Italy’s Contemporary Theater Runs Between Fiction And Reality

Our interview with Francesca Merli, a young exponent of Italy's contemporary theater.

Our interview with Francesca Merli, a young exponent of Italy’s contemporary theater

A few months ago, when theaters were still open and gatherings were allowed, I went to the Piccolo Teatro di Milano — Italian for “Little Theater of the City of Milan” — to see a play with Toni Servillo, the lead actor of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty.

Fifteen minutes after the play started, the ringtone of a cell phone interrupted Servillo’s performance. Instead of ignoring the sound as I would have expected, the actor stopped everything. Servillo said he would start his act from the beginning, meticulously repeating everything he had done until the interruption.

At the end of the play, he took the microphone and said: “I didn’t do this for megalomania. There are actors on stage: they are people who have worked for months on every sentence and every movement. On Netflix, we can pause the show to send a text, but in a theater, you can’t: look at us, we’re real people and we’re working for you, we deserve respect.”

His words struck me and made me realize the true value of theater. Unlike cinema, this form of performance exists entirely in a moment that soon after disappears. It’s an evanescent art and therefore every moment matters.

When I interviewed Francesca Merli, a young Italian contemporary theater director, I was happy to see that she too reiterated this concept.

Merli is the founder of the theater company Domesticalchemia. Back in 2016, the play Santa Estasi directed by Antonio Latella, for which she wrote the dramaturgy of the first chapter, won the Ubu award — the Italian Oscar for theater.

In her theatrical works, she pays close attention to the phenomena that most influence our society. That’s why I thought she was the perfect person to tell our readers something interesting about Italian contemporary theater. 

Do you think contemporary Italian theater is not as tied to tradition as people abroad might think?

Italian contemporary theater tries to free itself from tradition but doesn’t deny it. Maybe one of the greatest innovations regards theater direction: the figure of the director is relatively new, but contemporary theater now questions its importance.

In the 19th century, there were companies in which the main actor — the so-called capocomico — also covered the role of the director. This changed in the first three decades of the 20th century when the founding fathers began to understand the importance of a unified vision, a single look that transcends acting, and that led to the birth of direction.

One of the innovations of Italian contemporary theater is the overcoming of directing, a role that is being dethroned because new theater companies have more fluid roles, and therefore there are more heads who decide.

Although most of your works are contemporary, you’ve also adapted Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. What was it like to reinterpret such classic text into a contemporary fashion?

The first thing I would like to point out is that Greek theater has already the peculiarity of being contemporary: the story of Iphigenia in Aulis, for example, tells the story of a virgin sacrificed by a king in favor of the Trojan War.

Although the microcosm that encloses the story is very far from ours, the events touch universal themes: love, power, death, instinct. The classics speak to mankind touching the uncovered nerves of any person. I would never place Iphigenia in today’s Milan, precisely because the text does not require it — it is powerful as it is.

The classics can be adapted without being updated. The very definition of classic refers to something that resists the passing of time: we still draw from those very myths and those very stories: they are eternal models.

How did your interest in theater develop?

My interest came when I was very young. When I was ten, I already knew I wanted to direct, but I didn’t quite understand what that meant. I had no contact with the world of theater until I was 18.

Coming from a family definitely not wealthy, I was educated through cinema and TV: they were my first approach to an artistic product. I remember writing reviews on my notebook on what I just saw on tv. I really was fascinated.

People generally have more contact with cinema than with theater. What do you think is the main feature that cinema could envy the theater and vice versa?

Cinema has the privilege of being able to choose the best take, which means it can always be the best version of itself. When it comes to theater, there is one less layer of fiction because what is recited on stage is no longer editable.

According to André Bazin, a film historian, the power of cinema is immortality. Theater has the strength and weakness to be a fragile, ephemeral art. This kind of performance is consumed by the audience and is different every time it’s brought on stage. Theater stages something whose power is to exist entirely at that moment and whose weakness is to disappear immediately after.

Let’s speak about your production: in your plays, there is often a strong psychological component. What do you think are the greatest neuroses of our time?

The neurosis of our time that has been unhinged in this moment of crisis is the obsession with productivity. The obligation to stop because of the coronavirus has created a crash, and as some of you may know, we are not really used to take time to think about what we are doing with our lives.

I believe that women, in addition to the obsession with productivity, must face the pressure of nature. On one side there’s the struggle to achieve a certain career and work satisfaction, on the other side there’s the question of motherhood, and these two aspects are unfortunately still difficult to keep together.  

A woman’s life is punctuated by focal steps — the arrival of menstruation, the ability to procreate, the inability to do it anymore (possibly also motivated by not wanting to) — which are beyond her control and which she must take into account in a more urgent way than a man.

You’re a young female director. Can we say that the environment of contemporary Italian theater is still dominated by men?

Seven years ago I would have said that gender matters very little. I was sure women had the same space as men. Today I must correct myself.

First of all, there is concrete data: in both cinema and theater, female directors are less than male directors and it’s irrefutable. This situation creates a vicious circle: the fact that the roles of power are held by men leads to greater difficulties for women.

