10 September 2017

All the Town’s a Stage

Some tell their stories in kitchens, warming hands and souls over coffee; others write confessions.  For decades, the residents of the tiny Tuscan town of Monticchiello have turned their lives into theater.  Each year, they gather to discuss art and their world until they land on a topic that reflects their most recent, urgent concerns.  Word by word, they push and pull, challenging one another as they shape a production.  All the world’s a stage, but in Monticchiello that truism is movingly real, especially because these days its aging resident-players have more exits than entrances.

That’s how Manohla Dargis introduced her review of Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s 2017 documentary film Spettacolo in the New York Times.  The review, however, doesn’t say very much about the phenomenon, called il spettacolo, or ‘the show,’ ‘the performance,’ or ‘the spectacle,’ by the townspeople of Monticchiello, Italy.  I was intrigued enough to try to find out more about this 50-year-old tradition.

Some background first: Monticchiello is in the Val d’Orcia of Tuscany, a little over 75 miles south of Florence.  (Tuscany, in north-central Italy, sits just below the cuff of the boot, along the west coast of the country on the shores of the  Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas.  Monticchiello is located in the east of the region, near the border with Umbria.)  A tiny hillside village with a population of about 200, Monticchiello is old, probably originally Roman with records of its existence dating from AD 973, over a millennium ago; the oldest structures in the town are its thick, steeply-angled walls and their crenellated towers, and the transitional Romanesque-Gothic Church of Saints Leonard and Christopher which both date back 850 years.  It gets rather short shrift from tourist guides, passing mention overshadowed by Florence and nearby Siena (40 miles to the northwest), home of the famous Palio horse race—though many sites I read commended the town for wandering quietly and enjoying an unharried few hours.  It’s a slow-paced little village with a single trattoria, a couple of dozen medieval buildings of tan stone along cobblestone streets, all surrounding a tiny central piazza.  The town is well kept, with vases of flowers decorating most of the houses; the road up to the town, leading through the Porta Sant’Agata, the main gate in the medieval defense wall, is lined with tall, statue-like cypress trees.

In the middle of the last century, the region’s economic system, based on farming and sharecropping, was literally disappearing as young people moved away to find work; with the exodus, which severely depopulated the Val d’Orcia, the area’s social structure also began to collapse.  Born of this economic downturn that affected the whole country by the 1960s, what has become known as the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello (Poor Theater of Monticchiello) began in 1967.  It was prompted by the villagers’ need to discuss among themselves their mounting concerns and ideas on how to address them.  In a town with no theater, the people came up with the idea for a “theater in the square” (teatro in piazza) as a way to define a problem and present it to their fellow Monticchiellesi.  (“In Monticchiello we haven’t yet learned to say ‘We’re going on stage’; for everybody, taking part in one of our shows has always meant ‘We’re going into the square!’”) 

Monticchiello’s first efforts were very like historical pageants, a tradition of the mid-century that was based on the medieval tradition of historical and religious pageantry.  The performances focused on regional events like Siena’s Palio, but after about two years, the villagers shifted to telling their own stories, producing what the renowned Italian stage director Giorgio Strehler (1921-97) defined as autodramma, created, composed, and performed by the Montichiellesi themselves.  Monticchiello, which one on-line article dubbed “the town that plays itself,” has adopted Strehler’s term for its spettacolo.

(Historical pageants are still presented around the world, including the U.S., and the famous Oberammergau Passion Play has aspects that are also similar, especially in that the actors, musicians, and crew are all residents of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.  Historical pageants in the United States, such as Paul Green’s The Lost Colony in Manteo, North Carolina; The Ramona Pageant in Hemet, California; and Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina, are often called “outdoor dramas” and are usually performed in or near the historical locations where the stories take place.  Performers and other personnel may be local residents, professionals, or a mix of both; in any case, however, the scripts, though they may be revised from time to time, are set, often for decades.  The Teatro Povero di Monticchiello changes every year—and it’s their own stories the actors and writers are telling.) 

“Poor theater” is a term essentially unique to the spettacolo of Monticchiello—though it clearly has potential applicability to other theatrical efforts; I just haven’t heard of any.  The Monticchiellese idea of poor theater seems less related to Jerzy Grotowski’s use of the term than to an expansion of the notion of arte povera (“poor art”) of the 1960s and ’70s.  Grotowski (1933-99) spoke of poor theater in contrast to “rich theater,” the theater of spectacle, elaborate costumes, sets and props, background music, lighting and sound effects.  He promoted a simpler, “poorer” theater stripped of the artificial attributes and relying almost solely on the work of the actor and the direct communication between the performer and the spectator. 

