Theatre Regenerates itself Constantly, and Even More so in Periods of Crises: Interview with Barbara Regondi
by Savas Patsalidis*
Barbara Regondi is a graduate of the Arts, Music and Performing Arts Department of the University of Bologna. She works primarily in contemporary theatre, managing festivals and special cultural projects. In 1983, she met the Chilean author and film director Raùl Ruiz and collaborated on his movie Edipo Iperboreo. From 1985 to 1991, she worked at the Theatrical Experimentation and Research Center of Pontedera, collaborating with many theatre directors and artists such as Thierry Salmon, Jerzy Grotowski, Joseph Chaikin, and also worked at Santarcangelo Festival, Volterrateatro Festival and Premio Riccione TTVV Festival.
From 1991 to 1993, Barbara Regondi collaborated primarily with Italian directors Massimo Castri and Giancarlo Cobelli; from 1994 up to the present time, she has been working for the Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione (ERT), where she manages projects by Italian and international directors. Barbara Regondi is also the project leader of VIE international Festival, which aims to cross contemporary theatre cultures and intercept new identities and subjectivities salient in the field of live performance.
The VIE project emerged from the ten-year experience of Le vie dei festival, which was staged from 1994 to 2004 and hosted some of the most interesting proposals of Italian and international summer festivals. Carmelo Bene, Thierry Salmon, Lev Dodin, Peter Brook, Maguy Marin, Joseph Chaikin, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Peter Stein are among the artists who were invited to show their work at VIE (for more information, see: www.viefestival.com).
Barbara, allow me to say how glad I am to have this opportunity to talk with you about theatre matters that you know so well. Before opening up our talk to more general theatre concerns, I would like to start on a more personal note; that is to say, your own reflections on issues directly related to your chosen line of business. I am curious to hear what tempted you to pursue a career in theatre. Were you prompted by practical concerns, romantic or family interactions or, perhaps, some other reason?
During my high school years, I lived in a small town near Milan; there, our local theatre hosted previews of plays which would later debut in Milan. It was the decade of the 1970s, years full of cultural turmoil and innovation; during this time, I had the opportunity to see the work of great masters like Giorgio Strehler and other artists who brought the avant-garde to Italian theatre. At the same time, I developed a passion for reading dramaturgical works, and when the first Faculty of Performing Arts was inaugurated in Bologna, I had no doubts about what I wanted to do in the future.
After close to 30 years in the profession, what have you learned regarding the management of theatre programmes, festivals and venues? In other words, what qualities does a theatre manager, producer or advisor need today in order to be successful, bearing in mind all the intersections, complex crossings, new gender and identity politics to be negotiated? What kind of mindset and strategy do you think are required for this role?
This is a complex question, and it is difficult to answer in one or two sentences. First of all, I think it’s essential to understand where you are, in which cultural and social territory you are operating. This recognition is essential in order to create a spark of interest that will later enable you to build a relationship of trust with both the audience and the institutions. It is also fundamental to understand what type of audience you want to work with and what you want to offer them. You must never forget how important it is to notice what is going on around you and to pay close attention to social changes which affect our local concerns, as well as those which occur and influence us on a global scale, as these allow artistic projects to develop over the years. In the end, you must listen carefully and select artistic projects to propose with complete honesty, and without compromising in any way.
As a follow up to my previous question, as compared to prior practices, have you noticed any major changes in terms of working conditions, selecting and promoting plays, or teaching methodologies?
Speaking of practices, I don’t think there have been great changes in recent years; maybe small adjustments, but nothing more. On the contrary, working conditions and promotion are constantly changing because of the tools available. Just consider the fact that when I first started working, the first personal computers had just replaced typewriters, but we didn’t have much more; there was no internet, no e-mail, no cell phones. Similarly, our access to international plays and artists was much more restricted, as air travel was very expensive, especially outside of Europe.
You have devoted the largest part of your career, from various managerial positions, to collaborating with major theatre groups and artists. How difficult has it been to balance cooperation with others, on the one hand, and independent thinking, on the other?
It surely is not simple in the theatre, as clearly as it is not simple in life. You should always be clear on what your own role is and what the role of the others is; such understanding helps you gauge to what limit you can press your own thought forward. Twenty years ago, however, I would have answered differently, as in those years we used to work more as a team, artists and managers. The line between roles was more blurred, so individual thinking could flow and merge with other thought patterns more readily.
