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notes for an intimate history of the Fest

“As free as air, as water” reads a long blanket waving in the wind from the windows of the oldest theatre in Rome, the Teatro Valle, just a few moments after being squatted. It is June 2011 and artists, citizens, students and temporary workers are setting foot in a sanctuary of culture doomed to be abandoned to infuse it with new life and experiences.

We are in the aftermath of the referendum victory that has averted the privatisation of water on a national scale, fostering new reflections on the value of those assets that are inalienable and essential to the physical and mental development of a whole community and of its people.

The public debate over the value of common property triggers our desire to inaugurate a new season and to elaborate new responses to the ‘hard times’ we are facing. It’s squatting the Teatro Valle, amidst the chaos of those first busy months, that I am reunited with Alessandro Fabrizi. It has been a while since we last saw each other. Now, Alessandro is coming to the Teatro Valle to offer some lessons of Linklater voice method to occupiers and citizens. I am a member of the artistic and political collective squatting the theatre, so we find ourselves once again breathing the same air and working under the same roof.

The thoughts and ideas coming from this constantly growing and heterogenous community are infectious and they start intersecting with our individual experiences. A few years before, Alessandro started organizing some workshops in Stromboli, offering a stay on the island to those artists who are interested in furthering their artistic and creative research through voice. He also made a film narrating this experience (Giving Voice). From my side, I started developing a parallel path to acting, devoting my time to a quest for the essence of the theatrical form and developing new reflections on the body of the actor, dramaturgy and all aspects involved in staging theater.

Light has become a true obsession. Light allows vision. What’s a body when it takes form before our eyes? Where does its shape come from? Where does it go when it dissolves? How does it change? What does it turn it into? And finally, what’s left of it when it fades? Vision is the moment between non-existence and being. After all, in the interplay of light, darkness and shade, there’s a whole uncharted territory to explore.

I’ve been going to Lipari, in the Aeolian islands, since my childhood. That’s how I meet Alessandro the following summer while we are both traveling to get to the mainland. We want to do something together, maybe the following year. Ale is working to organize a theatre fest in Stromboli with its association. I immediately like the word Fest. It retains an old memory, recalling the tradition of the Dionysia in Athens or the Rosenfest from Kleist’s Penthesilea. A fest standing like a truce in the war of everyday life and offering the chance for people to be together without shields and armors and to exchange gifts. The idea brings me back to an indefinite time and to an enchanted place for wonder, wisdom and eros, a place to generate and to enjoy the unexpected. I am told that the zero edition of the Fest will be launched in 2013, to see if the ship can survive the roughness of the sea. I will be there - I give them my word.

I keep my promise. I start working to solve any technical issue as soon as I get on the island. I develop new practices and ideas. Since I have spoken with Ale about the need to use natural light sources, I take it as a starting point, posing the question of how to amplify, reflect and refract it, be it the sunlight or the gleam of a single flame. I work on mirrors and reflecting surfaces. The squatted Teatro Valle, where I live and work, becomes a factory to experiment.

But when I get to Stromboli in June 2013, I discover that it is all done for nothing. The sunlight is too bright, the night too dark; the bodies, so ephemeral in the near infinite space scarcely offer a few flickering surfaces. The artists are dazed, stunned, swallowed up in the gloom of the night. The volcano and its land require us to develop different solutions.

We’re back to the start, we need to build things up from zero– after all it’s a zero edition. The artificial light sources spoil the vision, the kerosene lamps that we use are too sparse and too fickle, and distance denies all contact and relations.

We’re forced to listen to space and time, to our way of relating to others and most of all to our need to find some kind of support. If the sun is too bright and burns our skin, the light of the fire is comforting and dominates the night, but the Aeolian islands are a living contradiction. Often, its majesty the wind blows too strong from its castle, defeating our faithful but flickering ally.

Once again, we’re forced to come back to stage one. Every night, we see the fishermen sailing into the night and dropping their trawl nets and their traps to lure the flying squids. They’re like tiny little stars shining in the dark sea. Today, it’s their lead batteries that grant them the light they need. But how did they do that in the past? The moon, sure. But a full moon is not favorable to fishing.

That’s when I learn of fishing light attractors. They used to be fueled by acetylene – a gas produced by compressing hydrocarbons and therefore highly explosive - which now has been replaced by a safer source, the gas cylinders. Is it still possible to buy any of these devices today? They all seem to have disappeared, readapted to be supplied with direct current. I carry out a long research. There’s a company in the harbour of Marghera that still owns some of the attractors made in the 1960s and fueled by butane. I buy two of them. We’re all fascinated by their azure light and their sinister hiss. Their presence is comforting. They blend well with the wax candles and the wind-resistant torches that usually light the religious processions – there’s a factory in Catania that still makes them with the traditional resin and hemp to honour the martyrdom of Saint Agata.

They’re our first tools. Each source is difficult to master in its own way, but the result is incredible. Together with Alessandro we decide to set the events at sunset. Yet, we always end up facing the dark, holding that flame that is reminiscent of humanity’s first fire and that reminds us of our fragile condition on this planet. A flickering light to overcome fear, solitude, and the most metaphysical anxieties.

From there on, we have kept on searching for other sparks to light this terrible and yet beautiful night that shrouds us. Holding no structures or prejudices or certainties, yet always careful not to unveil the mystery that surrounds us.

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