How to Avoid Meaning

Noam Alon rearticulates Romeo Castellucci

Seven terms of theatre making and one short remark about inspiration

Romeo Castellucci was born in 1960 in Cesena, Italy. He graduated with a degree in painting and scenography from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. In 1981, together with his sister Claudia Castellucci, Chiara Guidi and her brother Paolo Guidi he founded the theatre company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. The company took its name after the Renaissance painter Raphael and sought to create new modes of expression beyond those traditionally found in dramatic art. It became widely known in the international stage in 1995 with Orestea, a performance in which the physical presence of the actors was counterbalanced against modern technology. Castellucci is known as an auteur of theatre based on the totality of the arts, aimed at creating holistic stage compositions, and he has produced a large number of works as author, director and designer of sets, lights, sound and costumes. His productions often bring together animals, children, actors and non-actors, and draw upon philosophical, literary, and visual ideas. 

In June 2015 Castellucci presented Julius Caesar, Spare Parts, his dramatic intervention on Shakespeare's play, as part of the 54th Israel Festival, curated by artistic director Itzik Giuli. During his stay in Israel, Castellucci held two public talks. The first conversation was conducted by Guy Gutman at the School of Visual Theatre, and the second by Dror Harari, at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre, as part of a conference of the Israeli theatre-directors guild. The following is a summary of these conversations, re-articulated as a mini-lexicon of theatre terms or recurring concepts in Castellucci's thought.

Romeo Castellucci. Photo: Itamar Banai

When there is a clear message in the art work there is no scandal. Scandal comes from the word “scandalon”, which means the stone on the sidewalk that makes you stumble. When you stumble, you are obliged to change your walk, your position, your rhythm, to change your thought. You have to reconfigure everything. I think that this moment of scandal is one of the fundamental dimensions of art. Because otherwise, the art could dangerously become a kind of consolation – as if I was saying “I am pure because I'm an artist”. I prefer to be evil, because I cannot accept the purity.

For me, art is a way in which you are aware and concerned about the corruption of the language – from this awareness the scandal will arise. Because the language is a compromise that we accept, it's a common place, common house, the only thing that we can share, that we can communicate. Art is the only place in which you have to fight this convention – language. The language is like the sidewalk, and the art is the ״scandalon״. 

Art is a kind of battlefield. At the end it is about how to fight language through language – a paradox. For instance, when I bring a text from Shakespeare in Julius Caesar – the wonderful speech of Mark Antonio (which stands for itself as a language machine) – I reveal the true nature of the language; I take the speech without making any changes, as a text object, in a very respectful way, but I give it to an interpreter who has no vocal chords. By that, I suspend the function of the language, through the language itself. Franz Rosenzweig wrote a wonderful thing about this paradox, in the context of the Greek tragedy, of how the tragic hero has to speak all the time in order to create the silence.

Another example from Julius Caesar is the first scene, where an actor speaks in a reversed image – like a reversed sock. The first image of the actor is not the external body but the internal. We first see him from his inside. That is another way to take distance from language through language. Suddenly language works, but loses its aim, it is emptied from its function, without any intellectual structure, you realize how language works and its mechanism, not as we are used to understand it. I use the nature of language by removing its content.

Time is the main matter that a director of theatre has. I work in fact with sensible real images, which bring their own rhythm to the stage, like a horse or an actor or a machine – and these rhythms I cannot control. Therefore, my mission as a director is to create images that do not exist – I create the space between the two real images with time which you can sculpt and change. The time is not chronological anymore, as you can imagine. It is about duration, which is psychological, not my psychology but the psychology of the time of the spectator.

The sense of time is the richness of theatre, because theatre is the art field which is able much more than others, to reproduce life – the only flesh art. In theatre we produce another reality which is against the real one, but still completely shaped and under control. Although, you still have to keep the door to the chaos open, because it is all about the balance between order and disorder.

The relationship with time in performance art is completely different than in theatre. In performance art the time is real. It works only in one direction. Here and now. Performance art is for live people. In theatre you can shape the time and stretch it. In a way, in theatre, you talk about phantoms, ghosts and dead people. Theatre is for and with dead people – every image or every character is not a representation, but a call, which can come true or fail. Maurice Blanchot wrote about the concept of the image in the context of Lazarus and suggested that every image is the rebirth of Lazarus.  The image is a phantom, something which comes back to life from another reality, and brings another language, another attitude to the world. I can discover the world through the phantom, the image, and through the technique of glance, we can change the way of sight in theatre and not the object itself.

Theatre, thanks to its linguistic nature, is the only medium that plays the language twice. We can understand through the term “Teatro Avulso” [theatre of divorce/separation] that there is tension between the representation and what it is facing in the world itself.  This tension creates another approach to theatre, which is very demanding, which is not only about entertainment. It is kind of a declaration, a kind of warning to the audience: “pay attention.”

