THE ODYSSEY OF EMMA DANTE
“Le Monde” defined her as a “female volcano:” author, actress and avant-garde director, Emma Dante, like a modern Ulysses, explores the myriad feelings of life without forgetting her Ithaca, “because the voyage is important, yes; but it’s also important to return at the right moment.”
Hers is an intelligent provocation thrown like a stone to shake up still, murky waters: it is a gesture dense with strength and meaning, a movement that creates consequences, widens horizons and opens up new points of view, like the ever-widening concentric circles that develop from a single center of disruption. This is what happens when the provocation—a proposal to ban any representation of classical texts for at least five years in order to favor the rebirth and promotion of new dramas—comes from Emma Dante, the Italian playwright and director with an imaginative and evocative creativity, who by now moves within the national and international world of theater with the full knowledge of the specific weight of her artistic research. Hers is an inexhaustible voyage, like that of the Odyssey, a path that, between Palermo and Rome, has brought her to explore the crucial issue of humanity—the duality of life and death— in order to create a truly popular and universal theater, a theater incapable of leaving the spectator indifferent, a theater like a decisive stone hurled into the deepest heart of humanity.
Emma Dante began as an actress, affirmed herself as a theatrical director and playwright, and now grants herself an incursion into the world of cinema as both director and actor: how would you describe this artistic journey?
Mine has been a rather natural process. I didn’t by any means begin with the idea of dedicating myself to theatrical direction. I had no conscience of wanting to be a director; it just happened. I wanted to form a company and I was a part of that as an actress; it’s just that it didn’t work, because I wasn’t able to explain to the others how I wanted things to be done, and so I left. The exit from that scene then determined my new role, although I didn’t decide on it in a rational manner.
As for the movies, on the other hand, I have only made one film; I’d say that that is not enough to speak of cinematographic experience: I am essentially a theater person and deal with theater. Cinema is certainly an interesting foray beyond those confines, and it has nourished me, but the world of cinema is a very “foreign” environment for me, one in which I am not at ease. I need humanity to do my work well: cinema is a field that is too calculating. It has become difficult for me to find a production company for the second film I would like to do, and for that reason I have to conclude that I feel much more comfortable in my theatrical world.
“Theater is my medium. Through theater I can relate my unease, my desperation, and also my joy and lightness”
Italy is often hostage to a conservatism nourished by the fear of change. Does the theater today have the necessary means to shake itself out of stasis and engender a new process of authentic collective catharsis?
We start from the presupposition that today is the same as yesterday. There aren’t different epochs, there are ways in which things change, but the substance is identical. Italy is conservative now as it was before, it doesn’t seem to me that there is any particular degeneration. There are highs and lows, but I don’t believe that the eras are different. What sense is there in speaking of “young people of the
past?” That phrase is nonsense; I’ve never been able to accept it as an expression. In the end, the arguments that humans make are always the same, there are steps forward just as there are steps backward, but in the end one always finds oneself fighting against the same things. It’s clear that theater is the mirror of what we are, much more so than any other form of art, because theater is dynamic, it exists in movement, in life. On the other hand, a painting, and even cinema in its own way, both immortalize an image and fix it. For this reason theater precisely puts humanity in front of itself and can therefore be a much more intimate expression.
Abroad, your theater is acclaimed even in its darker and more obscure meanings: in Italy, however, bodily poetics continues to stir up trouble and scandal. Are there still taboos that cannot be represented in our country? Why is it that the public has difficulty in confronting the obscene and prefers to ignore it and confine it offstage?
I’m not the director who creates scandal; there are other names that certainly create much more disturbance than I do. My shows certainly shake things up, move or even make people angry, but this is also a bit from personal taste. Perhaps in the beginning there was a certain disruption, but now people are used to seeing my theater and choose to see it, whoever can’t stand it doesn’t come; on the other hand, those who enjoy emotions and questions come. There is no longer the conflict
“With the passing of the years there has grown a closer relationship between theater and daily life. The stage has given me the imagery with which I overcome any obstacle”
that there was in the beginning. Conflict occurs when an artist is not very well known and then speaks out with violence. Nowadays my situation is different, I am no longer an up-and-coming artist; I am no longer a young artist. I am an artist who continues to carry out her own research, but whose research is already rather contextualized, in the sense that the spectator, like the critic, knows exactly what path I’m following. So there is no longer any scandal, just a bunch of noise created by the media. Really, there was nothing scandalous in this show.