What do you remember from these collaborations? For example, what would you say that you have gained? Have there been any people who have impressed you or disappointed you or changed your ideas about theatre? Are there any productions that stand out in your memory?
The memories are numerous and, fortunately, most are very positive; and this alone shows what I have gained most significantly from my work: meaningful human and professional experiences. The world of the theatre is not that different from the world of everyday reality; in both, there are people who let you down, others who surprise you and others who open up new perspectives on theatre. If I have to mention one particular production that stands out in my mind, I would say, for many reasons, A. da Agatha by Thierry Salmon (1985). This beautiful work gave me the opportunity to observe an alternative style of staging a text, of working with actors and the whole team, of using theatrical space, in sum, of performing theatre.
Over the course of so many years, have you ever felt that there were cases in which you failed in your role? Do you have any regrets? If so, perhaps you could describe the lessons you have learned and offer advice to younger people who might be interested in following your example.
I have often felt like I have failed, and probably I have. I obviously have some regrets, but, frankly, this doesn’t make me sad; on the contrary, I think that making mistakes is part of the journey, as we learn so much from our mistakes. I don’t feel that I am in a position to give advice, but there’s one thing that I can say with great certainty, which is to be honest, always, with yourself and with others. Intellectual and personal honesty are the basis for a good job; cunning and compromise might provide shortcuts in reaching one’s goals, but they often bring negligible long-term results.
So true! You are now the project leader of VIE international festival. Can you tell us more about the qualities required for this job? In particular, are these qualities that people can develop through studying or through experience?
There’s no doubt that an academic base is very important, but skills for the position are developed primarily on the basis of professional experience; this entails an in-depth understanding of particular tasks needed for the smooth functioning of a theatre or a festival, and constant attention to the different components of the artistic production. Having attained this level of awareness, you have reached a concrete and stable position from which to undertake an artistic journey, one which requires a constant view of artists and their works.
With so many productions on the road, as a programme advisor, how do you find new ideas, new groups and artists?
I travel constantly, I see as many plays as I can, and I confront and accept even the smallest changes and needs of the society we live in.
How do you decide how many are too few, and how many are too many when it comes to selecting the plays for a festival?
I don’t have an answer to this question. It depends on the resources you have, first of all the economic possibilities, as well as the locations, the needs and possibilities of your organization and, obviously, the closeness of fit to your artistic project.
To open up our discussion, I’d like to ask about the major post-pandemic challenges that festivals now face, especially European festivals. Given what is now happening in the world—for example, the economic recession, the war in Ukraine and climate change, among other pressing issues—the future seems rather grim to me. What about you, what are your feelings? How do you think the festivals will manage? Do you think they will need to undergo drastic change in their structure, organization, philosophy, travel plans and collaborations in order to move forward?
All the points you’ve raised in your question are central to our concerns. I believe that changes are necessary, and their quick implementation is crucial. As a first example, scouting and scheduling require a multitude of trips to European and non-European countries. The situation you’ve described raises ethical issues regarding the climate crisis, as well as economic issues, since the costs of traveling are continuously increasing. Nevertheless, to plan a festival one has to see the works, and theatre is an art that has its own raison d’etre based on the relationship between the stage performers and the audience.
As a first step to address this problem, we could aim to increase and diversify cooperation between managers as well as consider dividing and sharing commitments and information between theatres and festivals from different countries. The same logic applies to tournées, since projects from abroad need to be presented in as many cities as possible in order to reduce the ecological and economic impact of flights and road vehicles. Clearly, we need to build national and international networks to bring this about. In fact, this approach has already been adopted in some European countries, at least within their own national productions. However, Italy still lags behind in this area, since ongoing disagreements over premieres prevail, largely because of dysfunctional ministerial parameters.
Unfortunately, Italy still lags behind in this area; it’s difficult to agree between theatrical institutions on a tour of a foreign show, especially due to the media and ministerial importance of premieres. The result is that foreign shows are almost always presented in a single Italian city because no one wants to give up the premiere, taking away opportunities from companies and artists. I hope these “habits”can soon change.
