What a week! Probably worth two or three weeks rolled into one - and that's only on the food front...
Phase 1: Tuscany
Beautiful sunny mornings. The smell of freshly brewed coffee. Distant horizons lined by Italian Umbrella Pine trees. Claudia's family holiday home is a proper Italian family home anticipating several generations of the same family around dinner tables and under the same roof. Around a dozen of us are comfortably accommodated here, and several are staying in an agriturismo up the road. The talk of theatre and playwriting is interlaced with occasional table-football playing, sunbathing and cooking - a single internet dongle doing the rounds between individual computers. Because The World Theatre Day is due on 27th March, Fence member Doug Howe is making a film which will also be screened at Teatro Valle. He splits up John Malkovich's official message for that day and asks us to deliver individual lines one by one in our own languages - in addition to English, French, Spanish and Italian, we also have Swedish, Bulgarian, Serbian and Hebrew in the mix. Doug picks interesting locations for us in and around the house - I end up squinting into the sun, my incidental anxiety-generated spikiness underlined by massive cacti behind me. Our Spaniard Beatriz Cabur, meanwhile, gets to compete with a smouldering flame in her frame.
Sarah G. and I had been tasked with making sure the work part of the meeting gets done - so we at first try to subtly keep things on track, make sure everyone gets a go at speaking about themselves and their work, schedule in some works in progress among members and allow space and time for Claudia, Sara C., Denis, Hilary and Sofia to work towards their presentation of Non. Very few of the people present have actually met each other before, even though the work on Non is a continuation of two previous Fence meetings. Sara C. is only able to join us two days after we have arrived, so she has to be brought up to date with what the group has been up to. At times it is very hard keeping things the British side of chaotic. Both Sarah G. and I do our best, though at times I realise the only option I have is to play the bad cop...
We get two readings out on Saturday afternoon: 1) An extract from Hotel Project which was written and directed by Beatriz and Doug in New York as an interactive performance and is now being re-written as a musical. They test it on us as they try and decide on the form of the piece and its revised ending. 2) Sarah G.'s monologue Red Shoes was originally presented last month at Theatre 503 as part of an Agent 160 showcase. Sarah is on the lookout for other fairytales to adapt and suggestions come in thick and fast especially since everyone is bowled over by the monologue (featuring a South London single mother caught up in the whirlwind of consumerist desire as it erupted rather violently last summer during the London riots and led her to a fatal pair of red Louboutin shoes).
Every evening we manage to also get in some heated discussions on our set topics of love, resistance and gender politics (though these are often quite spontaneous), and also on cultural difference - as this is quite a prominent feature of our group. But we also end up cooking some fantastic food for each other. Kazem's Iranian potato galettes (with whisky) prompted Beatriz to add a recipe section to a library she has been building during our Tuscany meeting so that all the references we invoked in our discussions could be subsequently accessed at our leisure.
On the morning of the last day we finally hear the complete reading of Non - a rare privilege as the Roman audience will only get extracts. The play concerns a fifty year old working class English woman N. who is about to commit suicide at the beginning of the play, but is interrupted in the act by the ghost of Sid Vicious who draws her attention to a TV ad which is playing a number N. had written with her French punk band in the 1970s. This prompts her to make a journey back to France and down the memory lane... There are moments of great wit and fantastic writing in the play, and the whole thing is all the more impressive being done as a joint project between two writers whose knowledge of each other's languages is limited.
We briefly vote for our favourite scenes and then disperse on our individual last minute missions. Doug, Beatriz, Sarah G., and I are taken to the beach by Fred, who then drives back for Mia and Sara C. Fred is our hero in every respect! Sarah G. and I do a beach version of her Ashtanga routine - which my body is extremely grateful for for a few days to come. Doug and Beatriz disappear in a long walk. Mia eventually disappears to Sienna (thanks to Fred who drives her to the station) and six of us are neatly packed into Sofia's four-seater car and taken back just in time before she has to drive back to Rome.
And then it rains.
Phase 2: Rome
'Che casino!' - I believe is the right phrase in Italian for how our day started on Monday morning. The bus driver who is taking us ten minutes down the road to the local train station at 15 Euro a head is too early - not everyone's even arrived from their agriturismo bedrooms, let alone had coffee or breakfast. There's commotion about some male abuse of female toiletries. And then, when we are all finally together, our luggage on the bus and our bums on the seats, Fred and Denis are frantically climbing over the gates back into the house to retrieve Denis's computer he had left behind.
At the station, Sarah G. has her credit card stuck in a ticket vending machine, Beatriz has her money swallowed up and some of our travellers don't even manage to get a ticket at all. Once on the train, the conductor has to spend so much time with us solving our individual ticket issues he eventually lets Denis travel without one. As we draw nearer to Rome, conversations about gelato ensue.
