All Pezzolo’s A Stage: Trinacria Theatre Company

A small but vibrant arts collective is reviving Sicily's rich tradition of myth and legend.

Trinacria Theatre Company
A performance of the Trinacria Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of the Trinacria Theatre Company.

A small but vibrant arts collective, the Trinacria Theatre Company, is reviving Sicily’s rich tradition of myth and legend.

Sicily has long been known as a place of myth and legend. Hephaestus forged weapons for the gods on the island of Vulcano; Daedulus built a temple to Apollo near the river Belice after Icarus flew too close to the sun; and Odysseus navigated the Strait of Messina, evading the dual threats of Scylla and Charybdis. There are few other locales more apt for folktales and lore — as homegrown hero Leonardo Sciascia noted, “All of Sicily is a dimension of fantasy.”

Fantasy and the power of imagination is the lifeblood of the performing arts, so it is apropos that Sicilian-American Mariagrazia La Fauci established the Trinacria Theatre Company in Pezzolo, Sicily, in 2016. Since then, the growing troupe has reenvisioned myths like Hades and Persephone, toured internationally, and most recently, recorded an audiobook of their production Colapesce. This week, we sat down to chat with Mariagrazia La Fauci to learn more about Sicilian theater culture, the process of creating an audiobook, and her vision for the future of the Trinacria Theatre Company.  

Tell us about the cultural impact of performing in rural Sicily as an artist used to working in the United States.

Trinacria’s first ever performance in 2016 will forever be one of the most impactful, memorable nights of my life, not only as a theater artist but as a person. We were performing our debut production, La Storia di Colapesce, for the first time in Pezzolo, which is my home. Over the years, I’ve witnessed first hand as Pezzolo has grown emptier and quieter; the population of the village has greatly diminished over the past 20 years. We were performing in the piazza and borrowing chairs from the church. After we’d set out about 30 chairs, the parish priest said, “I don’t want you to be disappointed, but that’s probably enough chairs.” About an hour later, the whole piazza was filled up, with people standing or sitting on pretty much every square foot of available space. 

As we were building our show, we kept checking in to remind ourselves, “we’re doing this show in a big open public space for an audience that may not go to the theatre frequently.” So we kind of expected lots of phone calls to be answered during the performance, or for people to have their own side conversations, or for kids to get bored and go wandering across the piazza, because it’s their space. So that night, we said we’d measure our success by how long we could keep the kids’ attention. How long would they stay seated?

I love the photos from that night because you can see that everyone, including the children, are rapt. But so many of the folks who came to see La Storia di Colapesce had also helped to build it in so many ways. They knew they were a part of it. All of the actors gathered after the performance, and we all agreed this is the way theatre is supposed to feel. It’s supposed to be an act of community, of people gathering in a space to share the telling of a story together. And then the magic of it: when we toured the show outside of Pezzolo, to the rest of Messina, New York City, and Boston, that feeling stuck. I do believe it’s a rare experience these days, and I feel truly grateful to be a part of it.

At the end of our performance in 2018, the priest came forward to thank us on behalf of the community, and someone from the crowd shouted, “When’s the last time you saw this many people in Pezzolo?” and he responded, “The last time Trinacria was here in 2016.” And then, at pretty much all our performances in Sicily, someone brings out some sweets and someone else brings out some music and people jump up to talk to the actors, and it sort of turns into a party. Again — I wish going to the theatre always felt like this.

2020 was the year of your artistic placement in Pezzolo, but it was also the year of the pandemic. How did you handle it?

We had big plans for the first Open Creative Residency in Pezzolo in 2020 that of course have been postponed. In the past, our residencies have been organized around a company of actors coming to Pezzolo in order to work together on a Trinacria production, but the Open Creative Residency was designed differently. Through this program, we offer four artists the chance to travel to Pezzolo to deepen their individual artistic practice or work on an independent project, while prioritizing engagement with our community and integrating that engagement deeply into their artistic process, because this is at the core of our company’s mission.

