Supporter Spotlight: The Italian Cultural Institute (IIC)

  • December 5, 2011 2:00 pm
Florentine Playwright Stefano Massini's play premieres this Sunday

Our supporters and partners are invaluable to the work of The Global Theatre Project and beyond. If we had a nickel for every wonderful deed or talent donated, there would be no need to fund-raise! From the very beginning, The Italian Cultural Institute offered their assistance, and we are grateful for the exposure to their…

Permesso

  • September 2, 2011 6:23 pm

In my last post I spoke about the challenges of Italian doors and the lessons they provide for that initial moment when we are facing the unknown of a new culture.  The step just after we must ‘observe the door’ in order to discover how to open it is, of course, to walk through the portal. 

However, in Italy you don’t simply enter another person’s space without saying a very important word: ‘Permesso.’  In other words you are asking permission.  Clearly stated, and expected. . . whether you are entering an office or a home.  You can not enter and be considered a respectable person without this word.  Whether the person is standing right in front of you, or you are slowly peeking around an open door and announcing your presence, that word must be said.

I have to admit it took me quite a long time to feel comfortable with this expectation.  And often times early on in my Italian experience I didn’t do it.  But in not doing it I was putting my discomfort and embarrassment (as well as my cultural habits) in front of what my hosts needed in order to believe I held respect for them.

It takes a great deal of courage to let go of our self-identity when entering other worlds.  It is, of course, the one thing we want to cling onto most (either consciously or unconsciously).  But that is why, as artists, The Global Theatre Project is positioned to bring a level of awareness and risk-taking to the collaborations and entries we make with our international colleagues, partners and audiences.  However, at times, we don’t always see that initial situation of  ‘permesso’ clearly enough in advance.

On the very first evening of our Global Voices project with University of Texas, we had a special dinner at a very ‘local’ type of restaurant.  Mixed among the 15 Texas students and 2 professors were 9 residents and artists of Florence.  The evening was going beautifully, everyone getting to know one another with the intention clearly focused on integrating the students and professors as quickly as possible into the world of the city. 

Close to the end of the meal one of the professors stood up and suggested the students sing the UT song for their new Florentine friends.  And, that before they sing, they should ‘hook ‘em.’  What she was referring to was making the hand sign of the Longhorns (UT sports team) and the sign looks like this:

The reaction of the residents and owner of the locale was immediate and very strong.  They were shocked at seeing 17 hands holding a sign that they interpreted as offensive.  Clearly they felt the need to educate the newcomers that what they were doing had a very different meaning to Italians and that they should never ‘hook ‘em’ in front of an Italian if they don’t want to be offensive, insensitive or disrespectful. 

The sign that the Italians thought they saw looks like this:

Too close for their comfort and close enough to see what they registered as a vulgarity.  But the energy of the room at that moment was quite ‘collegiate’ and over-rode the definitive clues that were being given by the locals.

It was a perfect, and of course in hindsight, humorous moment of culture clash.  But it was also an opportunity missed to realize that …. even as we enthusiastically want to share our pride of identity with our hosts, when they open the door we must ask ‘permesso’ and if we forget, or do something incorrect, when they try to guide us in a direction right for their comfort….we should pause, take a breath and realize we are in their home.  They actually are the perfect guides for us to take those first steps over their portal with confidence and openness. And with a sense of belonging.  We need to allow our hold on our sense of identity to loosen a bit.

The project ended wonderfully with many friends made because, as the sensitivity of the students grew and developed during their stay, many doors opened to them.  In their own ways each of them learned their level of asking permission. 

‘Permesso’ goes far.  In Italian or any language. 

 

Observe the Door

  • August 18, 2011 8:39 am

We just completed our 8 week collaboration with the University of Texas on our Global Voices project in Florence, Italy. 

For the work of The GTP, Italy could not be a more perfect entryway for honing and perfecting the processes and structures of our projects and initiatives.  Or a more perfect lesson for visiting students, professors and artists who either have never left the United States or have never created work abroad having to deal with a local ‘reality’ such as Florence offers.

Approaching a new culture, whether it is globally or within our own country, requires that we check our ego, our ideas of how things ‘should’ be, and our ideas of how we ‘want’ things to be at the door.  We need to let go, open our eyes, our ears… all our senses…. including our heart…. and allow the truth of where we are to enter in. 

In Italy, when you are standing in front of a door…. ANY door… it is unlikely there will be an obvious way that it will open.  Unlike in the US where, for the most part, we have a door knob which is situated at hip height to your right and one turn will give you access…. that is NOT how Italian doors work.  So what does that mean?

