Marco Martinelli at a rehearsal for The Sky Over Kibera (Photo: AVSI/Andrea Signori)

Marco Martinelli: “I am telling your story”

He brought to the stage the youth of the Kibera slum for an unforgettable performance of the Divine Comedy. One of the most interesting Italian directors talks about his life and Dante, a love that kept him from losing himself.
Anna Leonardi

“When you walk the streets of Kibera, you have to watch your step. Along the red dirt road, littered with kilometers of corrugated steel and trash, there are chickens, stray dogs, and street vendors. It is hard to look up and see the sky.” This is how Marco Martinelli, director, playwright, and artistic director of the Ravenna Teatro (Ravenna Theater) described his first impression of the massive slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Still, he was able to look at the sky and draw it closer to the earth. His play, The Sky Over Kibera, which brought together 150 youths to perform the Divine Comedy in the dusty streets of the slum in November 2018, is a journey that takes you from the underbelly of the world to the light of the heavens. Today, this play, which began as a project of AVSI in some of the city’s schools, has become a 50-minute short film in which Martinelli gives us a taste of “an experience that has changed me, above all.” It came after his 40 years in the Teatro delle Albe (Albe Theater), the theater company that he directs with his wife Ermanna Montanari, and 30 years in the “non-school” program, a theatrical program that exposes youth to the classics and has brought him into contact with many educational institutions. “Kibera is an immense human trench where I was able to regain sight of the reason why I chose this profession, that is, so that I could have an opportunity to understand the heart, the mystery that we are. Fundamentally, neither of us wanted to work in a ‘dinner’ theater. There is always a risk, but in time I have learned that where there is danger, you can also find what saves us.”

Speaking of risks, you arrived in Kibera with neither a script nor a project. You only told the teachers and school principals expecting your arrival, “Do not prepare anything, I am coming to take a look”...
This is our method: we need to become like children in order to be able to see. Only after a year of conversations and investigation did I perceive that the Divine Comedy was the appropriate text for these kids. One day, I met with teachers and students and I began to tell the story of a man who got lost in the woods. He was confused and fearful, and when he saw three wild animals drawing near he became frightened. I asked, “What do you think will happen to this man?” In chorus they replied, “The animals will eat him!” So I asked, “Are you sure? Don’t you think that something else could happen to him?” A small child, 10 years old, raised his hand and said, “Yes, that man could call his mom.” That is when I knew I had made the right choice. I said, “Do you know that in this story that is exactly what happens? His mom sends him a friend that guides him out of the forest.”

This is the moment that you call “bringing to life,” meaning that the theater does not “bring to the stage” classics, but rather it “resurrects” them; it makes them alive and tangible.
Ezra Pound used to say that Dante was an “everyman,” that he represented all of humanity. Even though these youths in Nairobi had never read a verse of the Divine Comedy before, they understood immediately that Dante’s experience had something to say about their own. They are more familiar with hell than we are. In fact, they suggested their own rings of hell: thieves, assassins, corrupt politicians, false lovers... in the ninth ring, where Dante places Lucifer, the greatest evil, they placed those who committeed evils against children.

The final scene of The Sky Over Kibera shows the moment in which a huge human river emerges from the slum and reaches the entrance of purgatory. How did you introduce the students to the corresponding passage in Dante? Purgatorio is the canto of a new beginning. The night is over and children go back to school, where they begin to learn a new language. In that scene, we used some verses by Mayakovsky. “What sense would it make if only you save yourself? I want salvation for all the earth, for the entire race lacking in love.” Then, “If stars are lit it means / there is someone who needs it. It means / someone wants them to be.” The person yelling these words through the megaphone was Kingsley, 11, who was facing the procession and leading them along the way. By watching his expression and hearing the words resound from his mouth, it was clear to me that he was not just performing. He was living those things and announcing them to the world.

The task of reinventing the Divine Comedy inside and outside theaters has become your trademark. In Matera and Ravenna in Italy and in Timisoara in Romania, you filled town squares and streets with people who became actors. Would you say that your theater is a theater of the people?
I like the idea of a theater of the people very much. It reminds me of the sacred representations of the Middle Ages and of the mass spectacles of the Russian Revolution, in which the artists went into crowds and together gave life to their creations. In each city we go to, we hold “public auditions” and many people flock to us, each with his or her own desire to be Virgil, Beatrice, Paolo, or Francesca. During the Ravenna Festival, for Canto XVIII of the Inferno, we presented the choir of harpies as figures who do not submit to men. Hundreds of women came and all of them performed – it is a role that touches the hearts of many women. The greatest surprise was that the woman who gave out the most piercing cry was 82 years old. I have a need for great humanity. My ‘I’ is not enough for me.

How do you come up with these ideas?
My ideas come when they want to. They are like grace; they are graces. You can wait for days, even weeks, and nothing happens. During this time that seems empty, you continue to work. You work with vigilant discipline and make miniscule attempts. The ideas have always come because Ermanna and I, in some form, have prayed for or invoked them. Then during the process of creating the production that follows, there are moments that can be dramatic, in which you ask yourself why you decided to follow that intuition...that is the moment of crisis, of the dark forest.

