Theater is spectacle. Life is theater. What if both were brought together so that individuals’ lives were organically made into a play? As they dramatized their lives, they could refine and confront the problems of their community and resolve issues. In the play they would share their conflicts and resolutions for others to learn from. And as the actors/characters of their own plays, they would receive the benefit of learning from the drama they enacted in pure autodrama, a living path on which to grow, heal, and renew themselves.
There is only one place in Europe – and maybe all the world – where such a theatrical community of life happens: a living theater where the community acts in a play they have written, created, and performed every summer. It happens in the small, three-hundred-person Tuscan hill town of Monticchiello featured in Spettacolo, a phenomenal documentary directed and written by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, which follows one year in the life of Teatro Povero di Monticchiello, The Poor Theater of Monticchiello.
Malmberg and Shellen stumbled upon Monticchiello in their travels around Tuscany and were amazed to discover that the townspeople who lived there each year worked together to create a play about their lives and community that was current, and dealt with the problems they and the town were facing. They did this to work toward answers, and if not immediate answers, the beginning of answers in the long term. This smashing film runs an interesting parallel by defining the town’s past from which springs the roots of the community’s present, roots which portend the future, all in the 50-year history of Teatro Povero di Monticchiello whose upcoming summer production the citizens are evolving as I write this, 21/3/2017.
The filmmakers cinematically introduce the primal, ancient (established over 800 years ago), story-book, hill town with towers and walls buttressing protection in a remote, picturesque area of Tuscany that is in the province of Siena, Italy.
They interview various community members who acted in productions which evolved after the war and into the 1960s-2017. Issues faced Monticchiello as it moved into the modern era and reflected the trends in the larger Italian culture: women’s rights, the growth of the cities, population decline, the loss of the land to developers, the general movement of young people away from the town to the university and beyond. Along with these interviews, there is a review of footage taken of the various plays the town performed.
We are introduced to the main players, key among them a retired professor of economics, Andrea Cresti, who provides the narration as do the other citizens who have created and acted in the plays of Monticchiello to establish a yearly historical theater beginning in earnest in the 1960s. Perhaps their theater truly began as the story has it 1944 during WWII when an incident occurred in the piazza. It was from this dramatic event that their first play evolved and the other plays after that as a way to solidify the remembrance of when the town held together in love.
The story from which their living theater evolved is this. Italy was in a political, civil war between the Italian fascists, German fascists, and the young male freedom-fighter Partisans (members of the renowned Italian resistance in Tuscany), 70 of whom were stationed in the hills of Tuscany above Monticchiello. The Germans were convinced that the Partisans in the area were being harbored by the townspeople of Monticchiello, and they resolved to end it once and for all.
A German commander ordered everyone from the village in the piazza: the old, men, women, children. In retaliation they were going to kill everyone. The commander told the townspeople to raise their hands in the air, even the little ones and face the cannons and machine guns. Just before he signaled “fire,” a woman from Leipzig, Germany, bravely strode across the piazza (black and white photos of this event as a production appear in the film with voice-over narration). In German she begged the commander for mercy. She insisted that these were the poor people of the town who had nothing. They were peaceful. They were not Partisans. The Germans put down their weapons. She had saved the town.
From that incident theater germinated in Monticchiello. The townspeople thrilled in the remembrance of the love of this woman who saved their community in an incident that brought them together in the triumph of life. The play that they created, a re-enactment of the event was a celebration and recognition of life’s ephemerality, their community, their love for each other, their unity. The joy it gave them and their enthusiasm about that production was fulfilling. Somehow, no one quite remembers how it happened: the romantic and whimsical concept of living theater, the autodrama of their lives became rooted in Monticchiello. It has continued to send its roots out to this day.
As the conceptualizations of their life dramas burgeoned and were made real onstage in the piazza, the theater activities inhabited their lives so viscerally, that despite the struggles, the tribulations, the disagreements, the economic woes of Italy, each year a play has been conceptualized by the community during the winter, when the fields are fallow. It is then that an idea is established and built upon during meetings.