Trinacria Theatre Company
The Trinacria Theatre Company in Pezzolo.

We started the search in February, but of course the pandemic had taken serious hold in Italy by the start of March. But back then, we had no idea how long it would last. So we kept going with the selection process, but making it clear to the applicants that the residency could be rescheduled. In the end, we selected four absolutely incredible artists from all over the world who you can read more about on our website. We’ve tentatively postponed the residency to summer 2021, but of course these dates will be dependent on how the vaccination schedule proceeds and whether non-essential travel to Sicily is deemed safe again. No matter what, we’re totally committed to hosting these four incredible artists and we can’t wait to bring them into our community as soon as possible.

What is the status of theater culture in Sicily, and what does it need to thrive?

Tough question, but good question! I apologize if this is a somewhat pessimistic view, but I think you won’t find an artist anywhere who won’t answer this question the same way — the arts need public funding to thrive. I think this is true everywhere, not only in Sicily. Large institutions tend to absorb a huge amount of funding and resources that is oftentimes disproportionate to their reach. We have created these awful funnels where certain arts survive because they are made by powerful people and powerful institutes who already have access to the money and the resources they need.

Meanwhile, so many excellent, underfunded arts are starved out. But small organizations have proven time and time again that they are powerful agents for change on a grassroots level. We are nimble and flexible, we can fill in the gaps of the ecosystem, we can interface directly with underserved populations, we can develop our own models for creating excellent art. Funding has to be accessible to a diversity of artists and organizations on all levels. And this isn’t about scaling up, because a company doesn’t need to be the Official National Theatre of the World to serve a large population, offer a public benefit, and ultimately do excellent work. What small organizations do need is sustainability, which comes from equitable public support programs with no bureaucratic nonsense.

Also extremely importantly, we must invest more in new work and emerging artists. From what I understand, Italian theatre culture is particularly guilty of this. Too many powerful arts institutes and funders consider new works too risky and stick to well-known classics. But all classics began as new works at one point. And all well-established artists were once just getting started. Not only that, but as much as I love the classics, if not done properly, they can feel irrelevant and inaccessible to many audiences, particularly at a time when so many institutions are trying to build new audiences. Investing in contemporary writers and emerging artists is a critical investment in the future of a healthy arts sector.

Was there a particular myth or legend that you grew up hearing about as a Sicilian-American child?

Mata and Grifone. I was absolutely enthralled by them as a kid. Every summer, my parents would take me to see the gigante & gigantessa during the Ferragosto celebrations in Messina. I think I probably had a dream at some point that morphed into a ‘memory’, but for some years I honestly believed that Mata and Grifone were about 100 feet tall and they were real giants. Of course, they are actually about 30 feet tall and they are in fact papier mache statues, but my imagination as a child just made them so much larger than reality. Mata and Grifone are now two of the main characters in my latest work for Trinacria, The Hades & Persephone Project.

The other one I always loved is the Cyclops of The Odyssey. There is a cave in Milazzo popularly called the grotto of Polyphemus, which is now closed to the public, but my mom used to tell me that when she was young it was used as a nightclub. I was pretty obsessed with that idea. In fact, my final thesis project of my masters at LAMDA was directing a production of Euripides’ play The Cyclops in a nightclub-like setting.

Let’s talk about your audiobook, Colapesce. What is special about this story and why it should be viewed as a must-read (or more appropriately, a must-listen) abroad?

The legend of Colapesce was the inspiration for the first ever Trinacria production (2016’s La Storia di Colapesce). The original myth is about a young fisherman’s son from Messina named Nicola who swims so much everyone calls him ‘Colapesce’ (Cola the Fish). The king challenges him to dive deeper and deeper, throwing his ring, his goblet, and his crown into the sea for Colapesce to retrieve, but while he’s down there he realizes the island of Sicily is resting on three columns, one which is strong, one which is weakened, and one (under Messina) which is at the brink of collapse. The final time Colapesce dives into the Strait of Messina, he never resurfaces, and legend has it he is still holding up the island to this day. 

