I have chosen to introduce Candelaria Romero as a ‘ storyteller who does theater ‘ because this seems to be the most suitable definition to explain the long and rich activity of this actress and poet who considers theater essentially storytelling.
At the end of the Seventies, still a child, she was forced to leave her country of birth, Argentina, then under the Videla dictatorship, with her sister and parents, both poets. She studied theater in Sweden where the exiled family had relocated. Since 1992 she has lived in Bergamo, northern Italy, where she writes poetry mixing all the different languages spoken in her daily life – Spanish, Swedish and Italian- and creates theater performances dealing with refugees rights, women, the marginalized. By pulling ancient stories out of her witch hat, Candelaria Romero helps us understand the present and to imagine a better future based on listening. Like a spider, the author weaves a dense network of knots and intertwining threads where everyone finds the right place and feels included. And so the personal stories of an ever-searching traveler become the story of all those who have embarked on the journey towards self-knowledge and knowledge of the world. And her stories become ours as well.
MS In your performances there is a very close relationship between life and theater, that is, between your biographical experience of migration and your theatrical activity. It seems that your theater as storytelling is born from a compelling need to communicate the roots, the troubled events of your family, your personal history.
CR Certainly my approach to theater is, so to speak, a resilient one. I like to remember the beauty that made me grow and that is part of my way of seeing the world. In the future, perhaps, I will be able to tell things that are far removed from my personal experience, but today I still feel the need to start from myself to produce material which, later on, becomes the subtext. My stories are just the starting point that allows me to tell more. So everything becomes a kind of research, as occurs in my show ‘Affabulare’ in which I speak of my family’s escape, but I also speak of the act of telling itself, of why we need to tell a story. The ‘personal’ is thus processed in such a way that it becomes universal. I adopt and adapt the structure of the classic fairy tale, with the hero facing obstacles and then finding their way of overcoming them. I’m talking about myself in order to talk about other people as well.
I recently completed a project that was commissioned to me for the inauguration of a library in the Bergamo area named after Italian scientist Rita Levi Montalcini. In this performance, I spoke of her, a scientist with whom apparently I had nothing in common, taking as my starting point my own biography. Yet, as I tell my story, we discover that our human chronicle shares many commonalities: she too was a refugee, fleeing Mussolini’s racial laws. Searching and finding one’s own way, that’s what I tell and want to tell.
MS Let’s talk about your work as a poet. Do you feel more like a poet or an actress? The ‘Compagnia delle Poete’ that you are part of together with many other women poets of immigrant origin , or ‘ poete ‘ as you like to define yourself [Editor’s note: as opposed to ‘poetesse’ a more traditional term used for female poets], stage performances blending poetry and movement, a perfect combination of two languages, the poetic word and the body.
CR I feel that I am more a theater person. I consider poetry something very intimate because I write for myself, for my pleasure. I have only published two collections of poems and I don’t even feel that urge to publish. When these collections were published, I used my theater to carry poetry around in this way, open to the outside. The ‘Compagnia delle Poete’ made me feel in tune with my own experimentation. The experiment of the ‘Compagnia delle Poete’ is something very new: it is not doing theater in a traditional way, but rather, bringing poetry into a space that is not really the stage space, but in any case it becomes so because of the stage elements that are present there, such as lights, scenography, movement, words. We don’t do theater. We recite the poem aloud; it is poetry ‘spoken’ without interpretation so that it reaches the listener directly. The less poetry is interpreted or ‘performed’ the better. It is an attempt to create a stage space only for words, for orality. It is a very interesting experiment, but it is not theater. It is essentially an experiment, being on stage together through poetry . This is the poetry I want to do. As the daughter of poets, I feel poetry as a language that belongs to me. But I still see it as a form of private expression, a kind of personal diary.
However, now that my third collection is about to come out, I think my way of making poetry is about to change. While before I did not think about the reading public, now I feel compelled to do so, especially in the editing phase before publication. It is a change of perspective. In some ways this approach works, in others it doesn’t because it seems to me that it changes the original idea.
MS The increasing episodes of intolerance, racism and fanaticism that fill the crime pages require us to carefully think about the issue of refugees and immigrants, listening and education. Even today, people’s country of origin brands them as belonging elsewhere, thus acting to constrain those who perceive themselves as citizens of the world, either by choice or forced circumstances. The earth is one and it appears to be still, but men and women move and for this reason they become ‘foreigners. How did you live and live today as an immigrant in Italy?
CR I like this image of the fixity of the earth and the movement of people, of migratory flows. Personally, I remain hesitant and perplexed by the phenomena of xenophobia. We are still here talking about integration, as if there were something extraneous that struggles to fit into a fabric. In a certain way, it is as if there were a nation, a place, an identity, a culture where one has to insert oneself in the same way as something external that wants to penetrate the mesh of a piece of fabric. I think one should stop thinking this way. There are many citizens who, despite being born and having lived in Italy, find themselves outside its socio-cultural fabric. Of course, the situation is more complex when one arrives in this country with a different language, a different culture. Today, more than ever, identity is something fluid, liquid.
Even the words used to narrate facts of intolerance are unsuitable: us and them, belonging, but what are we referring to? To the national flag, to the region, to the city, to the neighborhood? With the pandemic, this fragility has emerged more strongly. I was recently struck by the intolerance, the resentment, the feeling of non-belonging in Trump’s America, which is also present in Italy. I think that the very concept of integration goes beyond cultures, and refers to the idea of community. This idea of community is the basis of intercultural teaching which seeks and creates scenarios, imaginaries, codes that can belong to everyone to promote and facilitate coexistence. Many residents have no relationship with their local territory.