We are working all the time on the nature of the language (and that is already a political act), we are obliged to consider every word and every gesture, because they are made in correspondence to a choice, whether aesthetic or other – not only in my theatre, but in theatre in general. If we talk about the theatre of cruelty of Artaud, and the violence which comes with it – there are two aspects that we need to talk about. The first is the antagonism – which I don’t want to create – because it cancels the idea of the inner battle. The battle in art is never against someone – it is always against yourself, against the nature of the language in the way that you perceive it. The second aspect is the violence which belongs to theatre. We can think about theatre as a story of violence, even in Molière's writings, in the comedy. The deepest nature in each piece is the violence. Violence means detachment, it means division. You are split as a character from society but also from yourself. In a good tragedy, the main movement is that division, something that cuts you into two parts. That is the meaning of the violence, the cruelty – you are detached, you are no longer protected from normal behavior.

The shocking images [which often appear in Castellucci's work] are related to Baudrillard's theory of shock. The necessity of the shock in the experience of western art was created when the gods were dead, when we had a lack of divinity, and we had to re-invent and interpret this completely new loneliness on earth. Violence doesn’t mean blood; violence comes when you feel yourself alone. Violence can also be something that is so tender. I think that theatre is the place of loneliness, a place that you can share this feeling of loneliness with someone else beside yourself… but you still feel yourself alone. This loneliness brings us back to language, because theatre is the place where communication is broken. Communication is an endless problem. We have to make this problem alive, probably because the sky is empty and there is no one on the other side. You have to be continuously self-reflecting – and that creates the paradox of the doubled approach to language. Because language is an artificial invention that we created in order to stay together, we created the world of theatre, another artificial world in which we can talk about the main artificial invention – language.

Dudi Saad
Castellucci in action, Israel Festival 2015. Photo: Dudi Saad

The artist has to disappear from the artwork – this approach is very important to me. The biggest problem of art is when the intention of the artist is shown. That is a trap, a terrible trap. My technique for that (although technique is not the most accurate word) is to be a spectator that operates in advance. I want my tension to be the same as the spectator's. I want to be on the other side of the stage all the time, and not on stage – because I have no intentions, I have no messages or contents. I share with the audience only the form.

So the problem is how to avoid meaning. I think the stress comes from lack of information, when something is not clear – this is a very precious technique, because it is so sensitive. Sometimes you have a body of performance and you have to take away some part of it, in order to create a lack of information – because these holes suddenly become a private space of the spectator, a hole that he is obliged to fill with his own creativity. As a spectator you have to recreate the whole thing, and this makes you completely involved in the process, while watching.

When the message is clear, it becomes a discourse, a statement, a kind of pedagogy. I don’t want to have any pedagogy, sorry, I am an adult. In fact, all the spectators are adults and they don’t need any pedagogy. In my point of view, theatre or art is not the right place for this. Theatre in particular is the place of mistake, of error, since its beginning. Think for example about the Greek tragedy as our heritage. I believe in mistakes, errors. Why should I give to the audience a good thought or a reasonable thought? I am not a priest, not at all. I’m a sinner, I’m the wrong person. Therefore I cannot give people a way to save their souls, because I’m not a savior. I’m the exact opposite – I bring corruption, as a gift. My point of view is similar to the theory of the aesthetics of Baudelaire or Nietzsche, who say that art is the corruption, not the truth. Art is a way to make you free from the truth.  

In the first part of the trilogy based on The Divine Comedy by Dante, in the prologue of Inferno, I put myself on stage and declare my name: “My name is Romeo Castellucci”. Then, three German shepherds attack me. These dogs come against me, in order to devour my name. It is a kind of declaration: the artist has to be destroyed and disappear. For this reason I chose to put myself on stage, but not as an actor, but as myself, with my name. The name that somebody has given me, it is not me actually, it is my name. This is also an example of working on language. What is it – “Romeo Castellucci”? It has to disappear, to be eaten by dogs. Only after this bridge would be crossed, the representation will be possible. But normally I’m not so brave.

My work is mental. I don’t really work on stage with rehearsals or with the idea of finding the way during rehearsals. Rehearsals are not creative moments for me. This is why the situation of moving with my works is easier for me, because I have to build the project mentally. For that reason I can work in my house and then bring it to theatres and other spaces.

There are two possible ways to start something that leads to the same result. You can start from the empty stage – the stage as a white page, where there is nothing, which allows you to be left alone in front of your notebooks. Another possibility is to work with an archive: Shakespeare, Aeschylus and so on – the enormous database of the past. If you choose this possibility, you are obliged to have a philological approach, working on the sources and on the sources of the sources. But if you work very deeply, you are lost. Like the ramification of the river, you open and spread, but eventually you reach the same level of emptiness as in the other approach. To overcome this trap, you have to be in an amnesiac state, even if you work with a title such as Hamlet. You have to reach the same condition as Shakespeare that made him write Hamlet – that is your task. Hamlet, for instance, is not something that exists and you can put on and create an illustration, because theatre is a three dimensional world. If you consider theatre only as a secondary branch of literature, you are obliged to make illustration. It is something that is really close to the commercial – the media, and it is very flat.

