Crossing Barriers, Bridging Cultures
In Scena! Italian Theater Festival
Seven years ago, it began: with three shows, three staged readings, five boroughs, loads of talent, and even a pinch of insanity, In Scena!, a festival of contemporary theater imported directly from Italy to NYC, was born.
Fast forward through an annually increasing bounty of fantastico theater to the Seventh Edition. This year's festival (April 29–May 13) boasts twelve full productions, two theatrical readings of Italian plays in translation, a prestigious award that will be presented to an up and coming playwright, and the return of an inspiring poetry workshop. The offerings will take place in fifteen venues, scattered all around New York's five boroughs, and admittance is free of charge.
April 29 – May 13, New York
Created by Laura Caparrotti (Artistic Director) and Donatella Codonesu (Associate Director), In Scena! Italian Theater Festival NY is an opportunity to see great theater, to get to know a different culture, facilitate exchanges between Italian and international artists, and introduce audiences to something truly original. Setting the tone of this year's festival, opening night will honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
"In 2013, the year of Italian culture in the United States, I was asked to present a unique event on Italian theater, and my answer was, 'Let's create a festival!'" explains Caparrotti, a Roman native who has been in NYC for the past 23 years and has been making Italian theater with her company Kairos Italy Theater. "I had realized that American audiences were not familiar with contemporary Italian theater, all they knew was mostly about the great directors and playwrights of the past (think of Pirandello). A festival that would showcase an array of new Italian theater was the best unprecedented event this city needed.
"In addition, I felt it was important to bring theater to all the boroughs and not just to Manhattan, which is home to the majority of the international cultural events coming to NYC. So that's what we did: we went to every single borough, bringing plays in Italian with English supertitles and giving free admission to all the shows. That was, and still is, our way to welcome all the different communities and all people, even the ones who were skeptical or had no budget."
"We accept applications for a time period of about two months, and we select the participating plays through a very specific process," Codonesu, who oversees everything from Rome, explains. "Year after year we receive more applications presenting material that is of high quality and that touches numerous topics. This is amazing, but it also makes choosing a rather difficult task. We ask applicants to send us several pieces of material, including a video of the full production so we can understand its direction, its flow and technical requisites," she says. "Something we have to consider is a show's adaptability; traveling with a production means being able to set up quickly and efficiently without any space constraints. The topics that are presented are also extremely important: we look for stories that talk about Italy, that are accessible to all, even people who don't know anything about it or don't speak the language. Last but not least, we choose to follow our hearts and let stories seduce us through their originality, poetics, and artistic vision. At times we don't agree right away and our visions clash, but that's really constructive as well."
During In Scena! each show has two performances: one in Manhattan and one in one of the other boroughs. This year's participating borough venues are The Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance (BAAD! – 2474 Westchester Avenue), The Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue) in Brooklyn, and the College of Staten Island (2800 Victory Blvd). A Queens venue will be announced at a later date. Manhattan venues include Goddard Riverside's Bernie Wohl Center (647 Columbus Avenue), Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU (24 West 12th Street), Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street), Italian Cultural Institute (686 Park Avenue ), La Scuola Guglielmo Marconi (406 East 67th St), St. John's Lutheran Church (81 Christopher Street), and TheaterLab (357 West 36th Street).
Brooklyn's own Brick Theater is one of the latest additions to the festival, joining in 2017. "We are continually looking into ways to expand to new communities," Michael Gardner, the Brick's artistic director says. "Located as we are in a historically Italian-American neighborhood, the Brick is especially interested in celebrating Italian culture and presenting it to our neighbors. Laura often sells out the shows held at The Brick during In Scena! because she cultivates an Italian-American audience in New York year-round and works with many Italian groups to spread the word."
Others joined at the very beginning. "This is our seventh year, the same age as In Scena! hosting since 2013," says Susan Macaluso, Director of Community Arts at Goddard Riverside's Bernie Wohl Center whose mission is to bring quality accessible and affordable art to the Upper West Side, building inclusive audiences "that may include someone living in an apartment overlooking Central Park as well as someone who had been sleeping in Central Park." The program is also a home to present social justice themes, and a place for artists, both seasoned and emerging, to present their works.
