A chapter closing on Centro Living Europa?
An open letter to the residents of Rocchetta Ligure, citizens of Italy, my New York friends and my mother (2004):
It is often said that small towns suffer from a certain type of provincialism. But as a famous theatre director once said: generalisations are never true, they are too simple. I do agree but perhaps small towns can be a microcosm of a larger city, of a country, of the world.
So it is that I try to reflect on the last five years of the Centro Living Europa and our experience in Rocchetta Ligure in Val Borbera (Provincia di Alessandria), Italy. A story that is not yet over, whose end is still being written. We, The Living Theatre have been asked, rather told, that we will have to leave our beautiful residence here, that this "experiment' that we have been living these last 5 years must come to an end, sometime next spring.
The experiment: a world famous avant-garde theatre company; a diverse group of artists, pacifists, anarchists, single women and men, married couples and couples unmarried, hippies, gays, vegetarians, old people, young people, blacks, Italians, Germans, Americans and 'outsiders" are suddenly transplanted to the hills of Piemonte (northwestern Italy), to a small village town of a hundred persons. A town we would come to know for its own unity and divisions, its friendliness and coldness, its tolerances and intolerances, its human successes and failures, basically all that humanity can offer in its beauty and human shortcomings. In this experiment two different and unfamiliar worlds collide. Thus began a long process of strangers getting to know each other. We made some friends very easily and quickly. Some of us were reserved and shy, some making contacts easily, some less easily. And the same for the villagers; for me it was OK and "normal” that some people have yet to approach us and vice versa.
Perhaps it was easier on our part to “see” and comprehend the “others” of the village. I think it was more difficult for the villagers to understand us. My own mother thinks that as an artist I live on permanent vacation! We do not have regular 9 to 5, Monday to Friday hours; we do not live quite like other people. The mysterious and difficult process of art creation is perhaps a vague and cloudy process to the average 'non-artist'. It is this we have been trying also to shed light on; this has been the experiment.
Some of us work late into the small hours of the night; some of us don't show themselves outside of the house for days; others like myself come and go like a travelling salesman; strange friends in strange dress, piercings or tattoos come and go. For sure the people of the village felt somehow invaded, and perhaps they were not exactly consulted on the decision that we were to be inserted into their lives. Even in a small town the workings of the modern state can seem distant and less than participatory.
Shortly after our arrival we immediately began work on a new play on the experience of the local population of Rocchetta during WW II and the partisan resistance to fascism, the nazi occupation of the village and a famous battle against the Germans. Little did I understand that this was such a sensitive issue. History is often recorded through the lenses of the storyteller and just as families were often divided in those war years between difficult choices of survival, we see today varying interpretations of what happened to Italy during that violent and turbulent period. For us as pacifist and political artists it was a challenge to frame an armed struggle as pacifists; how could we interpret those events? Would I have picked up a gun and killed, if only to defend myself? So it was that we gathered material from the living sources we found at hand, for example a partisan commander, turned historian of that epoch, G.B. Lazagna. So we created the play, Resistenza, presented and refined it here in Rocchetta with open invitations to rehearsals to the villagers, and then we took it all over the world; to the outlying province, beyond into Italy, further afield to Germany itself, to Lebanon even, and then to New York. We were so proud to take the name of Rocchetta Ligure and its story to the world. Our home here and the contributions and generosity of the town made that possible.
But to give a fuller picture of the nature of the complexity of this story: in the local tobacco and sundry store you can buy calendars with a photo of Mussolini displayed each month. What might the consumers of those calendars think about our partisan play? Who are they who still love Mussolini? (This is no judgement on the vendors of the calendar; they just perhaps sell what sells).
Anyway life continued here in Rocchetta. Many of us were coming and going between New York, Berlin, Rome, (what a contrast of environments!) only returning for projects; other 'full-timers' staying, whose only residence was here in the village. Those like me who made their permanent home here had new challenges; trying to stay busy as artists; finding work as artists with little or no resources; feeling somehow guilty living in such a large and wonderful house with high expenses. (It is a large palazzo from the 1600’s. We live on the top two floors.) The problem of utilities surfaced here as the building is not adept for the cold months of winter and soon we were being confronted by the worries of the mayor's office over the heating bills even though the Provincial government was paying the bill.