I spend a lot of time sharing my thoughts with the performers and the actors, because we have to be together, to push together. We are not alone when we share a human experience. Luckily my mental project is changed when I meet real people, when it meets reality. This encounter is a kind of geometry; it has to clash with the human body and the real person. Sometimes those people are much stronger than me. This is sort of a reversed pedagogy – where I learn a lot from them. For me this is the richest thing in theatre – the human quality and the language that we share, which is not linguistic. For example, Julius Caesar made me learn a lot thanks to working with an older man or a man without vocal chords. It changed my aesthetics because it was so strong and spiritual. I don’t want to have any protection in front of these people, I want to be naked in front of them, just as I asked them to have no protection when they are on stage.

On one hand there is this geometrical, cold and strict way of the mental project in your head, but on the other hand, all the fire and emotions when the collaboration with the performers starts leave you speechless. My work very often questions how to cool down the temperature, because the emotions that the performers and the audience bring with them create such high temperatures. My progress is not about having a balanced temperature, but how to keep both edges. This doubled nature of the gesture, can be sometimes stressful for the audience, but for me this is a kind of gift that the performers give to the audience.  

In the battlefield of language, the real enemy is the ego. The worst enemy is yourself, because when you feel you have found the “good way”, you have to change it and that is very hard. You are demanded to estrange yourself, otherwise, you’re becoming too confident with your method, and this is dangerous. I think that what is interesting is finding this point of contradiction. When I’m working on a project and I begin feeling good, I reverse the work that I’ve done and start destroying it. Then, if something resists my will of destroying – and insists on staying – it means that it has to stay, and that this is a good part.

I think that as an actor you have to be brave, you have to be ready to be ashamed – this is the core. It is not about covering the shame with professional attitude. For me, the best actor has to feel the flame of the shame. This is the way to be touching, and this braveness makes me respect my actors so much. They have to work with the shame to be here – in the wrong place – on stage. It is not my invention; it happened in Greek tragedy, this idea of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – it is the place of the error, which the actors have to support with their bodies. But there is a conflict, because the body belongs to the reality, whereas they are on stage, they break reality. Every piece of theatre is a battle against reality, but the only way that you can fight against reality is if you produce real. The real vulnerability, the fragility of a crystal, is one of the most precious qualities of the actor. I’m touched every time by this human fragility.

The audience is not a goal, it is the destiny. Theatre is sort of a call which calls you by your private name. My creativity, doubts and imagination are the same as the spectator's, because I don’t believe the artist is a special person or a priest who knows the truth. He is exactly the same as the person who sits in the audience. Therefore, the content does not belong to me – it belongs to the audience. The audience owns the responsibility to look. The act of looking is not an act of innocence anymore, because you yourself form what you look at and not anyone else. This is why theatre and art don't belong to communication. Like Gilles Deleuze's call for interruptions – you should switch off communication in order to create art, because communication works in one direction, and it can even work without you. For example, in media, you are not important – it could be anyone else but you; art, on the other hand, is a ring, an experience, not a discourse, and it is also a physical experience, not only mental. It's an act of presence: you are not looking at the show – the show is looking at you. I feel myself naked in front of any piece of art.

When Antonin Artaud talks about the body as the ultimate stage for the art piece, he doesn't talk about the body of the actor, but of the spectator. This is so relevant today, when being a spectator is a political condition – because we are already spectators 24/7. It is an existential condition, which makes us reconsider this position thoughtfully. Everything changes according to the spirit of each spectator – you can play certain notes but the harmonics that would be produced are different for each pair of ears.

The spectator has no borders, no identity; the spectator is king, like in Las Meninas by Velazquez – where the place of the king is that of the spectator. The theatre could also be considered as a black mirror – where the reflection is that of the spectator who is looking at it.

Amit Man
Romeo Castellucci and Guy Gutman in converstaion at the School of Visual Theatre. Photo: Amit Man

Independent art making
Although my work is based in Italy, it does not depend on the state. In general there is no thought and no money for contemporary theatre from the government. The culture institutions in Italy have completely abandoned contemporary art and contemporary theatre – they don’t consider it at all. This interesting situation creates completely independent groups. They grow up, very wildly, with no money and no space. We started almost 30 years ago, we were very young, and we squatted a space. It is very important to have a space – it can be a tool for meeting people and sharing your experience with others. It’s a pity that we were obliged to go abroad since the beginning, but it was a fact, not a choice. Nowadays the situation is different of course, but I still think you have to be in rage, you to have to fight with the fire of nothing, you have to be strong in front of it – all this creates a certain kind of aesthetics. When we started working, not having money was not a problem, but now it became a problem. I noticed that for the younger generations it could be even an excuse: "I cannot work because I have no money." I think this is dangerous, this relationship with the money.

A short remark about inspiration
There is no difference between high culture and low culture. It is strange, but sometimes when I walk on the sidewalk and I hear a phrase from someone I don’t know, it can be a shock and I must write it down. The references are everywhere. The world is like a garden in which you can collect fruits from everywhere. But the most important thing is to be capable of listening.

March, 2017