Malmberg and Shellen film on-the-ground, the process of the play’s germination, featuring the townspeople’s meetings, their comments about the play, their opinions, their grousings and their humor. They also feature in-depth interviews with the town’s theatrical leaders and producers and organizers including Alpo Mangiavacchi (who passed during the filming). They seamlessly and beautifully edit and intersperse these interview clips of home interiors and the main players as a chronicle of the town’s journey from wintertime, to the ground preparation, to the Spring planting season up to the play’s full fruition in the summer when the harvest is coming upon them and their production is to be presented in the piazza with fanfare.
During the course of the months as the town moves into Spring and planting season, the play is work-shopped and refined with meetings and solidified into a script by Andrea Cresti. Arturo Vignai, Chiara Del Ciondolo and the others are vital to the process. At this point in time, the summer season is upon them. Parts are cast, rehearsals are ongoing, arguments and strife about not being dedicated to the task at hand, are the evening activities in the lives of the townspeople as they work their day jobs and go about the business of tourism which is beginning to take hold in Monticchiello.
The stage is built in the Piazza di Monticchiello. The year Malmberg and Shellen filmed the play evolution and process, the funds had been cut for the production and citizens had to hardscrabble sets, staging and lighting, which has happened in every downturn. Indeed, hard times have been the subject of a number of their plays, as has the encroaching rapacity of developers, the overarching predation of corporations, the corruption of government, the banking crisis (one of the banks in the area failed as the film was shot and the jokes that were made before this announcement was made reverberated in irony). Because this is current, living theater, that is trending now, we readily identify. Been there; going through it, too!
But their theatrical activity is grueling and hard won. In their interviews the filmmakers capture the attitudes of the young who face the question of whether they want to continue this tradition which sometimes seems burdensome. Indeed, it is trying for the veterans and leaders especially when citizen/actors have other tasks they must accomplish and are too exhausted to learn their lines or show up on time for rehearsals.
As such questions hang in the air including whether Andrea Cresti will come back to direct (he left it in the hands of the actors for a time), and whether the play will come off without a hitch, the next segment unspools. Theater-goers from surrounding towns and tourists swell Monticchiello’s numbers to the thousands. Everyone wants to see what this year’s play is about to join in the meals and festivities and have their minds stimulated by what is most real to them in their own lives which is acutely reflected in the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello’s autodramas.
The play is a success. And we are left hoping there will be a next year and next for this amazing process which runs parallel to the earth’s cycles and seasons and reflects the themes of mortality, spirituality immortality, renewal and rebirth, all captured in ever-present autodramas of the lives of the people of Monticchiello.
The film’s metaphors are plentiful and multi-layered as are the themes, as is the life of Monticchiello which we have been fortunate to witness in Spettacolo. That the townspeople’s ideas about their lives being deep-rooted, even eternal drama as they wait for a period of germinating creativity, then refine their work and themselves, and move and grow toward a satisfying culmination. This is the play process of their ongoing lives; the filmmakers create the metaphoric parallel with a Fennel plant (symbolically suggested by Andrea Cresti), of germination, growth, culmination. The film’s message of how strengthening community, unity and supportiveness can bring renewal to an area that would have otherwise been in devastation is an important takeaway of the key accomplishment of Teatro Povero di Monticchiello. That message echos throughout the documentary and creates a mesmerizing and brilliant framework which is as refreshing as watching the citizen actors’ play process to completion.
Will Teatro Povero di Monticchiello survive its actors and staunch leaders dying off? Who will carry the torch, keep the autodrama alive, the community unified and renewed with living theater?
This film of the amazing culture of Monticchiello is poignant, real and human. Malmberg and Shellen have captured the townspeoples’ wisdom, a wisdom we need to reconnect with. They also reinforce the townspeople’s concept that as humans we are rooted to the land and our environs. The artistic creators in Monticchiello recognize that when people break away from community, they become lost, displaced. Like a songwriter once said, “We have to get back to the garden!” It’s a belief that the townsfolk work to embody with each yearly play cycle. What better garden then that which grows within?