This article is part of the printed publication "ETC Journal 2020/2021".
I don’t know if this is the case for any of you, but my social life is essentially divided into two parts: the one that is entirely made up of the theatre world, and the other that has absolutely nothing to do with theatre at all. The latter is made up of relatives and old friends. When we see each other we usually talk about politics, football, pandemics, cooking and perhaps even cinema (not always in this order). We usually meet over lunches, dinners, drinks or FC Barcelona matches: but anything social happens far from a theatre, because these people just don’t usually go there. That is, unless I invite them personally or gift them a ticket for Christmas. At least even if they don’t want the gifts, they can’t send them back to Santa Claus... because Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
I don’t know if this is the case for any of you, but my best friend never comes with me to a company meal after a performance because the conversation tends to pivot around anecdotes about everybody but him. My neighbour, who lives on the floor below me, never complains to me about the floorboards creaking (also because I’m never at home), but complains that when he goes to the theatre he never understands anything. My aunt believes that being a dramaturg means writing dramatic things which make people cry. I think this might be because my grandmother cried a lot when she found out I wanted to devote myself to theatre.
I don’t know if this is the case for any of you, but when I think about all of this, it is apparent that there is an enormous division between theatre and society. If my social life is divided into two halves which never mix with each other, it’s because the theatrical half thinks that the other half is a bit ignorant, a bit materialistic and a bit vulgar. The normal half, though, thinks that the other half lives completely outside reality, complicates everything way too much, and is vaguely elitist. I’m not saying this is true, of course – I’m saying that this is often the way these two halves think of each other.
“I don’t know if this is the case for any of you”... looking at this phrase which you’ve just read, did you not think that I’ve taken for granted that this article was only going to be read by you – people in the theatre industry? How about everyone else, the vast majority of the population? Those who have absolutely no interest in theatre because they believe that theatre has no interest in them? And how can I convince them otherwise if they don’t read this, or if they don’t come to the theatre to see what I do?
Ever since starting work at the Emilia Romagna Teatro (ERT) – a national theatre subsidised by public money – I have been principally concerned with just that, namely: my responsibilities towards the audience. What can I, as an artist, do for them? How can I be useful to a society that is paying me out of their own pockets? I have no answers (possibly because I’m not sure there are any), but I can put forward two or three reflections I’ve been working on over the years.
For a while now at ERT we’ve been working alongside schools in the region on a project for 15- to 19-year-old pupils. “Classroom Plays” are small-scale plays, performed by two actors directly in schoolrooms, that look (seriously, but with a good dose of humour) at subjects which the students deal with in their everyday school lives. This sort of theatre for young people is not just about the longer-term idea of forming future audiences; these girls and boys are also our audience of today – with the interests, fears and problems of today. It is now that we need to make them understand that theatre can be relevant to their own reality. Take the way we create a story about ourselves on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok…): the way we design our profiles, the choice of words we use to describe ourselves, the images that portray us – all these things are the basis of dramaturgy.
Because if it is, indeed, true that we are all creators, then the big problem is that we are often barely conscious of that which we are creating or of the tools we are using to create it. So maybe that is what we could do for theatre: provide tools to help us be conscious of the things we do every day. Fine, theatre probably can’t solve life’s big problems: how to make the person you like like you, FC Barcelona’s crises, or working out what love is…; but it could, for example, help you form thoughts on concepts like “image”, “crisis”, “love”. Changing your forma mentis, your way of thinking.
So it’s not just a question of themes, but of the form in which certain themes are expressed. It is, therefore, a question of language. I’m not talking about word choice: I’m talking about a way of communicating that is fundamental for maintaining the interest of a spectator. It is necessary to find the delicate balance between a language that is mutually comprehensible, and a language that moves you, that amazes you, that opens up a world, that gives you an imaginative shock. The case with young people is striking, but it goes without saying that this isn’t just about them. A theatre which wants to be useful at interpreting what is going on outside the theatre cannot speak in a language that is completely divorced from reality.
A language, though, is a bit like love – you can’t learn it by reading books alone. You can study grammar at a desk, but to give any sense to what you’re saying you have to use it; you have to make mistakes, throw yourself into the dark, even if it is uncomfortable and inconvenient (the same goes for love). This is a huge problem for a society that lives in terror of leaving its comfort zone. The theatrical (and forgive me this term, it’s almost as awful as FC Barcelona’s game has been the last few months) device is another interesting point. Because, on the one hand, it obliges spectators to abandon the comfort of their seat in the stalls; and, on the other, suggesting that theatre as something other than “classical theatre”, often in places that are nicer than theatres, allows us to include those people who don’t usually go because they are bored by theatre. And maybe (and I mean maybe. And I’ll even add a double question mark ¿?) interactive, immersive, participative theatre can actually do a good job of really exercising one’s own autonomy – which is constantly sold to us as “freedom”, even though it’s nothing more than sinister individualism. Obviously, the risk is that participation ends up, on the contrary, in an exploitation of spectators, who believe they are being active when the only things they are activating are the usual mechanisms of masked passivity. How can we avoid this? Spectators need not only to be physically active, but also to be constantly aware of what they are doing, and why – and of the meaning of the “why”. By being involved, we assume a different attitude: we interact with different bodies, we realise that what we are doing and what we are saying have repercussions on what others say and do. And so we become, in a way, responsible. Naturally, we are also responsible when we sit quietly in the stalls: the actors always feed off the atmosphere the audience creates in the room, and the audience knows it. But it’s not just about knowing: to be conscious of our own activity we must live the experience of our own activity. And just as with learning a language, you have to speak it and practice it, we have to literally experience our own limits (it goes without saying that the same goes for love...!).
