Teatro Povero di Monticchiello

The Teatro Povero di Monticchiello is, by its own description, “autodramma conceived, composed and staged by the people of Monticchiello.” Autodramma is a term coined expressly for the plays of Monticchiello: it is theatre performed every summer in the tiny medieval hill town’s piazza, acted by the town’s own residents (untrained, non-professional actors who often play themselves on stage) working from their own original script which treats of the close-to-home issues they collectively wish to examine that year. Every year the citizens gather, brainstorm ideas, decide on a theme, and then flesh it out with dialog into a script. The resulting play does not have a plot or characters per se; instead, it is a theatrical chorus in which the actors represent points of view in a dialogue around the central theme, which is explored in relation to the village’s past and then to its present, and finally discussed and debated in light of how things have changed over the years. Sets and costumes are minimal, often only suggested by a symbolic object.

The first plays in Monticchiello were performed in the late 1960s. Post-war, recovering Italy was growing more urban, industrial, fashionable, and wealthy, and rural towns such as Monticchiello, which owed centuries of their existence to the agricultural system of sharecropping (mezzadria) that was outlawed in the early 1960s, were depopulating by up to 75% as the younger generation headed for the cities. The plays were not intended to create income for the community or to attract tourists (tourism didn’t much exist in the Val d’Orcia at that time); instead, the plays were the citizens’ way of reflecting on the transformations that were devastating their way of life, and dealing with them. They were a form of resistance, a rallying declaration to themselves and to their city-magnetized children that their town had survived threats, invasions, and upheavals in the past, and could do so again. In those early days, they say that the greatest Italian film directors – names like di Sica and Fellini – came to Monticchiello to observe the Teatro Povero.

The week prior to attending a performance in Monticchiello, I spent a day at the Biennale di Venezia. The difference between the two experiences could not have been more pronounced. The Biennale is suffused with world-level politics and so, so much money; most of the exhibits were interesting but spoke on a scale that made them irrelevant to little me. In contrast, the Teatro Povero moved me, because it is art that is immediate and local, with no glitz or glamour: it brings a human-scaled community together, giving ordinary people a way to analyze and express their experiences and attitudes, and allowing them to emerge from the process perhaps better able to face the difficulties of their existence. Yes, there is money involved, here, too – but honest money that is brought to the local economy by the play’s spectators, who dine in town before the show and purchase reasonably-priced goods from the few shops. The theatre is organized as a cooperative, and the townspeople make a point of insisting that not one of them is profiting off of this tradition. There are no yachts, no cruise ships, no elite high-fashion brand-name boutiques, no corporate sponsors hanging banners off the facades of the churches. Just a community of ordinary individuals who want to say something.

“A Street Called Home” Mural to be Demolished

I left my teaching job at the Columbus College of Art and Design and moved away from Columbus, Ohio in 2013, to take the position of Associate Director of the University of Georgia’s Cortona Studies Abroad program in Cortona, Italy. I have lived full-time in Italy for almost six years now, and have drifted out-of-touch with the goings-on in downtown Columbus. It was therefore a shock when my friend Fred Fochtman, a painter and art conservator who helped me restore the mural in 2013, messaged me to share the news of State Auto’s decision to demolish the warehouse on which the mural is painted, in order to build a parking garage.

The mural today…
State Auto’s proposed four-story garage (Rendering via Realm Collaborative / WSA Studio)

I supervised the mural project in 2005, with the help of so many good people: CCAD President Denny Griffith, State Auto AVP Win Logan, CCAD art students Brent Payne, Jenny Carolin, Tyrome (“TJ”) Stewart, and Joey Macklin, to name just a few. Through the project I also met the artist Aminah Robinson and WOSU-TV producer Cindy Gaillard, not to mention dozens of Columbus residents who knew the area back when it was a working-class African-American neighborhood, as vibrant and colorful as Aminah depicted it in her painting. The project taught me valuable lessons about working large, working collaboratively, and working publicly. It also gave me many “non-art” skills that I use constantly as an arts education administrator today: planning, budgeting, using spreadsheets, researching and ordering supplies, job site safety and risk management, tracking employee hours and payroll. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever taken on, which is why its rewards have been so rich. It is certainly one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in my life.

When I looked online for information about the city’s decision to approve State Auto’s plan for a new parking garage, I didn’t find much of an outcry from the public against the destruction of the mural. I myself am depressed that our idea to beautify the area and honor its history, and our passion and dedication and all the hard work it took to make it happen, will be reduced to rubble. But at the same time I know that progress and development are inevitable forces, and there is little I can do to fight such forces from halfway around the world, especially when there is no one asking for the mural to be saved. Aminah Robinson passed away in 2015, we lost Denny Griffith to cancer in 2016, the students have graduated and scattered, and I don’t think Win Logan works for State Auto anymore. According to Kyle Anderson, the Head of Communication at State Auto Insurance Company, the current administrations of the CMA and CCAD have accepted the mural’s destruction. As someone who has frequently in her life packed up and left, moved away and shut the door on the past, I suppose I can walk away from this. Vita longa, ars brevis.

The Cherries of 2019

All over Italy, the cherry harvest is poor this year – everywhere except for the Severini School, that is. After Enea’s drastic pruning and medication last year, our two old cherry trees responded with a bumper crop of beautiful, organic fruit.

Severini School cherries ripening
Enea holding a bunch of cherries

The birds tried to get them, but scary eyes drawn on balloons and a big net protected them long enough to allow them to ripen.

We had to rush to harvest them in the face of an oncoming hailstorm, a task we finished just in time… although not without getting wet!

The four buckets of cherries we collected then traveled to Enea’s kitchen in Emilia-Romagna, where he pitted them and cooked them down into a dozen jars of jam.

Saturday morning we tasted the finished product for the first time, and the verdict was unanimous – Enea’s recipe is ottimo!