Interview with Romeo Castellucci

Iante Gaia Roach  08.19.2013

Romeo Castellucci is one of most respected theatre directors in the world, widely credited with the creation a new language, a theatre founded on the totality of the arts. Director, choreographer, author, actor, creator of the sets, lighting, sound and costumes, his theatre career dates back to 1981, when he founded the company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio with his wife Chiara Guidi and sister Claudia Castellucci in Cesena. This is the Italian theatre company that boasts the greatest number of performances abroad, and is constantly in demand in the world’s most important theatres and festivals. Though he never left Cesena, Castellucci’s genius has not been granted due recognition in Italy. His recent play On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God was the object of much controversy in Italy (and France), with death threats from extremist catholic groups, an official complaint to the theatre by Milan’s archbishop, and a hostile media campaign – prior to the first performance! Castellucci was awarded the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre on August 2nd, 2013 – hopefully a sign that his country has finally awoken to the extraordinary power and novelty of his work.

Iante Roach: In your beautiful speech after receiving the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre, you said that you would like to unlearn all the skills you have acquired so far in order to reach the hard core of theatre. How will you begin unlearning?
Romeo Castellucci: I actually began today, or some time ago. I have been listening carefully, paying great attention to the participants of my workshop – young actors, who are usually considered inexperienced. I try to be as surprised as they are, to perceive the strangeness of things in the way they do. It is not an easy practice, as it presupposes an internal struggle with myself.

IR: What is the workshop about?
RC: It is called The meaning of. It is not clear what the subject of the meaning is, whether there is an intended meaning. The title implies a suspension, it is a truncated sentence – so how to cut off a sentence, take a distance from meaning. At the same time, we have to work and produce a show. It is a conceptual proposition, for a practice, the practice of creating space.

IR: Does it also involve a certain expectation?
RC: Yes, certainly. It is an empty, available space. Anything can happen, anything can arrive, every single second, even in a context smaller than that of a workshop. An image can arrive at any time, as long as you make some space, and try to escape from predetermined channels. You can do so only by placing yourself ‘horizontally’, without any moral values, knowing that every phenomenon may be respected, and that all elements are on the same horizontal plane, on a path.

IR: How did you select the workshop participants?
RC: I did not look at their CVs, but simply at the videos they prepared, in which they followed some very simple instructions. I tried to perceive whether they were expecting something wrong from me in this material of theirs. For instance, if they wanted to become famous actors, or if they were looking for a master who would give them the key, or if they had particular expectations from the final show, then I’m not the right person for them. I looked for those who questioned the actor’s craft, as if it was a research topic.

The workshop participants are mostly women, which I find to be a constant factor. There is a great female majority in theatre and culture, in the whole world: women are more involved and interested. There is a strong feminine, maternal principle, related to matter, in my work. I am a devotee of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the 19th century Swiss scholar and anthropologist, who wrote the seminal work Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World.

I believe in the importance of the female principle in all things. For instance, ‘to conceive something’ brings us back to the idea of ‘conception’, and is thus a feminine action – in the way that women care for the form of things. As paleo-anthropological theories postulate, probably the first artist in human history was a woman: women stayed in caves, waiting for the male hunters.

IR: How do you explain the historical absence of female artists? Do you think it can be put down to socio-political causes?
RC: There certainly are socio-political causes, but they don’t suffice to explain the current state of affairs. Although there are extraordinary female artists, there is an enormous difference in the number of male and female artists, which persists still today, forty years after the feminist movement and its claims on culture. It is strange and incredible when you think about it.

I believe the main reason is that women are artists by nature, they don’t need to create art, their bodies hold the power to create, so they are less detached from things.

IR: Do you find it different to work with women or men?
RC: Yes. I need the intellectual company of women, I cannot confront myself with men, there isn’t the same tension, track, or language. Women are more subtle. I’m always surrounded by female aids. My company, the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, is mostly composed by women, and even its administration is 98% female!

IR: What do you think of Italian theatre?
RC: Which Italian theatre? Theatre is such a big word, like ‘painting’, which can indicate a painting by Mark Rothko, paintings for tourists, painting a house’s walls… I do not know Italian official theatre, tied to big state-funded institutions, because I’m not interested in it. The Italian theatre which I respect is independent theatre, made by young companies who do not reach any compromise whatsoever with politicians, and have no ties with institutions. As for their artistic merits, some of these experiences are interesting, others less so.

