- Dante the Everyman
It all began at our city high school, in Ravenna: Ermanna and I read the Divine Comedy and it enchanted us. It was hard, yes, but thrilling, as hard and thrilling as climbing a high mountain.
Then, when we were twenty, Ermanna and I got married. It was 1977, and we began doing theatre, living on theatre, making life into theatre by creating a company of our own—Teatro delle Albe—weaving life and theatre together. We didn’t want to wait around for a call from some director or other; we became the architects of our own destiny, in shame and honor, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Life and theatre from morning to night; a perfumed wreath of flowers, and we dreamt that theatre could be at one and the same time a battle, a daily prayer, and a contemplation on what is, not only for human beings but for all living things—plants, animals, oceans—including our rage at the evils brutalizing the planet. Struggle against the injustices that wound existence: that’s what we wanted our combination of theatre and life to be. The stage, small as it was, had to contain the whole world. In that gamble, Dante continued to be our number one “partner in vigil,” during those hours when you can’t sleep and force yourself to keep on writing, when you keep on rehearsing late into the night in the deserted hall. In the same way, Dante went sleepless laying out the immeasurable poem he tossed everything into, like an immense alchemical forge: almost five hundred figures of popes and emperors, merchants and saints and artists, corrupt leaders and prostitutes, and hundreds of real figures otherwise unknown. He drew from recent news and pagan mythology, from politics, science, and economics, combining his scorn for money—which was just beginning to pollute the world—with the most sublime theology, his desire for the Absolute, and Love Love Love; the Love scorned in Hell, searched for in Purgatory, and enjoyed with festive gladness in Paradise.
We wrote our own scripts, we staged Aristophanes or Shakespeare, but Dante was always there close by, and we started describing our theatre as a “staging in life.” [End Page 78] I’m not sure I can render this concept, so crucial to us, precisely in English: Italian has the expression messa in scena to indicate theatrical staging, the mounting of a text in scena, on stage. But for us it wasn’t enough just to put the play on stage; we wanted to put it in vita—in life—because the words of a text, written today or twenty centuries ago, are nothing until they become flesh, the nervous system of those who speak or listen to those words. Only then do the words become memory and utopia, inferno and paradise, spirit and world. It takes resolute audacity to spark the short circuit that makes the stage burn with the flame of life.
Over forty years, we too have tossed a lot of “life” into the alchemical forge of our creations; especially our own lives and those of our actors. We begin every work day by telling each other our dreams and anguish, our anger and desires, so that it all fuels the art on stage. And we always open up the walls of our theatre to “other worlds,” bringing on stage segments of reality we’re unfamiliar with. We started working with African immigrants toward the end of the eighties, when immigration into Italy was a new phenomenon, and those actors went on to become supporting columns of our company. We went into schools all over Italy and the world, from Ravenna to the crime-ridden neighborhoods in Naples, as far as Dakar and Nairobi and Chicago, working with hundreds, even thousands of children and teens, making stages shake and shine with the “wildness” of those surprising “non-actors,” summoned not to “play a role” but to be themselves through improvisation, a process of autonomous creation built on a given text. We put them face-to-face with the insight of...