We took that story and very much made it our own. We began by expanding upon the legend of Colapesce, and adding interactions with other mythological figures related to the Strait of Messina. The original show, La Storia di Colapesce was created by our company members during the 2016 Sicilian residency, and it was ensemble-built, meaning we all poured our collective creativity into the piece without a single person as writer or director steering the ‘vision’. It was a very democratic process, and the result was an incredibly imaginative physical storytelling performance.

For the audiobook, our lead artist was Quinton Kappel who directed and edited. Four of the original company members worked together to adapt the script from the stage production (myself, Quinton Kappel, Max Sklar, and Sean Devare). We had a cast of seven actors, which included two new performers (Clara Francesca and Tristan Schaffer-Goldman), a new musician (an amazing cellist named Valerie Thompson), and a professional audiobook consultant (Becky Parker Geist of ProAudioVoices).

There’s beautiful original music throughout the entire audiobook, composed by Sean Devare and Dario Ladani Sanchez, both of whom worked on  the original production, along with three other musicians. All of the sound effects were also created by our performers, who recorded these amazing seascapes and soundscapes using just their voices and instruments. And most importantly, the piece is very grounded in our personal experiences in Sicily. When we first created the show in 2016, we asked nearly every person we met in Messina to tell us their version of the legend of Colapesce. So our version is a tapestry woven out of all those different versions we heard from the people in Messina, and I think it shows. It very much comes from the heart.

After the success of Colapesce, do you plan to delve into the audiobook medium again?

At the moment, we’re focusing most of our energies on planning for when the residency can happen again, and when we can get our shows back on stage. But you never know. The work with Colapesce isn’t over yet: we’re still hoping to share it with more audiences and possibly offer digital workshops related to the audiobook in the near future. 

We know that the Trinacria Theatre Company has sustainability at the core of its mission — have you partnered with any local businesses in Pezzolo or regionally?

During our first year, we worked very closely with the Enoteca Provinciale di Messina, a local network dedicated to sharing the excellences of Messina wine-making and gastronomy. They are housed within San Placido Calonerò, a beautiful and important local institute. San Placido Calonerò was originally a castle, which in the 12th century became a Benedictine monastery, and is now a state-owned agricultural technical high school. It’s a beautiful building with two cloisters which are among the only examples of Tuscan-style Renaissance architecture in Messina. During our first residency, we slept in the dormitories of San Placido Calonerò and I guess they were really excited by having us, because the following year, they began converting an unused wing of dormitories into a bed & breakfast. The B&B is called La Finestra di Carlo V and it’s now open to the public.

These are not businesses per se, but in 2018 we were excited to partner with a number of local artists who took part in our first ever Trinacria Arts Festival. We held a performance event that featured a number of local artists, such as a youth theatre group from Messina called EsosTheatre. They also invited us into their rehearsal room to study and take part in their unique style of improvisatory experimental theatre. We also collaborated with a Milazzo-based mask-maker named Nino Pracanica, and created a series of short semi-improvisatory performances in response to his masks and live music. We hosted a gallery exhibit of work by a local emerging photographer, Placido Carbone, and we also had performances from a local classical singer, Giuseppe Ferrera, and a Pezzoloti-American comedian, Ross Zagami. Furthermore, about a week after our actors left, one of the local performers we’d invited held his own concert in the piazza with his band. That’s exactly what I want to happen. I want the community to feel like, if Trinacria can make something awesome happen here, then I can also make something awesome happen here too. And then awesome things will keep happening.

How was the Open Creative Residency established? How will these residents be supported?