Rome is hot, summery almost. Sarah G. takes us expertly around the streets of Rome, walks us all the way from Termini station to our destination Teatro Valle Occupato. Almost immediately, Fred procures and supplies us with the theatre wi fi password. We are back in the civilisation. Claudia and Sofia turn up and take us for lunch to a local restaurant which has a deal with the occupiers. After lunch, I have my very first coffee of this year! We are in a cafe which does the best coffee in Rome - and I can now vouch that this is indeed the case.
In Rome we are joined by Saskia from Holland and later in the evening by Jonathan Meth.
In the days that follow we try and work out exactly what is going on in Teatro Valle on the level of pragmatic detail. This is the story I manage to infer from all the information I have gathered:
In June 2011, theatre workers at Teatro Valle staged a three day protest against the decision to make the previously state owned theatre a private enterprise of the city of Rome. Built in 1727, this was a theatre with a rich history - its current occupiers characterise it as a 'house of revolution': this was the first theatre where women performed on stage in Italy, political prisoners were hiding here during the Second World War, a fight broke out around the premiere of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author here and - 'most importantly' as they say jokingly - this was the theatre where Mozart fucked in the boxes! The boxes are a distinct feature of the theatre whose auditorium consists entirely of boxed up spaces accommodating four chairs each. There are three tiers of boxes with 27 boxes in each tier, and a fourth additional one with 54 individual seats (without divisions between them). These became our red velvet bedrooms during our stay - just big enough for a single blow up mattress, a book and a bottle of water.
The occupation of the theatre has continued since June last year till the present day. Though the occupiers look tired - big black bags under there eyes - they keep going and are tireless in their attempts to explain to us what they are doing and make us feel comfortable in their midst. So, 'occupare', they tell us, has two meanings in Italian - 'to occupy' and 'to take care'. For them the notion of 'taking care' is a defining principle of their occupation, and interestingly the occupiers have predominantly been women. There is apparently a Valle Occupato baby on the way too... Politically, they are keen to develop a model of governance that is entirely from the bottom up rather than top down. This means that they do not vote in order to make decisions, they discuss issues until they all reach a consensus on what to do. This is taking time but they seem comfortable with the idea. Currently they are writing their Statute, although they have defined five principles which they all feel passionate about: Agora (forum), Training, Vocation, Common Good and Eco-Sustainability. They have had messages of support from Ostermeier and Mnouchkine, and they have also included major Italian figures in their workshops and forum discussions. One of their first invited speakers was the Italian philosopher Federica Giardini and the playwright Fausto Paravidino. Currently, the occupiers have one clear aim - to raise the 250,000 Euro they need in order to become a foundation and therefore acquire a legal status. So far, they have collected 80,000.
As some of the Fence members sit around in the foyer on our last day together informally reading Trevor Griffiths's play The Party chosen by Jonathan Meth as our present to the Valle, the occupiers spontaneously gather around us. They tell us that they wish to foreground playwriting and to change the system by which the Italian playwrights have had their work commissioned up until now through contests, judged by independent panels. We were told of an informal survey which highlighted that, among 122 playwrights, the only thing they had in common was the experience of solitude - clearly a far cry from the kind of work being done in the UK and elsewhere to integrate the playwright into the rehearsal process, or indeed even from the Fence whose raison d'être is networking between writers... Another one of their concerns, inspired by Giardini, is to address the notion of language and its decolonisation from recent history. Terms such as 'meritocracy', 'populo', 'liberta', they tell us, have been completely contaminated by Berlusconi's government...
It is interesting that my journey through Europe started with the conference in Ghent where I spoke about the power of theatre to create a community - and to resurrect and rehabilitate that term after its post-communist demise. At the end of my trip I was confronted with three more models of community-building and reinvention of governance models:
1) There's Valle Occupato, genuinely doing things differently. Reinventing ways of relating with each other, with their culture, with their audience. Allowing things to grow organically. Believing in the possibility of genuine consensus - whatever it takes.
2) There is the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa. 'An island of sanity' as they call themselves. A group of artists braving some serious storms in order to bring together the communities otherwise divided by history and politics. They introduced themselves to us as people who sometimes violently disagree with each other but who still love and respect each other. They agree to disagree, and they believe in the importance of being together.
3) And then there's the Fencee, which Beatriz, on her first encounter with it, summarised as an 'elephant'. Its constituent parts are different, it looks different from different angles, its members don't even all have a language in common, and yet it is an entity.
All three would suggest that we are moving towards a modus operandi which is closer to an improvisation than a tightly directed show. Or in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, we are moving towards 'being together' rather than essentialised 'togetherness'.