In the course of my volunteer work in Bergamo during the first lockdown, I experienced firsthand and discovered new forms of marginalization where you did not believe they could exist. Many residents were forced to turn to social services for the first time and at the beginning many did not even know who to turn to, what services the city offered, where were the offices that offered them. What is real integration? What does it mean to integrate? Who should be integrated? What is undeclared in society emerges in this period of emergency. Difficulties certainly do teach. Personally I was able to create very positive relationships in Italy, and now I work in cultural volunteering projects that involve citizens of Bergamo and its province. The goal is to make this tragedy an opportunity to improve relations between residents. To keep alive that solidarity that was born of the emergency which should, however, be turned into permanent action. These experiences must become a strength, an opportunity to understand the value of caring for one another, as Pope Francis says.
MS The theater world today is among the hardest hit sectors in the pandemic. As a theater person, how do you experience the forced shut down of theater activities forced by the health emergency?
CR First of all, it must be said that we are dealing with something much more complex than we can imagine, as theater is a very heterogeneous universe. Often different categories are placed in the same box when really they are in very different situations, from those who are permanently employed and have a contract with established, repertory theaters to very small, cultural promotion companies. Freelancers and the self-employed are less protected. And this must be taken into account when it comes to government stimulus checks. Covid highlighted the fragility of all workers in general. This fragility has to do with a very old-fashioned state apparatus and a world of culture that consists of gray areas, informal forms of economy and exploitation. The ones who suffered and still are suffering the most are the workers who have no fixed contracts, those who belong to small organizations and those who work with school projects. External, self-employed experts have lost the possibility of presenting their bids for theater workshops to the schools, municipalities, libraries. However, it is also true that in the first lockdown there was solidarity on the part of foundations and trade unions towards all entertainment workers. We must all remember that there is a whole world of workers gravitating around the theater that we as audience do not see: costume designers, hairdressers, machinists.
In my city, Bergamo, we theater workers and other artists were initially able to report our needs to the public institutions. Then we tried to collaborate with each other, to form a committee to get together and to make concrete proposals to face the emergency. Public aid arrived for some and with the relaxing of restrictions for the summer work arrived as well. By September 2020, the second wave hit and took us by surprise, finding us already exhausted. Despite this, we confronted the problem of finding suitable, alternative spaces, and it was a huge job. Eventually, with the second and third wave of lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, all our efforts turned out to be useless. This was the source of enormous frustration for all of us.
MS Some actors have suggested different forms of ‘home theater’, a sort of palliative, but still a way to make the theater survive, if not fully live. Interestingly, because in this new formulation, theater has been brought back to its origins, as a street show, a traveling performance.
CR Another alternative is also theater in streaming: where you are on stage without an audience and perform the show then stream it ; in some cases even with a paying audience. Here in Bergamo in our splendid Donizetti theater, recently reopened after long renovations, a streaming show was offered . But the theater is something else. Done remotely, the most beautiful part of theatrical performance is missing, the relationship with the audience.
MS You too engage in theater outside the canonical space of the stage.
CR Actually it has always been like that for me. Since my theater beginnings, I have always tried to bring theater into unconventional spaces. I looked for opportunities to do theater in the social sector. In the early 90’s there were many projects with social institutions, I worked with Caritas [Editor’s note: the sector of the Catholic church in charge of providing services for the needy] in homeless shelters. Over time this has become a choice for me. For example, I am working a lot in libraries, the quintessential cultural space, a lively and rich space though it lacks a proper stage area. My theater does not require a lot of stage elements, is simple and does not require large spaces. For me, what matters is to bring theater into people’s daily lives, in the streets, in the courtyards, even in the homes. I have also had experience collaborating with large, professional companies, with very specific poetics and artistic choices. These are completely different experiences, with stable theaters and shows with well-defined repertory, lights, music, sets. Obviously it’s something completely different from what I do alone in my monologues , but they too are very enriching experiences.
My simple and ‘homey’ theater work stems from the need to overcome obstacles in order to be able to do theater. This comes from my lived experience, as a migrant around the world who learns to live with obstacles and difficulties. This is a great lesson that I have received from my parents. When we were refugees, after our flight from the Argentine dictatorship and the move from Latin America here to Europe, we visited museums, we nourished ourselves with culture. I remember a short stay in Madrid and a visit to the Prado museum. Here, my parents taught me to find a form of salvation in culture. Culture saves especially in the darkest hours of your life
My way of doing ‘home’ theater, so to speak, means bringing the theater to the people always and in any case, offering cultural opportunities despite everything. This is deeply entrenched in me, both for the education I received and for my own theatrical training. I studied with the Odin Teatret, the company founded by Eugenio Barba in Norway. Mine is a theater that works on the body, on the actor who creates scenes, actions, gestures and words through which to express herself/himself. The final product is the result is all the work done by the actor, the director is solely responsible for the editing. For this reason being an actor is a continuous work of collecting material, exercising, training. This is the concept of theater I studied in Sweden and Denmark; this is my way of doing theater, which is basically my life choice.
Cover image: courtesy Los Amigos de Cervantes; photos in the article by Matilde Sciarrino.