The first Trinacria residency was held in Summer 2016. We held auditions in New York City and Boston to select a company of eight multidisciplinary theater artists. These eight artists traveled to Sicily for a month to learn from one another as well as the community. They trained one another in a number of different theater techniques, everyone took Italian lessons every day (most of them didn’t speak any Italian), and we studied everything we could about the local culture. By the end of the month, we’d created this beautiful piece of theatre in Italian, which we then toured to five different locations throughout Messina. We continued with a similar process in 2018 and 2019 — we were on hiatus in 2017, while I was studying for my Masters in London. 

The Open Creative Residency is an extension of this residency program, but rather than selecting a company of actors to work on a show together, we’ve chosen four individual artists who will be working on their own independent projects during their three week residency in Sicily. Just as we’ve done in the past, they will live and eat together as a company, but during the day they’ll work independently in different spaces throughout the village. All of these artists were specifically chosen because engagement with the community is integral to their artistic process, so at various points throughout the residency they may work with members of the local community in specific, targeted ways, like interviews, workshops, readings, or open creation sessions. Each day they’ll have opportunities to share their creative practice with one another to get inspiration or feedback from their cohort. Finally, at the end of the residency, we will host a three day festival where their work will be shared openly with the public. It’s our first time hosting the residency this way, and I could not be more excited, especially considering what fantastic artists we’ve found.

Do you plan to perform future productions in mainland Italy?

We don’t have any specific plans for this at the moment, though we’d love to someday. We specifically design shows that are flexible for easy touring, so that they can be shared them far and wide. This goes hand in hand with with our mission of facilitating intercultural exchange and dialogue through our work. So, hopefully!

Can you provide any sneak peeks of future projects or productions? Where do you see the Trinacria Theatre Company five years from now?

We’re currently working on a new show, working title The Hades & Persephone Project, inspired by three interweaving love stories from Sicilian myth — Hades and Persephone, Mata and Grifone, and Lisabetta and Lorenzo. It’s a complex and large-scale project that we’re hoping will ultimately be a promenade performance, meaning it will lead audiences on a journey through time as they walk the streets of Pezzolo. The themes of these stories taps into serious issues of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, religion, and colonialism, but at its heart, the piece carries a hopefulness that love can overcome hate. We have an amazing team based in London that is working on this project. In early 2020 we were fortunate enough to receive public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and they were generous enough to extend our grant to the end of the pandemic. I cannot wait to see the light at the end of the tunnel so we can get back to this project.

Trinacria Theatre Company
A Trinacria Theatre Company night show.

In five years, I’d like to see some Trinacria shows touring globally, because our shows are not just for Sicilians or people of Sicilian heritage, but anyone who sees collective storytelling as an important part of building community. I’d like to see Pezzolo enriched by a more robust offering of civic and community activities organized by our artists, happening with absolute regularity. I’d like for our residencies to be zero-cost for participants, meaning we’re able to cover artists’ airfare to Sicily, making it a more accessible and affordable opportunity. And finally, I’d like to be opening the residency to more artists, working in a greater diversity of ways. Not just theater makers, but visual artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians — anyone who could benefit from some dedicated time and space to developing their practice and who can offer our community a chance to engage in their process. 

Five years is definitely too soon for this next part, but ultimately my dream is to create a small space in Pezzolo that’s open year-round to visiting artists, but is also a free space truly belonging to our community. A place where people can gather to chat, grab a coffee or ice cream, participate in a workshop, practice music with friends, borrow a book, contribute to a group exhibit, organize a food pantry, host an event, throw a dance party, whatever they need to do.

When the bar in Pezzolo closed over 12 years ago, I think that was the moment the village started to feel like a ghost town. These spaces of gathering are so important to healthy community life, far beyond just getting a coffee. I don’t love the idea of paying high fees to enter a space where we must be silent and stay behind the ropes and nothing feels like it’s ours. I think the perfect contemporary arts space should feel like a piazza — with kids running around and people stopping to chat around the edge of the fountain — which, don’t forget, is an art installation. A perfect space for the arts should be ever-changing and wide open and public. That’s the sort of space I’d like us to create. 

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