July 11, 2018

Holly Gabelmann and Nico Champion write about their experiences doing research at Teatro Potlach in Fara Sabina, Italy.

Have you ever considered how a city performs for its inhabitants? Every advertisement, street, fire hydrant, stop sign, pedestrian, protest, parade, and building is a type of performance. By interacting with the city you serve as a spectator to the city’s performance, while in turn becoming a part of the performance yourself. It is impossible to separate the observer from the performer when travelling through the city—or so we hope to explore. Under the mentorship of Dr. Kyle Gillette, we (Nico Champion and Holly Gabelmann) are researching the complicated relationship between city and performer/spectator/traveller (research inspired by and based on a book Dr. Gillette is writing on the subject, The Invisible City: Travel, Attention and Performance). Specifically, we are studying how space and performance are related, how a traveller can become aware of their dual role as performer and observer through actionable exercises, and how anyone can join the conversation between city and performance.


As part of our research, we travelled to Italy to work with and observe Teatro Potlach, a forty two year-old Italian theatre troupe led by Pino di Buduo. Teatro Potlach is famous for their project Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities), in which the group transforms a town using performance, video projection, cloth, and light to expose the hidden elements of a city to its residents. Invisible Cities changes with every iteration, using different performers, techniques, and technology to reveal its host city. Their work within cities is closely tied to Dr. Gillette’s research and an integral part of his book.  To deeper understand Invisible Cities and the work of Teatro Potlach, we attended the 2018 Festival Laboratorio Interculturale di Pratiche Teatrali (in English, Intercultural Laboratory of Theater Practices; also known as FLIPT), an international theatre festival of workshops and nightly performances hosted by Teatro Potlach for the past eighteen summers. After many years of performing Invisible Cities in cities across the world, Teatro Potlach has concluded its last three festivals with a performance of Invisible Cities in their hometown of Fara Sabina, a picturesque village perched on a hill overlooking the Italian countryside. (you can check out their 2016 iteration of the performance here)


This year’s workshops were led by Claudio De Maglio (an Italian commedia dell’arte master), Tian Mansha (an internationally recognized Sichuan opera performer and director), and Eugenio Barba (the world famous director of Odin Teatret). Though the specific performance style was markedly different in each three-to-four day workshop, what was most exciting was the commonalities between the sessions: each of these theatre masters had honed and studied physical performance, fascinated with how the body interacts with space (and visa versa). By participating in these intensives, we gained a unique insight into the role of pedagogy in performance. Through diverse techniques and practices, each master helped our small group of international artists to experience and perform our bodies in new ways. For Claudio, this was by fitting our body to a specific mood and archetype through the exploration of traditional stock characters (such as Pantalone, a popular commedia dell’arte stock-type of an old miser). With Barba and Varley, we created a physical score (or series of movements) that contained individual beats and experienced how manipulating these beats and connecting them with our voices could transform our performance. With Mansha, the delicate intricacies and fragilities of the body came to the forefront as we learned how to channel our breath back into our bodies to create specificity and energy in our movement. It became clear, then, that to ignore the impulses and signals of the body during performance is to not perform at all.


Visiting the festival with one of Potlach’s certified advisors (check their website, Dr. Gillette is a big deal in Italy) gave us the unique opportunity to help craft and lead a workshop alongside our participation in the other sessions. Dr. Gillette led a two-day workshop titled “The Theatrical City: Walking as Performance,” in which we utilized our prior research to give the festival participants insight on the traveller as a performer. Much of the work revolved around participants exploring the city as a solo traveller and subsequently relaying that experience to the group through the recreation (not an actor’s representation) of that journey. Each participant found a small section of the city to familiarize themselves with and walk repeatedly as a route, then crafted a distilled recreation of this path, presented first in the workshop space and then again at one location along the pathway. That night, the travellers were given an “invisible city”--fantastic and impossible urban hubs as imagined by Italo Calvino in his novel, Invisible Cities, which Potlach’s work is based on--and asked to combine this fictional space with the tangible landscape they had in front of them. The result was a series of inventive and intricate worlds, crafted from the real and the imagined--an invisible city as seen through a parcourse of invisible experiences. Through this exercise, participants were (hopefully) able to see and actualize how the city is constantly performing, and how we unceasingly return the favor.


One of the most interesting parts of FLIPT 2018 was the creation of Invisible Cities. While festival participants trained in workshops or took power naps, Teatro Potlach members worked tirelessly to prepare for Invisible Cities. Because this performance spans an entire town, there was a never-ceasing stream of negotiations with residents, technical challenges, and organizational feats to overcome. Beyond demonstrating impressive collaborative and organization skills, Teatro Potlach’s Invisible Cities project taught us about the power of performance to transform a space. Immersive and site-specific theatres work to demonstrate the unspoken ability places have to shape how we move, work, and feel. Site-responsive performances like Invisible Cities remind spectators of spaces long forgotten or ignored by allowing the space to influence the performance, just as the performance alters its location by the mere fact of performing within it. Through the creation of this year’s Invisible Cities, we observed how a place directly shapes a performance by observing the creative processes of festival participants working on the project. Because participants developed their pieces before they knew where they would be performing, the effect of location on their work quickly became visible when the technical rehearsals for Invisible Cities began.  Watching the participants adapt to their assigned space was fascinating: from the original proposition to the final performance, their work was enriched by the space in which they was performed. For example, one of our friends (an actress and director based on the small island of Sardinia) presented an enchanting folk story about fairies at the initial proposal meeting. While her performance was initially engaging, it became infinitely more interesting once Teatro Potlach placed it at a location in the city: a hidden outdoor patio in the village museum. As she rehearsed, new aspects of her narrative became clear as she created movement that engaged her space, at one point dancing with her shadow and at another moment moving just outside the pool of light. The hidden pathway she described felt like it was lurking just out of view, and the audience was transported from the world of the museum to that of the fairies.  Her space became as much a part of her performance as her text. At the end of Invisible Cities, it was hard to remember that the pieces had not been developed for their host sites. The line between performer and space blurred, and it became hard to tell where performances ended and where the city began.


Though our trip to Italy is over, our research is far from its conclusion. Throughout the next year, we will continue working with Dr. Gillette to develop and finalize his book (coming soon to a bookstore near you! This will tide you over ‘till then. This will, too.), construct curriculum related to cities as performance, and generate our own creative and academic work on this topic.


A photo of the workshop participants with Eugenio Barba. Photo by: Sayna Ghaderi


Striding boldly toward the festival


A rare moment of downtime to admire the city


The elusive Dr. Gillette