What I am about to tell you is a story about theatre and its studies, but also an interesting one per se, which concerns the foundations of memory: the relationship – very different from the one we are used to –, that several years ago developed between a group of scholars and some performers. Between study and practice. This story, however, must be recounted starting from the previous experience of these scholars, one that was also anomalous.
Pupils of Giovanni Macchia, a renowned scholar on French studies passionate about theatre, most of them cemented their relationship while participating in an ambitious project conceived by Ferruccio Marotti: a vast documentary survey of theatre in many volumes, for the publisher Il Saggiatore, which never saw the light of day. It was a relatively large group, which also included Nicola Savarese and Clelia Falletti, though also for reasons of space I will only talk about a few of its members: Fabrizio Cruciani, Franco Ruffini (a physicist who switched to theatre studies), Ferdinando Taviani. Together, they made up a group within the group and were also its most influential members. What was essential, in fact, was precisely the variety of such an environment, formed by very different personalities.
The collaborative work favoured a relationship that was unusual in the humanities: it consisted in reading, discussing, and exchanging ideas in a common physical space, where the members of the group all worked on a daily basis. They also shared a combative vision of performing arts studies, which led to the involvement of Claudio Meldolesi, also a pupil of Macchia, who was not part of Il Saggiatore’s project. Meldolesi had graduated as an actor from the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica, was engaged in intense political activity with extreme left-wing groups and had developed a militant reflection on the art and role of actors. It is fair to say that all four became the most eminent scholars of their generation. They should not be mythicised, but they were extraordinary people (I am speaking of them in the past tense because Cruciani, Meldolesi and Taviani passed away, all three prematurely). It was an excellent group, and a group of peers, a rare phenomenon, with a great impact, which was also feared.
The turning point in the practice of theatre came in the early 1970s in Rome when Cruciani, Ruffini and Taviani, not yet thirty, came into contact, again through Marotti, with the then very young Odin Teatret, a Danish anomalous avant-garde group, directed by an Italian, Eugenio Barba, a pupil of the great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. Unlike so many, they were not struck by aesthetic or technical novelties, but by something else, a different way of doing theatre: as a group, for example; by the fact that its complex activity was not just aimed at performance; actors received different training, and the kind of commitment was different for everyone; finally, they had a particular relationship with the audience. This perspective, which focused on aspects that for other observers were secondary, allowed the development of an equal form of collaboration.
In 1974 the Odin, like other innovative theatres and theatre-makers, decided to travel for a long period to places far from where the theatre was based. The group stayed in Salento for some months – the Italian region looked nothing like what it does today: women were dressed in black, there was poverty, and loneliness. Together with others, such as Savarese, Taviani stayed with the group, experiencing all the problems its members had to deal with. Taviani joined the Odin as a literary advisor: not a collaborator, but a member of the group, and gained an inside detailed knowledge of life, of small and big problems. And of art, of course. The relationship with the Odin – already famous, and soon to be very famous – is, however, perhaps the least interesting part of the story of the four, or of the larger group of scholars who gathered for Il Saggiatore’s project. Nonetheless, it was a catalysing relationship, and for this reason, it is worth mentioning it. Even more important was the connection with other theatre groups, of different ages and styles. In the mid-1970s, in fact, a truly remarkable period began, not only in Europe but worldwide: suddenly countless young and very young theatre groups emerged (not companies, but groups, i.e. people who came together for a long time and not for a single performance). Many of them lasted only a few months, but as a whole they constituted an impressive phenomenon, particularly in Italy, a country torn apart by right-wing bombings and left-wing terrorism. Cruciani, Meldolesi, Ruffini and Taviani closely observed this phenomenon, characterised by very different and intertwining tendencies, and, as scholars, were part of it. Savarese founded his own group – he was also an actor. Meldolesi, whose ties with the Danish group were the least direct, wrote that “thanks to Odin we have understood how it is possible to become brothers of performers”. They were not, therefore, simply participating observers, they were actually profoundly involved, despite their roles being clearly distinct. There is a difference, although this is not always understood. What interested some in particular was, strangely, the human element: the fact that this involvement was also a work relationship was a secondary aspect. Especially Taviani and Cruciani would offer their advice on performances, political strategies, and on the everyday problems that theatre groups always have. It was advice from friends, not “godfathers”, even though the word friendship might not be appropriate. Indeed they were scholars (excellent scholars) and related to the groups as such, respecting the specific role of artists and never pretending to be artists themselves.
Their involvement was not limited to the thriving scene of the 1970s, it continued throughout their lives.
Here I have spoken of the relationship with groups, for the sake of brevity and because it was a particularly positive one, but for Taviani, and above all Meldolesi, the relationship with different artists was just as important, and it entailed the same methods and sensibilities. These scholars never worried about formalising their way of being with regard to living theatre, which was revolutionary at the time and still is – totally foreign to any current way of reasoning.
I will try to summarise it using three key words (three plus one, actually), and some examples.