Why did I use to think there was equality and now I don’t? Because I was young and naive, protected by the academy, and unaware of what was going on outside.

A woman who has to tell a theater’s technician how to hang a light will never have the same voice as a male peer. When the woman wields power — because of course the role of the director is that of a leader — there are those who respect you but there are still many who maybe reserve you cuteness but not real respect.

We are living a new situation that puts at risk both social contacts and the art market. How do you think the way of doing theater will evolve?

What I do know for sure is that somehow it has to evolve. There have always been evolutions in art dictated by real life. [German playwright Bertolt] Brecht said that we cannot ignore what is happening around us: we must take into account the changing market, we must observe who the new oppressed are and so on. In other words, we have to look at the reality surrounding us, take what is crucial about it, and make art out of it.

From a formal point of view, it is more difficult to respond to theatrical performances. Theater plays cannot be captured on video, as they would lose their evanescence which is what makes them different from cinema. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in other spaces.

[English theater and film director] Peter Brooke used to say that a fruit box and a square were enough to do theater. So, how does one adapt the subject without distorting it? In my opinion, it would be nice to create other forms of theater that are not necessarily made inside the theater intended as a place.

Not necessarily must the acting be tied to the red curtain and the wooden stage. It actually just needs actors and an audience and that’s it. So maybe plays in squares and streets? I would like that.

Recently the so-called social theater or documentary theater has become popular. In your last work The bank of dreams, non-professional actors take the stage to “play themselves.”  Do you think that this new way of doing theater responds to a personal need or is it our society that asks for reality rather than fiction?

I think that theater cannot be an art that speaks only to itself, it must contain other sciences: psychology, anthropology, sociology. The director is also a researcher and has the opportunity to incorporate the result of his research into his plays.

I believe that this new trend of theater responds to an urgency to talk about the real added artistic value to it. Fiction is clearly still present: there are costumes, there is music, there is a script. Yet there is also the reality of the street, the naturalness of the expression of those who have never studied acting and were chosen from the street.

Italy has, on the one hand, a tradition of great actors, very serious and well-formed, which is something for which we are recognized abroad; but on the other hand, there is the great theatricality of our way of expressing ourselves: the sonority of our language, our spontaneity. If an Italian soul exists, I think it contains these two things.

Do you think this way of doing theater has been influenced by the neo-realist cinema? 

Yes, the neorealist matrix is strong. A great model is the cinema made by director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who preferred actors taken from the street to those coming from academies.

Actually, the moment you turn on a camera or get someone on the stage, reality is necessarily tainted by fiction. Vittorio “Accattone” Cataldi, for example, the main character of Pasolini’s 1961 homonymous drama Accattone, was a child of the Roman proletariat. His performance was vital and natural, as Accattone represented himself, but at the same time, there was a degree of fiction, conscious representation, and no longer just an unconscious and spontaneous one.

For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of being a director: being able to swing between fiction and reality. It is clear that theater cannot be made only from improvisation and spontaneity — acting is a profession. Let’s think of Carmelo Bene, the intellectual, eclectic, virtuous actor par excellence.

But on the other side we, as artists, cannot ignore the existence of Franco Citti, the man who played Pasolini’s Accattone: he’s the street, the belly, the hunger. Who do you choose as a model? You don’t have to. They are both necessary for a truthful manifestation of art.

Do you think this mixture of high culture and low culture, between fiction and reality, is useful in debunking the myth of theater as art for the few, snobbish and self-referential? 

Yes, I think theater needs to go back to the people. Who’s been missing it since the coronavirus stopped it? Those who work in it of course, but who else? Some viewers, but never like movies or TV series would be missed if they disappeared.

In my opinion, theater returning to the people doesn’t mean for it to lose quality. I always say that we must not underestimate the audience. You shouldn’t have to be an intellectual to understand a theatrical performance: there are feelings that are understood at a primordial level, even before the intellectual processing, almost emotionally. Greek theater, for example, is not easy but it is for everyone.

If you see Medea, another Greek tragedy written by Euripides, you may not know exactly the underlying psychological phenomenon, but the murder of her children still devastates you. If I need to read the director’s notes before understanding the play, then, in my opinion, that piece of art has failed. If art has the effect of making people feel stupid, then it has failed.

Support our independent project!

Italics Magazine was born less than two years ago in Rome, from the idea of two friends who believed that Italy was lacking a complete, in-depth, across-the-board source of information in English. While some publications do a great job, writing about the latest news or focusing on specific areas of interest, we do believe that other kinds of quality insights are just as needed to better understand the complexity of a country that, very often, is only known abroad for the headlines that our politicians make, or for the classic touristic cliches. This is why Italics Magazine is quickly becoming a reference for foreign readers, professionals, expats and press interested in covering Italian issues thoroughly, appealing to diverse schools of thought. However, we started from scratch, and we are self-financing the project through (not too intrusive) ads, promotions, and donations, as we have decided not to opt for any paywall. This means that, while the effort is bigger, we can surely boast our independent and free editorial line. This is especially possible thanks to our readers, who we hope to keep inspiring with our articles. That’s why we kindly ask you to consider giving us your important contribution, which will help us make this project grow — and in the right direction. Thank you.