As much as possible, we need to reassess the entire process of creating theatre; we could design more agile or, perhaps, even virtual scenes, and consider setting up teams to work on the same format across countries but use a different cast in each country. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done.
With respect to my previous question, what I have in mind is the extensive use of technology, of live streaming as one solution. It seems to me that most festivals will make extensive use of this potential in order to reduce expenses and, at the same time, reach out to larger audiences. No doubt there are obvious advantages in such an option, but I would like to talk more about the disadvantages.
As I was saying before, theatre thrives on the relationship between actor and audience and on the connection created by their coexistence. During lockdown, live streaming was inevitably escalated, but I don’t see an alternative to the presence of the audience; maybe something else could be added, but nothing can replace live performance. Examples of digital and virtual theatre, such as I AM (VR) by Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg, which we are presenting in the 2022 edition of VIE Festival, obviously belong to another category, since they build their dramaturgy around the use of technologies, but they still require the presence of an audience.
What is the current state of affairs for festivals in Italy? More specifically, how many international festivals operate in the country right now? Are they all funded by the State? And what is their impact on theatre life in Italy?
There are lots of international festivals in Italy, I wouldn’t know exactly how many, and some have an impact on theatre life in our country, while others much less, depending on multiple factors. The State funds some of the festivals; others are funded by local authorities, or, as in the case of VIE, the festival is included in the activities of the organizing institution, which in our case is Emilia Romagna Teatro ERT/ National Theatre. This arrangement is required by a Ministerial provision concerning the national theatres that don’t have additional funding for festivals.
Regarding VIE Festival in particular, do you think it offers something that differentiates it from the other Italian festivals? What are your organizational and operational principles?
VIE tries to respond to contemporary influences, aiming to scout new talent but still hosting international artists who have already gained prominence and recognition. Over the years, VIE introduced the Italian public to numerous international artists, such as Alain Platel, Federico León, Amir Reza Koohestani, Dead Centre, Alvis Hermanis, Belarus Free Theatre, Sergio Blanco and Matías Umpierrez. There are always several returning artists and companies each year, but we always try to make room for artists who have never performed in our festival before.
Are there any particular productions that you remember most vividly from all the years you have worked with VIE?
Naturally, there are many, but I will mention just one which is particularly dear to me: the 1997 performance of Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett, in the extraordinary interpretation staged by Joseph Chaikin, founder and director of the Open Theatre in New York. This performance generated one of the most deeply moving theatre experiences for the VIE audience in the history of our festival.
I feel …jealous! I have never seen Texts for Nothing. I know I missed something exceptional, something unique. Chaikin is one of my favorite 1960s theatre artists. I still teach his Serpent, the play signed by Jean Claude van Itallie. When it comes to the people in attendance, do you find Italian audiences receptive to change? Do they welcome radical ruptures?
Generally, I would say yes. Obviously, there are different kinds of audiences, and some are more traditionalist, but the audience who appreciates contemporary theatre is very receptive.
What is the key to success when communicating with the new and mostly heterogeneous audiences, especially with the younger generation, the millennials?
I think the key to success is in education, by working in schools and helping students get closer to theatre by giving them the conceptual tools to examine it more deeply. The use of social media needs to be further differentiated to reflect the different users; for example, Facebook targets people in the 40–45 years of age bracket, Instagram has a wider spectrum, while Tiktok can amplify an event only if it is specifically of interest to the youngest users. In the final analysis, direct engagement is still the most effective way to reach young audiences, but it’s important to develop and perfect new routes that are more appealing to younger generations.
What would you say characterizes contemporary Italian theatre? Can you identify any dominant trends, or styles of directing or acting?
I don’t think there is one dominant trend. Italian theatre is broad and extensive; so-called traditional theatre remains very popular, but, in various cities, there are spaces or moments dedicated to more contemporary forms, performances and experimentations.
Italy is a country of intense political debate and confrontation. Does all this intensity find its way into local theatre practice? Do you think there is enough diversity, across languages, styles, orientations, ideologies and/or concerns?
Until now, political debate has not been a central theme of theatrical practice. There are performances that focus on socio-political issues such as that of migrants and racism, others that reflect on issues such as the rights of the LGBT community, violence against women etc. Politics and ideologies underlie these issues, but they are rarely dealt with directly.