The words are: participation, experimentation, testimony. Participation: I have already touched on this point. Following Odin in Salento in the early 1970s did not mean taking part in an interesting tour, but working hard, with no personal gain, with all sorts of difficulties, including logistical ones, to observe a theatre group renowned for technical perfection recycle itself as a group of rough clowns, in wild street parades for an audience of peasants. For some it was a small revolution, for others a betrayal of art. In the following years large theatre meetings were held, sometimes organised by the Odin, sometimes by others, in which actors – or very young aspiring ones – taught themselves how to use stilts and learned training methods, exchanging poor skills, working round the clock. They would create large joint events in the streets. The group of scholars followed and participated. I watched Taviani – I was a student, he my dreaded professor, so I was very impressed – walk around as a sandwich man displaying the sign announcing the events of the day. Another important aspect was the fact that these scholars were always present – with what can only be defined as a militant presence – at some specific festivals, during which they addressed spectators and performers with new types of lectures (I am thinking of Ruffini) or testing different ways of analysing, “anatomising” and presenting theatre groups (for instance, the activity of Cruciani at the Santarcangelo Festival).
The second word is anticipated by the memory of these activities: experimentation. To exemplify it, I will leave aside the circle of Barba, of the Odin, of the theatre groups, a conspicuous group but not an exclusive one, to talk about the research carried out by Meldolesi together with a formidable Neapolitan actor, Renato Carpentieri. It was a joint project, involving acting and study, on the great Italian actors of the second half of the 19th century. The year was 1983. In 1971, Meldolesi had published an important book on Gustavo Modena, a great actor and revolutionary. Perhaps it was the second aspect that most interested Meldolesi. The results of the experimentation carried out in the 1980s were a performance, with Carpentieri as actor and Meldolesi as dramatist, conferences, meetings, debates. For Carpentieri this was a small turning point. For Meldolesi a different way of thinking about Gustavo Modena and the theatrical period of the “grande attore” (of great actors, an expression referring to the Italian theatre of the second half of the 19th century, ed.). There is, in fact, another fundamental word: outcome, i.e. the outcome that these experiences of participation and experimentation had in terms of research. Becoming familiar with the life of certain groups was what allowed Taviani to overturn the usual way of viewing the Commedia dell’arte, his main field of study. It prompted him to search for ways of life and production, and to investigate certain techniques, in the attempt to understand why intellectuals, bourgeoisie, commoners, girls brought up to be courtesans, preferred to gather together in “fraternal companies” and travel the world acting using masks: to escape dark times, wars, predefined walks of life. Insider knowledge of the life of companies that come together for long periods of time is more useful for understanding the theatre of the past, and perhaps also that of the present, than watching a great number of plays. The quality of a relationship as opposed to the quantity of knowledge: this one of the most important lessons to be learned looking at the work of these scholars.
Experimentation, on the other hand, meant putting oneself at risk, not being afraid of compromising oneself with little known theatrical experiences or ones that were not accepted, becoming involved in activities parallel to one’s studies. It meant developing the strength required by courage. All four, either openly or simply providing their opinion, worked with more or less young theatre groups from the point of view of dramaturgy, an activity far removed from the ordinary and accepted activities of a scholar, who is expected to deal with the past and to observe, analyse, judge, label and systematise the present, not become involved to the point of being passionate. When they wrote, providing a general description, or analysing nascent phenomena, they always did so from the inside (Meldolesi, for example, was one of the first to talk of what today goes by the name of social theatre; Taviani wrote what is perhaps the first important article on Armando Punzo and the now famous Compagnia della Fortezza; Cruciani published a book, together with Clelia Falletti, on street theatre; Ruffini wrote about the very special theatrical “school” invented by Barba). They were not directors, nor were they judges or critics. What interested them was not naming, cataloguing, creating hierarchies. I would say that they were attracted by the pure life, in itself, of theatre.
And here I come to the last word, testimony. It should have been the focus of this short contribution, but this world would not have been comprehensible without the rest. Such an intimate and political relationship with protagonists of the world of theatre contributed to accounts from within. Their peculiar and constant attention resulted in very sharp writings, theoretical reflection, even philosophical ones, on the problem of “acting”. These scholars took part in conferences and round tables with sometimes contentious contributions. Articles and books were published, I could list many. Some dealing with situations, theatre groups, people, who otherwise would have disappeared without leaving any trace. What developed and took shape in different ways is the most important element of theatre: memory. What is truly unique, however, is the way discourses overlapped, the fact that it is not possible to distinguish between books gathering debates, reviews or stories, and “study” books: in this fraternal proximity, an unusual way of looking at the past flourished, which became a testimony to the present.
In 1986, the four founded an important journal, Teatro e Storia, whose editorial team is now in its third generation. Many aspects of the first generation’s way of working are unrepeatable. Many were personal. Some have survived: not models, but touchstones for future generations, particularly regarding the kind of relationship between research and living theatre. As a model it is unrepeatable, because of the rare human and intellectual qualities of the four, and because of the times in which they lived, so different from our own. However, we have inherited something. We may say it is above all an uncomfortable memento, a way of thinking, and perhaps a sensibility.