Arte povera describes an Italian art movement in which the artists rejected traditional art media and used humble, or poor, materials such as mud, feathers, food, found objects, and scrap.  Practitioners of arte povera stressed the connection of the work with the environment in which it was created and eschewed the formal rules and conventions of high art; ordinariness, both of materials and of subject, was more significant than aesthetics and abstract beauty.  The everyday was what was important and simplicity and directness replaced complexity and symbolism.  As I understand both arte povera and the descriptions of the creative process for the Monticchiellese spettacolo, the parallel seems indisputable.  (Grotowski’s concept of poor theater may also have been derived from arte povera, or have been inspired by the same impulse, but he seems to have gone in a different direction and focused on different aspects of the artistic style.)

The spettacolo is performed over 20 days in July and August every year, on a stage set up since 2003 in the Piazza della Commenda, Monticchiello’s main square, surrounded by bleachers for 500 spectators.  (This  year’s show was presented from 22 July to 14 August 2017.)  The work, however, begins months earlier.  In January, the town holds assemblies at which the Monticchiellesi suggest themes for the year’s spettacolo and discuss the ideas that most concern their community.  Over time, the townsfolk have talked about such topics as economic adversity, political volatility, the painful memories of the Fascist era, the threat of Monticchiello’s becoming a toxic waste dump, women’s rights and divorce, the threat of tourism and modernity to the town’s heritage, and the disappearance of the younger generation.  The discussions are long and sometimes heated when controversial subjects, such as abortion, are debated; police are sometimes in attendance to prevent violence.  An unfortunate side effect of the diminishing younger population of the village is that fewer and fewer young Monticchiellesi participate in the assemblies; they prefer to devote themselves to remunerative work rather than volunteer efforts like the spettacolo

Once the theme is settled—obviously this kind of communal decision-making is only practicable in small towns like Monticchiello or the result would be chaos and acrimony—a small group of Monticchiellesi, chosen by the town, transforms the idea into a draft script reflecting the townsfolk’s own reality, their own existential concerns.  Every play is based on something real or legendary that took place in the village.  Then Andrea Cresti, 78, an amateur painter who was formerly an industrial-technical teacher, takes the rough script and refines and edits it.  It becomes a three-act play: the first act relates the theme to the past; act two brings it into the present; and in the last act, the characters examine and analyze the problem with respect to its transformations over time. 
This process, from town-hall meetings to final script, is the process definition of what Strehler meant by autodramma: a form of communal self-expression.  Recent spettacoli treated the difficulty of people on the fringes of society to survive (Notte di Attesa [“Waiting Night”], 2016) and the threat of the closure of the local post office to a village with no bank, school, or pharmacy, where mail represents a vital social and communal resource (Il paese che manca [“The Missing Village”], 2015).  This year’s play, MalComune [“Communal Pain”], treated the dilemma of the town’s rapidly disappearing culture and traditions and diminishing population.

Cresti, also the town’s lighting expert, has been leading the process and directing the production since 1981, and he starts the rehearsal period in April for the July opening.  Nearly everyone in Monticchiello becomes an actor, a crew member, a techie, or some other participant in the spettacolo.  The actors develop their characters through processes they basically invent themselves, refined over the years, without benefit of any techniques derived from any acting school or theory.  (It’s highly unlikely, for instance, that anyone in Monticchiello ever heard of the Polish theatrical director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski.  After the renown of the spettacolo spread, though, Monticchiellesi began to become enthusiastic about Italian film and theater artists such as Strehler, Federico Fellini, 1920-93; Luca Ronconi, 1933-2015; and Alberto Sordi, 1920-2003.)  The performers in the autodramma essentially invent their own acting style.  The remarkable thing in this process is that these performers are playing avatars of themselves—and the best amateur actors among them become “professional” versions of themselves.

