Roberto Frabetti
Roberto Frabetti is an Italian theatre artist. He works specifically in the area of children's theatre. He is part of the theatre company La Baracca Testoni Ragazzi in Bologna, Italy, and has been producing theatre for children since the mid-1970s. He was in Mumbai recently for an 'Early Years Master Class' that was organised by Shaili Sathyu's Gillo Theatre Repertory in collaboration with ASSITJE India. We took the opportunity to talk to Roberto about his theatre in Bologna, about his ideas for children's theatre and of how cross-cultural interactions in theatre can be meaningful. We have tried to retain as far as possible the colloquial spontaneity of Roberto's conversation with us in order to convey the spirit underlying his ideas.

 By MTG editorial

Nayantara Nayar (NN): I read that you've been working in children's theatre for over thirty years.

Roberto Frabetti (RF): Yes, from the beginning I had done work in children's theatre. We formed our company in 1976 and we never did theatre for adults; always for children, because we assumed that this was what was important. In 1976 we had a small company- Le Baracca. Then in the 1980s we were given a theatre in Bologna. This was a public theatre - the Sanleronardo Theatre given by the Municipality of Bologna in agreement that we create theatre only for children. It was the first agreement of its kind between the government and a children's theatre company. It was also the first children's theatre in Italy. Then in 1995 we moved to the present theatre- Teatro Testoni Ragazzi. It is also donated, a free theatre. It is quite large with one room for 40 people, and two rooms that hold a hundred people.

NN:What did this engagement with the area of Bologna mean for you?

RF:It means community, setting in the roots, knowing the area well. We also have a purpose of creating and supporting generations of artists right till this generation. But first it is to create something for Bologna and its people. Bologna is like a small part of Mumbai. We need hundred Bolognas to make one Mumbai. There are about 300,000 people in Bologna. It is still big in terms of Italy, but it is the right size for us because it is like a town where it is possible to create a relationship with the entire town - to be connected to every part of it, like we have a relationship with a lot of schools, if not all the schools.

NN:And you work with very young children, all the way up to adolescents of 14 years?

RF: We produce theatre for every age from 0-14. In Bologna we also have a lot of theatre (especially) for the children inside the municipal theatre from 0-6 years. When we started we worked mainly for children from primary school, and we did some work with children in the age group of 3 to 6 years. 3-6 years in Italy is normal- there is a lot of theatre for this age group. But 0-3 is not so normal. Here I must clarify - not actually 0, but rather from 1- 3. And there is also a difference in the kinds of theatre we do. We do different plays for children in schools and different when it is children who watch plays with their mothers and fathers.

NN: Why is that?

RF: Because you need to. We are dedicated to the children of the community - children inside the public schools. And there is something for everyone, from any part of the society. In schools it is better to perform. This is also why we usually have small casts- two people is the best. Yes, in a bigger space, like in the theatre, you can have a hundred children and more actors, but we like going to schools and in some schools we are performing in rooms that are five meters by five meters. To get theatre to the children is more important. Also we like going to schools. There we have a good space to observe the children at different times like while we are setting up, while the teachers are talking to them, and after the show. Also we can interact with the teachers who give us much feedback. They have very useful things to say about how students react to the play. This is very important.

NN: Talking about feedback, you had mentioned earlier in the workshop that research is essential to the kind of theatre you do. Could you elaborate on that?

RF: We tour everywhere in Italy and people come and see us. We manage the public theatre in Bologna. We have a commitment to create this theatre for the children. To do this properly, we must find out as much about our audiences, what they like, or don't like- what they react to. To know this, is important. It is not just the job of directors or producers, but first of the actors to affirm something - of what is useful, and to pay attention to that.

NN: Do you relate this to what you were saying in the workshop about 'watch'?

RF: Yes, for an actor 'the watch' is very important; where you put your eyes. If you don't put your eyes in the correct position you lose the audience. It is a very important thing for the actor. It also helps you do your research as an actor. There are three kinds of watching: one is the 'telling eyes' where you see a story and you try to share the story with the audience. So you tell a story of the sea and in your mind you must see the sea, and then create a common fiction where everyone sees the sea. The second is the watching that underlines the details of your body, of the action, of the situation. Everyone must look at you because in that moment you are the main character and you are saying 'Please, please audience, look at me'. And the third is a watch like a bridge: 'Please note that I am looking at you.'

NN: The workshop you conducted here with Gillo included these aspects?

RF: Yes, the entire workshop was about this and about finding good contact between actors, about energy, and physical contact. It is also about empathy. When you go to the theatre, you really like the show when you are involved in it. When you are involved with your mind, your skin, this is empathy. This happens sometimes, sometimes not. Sometimes it happens when I'm a spectator, sometimes when I'm on stage. But with the children I find although it may seem strange, that this empathy happens more with them than with adults. It is truly amazing when it happens with what we call the adolescent age group. Sometimes we call them small adults, or grown up children, but no they are not that. They are adolescents. When you make that connect with them it is brilliant because it feels like you have been accepted by them and you can have big satisfaction. You enter their world and they feel you, and they realise you are interested in them. The quality of the empathy in that situation is really fantastic. This search for empathy is actually research. The actor researches it the same as they would research for 'Beauty' or 'Truth'.

NN: We have had some interesting discussions here about aesthetics, and of how collaboration across cultures needs to work. Could you tell us more?

RB: The aesthetic is important, because the children want to look. This we have learned and known from all our work. But in whichever place this theatre is being created, the aesthetic must be influenced by the tradition and culture of that place. I don't like this import mode- someone comes and imports something. It is like saying, 'I'm here, I know theatre, and this is my system. Follow it.' No. Instead it must be - 'I have something to share, are you interested in looking at it and adding to it?' Like in this workshop, or the group discussion we just had. We all must create. Every artist has to create their own artistic vision. There exists no model. The first indication to the artist is 'Please follow your vision. No model exists.' The problem is never what is correct or not correct; it is always about whether you find a connection with the children or not, or with whichever audience. Once you do that, then you have to ask if it is correct or not. The first thing is always, 'Yes I am interested to relate with you'. It is the beginning of that wonderful story: a man or a woman, older, younger, but we are interested in each other, no matter how briefly. We connect, even if it is a relation for five minutes. This is the most important thing for theatre in the arts for children. To give this subtext always: 'We are two human beings in front of each other, and I declare I respect you, and you declare you respect me. Now let us begin.'

*Nayantara Nayar is a freelance scriptwriter based out of Mumbai. She has previously worked as an artistic director and resource trainer for a youth theatre company in Chennai. She enjoys writing about theatre and the arts.

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