"International theater is a good fit because issues and views from other countries and cultures can be presented and shared," Macaluso tells me. "The In Scena! festival especially fits with our mission because the Italian plays usually have a social justice theme—whether about women, LGBTQ, mental illness, family relationships, or love. Although in Italian, the festival provides excellent super titles, and the plays resonate with many. Often we have a panel discussion after. For example, one year Webulli, a play about social media bullying, was presented. I invited some middle schoolers from our after school program, most of whom had never been to a play, no less a play in another language. I got them to come by enticing them with food and we served a pasta supper before the play. Although in Italian, the language and images of bullying are the same in any language. The youth were very engaged in the play and were part of a profound and heartfelt panel following the play."
The dialogue that Macaluso is referring to is not the only exchange that happens during the festival. The participating artists also find it to be a special opportunity that fuels creativity. Italian actor, writer, and director Ernesto Orrico has participated in the festival twice: in 2013, presenting a play made of stories of Calabrese outlaws, titled Jennu Brigannu; and in 2017, with My Idea, Memory of Joe Zangara, a first-person account of the adventures of a Calabrese immigrant who tried to murder U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Being able to bring my theatrical creations to the U.S. has been an opportunity to dig deeper into my work and question the validity of the mise-en-scène that is purposely simple and bare. It's a way of making theater that puts the actor's body and voice center stage," explains Orrico. "Participating is also a great way to meet other artists, whether from my own country or not. Back in 2013 after my performance at the Dicapo Opera Theater, I had the chance to meet Peter Zazzali, the Artistic Director of Kansas Repertory Theater. That was the beginning of a great collaboration that still continues today. I was overwhelmed by the audience's enthusiastic reaction to my plays, despite the different language: Jennu Brigannu was performed in Italian and featured a monologue in English by Manolo Muoio, while My Idea was in Calabrese dialect, Italian and broken English and featured English supertitles, which easily guided non-speakers."
But it's not only his own independent artistic sharing that inspires him. "I must add that the several other activities that are part of the festival really enriched me culturally. Mostly the program Free Verse Meets In Scena!, a workshop where the visiting artists work on translating into Italian the work of the writers from the Free Verse program held in the Probation Center of the South Bronx under the guidance of poet Dave Johnson," says Orrico, explaining how upon completion of the translation, authors and actors then recite both versions together.
Free Verse Meets In Scena! is a program that developed in 2014, a part of the ongoing evolution of the festival. That same year welcomed another addition: the Mario Fratti Award. Named for the legendary Broadway playwright, the Mario Fratti Award is now awarded annually to an unproduced Italian play, which then gets to be translated, published, and featured in a reading. This year's winner is Tobia Rossi's play Hide and Seek (Nascondino). The award will be presented on May 13th at the Italian Cultural Institute, followed by a reading of the play.
"Through the years I have witnessed the evolution of In Scena! with great pride. Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò at NYU has been a partner and a supporter of In Scena! since its inception," Stefano Albertini, Casa's Director says. "We are called Casa, which translates into home. Indeed we are home to Laura's Kairos Italy Theater, our theater company in residence, and when she came to pitch the festival we were immediately on board. It was the very first time that an Italian cultural initiative was going to be brought beyond the confines of Manhattan." He explains that in Italy, the festival has become a prestigious opportunity, attracting well known companies and artists as well as "up and coming young players who have a wish to experiment with new ways of making theater and use the showcase to present innovative material. The fact that each show is presented with English supertitles, in bilingual form or in English, is a further invitation to cross the language barrier, building bridges and foster dialogue among people."
"Somehow film and music are thought to engage more people, but theater has a very unique and effective power," Artistic Director Caparrotti explains. "Theater happens in the now. It brings people together, artists and audience, in an unspoken dialogue during the performance. About crossing barriers: the plays we present tackle issues that concern us all, no matter where we live or where we are born. They talk about life, love, death, changing countries, overcoming challenges, being different, being accepted and so on. The audience finds out that on the other side of the ocean people deal with the same issues, and that is just priceless."
Who goes to see In Scena!? "The festival's notoriety has brought together people who come to us in many different ways, from all sorts of places," Associate Director Codonesu concludes. "Some of them hail from Italy, while others were raised in the US but have Italian heritage. Some are students. Then there are those who have no personal ties to Italy but they are lovers of everything Italian, from our culture, to our cuisine and our language (which they do not speak). The venues that welcome us also have their own followers who don't necessarily know much about Italy but they appreciate good theater. To sum things up, we don't have a specific viewer. Our audience is a reflection of the cultural melting pot that makes NYC the city that it is."