How do you find a way out?
In the darkness, after days of making bad decisions, you must become silent and hope for an epiphany. When Ermanna and I were faced with creating Fedeli d’Amore (faithful of Love), a project in which we wanted to tell the story of Dante as he is reaching the end of his life, we spent months in limbo. We were struggling to create the story, so we finally shut ourselves in our house. I read Eliot and she watched Netflix. It was thanks to verses by Cristina Campo that we were able to break out of our writer’s block. Ermanna sprang up and said, “What if the fog spoke?” I discarded everything that I had written and gave a voice to the fog, making it the protagonist of the first scene in Fedeli d’Amore, in which Dante dies during the night of September 13–14, 1321.

Does this also happen in real life in moments of existential darkness?

In order to escape the forest, Dante needs to be pulled out by a human chain. The human hands that helped me were first of all of my father, and then those of Ermanna. I lost my faith when I was 24 years old. It was the most tragic moment of my life. I could no longer feel the affection for me of the “You” who I had been used to talking to since I was little. I spent two years thinking that it had all been an illusion in my mind. I was wounded and in mourning, and I felt tormented to the point of being open to suicide. I was saved by Ermanna and by the theater.

Ermanna and I got married when we were 20 years old with the great dream of having our own theater. We were still at university and everyone thought we were crazy. A year later, we created our first theater company, “Maranatha.” Then later when I was going through dark times, Ermanna’s love saved me from drowning myself in illogical thoughts. I define it as a “Dionysian love,” because Dionysius, the god of theater for the ancient Greeks, kept me bound to the sacred. Through Dionysius, I gradually rediscovered Christ, who moves my heart. The great illusion was the lunacy that I had sunk into. “It was from there that we emerged, to see–once more–the stars.” With this verse, Dante concludes the Inferno. In reality, there, in that first step that frees you from blindness, you already see the light of paradise.

In your most recent book, Nel nome di Dante (In the name of Dante), you talk about your father, Vincenzo, who would wake you up every morning by reciting Dante, Esopo, Toto, and Guareschi...
My father, even though he came from a family of farmers, was able, through a series of coincidences, to attend a classical high school. He became an official for the Christian Democratic Party in Ravenna. He infused in me, from the time I was a small child, his passion not only for Dante, but also for politics in its highest form. I absorbed all of these things like a kind of music. He never taught me from behind a desk; he was just a happy man who mixed serious things with silly things. As St. Augustine said, “The soul is nourished by what gives you joy.”

How have you put into practice what has been passed down to you?
Vincenzo was my teacher without trying to be, from the time he would sit at my bedside in the mornings, always telling me new stories, until the day he day he died in 2009. He lives in my heart, which I see in the way I try to interact with teens who participate in our “non-school” programs. We named it this, even though it is an educational program, to underline its two essential conditions: desire and freedom. No one is forced to come. You come because inside your heart you want to be there. It is a call that I, first and foremost, must answer.

The non-school program has produced great fruit, taking root in vastly different lands, from Nairobi to Scampia in Naples, and in many classical high schools in big cities...
In every part of the world youth long to find adults who have the courage to do what they talk about. In me they do not look for a director, but someone who can respond to what is good and bad about their lives, someone who takes responsibility for them. In Scampia, the social workers asked me if Simone could join in. He was 12 years old and did not go to school anymore–his entire family was in jail. Any excuse was enough for him to pick arguments or fights. This went on for months– he would kick the stage as we worked with the others preparing to perform Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry.

READ ALSO - The Sky over Kibera: The Divine Comedy in the slum of Nairobi

And then what happened?
One day Simone approached me like a wild cat. We were sitting in a group and working on a scene in which Ubu’s henchmen were supposed to kill his rival. In my ear he whispered, “I have an idea for how to do it, but I will only tell you.” We sat in a corner and he began to describe to me a scene of escalating violence and torture. It was a complete piece, a mix between Eduardo and Gomorra. I was thrilled and said, “We must write this down, start dictating it!” Before joining the other youth, he grabbed my arm and as he snatched the sheets of paper from my hand he asked, “Marco, can I sign it?” He had begun to sense that the things around him and the life of the stage could become his own.

So then the non-school program can be compared to the “dark forest,” a meeting place that is also where a journey begins...
The theater is a place of belonging. In a time of “non-spaces,” where people are often condemned to being part of an anonymous mass or mimicking superficial characters, the theater is the kingdom of people whose eyes meet. “You and I together” is a subversive act in the eyes of the world today. The theater can touch the heart of every individual because it says, “I am telling your story.” When we open ourselves to others, we become open to Another.

Another with a capital “A”?
Yes, because in the theater, just as in other places where one has real experiences, you are pulled away from falsehood and become grounded in the mystery. What allows us to see clearly? Maybe we need a crosseyed gaze: one eye looking at what is happening here and one looking toward the sky. Our “daily workshop” is centered in the polis and the Mystery at the same time. I am filled with emotion as I think of Antoni Gaudí, who, while standing on the construction site of the Sagrada Familia with his feet planted in the mud watching a stonecutter, never stopped asking, “Lord, speak to me!”