Here were the beginnings of the future conflict we would have with the Comune. In the strange and often incomprehensible relation of the state bureaucracy in Italy; in the power struggle of partisan politics (the left versus right kind); in the struggle of control of resources between national, regional, provincial and local levels of government, we suddenly found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being a football in the power games of finance between the interested parties. At present this conflict has gone to court and provided the Comune the first “reason" for wanting us to vacate our home. (Last year we were issued various eviction orders.)
It is warranted to give some idea of our life and work in these years for I think it is not clear to many just how much has been possible for us to accomplish by the simple fact that we had a base of operations. In addition to creating the partisan resistance play, we created a street theatre version Resist Now for the crazy and intense days of G8 in Genova where we carried forth with some 30 artists and activists the message of non-violent resistance. We rehearsed and toured other plays from our repertory: Not In My Name (against the death penalty), Capital Changes, Mysteries and Smaller pieces, and recently, a new work has premiered, Enigmas, created here this last summer. It should be noted that all of these plays were done with little or virtually no financial support. Moneys came only from the actual performances of the shows. We were always rehearsing without regular salaries.
Genoa, Resist Now
Workshops are also a major part of our work. In these last five years we have met, studied and worked with literally thousands of students in some 30 workshops here at Centro Living, in the Provincia, greater Italy, Portugal, Greece, New York and Lebanon. We have also worked in the middle school every year here in Rocchetta creating with the students 'avant-garde' plays which they performed for the village. (Not always well received!) Outside the Living, yet always under its umbrella, our artists have continued to work and create, often making use of Centro Living for rehearsals and workshops. Several original productions, historic Living Theatre plays, and some 20 other workshops have been the fruit of this work. Fausto Cerboni of the Living has launched an annual festival of art, performance, cultural and organic food events at nearby Roccaforte. His "Campo Carlo" (named after G.B. Lazagna) is sure to be a permanent fixture of the Val Borbera cultural environment. We also initiated a clean up of the river campaign 'in our own backyard'. And just recently a documentary "Resist, To be with the Living" on the last ten years of our work, produced and directed by former Living actor Dirk Szuszies, has been playing in major film festivals the world over, winning first place at Viareggio, Italy. It is Rocchetta Ligure and Centro Living that provide the idyllic backdrop for our work and travels across Europe, the Mid-east and New York.
Now we have to ask ourselves: does all of this end here with a forced eviction? Certainly the Living will continue, it always does. As I write, work goes on in New York on a new building which will house the new Living Theatre. Yet for the ten core members of the European branch of the Living who make their home here, for our supporters, fans and colleagues, for our new friends in Rocchetta and the Provincia, the closing of Centro Living Europa will be a great loss. The Living has always found fertile ground and support in Italy, yet there seems to be much secret and behind door manoeuvring which could be interpreted as lack of respect for us as artists and a certain presumptuousness of policy decisions on the part of elected officials.
We have not been immune to mistakes; at times tempers have been lost under the stress of the confusion and subtle, or less than subtle, tactics of those who control our fate. Even amongst our friends, for example the 'people of the water', the local populist environmentalists, we found ourselves stuck in the middle between giving support and a voice where support was due and the difficulty of maintaining a comfortable relationship with the Provincia who happens to make it possible for us to be here. (Anarchists supported by the state; we have our contradictions!) And we were rightly accused of censoring.
Spectators, Khiam Prison, Lebanon
Khiam Prison, A Day in the Life
The Herzbollah committee checks out the show
Postscript: we lost the battle and maybe the war as well. A new Giunta was elected and began re-negotiating with us: “starting over from the beginning as friends”. After much waiting, talking, promise making, the emptying out of our beautiful home proceeded and it seems we are out of Rocchetta Ligure. Culture in Italy has paid a heavy price from the political agenda of Berlusconi and his right-wing (and fascist rooted) government. Without financing the comune of Roccheta (rightly so ) sees no reasons for us to live there, much less work there even in an intermittent basis as had been proposed. The Campo Carlo festival proceeded at a new location (Cantalupo) but they also lost financing this year and had a much reduced program.Here in Italy there is little work for Anarchist experiment theatre yet we continue her the best we can.