The situation is different outside Italy, in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal… where institutional theatres are sensitive to contemporaneity. It is an Italian anomaly, where culture has no weight except for one or two initiatives, such as the Venice Biennale, or RomaEuropa Festival. Milan, for instance, has no theatre festival, an inexplicable fact. Culture in Italy has always been a commodity for politicians, who are not interested in culture, and therefore have a completely shortsighted vision of it.

Moreover, politicians understand cinema as the only expression of Italian art and culture as it can become their stage, hosting their great show. They perceive performing arts as an annoyance, and give them few means and no space. Successful artists are ostracized and made to feel guilty. I am ostracized in Italy, and hardly tour my shows around Italy, because I have success abroad. Maybe I’m perceived as a bad example. This is why receiving the Golden Lion was such a surprise.

IR: What inspires you?
RC: I am open to many influences, I don’t have a scale of values. I read a great deal for personal pleasure. At the moment I read fiction, mostly American fiction, not so much contemporaries except for David Forster Wallace. I read mainly older, less well-known authors, like Sherwood Anderson and John Cheever. At the moment I cannot read European authors, I am attracted by American authors, it’s a fact!

IR: Do you also read poetry?
RC: I do not read much poetry. I love the poetry by Hölderlin, Walt Whitman, Samuel Beckett… but I am not a great reader of poetry. It tires me a lot, as it requests a particular effort. I prefer a temporal dimension, I need time to read.

IR: Can you define your work, or your role?
RC: No. It is very difficult to judge oneself. I try to practice the principle of contradiction, and to escape fictions. I do very diverse things. For instance, I create works with words, or with words only; works with images, or with images only. I have made two shows with no actors on stage, M.#10 Marseille, about the town of Marseille, which was completely abstract, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which is a dance of dust, with no humans.

I do not have a style or a method. However – and you may write this! – I never use video, it is a taboo, if not at times to project some words. It’s a prosthesis, it is boring.

IR: How do you choose the subjects of your plays, and how do you develop them? I imagine there might not be a standard process.
RC: No, there is no standard process. I have a book of chaos, on which I take note of my impressions and things that interest me throughout the day. When I re-read it, certain knots and themes appear, I fix my regard on the stronger elements. The subject shows itself, and I develop it.

IR: How do you choose your shows’ titles?
RC: At times it is a long search, other times they find me: I meet a title and cannot free myself of it. The title imposes itself, chooses itself, and influences the preparation of the show. The titles of my shows are very different from each other, some are very simple, others are complex, some come from literature, others are extremely banal like Hey Girl!. I let words surprise me.

IR: Are you happy not to have attended a drama school, or anyway acquired a formal education in theatre?
RC: I do not know, it depends which school we are talking about. I did not need one.

There are some extraordinary drama schools, like the one of Frankfurt, with interesting traditions. But in the Italian context I grew up in, I am happy that I did not attend a drama school. Italian drama schools tend to be stereotyped, which is very dangerous.

IR: Do you find the use of categories such as theatre, dance, visual arts helpful, or do you think it’s outdated?
RC: Categories can work, but they do not work for me. I don’t find it at all interesting to nominate a thing, shows are either good or bad, their substance does not change, and it is easy to create a problem of terminology. As a spectator, I do not need categories, but maybe others do.

IR: How did you decide to work on Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso?
RC: I made this decision after I was offered to be the associate artist at the Festival d’Avignon in 2008. My show would have taken place in the Cour D’Honneur of the Palais des Papes. I didn’t want a scenography, I wanted the palace itself to become a character. During my research, I discovered that Pope Clement the 5th, the person who had the palace built, was a character of Dante’s Inferno, and a contemporary of Dante, who was alive when Dante was writing the Divine Comedy. This masterpiece always dazzled me since my childhood, so I thought it would be possible to work on Dante, to reflect on what these three words – Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradise – mean today to me, what they mean, what they mean when placed in the Court D’Honneur… and so forth.

More questions inevitably pour fourth, on the contemporary meaning of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradise, on how the Palais des papes became a character, on Castellucci’s future projects… But this most busy artist is summoned to his next appointment, and we have to bring our conversation at the café of the Venice Biennale’s headquarters in Ca’ Giustinian to an end. His current and future works deserve to be followed with great attention, as do the reflections of his subtle mind. Let us hope that the Golden Lion will only be the first step towards the full recognition of Castellucci’s artistic stature in Italy.

Image courtesy of the 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale and Biennale College – Theatre.


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