Irena Štaudohar: Shop till the end of the world

July 23, 2022

Festival Santarcangelo – Every year, the small Italian town of Santarcangelo that looks a lot like panoramas from Fellini’s films is the venue of one of the oldest festivals of contemporary theatre and dance.

Santarcangelo is a small old town near Rimini, where a festival of contemporary theatre art has been held every summer for the last fifty years. It was founded in 1971 by Piero Patino who would often say that theatre is an art that arises from society in order to be able to merge back into it, which is why he has always been primarily interested in engaged artists.


Throughout these years, the most important Italian and foreign artists have performed on various stages around the city, reflecting the current times and pushing the boundaries of theatre, dance and performance. This year’s edition featured various topics that hover over reality like a knife blade on the neck – from the war in Ukraine to apocalyptic images of a burning world, of which only ashes remain in the end.

Since it is a small town, performances are everywhere – not only in theatres, but also on improvised stages, in apartments, in squares and streets. The festival authors have built the most special stage in the green Baden Powell Park on the outskirts of the town, where there was also a giant circus tent, in which parties were held that attracted thousands of people. The park, over which the giant moon rose every night, seemed to have its own climate, as the festival-goers and artists took refuge under the cool shelter of the giant trees every evening. During the day, we found refreshment by the pool with its shaded garden in the town centre or sitting on the terrace of the Zaghini restaurant, once a favourite of Federico Fellini, where he enjoyed the best spaghetti bolognese around in the company of Marcello Mastroianni and the screenwriter and poet Tonino Guerra. Guerra, a Santarcangelo native (the town also hosts his museum today), co-wrote the story for Amarcord with Fellini, and Antonioni’s classics such as The Night, The Adventure, The Eclipse, Zabriskie Point as well as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia were also filmed based on his scripts.


Gathered around the table

But let’s return to the stages. The new artistic director of the Santarcangelo Festival, who will be in charge of the festival programme until 2024, is the young Polish playwright Tomasz Kireńczuk, founder of the Dialog Festival in Wrocław and the Nowy Theater in Krakow. He studied and lived in Rome for several years, exploring the Italian Futurists. He was chosen after careful consideration, as no less than 66 theatre professionals applied for the position. As he says, when he designed this year’s programme, Can you feel your own voice, he was interested in what it means to create contemporary theatre and dance in the unstable and unjust world, in which it is necessary once again to fight for the freedom that was once already fought for, and in a society that marginalizes and fears contemporary art. For him, the festival is above all a place for community, closeness, and hope. When I watched the performances, it was clear to me that the topics he was interested in were very different – from gender issues, women’s issues, climate change, nature, politics to intimacy.

During the festival, Piazza Ganganelli, Santarcangelo’s main square – romantically decorated with small lights in the evening and truly reminiscent of a square from a Fellini film – featured a giant round table, which served as a stage and place for conversation. In its design, Tomasz Kireńczuk was inspired by Polish history – on February 6, 1989, the communist government sat down at a round table with the then unrecognized organization Solidarnost, led by Lech Wałęsa, and began

negotiations to end the labour protests in the country. This conversation led to the first semi-free parliamentary elections in the Soviet bloc and a stunning victory for Solidarity; it also marked the beginning of the end of communism. As Kireńczuk said, this round table in the city square was also an opportunity for dialogue, sensitivity, listening, openness, and learning to understand each other and ourselves. A public place for reflection. The round table, around which there was always something going on, was designed as part of the international Create to Connect – Create to Impact project, which focuses on participation in art, establishing innovative contacts with the audience, and the impact of art on society. The project that includes as many as fifteen international partners is led by the Ljubljana-based Bunker Institute and will be completed at the end of August during the Mladi Levi festival.


Birth and death

Among the performances that impressed me the most is definitely Tutto Brucia by Motus, one of my favourite Italian theatre companies, founded by Daniela Nicolò and Enrico Casagrande. The group has already performed three times at the Mladi Levi festival with its visually sophisticated and political performances. Once again, their starting point was Greek mythology, and once again, the performance features the extraordinary performer Silvia Calderoni (accompanied by a young actress and musician whose singing anticipates the atmosphere of the event), whose performance is a virtuoso power that awakens and sobers the audience.

On the stage, only the ashes remain of the world left behind by the apocalypse, there are no more people, only sensitive and damaged female creatures remain, but they are still capable of giving birth, resisting, loving. As Daniela Nicolò told me the next day, she has been interested in monsters for a long time – she is intrigued by their horror and fragility, so they always like to play on stage with the feeling of fear, which is food for monsters. Their next performance will be about Frankenstein as well as about Mary Shelley, the writer who created him. How did the time of the romantics flirt with the sensibilities of monsters?

Swiss artists Igor Cardellini and Tomas Gonzalez created a performance that took place in the largest shopping centre near Rimini. The performer led the audience around the giant consumer Mecca, explaining to us the architecture and history of these buildings. The passing customers must have taken us for members of some religious sect – with blue caps on our heads, all of us immersed in the sound from the headphones on our ears. To summarize some of the history and practical information that I learned during the performance: the first shopping centre in Italy was opened in 1977, there are 130 shops, several cinemas and 12 restaurants in the one we visited in Rimini, covering 52,000 square meters – the largest shopping centre in the world is in Iran and is 37 times bigger. When it was opened, the cardinal from Rome was also invited to Rimini to come and bless it.

The temperature in the shopping centre is also strictly controlled – a pleasant 21 to 24 degrees Celsius is supposed to create a sense of eternal spring for the shoppers. The first shopping centre was designed by Victor Gruen, a Vienna-born architect and theatre director. He escaped from the Nazis to New York and started designing shop windows on Fifth Avenue, but only became famous when he designed the first shopping centre in the city of Edina in 1956. Everything in this building was turned inwards – shop windows, shops, halls. He envisioned the shopping centre as similar to the small towns he saw in Italy – with the square, fountains, greenery as the most important elements … People meet, chat and shop here. Just two years later, shopping centres began mushrooming across the United States.

The performance is also special for the audience in that it rarely happens that a person spends an hour and a half in a shopping centre and does not buy anything.

The title of the possibly most celebrated performance of this year’s festival is Doom. It was created by Swiss artist Teresa Vittucci as the last part of her trilogy. It was supposed to be about female mythological figures, from Pandora to Eve, but I found it almost unbearably cliché and banal. The screenings of films titled Death and Birth in My Life by Berlin-based journalist Mats Staub are completely different and, despite their simplicity, extremely emotional. The author filmed several conversations between two strangers talking precisely about what the title says: family, birth, one’s loved ones who have died, and children who have been born. It seems incredible how these intimate stories brought together two souls who met for the first time, and how much pain and joy we all have in common, how death and birth bring us together. Screenings took place in various, mostly private, apartments.


The festival programme included as many as 170 performances. At times it seemed as if the whole city was a show with garage sales, an improvised bookstore and special karaoke called Queereeokes where everyone could become queer … In general, many events dealt with the topic of gender, the body, and freedom.

As I was leaving the last performance, I was thinking about theatre, metaphors, and truth. I remembered a quote I once read in the playbill of the Motus Theatre, written by Riccardo Benassi: “I was thinking of those who lean out of the window and turn their face towards the wind to dry their tears so they don’t go to waste.”


Link to article in newspaper Delo (in Slovene).