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posted Oct 1, 2012, 7:46 AM by Plural CentroStudiEuropeo   [ updated Oct 1, 2012, 7:58 AM ]

Interview with the Italian playwright Stefano Massini

By Francesco Barilli

On a hot August afternoon in Florence, we meet up with Stefano Massini, one of the most interesting voices of Italian theatre of the last decade. Our rendezvous is at the Caffè Letterario, a garden bar in the neighborhood called Santa Verdiana, within what used to be the old city prison: around us, there are young people making plans for the evening over a glass of wine, children playing, trees, and in the background the enclosing stone walls of the building and its barred windows. If we were in the mood for comparisons, we could say it's a perfect paradigm for the Mediterranean area, but luckily we're here to relax and to talk about a great script: “Balkan Burger”. We saw the show on opening night a couple of months ago: the face and voice of  Razna, the protagonist, belong to Luisa Cattaneo, an Italian actress with very powerful stage presence. Set in Herzegovina, where `if you pray to God, there are four who answer', the play tells the story of Razna, a Jewish little girl who completely reinvents her life in order to flee from persecution: the child grows up, changing her life and religion four times in an incredible tale. Born in one of the many Jewish communities unharmed by the Turkish invasion, she sees her life change to the beat of a klezmer ballad. With the resigned lightness of the sacrificial victim, Razna dies and is reborn again and again, because the story itself changes, masks and camouflages its face over and over again. Roze becomes Razna, learns Catholic prayers and orthodox litanies, and as daughter of a rabi she frequents monks, nuns, an imam and an Orthodox Pope. A tale to be swept away by, a relentless gallery of characters and situations, intertwined by a common thread of violence and destruction in which the line between man and beast becomes blurry. Talking about the show allows us to ask Massini about current politics, the Mediterranean scenario, and his personal experiences. In short, today's world through the eyes of an artist, an intellectual who – for once – is younger than fifty and has valid ideas about what surrounds him.

The text you wrote talks about places in which ethnic and religious minorities struggle to coexist. The events in the Balkans, what we see happening on the southern banks of the Mediterranean and other hot spots of the world is hard to read into. The media, generally speaking, and the press in particular, with their eagerness to provide answers, seem inadequate to express the problems of the world. We can watch dozens of news broadcasts and read lots of articles about the Arab Spring or the Chechen conflict, but we still can't shake off the feeling of disorientation. On the other hand art, and in this case theatre, seems to be more efficient because it doesn't strive to find answers as much as pose questions. As an artist, how do you see this?

It's true. We tend to be informed about everything, but then risk not having any ideas of our own regarding anything. And when you happen to be living in a particular moment as this one, having confused thoughts generally leads to conformist answers in which rhetoric rule. Bearing this in mind, Discourse with a capital D is a central question that concerns us all. For example, let's take the Arab Spring; as we know, it's the first case in which a conversion of regimes develops from the 'bottom', particularly the web: what happened in Libya, the phenomenon of the Muslim brothers in Egypt, the Syrian conflict... it's as though there were a Third State which is spawned in the web by grassroots movements. The feeling spreads that anybody can directly participate in such movements. These are signs of a need for freedom, but also of a diffused malaise, which, if you look closer, involves European countries as well. For example, distrust towards politicians and therefore towards representative democracy. From this point of view, on one hand we have media offering chronicles – from “chronos”, therefore the narration of time – which concentrate their attention on macrosystems. On the other hand we have theatre, which, even in its more narrative forms of theatre-storytelling regarding civilian themes, represents a seismograph of the individual's sensations. A story with a lower-case , which is essential in order to describe relationships, microsystems. If effectiveness of information is related to its ability to remain objective, impartial and independent from the political powers that be, the effectiveness of theatre lies instead in its spirit of contradiction, in its ability to play the off-key notes. When working in theatre it is best to walk the path of countertendencies, aware of risk of slipping into conformism, even when convinced of the contrary.

Talking of politics and culture, isn't it a paradox that, in the midst of the European financial crisis, the Countries most at risk are those in the Mediterranean area, which happen to be those with the most ancient and exquisite patrimony of the world?

The Mediterranean is the amniotic fluid in which Europe's culture developed. Rome, Greece, Spain: the forefathers are in crisis today, and their children, the countries of continental Europe, are trying to replace them. As Kafka wrote (Letter to His Father, Ed), to become adults we must first kill our parents; well, it seems Europe is doing exactly this.

Along your career, you were able to work in several Countries of Europe and the world: Belgium, France, and the United States, just to mention a few. Have you noticed how Italy is the only place where a 36-year-old playwright and director is referred to as a “young” author?

The generational issue is a huge one in Italy. It's what happens when you're not completely identifiable with a particular trend. The beauty of this, so to speak, is that in my Country , trends have not changed for at least a century: communist collectivism, reactionary fascism and social Catholicism. And what's absurd is that I hardly know anybody in Italy who isn't at the same time a communist, a reacionary fascist and a Catholic.

If you go to France and come across a conservative, it's very probable that he or she will have the tastes and tendencies expected from a conservative, as is the case in England or Austria; if you meet a socialist, you discover he is a socialist through and through, in matter of dress, living conditions, home, books. In Italy this is not so. We are full of old wigs who say they want what's good for younger generations, but it's really just paternalism. Paternalism which in most cases becomes nepotism. It's rather disheartening, I realize, but I proceed down my own path. Let's say, I'm a 'young seventy-year-old'.

In 2007 you scripted “A Stubborn Woman: The Memoirs of Anna Politkovskaya”, a theatrical memorandum on the famous Russian author and human rights activist. In 2010, “Lo schifo- omicidio non casuale di Ilaria Alpi nella nostra ventunesima regione” (the monologue “Disgust”, which recounts the murder of journalist Ilaria Alpi, Ed). What led you, during your career, to focus on social issue theatre?

Actually, I believed I was going to grow up to become a teacher (Massini has a degree in Classical Literature from the Università di Firenze, Ed.). I was led into theatre by my encounter with the great stage director Luca Ronconi in Milan. What most impressed me about him was his determination to achieve objectives that would appear impossible for anybody else. And I'm not just talking about the incredible stage solutions he still manages to pull off for his shows after all these years. I'm talking about Ronconi as a man. A man who decided, when he was over 80 years old and on dialysis, to reach the North Cape, which he had never seen. Anybody else would have given up; instead, he had a vessel set up for the expedition and he made it. Ronconi demonstrated to me that it was feasible to make theatre as I thought possible only in my imagination. After my experience alongside him, I returned to Florence and began writing, with full freedom. Without any resources, without obligations or restrictions, without stooping to compromise with nepotism: written Theatre is free. The second person who changed my life was Luisa Cattaneo, who is also my life companion. In addition to being an excellent actress, she is also an honest one, which is an extremely rare virtue in actors. Luisa is an extraordinary person, and Balkan Burger, in which she plays Razna, the main role, was born as a joint project between the two of us. I like to think of these important encounters in life as 'sliding doors' that have opened up possibilities in mysterious realms. You discover other 'yous', see people in a different light, and in sum access new worlds. You may find some difficulties along this path, and therefore it's important to understand your own identity, to know the true parts of yourself, beyond any external acknowledgments. Of course, receiving an invitation from the United Nations (by the Nobel Prize Aung San Suu Kyi in 2007, Ed.) is something to be proud of; the innermost personal, authentic dimension, however, must remain intact. Small, simple things like teaching drama in high school, or doing volunteer work. And, well... doing my job.