Occupying Italy’s theatres

Il simbolo non ufficiale de Valle. Al primo piano nel teatro dopo la prima rampa di scale. (Foto via @InTheseTimes)
When a group of artists took over the Teatro Valle, Rome’s oldest theater, in June 2011, nobody thought they would last long. Yet the artists, actors and crew members who first barricaded themselves in Valle soon grew into a crowd of fierce Occupiers who under the national media spotlight became the country’s foremost anti-austerity crusaders.

Caught by surprise, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno decided to wait out the Occupiers in a game of chicken. Alemanno was so sure the Occupiers would fail that he offered to pay for Valle’s water and electricity bills. But events did not turn out as the mayor had hoped. Today, around 50 activists live inside Valle and have virtual control over every aspect of its management. An even wider group of sympathizers is involved in organizing free weekly events ranging from the staging of plays by lesser-known artists to performances by up-and-coming musicians to discussions open to the public.
The past year has brought a great number of Italian theaters into the political spotlight in what might be considered the country’s parallel to the Spanish indignados or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Though two different efforts to kick-start an Italian version of the indignados failed—the first large one taking place in June and the second in late October of 2011—the ongoing Valle occupation is a unique response to the austerity crisis crippling much of Europe’s economy.
Before the occupation, Valle was controlled by the Ente Teatrale Italiano, the institute that managed Italian theaters until it was abolished by the 2011 austerity bill passed by Silvio Berlusconi’s late government. As the institute closed down, politicians and city officials scrambled to determine how the theater would now be managed.
At first the Valle was taken over by the Ministry of Culture, which floated the idea of selling it to the private sector. Some proposed selling the theater to Slow Food, an organization that bills itself as promoting “the pleasure of good food with a commitment to the community and the environment,” and turning the theater into a restaurant. Others tapped the possible interest of popular Italian writer Alessandro Baricco to manage the theater—a solution Occupiers quickly rebutted, believing Baricco to be too tied to politics.
Matteo Bianchini, 24, an engineering student at Sapienza University of Rome and one of the 50 people currently occupying the Valle, explains: “We are not against the concept of privatization. What we don’t want is a form of privatization that only benefits [those who are] already rich. A privatization that is done by politicians for politicians. We decided we had to end that vicious cycle and take control of the theater ourselves in order to give it back to the people and the community.”
Today, similar occupations are underway at four other major theaters in Palermo, Catania, Venice and Rome, along with smaller theaters around the country. Over the past year, these scattered initiatives have become a single intertwined reality that has created a perpetual cycle of plays, shows, exhibitions and talks that move through the occupied stages of Italian cities.
I could expect something like this happening in Germany, the U.K or the Netherlands. Never in Italy,” says Cecilia Sacchi, 22, a theater major originally from Milan. “It’s a sign of the times: People are not okay with what is going on at the moment and this occupation is an attempt to find an answer to the current crisis.”
In many ways, it’s not the occupation’s endurance that makes it unique. Italy is home to a number of ongoing occupations. Forte Prenestino in Rome’s western outskirts, established in 1986, is Europe’s largest squat. What differentiates Valle and its spin-offs is that the activists have decided to institutionalize the occupation—in other words, they are following the bureaucratic path to become recognized as a formal entity. This choice represents a leap from traditional occupations in Italy, the great majority of which intentionally remain in a comfortable legal limbo, juridical non-entities whose existence is guaranteed solely by the paternalistic concession of the authorities.
But the Valle, along with the other occupied theaters, is on its way to becoming a “Fondazione,” an Italian word used to describe non-profit institutions whose cause is generically defined by Italian law as an “entity with the aim of pursuing a form of social good.” In pursuing such a path, the activists have been engaged in a long bureaucratic battle. To be recognized as a national foundation one must raise €250,000 (about $300,000), sign papers in front of a notary and prepare a “constitution” that must then be implemented at all levels of the organization.
Valle’s struggle is at the forefront of a battle that transcends Italian national boundaries: a movement to redefine what is legally classified as a “common good.” According to the Italian Civic Code—which shares similarities with the laws of most European countries—a “common good” describes an entity such as water or air or sunshine “that can be subjected to a collective right.”
The Valle Occupiers, with the help of the Italian attorney Stefano Rodotà, are pushing the Italian Parliament and Senate to change the current definition to include a non-tangible entity like culture as a “common good” to which every citizen has a right. The activists hope that under such a definition, the Teatro Valle and many other theaters like it will become entities owned by everybody, which the state will not be able to sell or privatize at its own whim.
“What they are doing is truly great,” says Nicola Camilleri, 28, a Ph.D. student in history at the Free University of Berlin. “What I am not sure about is if they will have the capabilities and the maturity to succeed in their battle. Nonetheless, I think it is absolutely fantastic that they are trying. It does not happen very often in Italy and it is a model that activists from a variety of countries have been praising.”
The Valle project has its critics. Il Foglio’s Marianna Rizzini put it this way: “Even if [the activists] started with the best of intentions, they have rendered Valle somewhat of a secluded place where only people that have their same mindset feel welcome and at home.” Other journalists and pundits have expressed similar sentiments. It’s a fair criticism, but the reality is that before the occupation began, the theater was about to close because too few people were attending shows and it was not economically sustainable.
Today, the Valle is full once again, and inside the main room, with its red velvet seats and its stunning 17th-century ceiling fresco., a banner spells out the informal motto of the movement, taken from one of the works of the Argentinean playwright Rafael Spregelburd: “How sad it is to be cautious.”
Critics should also be reminded that in 1921, Teatro Valle staged the first performance of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of Author,” a precursor to what would become known as the Theater of the Absurd. At the end of that show, the crowd chased Pirandello down the corridor and into his dressing room, shouting: “Mental hospital! Mental hospital!”
Inspired by Pirandello, the Valle’s Occupiers are defending their theater from an angry crowd that is shouting: “Austerity! Austerity!”
This article was written for In These Times
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