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  • September 21, 2017

A Tuscan Village Bares Its Soul on Stage, Again and Again

A Tuscan Village Bares Its Soul on Stage, Again and Again

MONTICCHIELLO, Italy — This walled village of just 200 residents perched in the hills south of Siena has always been a little isolated and, perhaps, a little conflicted about it.

It is famous for its resistance to past conquerors. At the same time, decades ago, it petitioned the authorities for a better, paved road to connect to the rest of the world.

Since 1967, the villagers have conducted an annual exercise in collective self-analysis, self-absorption and self-motivation, turning their inner struggles, doubts, hopes and fears into art.

Every summer, they have staged a theater performance in which they act out — what else? — the story of their own lives.

The dramas of the Teatro Povero, or Poor Theater, initially revolved around practical issues. But the most recent performance took on a more metaphysical tone, reflecting the struggles of an idyllic but threatened little place, where dusty country roads dissect golden fields, but a declining populace questions its very survival.

“Let’s take a look at our possible future, imagine what we don’t yet have, or is there but it’s crumbling,” said one young actor, Roberto Giani, 23, on a stage that had been set up alongside a church.

“These little hamlets have a long history, but once upon a time they were bound to a difficult but friendly destiny,” he continued, staring sadly at a star-speckled sky.

The same actors have been performing various roles throughout their lives. They have seen one another change and grow, succeed and fail.

In the winter, the planning begins. The residents meet in the evenings to analyze their collective problems and construct a plot around them. Then, in the summer, they perform their script on a stage in a local piazza.

Mr. Giani, the actor, grew up in Monticchiello. Like most of the residents, he started playing parts at an early age.

This year, he is a young, unemployed father-to-be, grappling with a radical question — the existence of his village — and how to keep the community together.

While Monticchiello may seem a paradise, some residents feel as cut off as their predecessors did in the 1960s, when farmers left their fields to work in the cities. The village declined in appeal and population.

Italy’s birthrate is the lowest in Europe, and unemployment among young adults is about 35 percent. New national legislation is compelling villages to merge their services in an effort to save money.

But residents here fear a loss of local power, autonomy and identity. The village actors asked on stage: How will this community still exist in the future?

“It is only a firm belief and the courage to dare, a common goal that unites people instead of dividing them,” a voice-over suggested to Mr. Giani in a recent night’s performance.

In real life, Mr. Giani left Monticchiello after working low-paying jobs for years and moved north to Bologna to study liberal arts.

“How low have we come?” asked Arturo Vignai, 83, speaking a line in the drama, in which he played Mr. Giani’s forlorn father, worried about his son’s future without a job.

Mr. Vignai, who acted in the Teatro Povero for the first time when he was 32, is versed in military roles.

In 1967, he played the commander of the troops from the Republic of Siena that in the 16th century warded off the Florentines in Monticchiello.

He can confidently recount the glorious episodes of this Tuscan community’s past: its resistance to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in the 1500s; to French invaders a few hundred years later; and finally to German soldiers during World War II.

Yet this year, Mr. Vignai forsook his military role on stage to play a more pedestrian but poignant part.

The generational handoff is the hardest thing for the theater, and the village, the actors say.

“This is a great place when you are a child and a retiree, but living here requires giving up on a lot of things,” Mr. Giani said.

In this year’s performance, Valeria Cardini, a red-haired 11-year-old, played a schoolgirl — but one attending the same class as her older and younger brothers because the village didn’t have enough children to organize more than one class.

She has been acting for three years and going to theater classes during the winter “many more years.”

“I like the theater because so many people come to Monticchiello for this,” she said.

“And it helps me express myself,” she explained. “I am on Facebook, but I don’t really use it.”

Social media doesn’t seem to have substituted for real life in isolated Monticchiello. “That’s also because phones don’t have great signal in medieval walls anyway,” Mr. Giani explained.

During the show’s three-week run, Monticchiello plays host to 4,000 spectators. A tavern inside a vaulted medieval crypt springs to life, and tourists crowd the streets at sunset, awaiting the show.

But the magic fades after the Teatro Povero is over. “When I am here, I sometimes don’t check my phone for an entire day,” Mr. Giani said. “But once the theater is over, it’s just empty.”

In the off-season, residents have one A.T.M., a post office open three days a week, and a public space, once the farm’s granary, where older residents can leave their medical prescriptions and collect their drugs later, or buy daily papers.

“A little like this community, the theater has always been on the verge of extinction,” said Andrea Cresti, 79, the director, sitting on a bench in the village’s cobblestone square, where children played and cats rested in the shadows.

“For 51 years, we have been doing it uncertain whether we’d do it the following year,” he said.

For many here, the theater has substituted for other forms of collective engagement.

“It is a powerful aggregation tool,” said Riccardo Severini, a 47-year-old farmer who serves as the sound engineer for the three weeks of the show. “It used to be soccer, but everyone left and so we were not enough to play.”

This longtime exercise gives purpose beyond the daily routine.

“The idea of building a drama on themselves is unique in Italy,” said Pietro Clemente, an anthropologist at Florence University who has followed the Teatro Povero for decades. “That’s why over the years even Federico Fellini came to watch them acting.”

Beyond Fellini, other aficionados have also been drawn to the Teatro Povero. It has even been the subject of a documentary.

“We saw it evolving,” said Susan Fisher, a 77-year-old San Franciscan who has lived in Siena for more than 40 years. She has come to Monticchiello for the theater since the 1990s.

“You can recognize people and see them growing,” she said. “It’s fascinating.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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