In June 2011, theatre workers at Teatro Valle staged a protest against the decision to make the previously state owned theatre a private enterprise of the city of Rome. Nine months on, the protest is still going on. Built in 1727, this was a theatre with a rich history – its current occupiers characterise it as a ‘house of revolution’: 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 in 1921 here and – ‘most importantly’ as they say – this was the theatre where Mozart cavorted 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 partitions in between). One of these – just big enough for a single blow up mattress, a book and a bottle of water – became my red velvet bedroom during my three-day stay at Teatro Valle Occupato last month.
I attended with the Fence – an ‘international network of playwrights and people who make playwriting happen’. The network exists largely thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of its members who find ways to keep it going by facilitating meetings around interesting occasions. The Fence 16 was facilitated by Claudia della Seta, an actress and theatre director based in Rome and Tel Aviv and a founder member of Afrodita Compagnia. The Fence 16 consisted of two phases – 1) a retreat in Claudia’s house in Tuscany and 2) a residency with Afrodita Compagnia at Teatro Velle Occupato. Since its occupation began, theatre workers who inhabit the building have made opportunities available for companies to take artistic directorship of the theatre on a week by week basis. Afrodita Compagnia’s week was 26th March – 2 April. Afrodita have chosen a theme for their week: ‘Masculine, Feminine, Love, Resistance’. A play called Non written in English and French by two Fence members Sara Clifford and Denis Baronnett was translated by Claudia into Italian and read as part of the residency. There was also a presentation from the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa curated by della Seta.
At this point in time the occupiers look tired – big black bags under their eyes – but they 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 and 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 Thomas Ostermeier and Ariene 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 sat around in the foyer on our last day together informally reading Trevor Griffiths’s play The Party chosen by the Fence founder Jonathan Meth as our present to the Valle, the occupiers spontaneously gathered around us. They told us that they wished 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 with the playwright integrated into the rehearsal process.
Although the terms ‘revolution’ and ‘community’ might have been tarnished by the latter part of the twentieth century in Europe, Teatro Valle have another project on their hands – to address the notion of language and its decolonisation from recent history. For them terms such as ‘meritocracy’, ‘popolo’, ‘liberta’, have been even more fatally contaminated by Berlusconi’s government. However, one is reassured by the fact Valle Occupato are never going through the motions but are 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.