Aldo Nisi, a retired teacher and late president of the Compagnia popolare del Teatro Povero di Monticchiello (People’s Company of the Poor Theatre of Monticchiello), the co-operative that sponsors the plays, said of the acting: “Actors are trained to invent roles, to tell what is not true and make it credible with fine skills.  Here no one is really an actor because everyone is voicing his own ideas, his own feelings, and is using his own language.”  Essentially, every actor composes her or his own dialogue during the collective drafting process.  (Nisi, who died at 87 in 2004, has given his name to the Aldo Nisi Conference Room of the Compagnia popolare.)  One of the performers in this year’s spettacolo declared (in my own rough translation):        
I do not feel like an actor, I feel like a person of Monticchiello who works for the community and expresses herself, and I want to, and when I have to say things I do not connect to, I do not say them.  For me, and for [all of] us, it is important that it is not really a theater, but something different, a free choice through which you put yourself on the stage.

At the same time, the townspeople are the spectators—remembering that the origins of the Teatro Povero wasn’t as entertainment for outsiders but as a vehicle for the people of Monticchiello to explore their own circumstances.  Of course, such a singular endeavor is bound to attract others, even to such a small place as Monticchiello.  Tourists come to town to see the spettacolo, which is performed in the ancient Tuscan dialect.  (I studied Italian briefly years ago, and I still remember one teacher telling us what Italians consider the most beautiful form of the spoken language: la lingua Toscana in bocca Romana—the language of Tuscany in the mouth of a Roman.)  The performance brings scholars, sociologists and anthropologists, theater students, laborers, vacationers, curiosity-seekers—amounting to some 4,000 spectators from Italy and abroad who venture into the town of 200 inhabitants.  (I tell you, the reports of this event make me want to go check it out myself.  Nearby Florence is one of my favorite cities in the world and I enjoy a nice Chianti Classico.  Summer in the Tuscan hills almost makes it irresistible.)  

While every play, particularly in the more recent years since the 1980s, treats a topic of current, even immediate, concern to the Monticchiellesi, the present-day issue at the center of each spettacolo is wrapped in an allegorical or metaphoric tale.  In MalComune (2017’s autodramma), for instance, the allegory was the story of a young couple anxiously awaiting the birth of triplets who will raise the village’s population to the level necessary to prevent a new law intended to eliminate it from official status from taking effect.  In Notte di Attesa (2016), the play dealing with surviving on the fringes, the fictional premise was a siege, with an army outside the walls, and the people inside; for Il paese che manca (2015), about the loss of town resources, the metaphor was the celebration of the 20th birthday of Gigino, the last person remaining in the village who would reach that age. 

The New York Times gave a description of the 1987 spettacolo that provides a good idea what one is like.  The story of Pane stregato was set in an age long ago, in the countryside of a kingdom made up of scattered farmhouses (like those of Monticchiello in times not too long past).  Strange things were happening in the fields: magic breadcrumbs planted in the earth produced giant versions of crops and grains, displacing native varieties.  The plot involved a witch, a young girl with strange allegorical powers, a peasant prince, and all manner of strange characters:

“Bewitched Bread,” the play that is to be performed 14 times this summer, was inspired in part by the wanderings of the Long Island garbage barge [the Mobro 4000, which sailed from Islip, New York, to Belize and back between March and October 1987 looking for a place to dump its load] as well as plans to bury poisoned refuse in the valley below the village.  The Monticchiello players took their own peculiar approach to environmental issues, and like many others before found difficulties not easily resolved.

. . . .

“We were having a hard time deciding what this year’s play should be about until we heard about the dumping plan, and then it was easy,” [Andrea Cresti] said.

As 10 or 20 people were gathered in the crypt of the 13th-century church last winter to discuss this year’s play, word arrived that Monticchiello’s valley of pastures and grain fields was being considered as site for the burial of toxic industrial wastes by the Tuscan regional government.

“We decided to use the play to defend ourselves,” said Mr.  Cresti, “but without simply turning it into a protest.  We talked about it until spring, and by then we knew we did not want to be like all those places turning away that famous boat full of garbage.  It is too comfortable to simply say, ‘Not here.’”

By April the Monticchiello players had hit on a formula, an allegorical fable about peasants who go to a witch for help in learning why their land is bearing strange fruit.  Then a king and queen have a hard time determining whether the creature responsible for changing the land is a benefactor or a villain.  The allegories are clear.  The resolution is forthrightly ambiguous.

“The play focuses on the moral ambivalence of man’s relationship to the environment,” said Mr.  Cresti . . ., who teaches business administration in a nearby town.  “It describes our schizophrenia when we feel that pollution is bad but cannot condemn the causes of pollution, automobiles and factories.”