There are different styles and languages but the orientations and ideologies are similar.
Italian culture is very popular and highly esteemed around the world. Do you think Italian theatre also gets the international attention it deserves? If not, what measures could be taken to make its stature more widely recognized and appreciated?
Up until the 1990s, Italian theatre, especially experimental theatre, was followed largely outside of our national borders. In fact, artists of international significance, such as Romeo Castellucci, emerged from those years. I think, however, that during the last decade the interest has diminished slightly; the high quality of Italian artists is still recognized outside of Italy, but those who manage to present their work abroad are considerably fewer in number. Probably an incisive ministerial intervention would be necessary, with concrete and differently structured forms of assistance available, to support more widely the circulation of Italian Companies.
Castellucci has a big fan club in Greece. I recently saw in Athens (at Stegi—Onasis Cultural Center) his latest production Bros. I was quite moved. I thought it was a very powerful dramatization of the theme of violence, an all-time classic. That said, I am curious to find out who the most frequently produced contemporary Italian playwrights are in the international arena.
I’m probably not the best person to answer your question, but I can still mention two. The first is Stefano Massini, whose Lehmam Trilogy, directed by Luca Ronconi at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, was tremendously successful. This play has been translated in many languages and presented all over the world. However, Stefano Massini achieved the highest eminence as a playwright last June when he was awarded 5 Tony Awards. Another Italian playwright with an international presence is Emanuele Aldrovandi, who has won many prizes in Italy and whose texts have been translated and published in eight different languages.
As a critic myself, I would like to talk a little bit about Italian theatre critics. Are there any critics left in Italy who still make their living from writing? In general, do critics make their presence felt? Do they get involved, and do people pay attention to them? And last but not least, is there any ongoing dialogue between the community of critics and the community of artists?
Some theatre critics in Italy manage to make a living by writing through diversification, not only by writing for a single newspaper, as fees are low and the space dedicated to theatre is limited, but also by curating publications for theatres or companies, writing essays by commission, and so on. Others take on different activities, such as teaching, and some are frequently involved with theatres, festivals and artists.
For instance, for many years VIE Festival has been hosting a group of observers and critics of the performing arts to coordinate a laboratory of observation, viewing and journalistic writing; their efforts help to promote the encounter between the languages of contemporary entertainment and the public, as they invite participants and readers to recognize and cultivate their role as critical spectators. This team works on festival projects and publishes interviews, presentations and reviews every day in a local newspaper.
There are other similar examples of this kind of cooperation, nurturing a dialogue with Italian artists. More generally, though, concerning the attention of the audience, I’m pretty skeptical. I think that the readers of theatre critics are mostly insiders and selected audiences, while the attention of the general public is focused primarily on celebrities.
I guess critics in most countries experience difficulties similar to those of their Italian colleagues. There is too much talk, at least among western artists, about getting involved, about canceling unhealthy cultures, about political correctness, about #metoo, the politics of sentimentalism and so on. The postmodernist slogan Anything goes has by now become a kind of modus operandi. Theatre is experiencing a phenomenal fragmentation of sorts: too many “tribes,” so to say, each with its own truths, its own agenda of rights and wrongs, its own list of musts and must nots. Do you suppose this promises more democracy, more quality and more inclusivity? What does the Italian theatre community think of all these trends? How do you think all these fragments come together to form a theatre front of democratic heterogeneity? Or alternatively, do you anticipate a return to the polemics and bipolarities of modernism?
Honestly, I don’t think this is a major phenomenon in Italy; and, for the most part, I don’t see any division or fight between the so-called tribes. There are surely different methods, objectives and agendas, as well as themes closer to some more than to others, but, overall, I believe they coexist and often support each other.
With all this in mind, here is my last question: how do you envision the tomorrow for theatre?
I really wouldn’t know, but I am an optimist. Theatre and art in general renew and regenerate themselves constantly, and even more so in periods of crises they find that they can be reinvigorated and reenergized.
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he taught a variety of theatre courses, ranging from the problematics of theatre reviewing/criticism to theatre history to experimental theatre/performance, among many others. For many years he also taught at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In 2019 his book on Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published by University Studio Press. In 2022 his latest book-length study of Comedy (Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter) was also published by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various ejournals. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Forest International Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece) and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.
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