, we usually limit ourselves to connected, protected, tried and tested places. It is very different, however, if you do a production in the Congo or in Moscow or Mosul, where everything is destroyed, or if you invite artists like Jerome Bel to a festival. If our theatres invested in locales with ongoing political problems, taking their own shows there, we would have positive results in terms of the infrastructures and relationships that could be created.
When I visited Matera and the surrounding area, I saw the ghettos where immigrant workers live, and I witnessed the illegal caporalato system which cruelly exploited labourers. This is a form of slavery of thousands of people who are deprived of any rights, blocked in Italy, who cannot escape or even go back to their own countries, due to the Dublin agreements. These workers earn 12 or 14 euros a day, and they are exploited by the mafia and other criminal associations. I looked into large retail distribution networks and large supermarkets such as Lidl, and I interviewed people who worked there, as well as those who worked in immigrant reception centres and local priests. On the basis of this experience, I decided to look for our Jesus among these people, these refugees and workers of the soil.
Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos has commented on the role of his theatre house, the Attis theatre, located in the working-class district of Metaxourgeio inAthens, an area rife with drug dealing, prostitution and petty crime. When the Attis group was first established on Leonidou Street, the area was a well-known red-light district full of brothels. Over time, however, the theatre became a well-established institution and an essential reference point in contemporary Greek cultural life. Now, the same area is experienced very differently, as the theatre expresses solidarity with those who are marginalized without negating the ongoing social discontent in the community (Terzopoulos).
To conclude, I would like to note that we are still confined within the labyrinth of the pandemic; we have experienced, and we are still experiencing, the plague of Thebes. We have suddenly found ourselves in the midst of an unexpected tragedy, and we expect someone or something to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Thus, we must find our awareness and ask ourselves continuously to consider human destiny and the possibilities of critical thought in the face of catastrophe.
Today more than ever, we must reconsider the community, in spite of difficulties, and ask what the community is, who we are, and who the others are. Perhaps, as the sociologist Bertram Niessen suggests, we are We because we are cultural subjects in the making. In this sense, the need to think about the transformations of the We is connected to the need to radically re-elaborate the relationship between civic space and cultural activities: it is in fact the latter that allows us to question the ways in which we establish our sense of belonging to a collective group (Niessen).
Like the book people in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, each one of us must take responsibility for oneself, and in doing so, take responsibility for the entire community, which in our case includes men and women of the theatre, scholars and critics. In this context, I am reminded of the expression farsi luogo, roughly translated as “To make yourself into a place.” This is the title of an inspiring book by the director, playwright, and educator Marco Martinelli, published by CuePress in 2015. Together with actress and director Ermanna Montanari, Martinelli founded the highly acclaimed theatre company Teatro delle Albe based in Ravenna. In his book he defines theatre as “a child art” and asks, “What are 25 centuries when compared with the origins of humanity? The rose is 25 million years old” (7). He then states that child art is about “turning yourself into a place” (7). The Italian expression farsi luogo can be interpreted in various different ways; for example, according to the authoritative Treccani dictionary, it can mean “to appropriate space for oneself” or “to open up a way for oneself, also by using force.”
For Martinelli, however, the expression denotes becoming a place, or making a place out of oneself.
On the subject of Greek tragedy, Martinelli writes,
in making ourselves into a place we cannot limit ourselves to the first circle, to what is created between the actors, the Dionysou technitai, and the spectators. When we turn ourselves into a place, that precious circle is opened, not closed, and it draws another circle around it, which leads to another, and so on, in the shape of a spiral. This is a no-man’s land in which the boundary between those who act and those who look on fades away, and in which the no man’s land becomes everyone’s land.30
In this view, theatres are clearly an instance of everyone’s land: they are places where art and criticism can help us rethink the role and function of the whole community.
 Richard Sennet mentions this more contemporary approach only in passing, either in reference to his own youthful experiences as a musician or to Lecoq’s neutral mask as a modality of communication; for example, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City and Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation.
Augé, Marc. Non Luoghi. Elèuthera Editore, 1993.
Carlini, Cristina, Mimma Gallina, and Oliviero Ponte di Pino, editors. Reinventare i luoghi della cultura contemporanea. FrancoAngeli, 2017.
Carlson, Marvin. Places of Performance, the Semiotics of Theatre Architecture. Cornell UP, 1989.
De Marinis, Marco. Per una politica della performance. Editoria & Spettacolo, 2020.
Enia, Davide. Interview by Andrea Porcheddu. L’Espresso, 25 Oct. 2018.
Foucault, Michel. L’ordine del discorso. Einaudi, 1972.
“Farsi luogo.” Dizionario Treccani.
Martinelli, Marco. Farsi luogo. Cue Press, 2015.
Meldolesi, Claudio. “Ai confini del teatro e della sociologia.” Teatro e Storia, no. 1, 1986, pp. 77–151.
Niessen, Betram. “La storia del noi.” Compagnia di San Paolo.
Sennett, Richard. Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. Penguin, 2018
—. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation. Yale UP, 2013.
Sloterdijk, Peter. L’imperativo estetico. Raffaello Cortina editore, 2017.
*Andrea Porcheddu was born in 1967 and lives in Rome. He has worked as theater critic and journalist since 1988 and has published various books on the theory and history of theater. He currently holds the position of Dramaturg in the National Theatre of Genova and teaches Theatre Criticism at Rome University La Sapienza. He has also served as Master for the Theatre Critic workshop at Venice La Biennale since 2008. At the present time, Andrea Porcheddu works with numerous media organizations, including the weekly magazine L’Espresso, the online newspaper glistatigenerali and the German magazine Lettre International; he is also a regular contributor to the Italian national radio RaiRadio3’s broadcasts. Andrea Porcheddu worked as artistic consultant in Bahrain for the National Theatre in 2012, and he has been a member of several juries in Italian and international Festivals, including the Fadjr Festival in 2011 (IR) and the Mess International Festival in Sarajevo (BH) in 2007 and 2015. glistatigenerali.com.
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