Something similar could explain what is going on with theatre online. Theatre is mostly based on the physical presence of people, and a play that is streaming risks reducing theatre to a flat problem of vision and hearing. So what can we do? Today many people ask themselves if we can allow ourselves to let go of the online theatre, in a time when that would mean giving up a large part of the possible activity for theatres, companies and actors who are already near the end of the line. Perhaps it’s not necessary to push actors who are already depressed towards suicide. It’s not like digital technology itself is all bad (as nothing in and of itself is… apart from Real Madrid), and it had started being integrated into theatre even before the pandemic. Today it allows us, for example, to access huge numbers of audience members who don’t go, wouldn’t have gone and probably still won’t go to the theatre. It depends, however, on what you do with it. Certainly you’re not using it well if the video you broadcast is essentially just an alternative to the live show, whilst showing a far greater effectiveness, efficiency and economy of effort for the audience. It seems to me that it can be used well if it is capable (just as any language should be capable) of making a self-critical gesture towards itself, admitting its own insufficiency with regards to physical presence, and including that in the conversation as precisely that: an absence. If it so desires, theatre online can open up, from a really interesting point of view, a critical discussion on image and its relationship with the non-present body. And, above all, it can bring to life for the spectator the experience of that absence, and all the limits which this awful absence is forcing on theatre. It might seem complicated, but it is really quite simple. It is merely a question of including the reflection of the discussion within the discussion itself. What does that mean? That that which I say should make us think not just about what I say, but also about how I say it. And, above all, about the act itself of saying it.
But the act of saying it is not something we can just talk about: being an act, it needs to be done and lived. And here we find ourselves: if the theatre is indeed unique amongst the arts in that it allows the spectator to have a real experience generated by the meeting and/or clash of words, images and the physical body, then we have enormous potential at our disposal. We can carry the spectator towards an experience that’s not just about theatre and its contents, but also – and above all – about its forms of communication and its languages. An experience which takes place in the here and now, but that is also about all the environments and moments in our daily lives, because our own daily lives are full of communication, crises, images, bodies and – I hope for your sake also – love. Theatre can help people live better – but how do we get them to understand that?
Now please don’t worry, even though even in 2020 I insist on cheering on FC Barcelona, I’m not a poor, naive, miserable idealist. I know extremely well that changing the perception that society has of theatre is a tremendously complicated process which involves many factors: institutions, the media, production and promotion departments, prices, etc. However, for that small bit that we as creators can do, maybe we can try to recuperate the communication and trust that’s been lost between theatre and society, even perhaps by way of those very same factors: speaking a language that is recognisable without insisting it is the only one – which means being inviting without being complacent; calling on the audience to be active without exerting an authoritative power over them while also favouring their experience and, at the same time, the reflection on their experience; underlining that the theatre is all about presence and so desperately needs the presence of people. Above all, it needs the presence of my best friend, my neighbour, my aunt and perhaps even my grandmother… who I have loved with all my heart, and have never yet managed to bring to the theatre.
Translated by Susannah Tresilian
Playwright, director and theatre scholar, obtaining a Ph.D. in Theatre Theory at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with a period of studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is currently resident artist at ERT Emilia Romagna National Theatre and member of the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya’s Dramaturgy Committee. He’s professor for the École des maîtres edition 2020/2021. He wrote, among others: Variazioni sul modello di Kraepelin (awarded by Theatertreffen Stückemarkt Berlin 2009; Prize Marisa Fabbri 2009; Prize de les Journées de Lyon 2012), Ritratto di donna araba che guarda il mare (Prize Riccione 2013), Sweet Home Europa and Menelao. Recently he has written and staged: Ein Porträt des Künstlers als Toter (Münchner Biennale and Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2018) and Lorca sogna Shakespeare in una notte di mezza estate (ERT, 2019). In 2018 he received the Prize “Hystrio for dramaturgy” for his artistic activity. His plays have been presented in various international seasons and festivals and have been translated into Catalan, Chinese, English, Estonian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish. Editions of his plays are available by Einaudi in Italy and Actes Sud in French, among others.
Top picture: Lorca sogna Shakespeare in una notte di mezza estate (Lorca dreams of Shakespeare in a Midsummernight), written and directed by Davide Carnevali ©Francesca Cappi
Profile: ©Pino Montisci