The representation of pain onstage constitutes one of the fundamental hubs of your theater: can putting pain and mourning in plain view prove to be a therapeutic choice as well as an artistic one?
Well, to give an example, in Italy representing death is something that can cause a scandal. This is an interesting theme to discuss. More than a therapeutic effect, I would say that the representation of death can be bothersome; it can be annoying to talk about something that in the end concerns us all. No one—absolutely no one—will be spared from that point of view. Death is therefore the only theme that concerns all of us, without distinction. Taboos such as homosexuality and gender differences, misery and family difficulties constitute a whole series of problems that don’t necessarily concern everyone. Not everyone has problems of poverty or the taboo of homosexuality, but everyone shares the same problem: everyone has to die. Death is really the only thing that unites humanity, and it is for this reason that my theater confronts it, because I want to create a popular theater and I want to speak of a theme that concerns us. The two great themes of my theater are precisely these: life together with one’s partner, and death. So this might create scandal, because perhaps someone prefers to go to the theater to be entertained, to have a nice relaxing night out and not think of the problems they have, and instead finds him or her self confronting a tragedy. The scandal comes from this.
Your career began in Palermo, continued in Rome, and now lands once again in Palermo: what does this journey mean for you and what does it have in common with the voyage of Ulysses that you put onstage?
All human beings have to confront a journey during the course of their life, even if some don’t feel a need to do so. I feel that I have done so, and mine was certainly a very beautiful journey. Years pass, and feeling oneself ever young is a sentiment that in my opinion is rather mistaken. Nowadays I am conscious of the years that have gone by, like Ulysses, who was old when he finally got to Ithaca. Let’s not forget it: we always tell ourselves, how nice, the hero arrives in Ithaca, sees his loved ones again, he will be happy, but in reality he finds his dog Argo dying because of old age, he finds Penelope full of wrinkles and sadness for having had to wait so long, and his son Telemachus has grown up without his father having been able to watch him growing up. So Ulysses returns to Ithaca, but what does he find? Ulysses’ journey is quite beautiful, but at the end, when he returns, nothing is the same as when he left. So he poses himself one or two questions, because yes, the journey is important, but it’s also important to return at the right time. I will never be a heroine like Ulysses, but then, I’ve also chosen not to be: perhaps I’m not as ambitious as him with respect to the idea of the journey. It is fundamental to find the right moment to return. I believe that I returned at the best time for me, because I was still young and strong enough to do the things I had done in this city, Palermo, and in this island, Sicily, that I love and hate. I didn’t come back as an “old person,” I came back while still young and now that I begin to age I sincerely would like to go away; I’d like to leave my Ithaca once again. The next step is going away from Ithaca—even Ulysses, in my opinion, leaves again right away, he immediately finds another reason to go away the day after his reunification.
What future do you foresee for the theater in Italy, what frontiers still need to be violated, and what type of planning needs to be put into place in order to help new recruits and re-instill vitality into theatrical representations?
In my opinion, we need to finally have the courage to take a while—from five to ten years—in which we forbid the representation of classical texts in the theater. Ban Shakespeare, ban Pirandello: perhaps the only one I would leave untouched is Eduardo, because he’s much more recent. If we ban a bit of classical stuff and try to come up with courageous theatrical programs which give space to new plays, then perhaps someone will have the courage to write them: it doesn’t matter if they are good or bad plays, but they will have the courage to write new stories, and on the other hand the public might decide to go to the theater to see them. Otherwise nothing will change, people go to the theater and act like children who always want to hear the same familiar bedtime story, and this is the behavior of a child. A mature person, a season subscriber, an individual who chooses to go to the theater because he or she wants to open their mind, cannot always ask for the same story. In my opinion, we need to have the courage, both on the part of the programming directors as well as the public and the critics, to endorse a certain type of programming that isn’t always the same old story or the usual traditional texts that everyone agrees on, and instead invest in new plays. If this support and this faith existed, important new talents might emerge; I’m certain that they would emerge. The problem is that in reality theaters do not program new plays: they’re afraid. New plays are always confined to festivals—always. There is never a season program poster in which the majority of the projects are new. So here we are: one can actually imagine introducing a ban, even just for five years. Sometimes, great works of art are born out of prohibitions: if an artist has obstacles, this can develop in him a great sense of defiance and challenge, it can be an interesting exercise. Of course banning things is bad—i am saying this to provoke—but one has to stir up the waters.
Euripide’s tragedy Medea in a production by Dante