. . . .

By law the Tuscan regional government was supposed to produce a plan in 1986 for the disposal of toxic wastes, 114,000 tons a year.  A one-year extension was granted on the deadline because almost every spot in this blessed region can, like Monticchiello, claim special dispensations for reasons of natural or man-made beauty.  A final decision is expected in winter, when the Monticchiello players will again be debating ways to express their ambiguities.

The Teatro Povero di Monticchiello won both the Ubu Prize (special category: for motivation, community participation, civic commitment, and poetic force), Italy’s most prestigious theater award, and the Hystrio Prize (for long-term achievement in theater) in 2011.  Some attendees return year after year because they see the Teatro Povero as a serial with 50 episodes. Missing  a spettacolo would be like skipping a chapter in a good novel.  After all, many of the characters are the same from performance to performance, some having appeared for over 20 years, often played by the same actors.  Certain recurring roles have become iconic, like a wise old peasant and a scheming matchmaker.  The plays never seem to the spettacolo’s fans to ossify with age because of the way they contemplate the present and the future while at the same time remaining anchored in the history of the village and the country.  Every year they explore in a social, political, and cultural context what it means to live as a human being not just in Monticchiello, but in the nation.  The Teatro Povero blossomed during the economic crisis of the ’60s and ’70s; the 80s and 90s, when everything in the region was seen as a salable commodity; and the tourist boom of the 2000s.  But some Monticchiellesi worry that the spettacolo is in danger of becoming a “living museum.”  Cresti feels that Monticchiello’s Teatro Povero will eventually go the way of many other long-lived traditions and wind down, but he hopes it won’t end long after it’s lost all meaning. 

The Teatro Povero has permeated the town’s whole life.  Even aside from occupying almost everyone’s days from January to August to mount the show, the project has spawned a number of related enterprises, including exhibits of art and photography around the town.  In 1980, Compagnia popolare del Teatro Povero di Monticchiello was formed under Aldo Nisi to produce the spettacolo every year and it essentially keeps the process organized.  It took over a former storage barn built in the mid-17th century as its office and home base, now called Il Granaio (The Barn or The Granary).  The cellar of the farmhouse next door has been converted into the Aldo Nisi Room, used for exhibitions, conferences, and the co-op’s formal meetings, as well as for village band rehearsals.  The Nisi Room houses the historical archive of the Teatro Povero and a significant proportion of its wardrobe. 

The Granaio has two functions.  Its larger space houses the Tepotratos Museum (for Teatro Popolare Tradizionale Toscano; or Traditional Tuscan Popular Theatre), a museum which belongs to the Teatro Povero, as the co-operative puts it, but is not a museum about the Teatro Povero.  The remainder of the barn is the seat of the activities of the co-op: it’s the company office; a newspaper shop; the village tourist office; an internet café with various media outlets; a support service for residents who need help with IT; and a buffet kitchen selling aperitifs and snacks.  It also houses the Teatro Povero Shop, an outlet for the sale of local products such as craft work, food products, and wine.  It functions as a general resource and gathering place for townspeople and visitors alike.

The same local food and wine products sold in the Teatro Povero Shop are also served in the Bronzone Tavern.  Named for a comic character in the very first spettacolo in 1967, the tavern is run directly by the Teatro Povero co-op.  It’s open for lunch and dinner during holiday weekends and when the spettacolo is in performance.  Bronzone in the play was a simple man of the people, with a decisive manner and straightforward values.  The dishes served in “his” tavern are of the same character, relying on the traditional cuisine of the Val d’Orcia, which UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 2004.  In addition to the Bronzone Tavern, the Teatro Povero has a new culinary experiment: Il Bronzino, a temporary restaurant on the sidewalk in front of its big brother that serves light meals at lunch Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays and lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays between 26 August and 3 September only. 

Readers interested in checking out the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello can contact the organization by telephone or fax at (+39) 0578 75 51 18; by e-mail at info@teatropovero.it, and by mail at Piazza Nuova 1, 53026 Monticchiello (Pienza), ITALY.  Reservations are recommended for the spettacolo, but they can be made on the ’Net as well as by phone; the progam’s website (in English), where directions and other information can be found, is http://teatropovero.it/en/.   

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