Why theatre? Because in a way theatre is something ‘stupefying’ (It.: stupefacente). I use it here with the double meaning the word has in Italian: as an adjective, from the Latin stupefacere, i.e. “rendering speechless with astonishment, filling one with utmost wonder”, and as a noun, “a natural or synthetic substance that alters the state of consciousness and that, after repeated consumption, causes a condition of physical and mental suffering resulting in addiction and increasing habituation.” I wrote this down once while travelling, after 30 days of touring ever varying cities, atmospheres and audiences: this is (was) the stupefying life of a time that consists of the instantaneous changes in pace that come with “being in the midst of things” (to quote our beloved Pasolini), from small independent theatres to the main stages of international festi- vals. When this dynamic comes to a halt, as it did in these two months of lockdown, we are thrown into a state of ‘physical and mental suffering’: after the first astonishing loss due to abstinence, one starts looking for surrogates/artistic formats that are adapted to the altering of this socially solipsistic and infected context. Theatre has the athletic capacity to reinvent itself, it’s a phoenix that rises from its own ashes.
We feared habituation, but now that it’s impossible to tell how we will emerge from the pandemic – whose conditions were created by neoliber- alism, public health cuts and nervous overexploitation – our senses have become hyperactive and our minds ‘high’ on pressing questions: we could emerge definitively lonely, aggressive and competitive or with a great desire for embraces, for solidarity-based sociality, contact, equality? The virus is the condition for a mental leap that no political preaching of any kind could have caused. Equality has re-taken (on one side) centre stage. Let’s imagine it as the starting point for the theatre that will be!
On the other side, in these ‘dark times’, under the surface, sovereignism is simmering with nostalgic glances at past regimes: the pandemic offers the perfect breeding ground for new intolerances and anti-democratic abysses. It’s an ideal pretext to hush up the already scandalous hushing up of the issue of migrants, war refugees, land-grabbing, of those without shelter or proper passport … To set out again in this worrying panorama it’s truly unavoidable to ask oneself: “why theatre?” Or possibly: why do we obstinately insist on wanting to make theatre, while we could do voluntary social work for so many invisible people, that are now living in even worse conditions? The temptation to leave everything behind is strong, but then we feel how powerful our ‘dependence’ is and how – after thirty years – theatre might, for us, be the (only) way to really, fully, ‘be’ in this world. If we would disappear, we would play into the hands of the right wing parties that, in Italy, demand cuts in culture to face the crisis. It’s an old story, scenting of smoke from the books burnt during Nazism, but in today’s desert everything blossoms again and is analysed. In this time and space deprivation, dictated by the virus, we realise that all the theatre that has been made, is behind us, crystallised, “in the amber of the moment” to quote Kurt Vonnegut: so more than a restoration, it might be the chance for a relaunch, “Quit and restart!” Cleaning, weeding out the rotten parts, making use of the crisis that in this ‘new dark age’, weighed down by hypertrophic state structure, tends to generate further media toxicity.
The chain of choices we’ll have to face regarding making theatre will unavoidably be linked mostly to committing to solidarity and renouncing what is established. It will take a lot of effort, but it’s also a great opportunity that living with the virus grants us. We say this because we cannot resign ourselves to mere artistic survival, to meaning- lessly keeping on our feet only to keep receiving grants, to struggle just to have our name appear in the umpteenth festival… That’s simply not enough. We want “a good life,” as Judith Butler writes, to slow down and redesign the same creative processes, using practices based on solidarity, sensitive to the environmental alarms, and to make something happen on stage that, beyond the aesthetic research, might ‘serve’ politically. And theatre, precisely because of its intrinsically communal nature, can and has to be seen once again as the home base for this necessity. There where bodies are subject to political control, gestures and bodily performances by which individuals express opposition or a kind of reciprocity enter the domain of the political act. This is what Butler calls ‘perceived democracy’. If biopolitics can only be understood through a microphysical analysis of power, then research of the perceivable forms of rising up and the rejection of inequality, necessitate a microphysics of resilience, also in its artistic forms. We have attempted this in the past with the Antigone project, voicing the protest of a new generation of ‘without-names’…
We are trying it now, for example, by reimagining a festival we have been advised to cancel but that, instead, we keep weaving together with the local community, precisely as a social experiment of co-management of allocated space and time that we are living. Aims: we have to train our- selves to deal with changes and uncertainty. We were taught to think of darkness as a place that’s full of danger and even death. But darkness can equally be a place of liberty, fantasy and equality. Those who already live in the margins know how to find new balances, darkness is threatening to those who are privileged, those who aren’t used to feel ‘not-so-welcome’ or dangerous … Let us practice, instead, being last.