It means you have a choice.  You can either stare at that door and become terrified, angry, frustrated, confused, insist it be ‘the door you know’, or you can…. simply…. observe the door.  You know it is a door.  You know it opens.  You just don’t know (yet) HOW. 

And that is the key issue for entering a new culture.  And, most certainly, for creating something of any relevant value there.  Accept that you don’t know.  But trust that you will.  Italian doors are magnificent things.  Many of them are physically beautiful.  Some of them are huge old horse carriage doors.  Others are so small they are half the size of our own.  Some have opening mechanisms in the center, some to the left, to the right, some turn, some push, some lift.  Some open by looking away from the door to the wall on your right or left for a gold or black or copper or red button.  But the one thing that holds true…. it will open.

In order to truly enter a new culture.  You must ‘observe the door.’  There were so many moments with our group from Texas where this challenge was beautifully presented, both actually and metaphorically.  Healthy international engagement on a creative level… on any level …. requires a level of relaxation.  You must let go of the ideas you have of how things are done and, even, who you are in the doing of them.  The opportunity presented, in many ways, is for you to be brave enough to admit you don’t know.  Until you learn about where you are.  And who you are with.  Take a breath, let in that information, see the shiny copper button just at eye level waiting to be pushed, and then. . . walk through.

At that point, you can begin to collaborate.

 

Theatre’s Outlying Elements

  • January 4, 2011 8:10 pm

The more I think about theatre, the more I find myself asking what theatre truly is.  I am more and more sure we will only know this when we understand the scope of what theatre, truly, can do.

Essentially, theatre must tell a story and that story, using as many senses of the human imagination as possible, must carry an audience into its depths and heights while, at the same time, reminding them that those depths and heights are within themselves as well.

So, with this in mind I ask: what is theatre?  Today, in 2011, what is the purpose of creating this type of work?  When I look at what most excites me about the projects we did in Florence and the work we strive to create under The GTP umbrella I realize that ‘theatre’ is both the final product AND the outlying elements which surround its development.  Equal in significance is the individual experiences that are formed in its creation as well as the stories and catharses, that are fashioned as a result of beginning the journey of artistic inquiry.  Theatre is so potent that, as mentioned in my previous post, it can be considered highly dangerous to political and social powers.  But it can also be a curative for what aches within us: expression of our own story-telling natures.  Whether that is the narrative of our life or the narrative of our emotional pain or joy we, all of us, must tell our stories.  Nowhere is this more apparent then in the use of theatre in prison rehabilitation.

In his story on NPR Bringing The Bard Behind Bars In South Africa, Anders Kelto reports on a program which uses theatre at The Bonnytoun House in Capetown as an effective outreach program.  Dennis Baker, the manager of that facility for 25 years says about the staff who work with these boys “You can almost see the light go on when they see that same boy, in a totally different light, with a tunic on, pretending to be some kind of warrior, you know? And they say, maybe this boy can change.”  What I believe is that not only can that boy change, but those around him as well.  The ‘outlying elements’ I mentioned above includes the correctional system which allows for the possibility that by including theatre there can be a shift in predictable outcomes. Those boys experience themselves as individual expressions.  And, as a result, are now seen as what they really are: individuals.  They are seen as individuals by individuals throughout the process and presentation of this story telling.  This, I believe, is a central aspect of what is theatre.

My colleague, Dominique Cieri, lead Teaching Artist and Playwright Fellow of New Jersey has developed many vital programs in this field.  Particularly what comes to mind is her work with the boys at Greene Correctional Facility in New Jersey.   She has worked with very violent, and ‘dangerous’ kids.  And it has not been a cakewalk for her each year as she entered the room with a new group of defensive, angry boys.  But weeks later she enters a room of ‘actors’ and ‘writers’ who not only are working together but are playing together.  Does she change the world?  If she guides one kid out of 30 to understand their full value then, yes, she does.

How does all this relate to The Global Theatre Project?

As I listened to the story on NPR I realized that it would be wrong of me to not take into account that there are thousands of American youth in jails and correctional facilities here in the states that are working with professional theatre artists such as Dominique.  Why not put them in collaboration with artists like The Independent Theatre Movement South Africa or Armando Punzo’s Teatrale nel Carcere di Volterra in Italy, and others abroad who are doing the same work with thousands of incarcerated individuals?

If we delve deeper into this aspect, with all the power of our professional lives, artistry, experiences and knowledge and create an international collaborative inquiry…. I wonder what type of theatre would result from exploring these ‘outlying elements’.  I wonder what kind of international relations would be developed.  And I hope, someday, to create a project that allows us to find out.