Opening Doors and Minds with Theater in Italy

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Photo: Jason Fowler

In 2011 I was working on an educational pilot program of The Global Theatre Project in Florence, Italy with students from a major US university. I particularly love working with university-aged people. They are just becoming adults. They are still forming their intellect, capacity and passions at the same time that many concepts are already deeply rooted in their minds. I often find them to be very afraid, timid and unsure when confronted with cultural realities that are not their own. And I realized through my work in Italy beginning in 2005 that they embodied the seeds of what we as Americans are now expressing in the landscape of our political culture. At that time it was apparent that our ignorance and lack of experience outside of our own borders, coupled with our sense of entitlement and arrogance, was diminishing our capability of relating in a holistic way with a globalizing population. Sadly, too many of the US students in Florence demonstrated this reality to the Florentines each semester.

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Theater artists living in a global reality.

I began working with students by talking about Italian doors. In Italy, when you are standing in front of a door, any door, it is unlikely there will be an obvious way to open it. Unlike in the US where there is a door knob at hip height and one turn will give you access, that is not how Italian doors work. You have a choice: You can either stare at that door and become, angry, frustrated, and insist it be like doors you know, or you can simply observe the door. You know it is a door. You know it opens. You just don’t know (yet) how. From this conversation we would explore the directive ‘observe the door.’ We would discuss what it takes to stand in front of something — or someone — you don’t understand, have very definite ideas about and that demands you must shift your perspective in order to constructively relate. Observation becomes a giving thing: it requires compassion and courage, vulnerability and curiosity, patience and respect.

Puppets in Palazzo Signoria. Photo: Bari Hochwald

Recently I taught at the University of Maryland on using ensemble theater as a tool for activism and community engagement. The day after the election of Donald Trump I walked into a dark room with students lying on the floor. They were, in their own words, ‘terrified,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘drained.’ Unlike for the students in 2011, the world was no longer theirs to explore but to confront. Everything had changed. They sensed it but they did not feel prepared to deal with it.

I see in my students their capacity for healthy adulthood and community participation and I seek to nurture that, to encourage them toward a conscious approach to life and art so they will seek to positively interact with their world. As an artist, a human being and an activist I know that this age group must be given the tools to step forward into society as Creative Leaders to keep balance in our local communities and on the global stage. They are needed to assist in protecting humankind from its destructive habits by demonstrating and offering engagement with higher and more expansive possibilities.

But this takes courage. It means they have to see something that most of us are not trained to see from birth: we are members of a Tribe of Man more than we are citizens of a nation. The more we are willing to educate and soften ourselves and ‘observe the door’ the more apparent this becomes.

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Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, Its Genius For Good And Evil, speaks to the destructive forces of narcissism — both expressed through the individual and through society as a whole. But he also talks about the results if that extreme focus were to be redirected away from nationalism and toward mankind:

“…[If] the entire human family could become the object of group narcissism instead of one nation, one race or one political system … much might be gained. If the individual could experience himself primarily as a citizen of the world and if he could feel pride in mankind and its achievements, his narcissism would turn toward the human race as an object, rather than to its conflicting components.”

A student exploring with Bari. Photo: Jason Fowler

It is this type of wisdom and challenge my students must translate into their intellectual, creative and social work. Over the last decade I have been formulating an evolving approach to education, theater and social engagement to benefit both the individual and the community. I have learned a great deal from the hundreds of young adults I have worked with. I have tried to observe them with kindness and love and see that they, just as those much older, are afraid. But they, being human and full of hope, being born into a generation that breathes the inarguable assumption of the equality of man, are also incredibly powerful.

In The Empty Space Peter Brook states ‘…many audiences all over the world… have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experience in life.’

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My students understand that an obligation and opportunity exists for them as theater artists living in a global reality. That what is ‘invisible’ is the connective tissue between one human being and another and that it only transcends ‘their experience in life’ because we have not yet brought the theatrical — with all of its values — off the stage and onto the ground where the community lives.

When we achieve this in a replicable method we will successfully confront our new nationalistic narrative which is fearfully building solid doors yet again between us. My obligation and opportunity is to nurture and equip my young colleagues to stand confidently and vulnerably in front of them and find the way to pass through.