On Sunday, as part of FAO’s open week-end, I visited a very special place in the Diecimo valley (and, therefore quite close to me) about which I had known for many years but never managed to see.
Until I came to live in Italy I thought the smallest theatre in the world was the one housed in a Royal Enfield sidecar, which has maximum seating for two persons and whose performance I attended at a Dickens Festival event in Rochester, UK.
But criteria for the smallest theatre vary. Can they be mobile? Can they just have puppets as the actors? If so then Piero Nissim’s “pocket theatre” must count as the smallest, as described in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/pumpkins-and-puppets/.
However, if the criteria are set for permanent buildings housing a theatre, and historical buildings at that, then surely the palm must go to Vetriano’s Teatrino. And that’s the place I went to yesterday.
The day was absolutely dismal and at one stage it even started to hail. Not a good weekend to choose for open days and in such a contrast to the wall-to-wall sunshine we’d been having for the past three weeks. However, I pressed on up a mountain road that in various stretches was showing grave signs of subsidence until I reached the small village of Vetriano (height 1581 feet above sea level) and its even smaller theatre.
In 1889 a well-off local inhabitant called Virgilio Biagioni offered his fellow villagers a hayloft surplus to requirements on condition that they convert it into a theatre. He didn’t see why villages should be deprived of the same entertainments offered so profusely in cities like Florence and Lucca. Already the larger towns in the Serchio valley were building their own theatres: the Alfieri at Castelnuovo, the Colombo at Valdottavo, and the Nieri at Ponte A Moriano. Some towns had had theatres for centuries like Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico and Barga’s Teatro dei Differenti. So why not Vetriano?
The villagers jumped to the idea and within a short space of time had converted the hayloft to a miniature theatre complete with boxes, stalls, stage and scenery. All was beautiful decorated in a floral style. There was no seating in the theatre – the audience brought their own chairs in from home. (Today, it may be rather more difficult to bring a chair, especially if you are coming from far off to attend a performance, so the present chairs have all been donated by benefactors whose names appear on the backrests.)
The theatre was in a parlous state back in 1997 – shut-up seemingly for good and the fabric decaying fast – emigration had reduced the audience and television had seduced the remaining inhabitants. However, thanks to local intervention, FAI stepped in, raised funds, organised restoration and finally, in 2002, opened up the theatre to the general public with a performance of the play “Benvenuti in Casa Gori”. (Total cost for giving life again to the theatre was estimated at Euros 500,000)
Since then the season has continued uninterruptedly from strength to strength with everything from Pirandello to Molière, from Madame Butterfly to Rigoletto. Yes, the little theatre of Vetriano is also an opera-house with a fruitful collaboration with that somewhat larger space – La Scala, Milan!
We were given an interesting introduction to the theatre by a local volunteer and I was also shown into those areas which have now been included as part of the theatre: a small refreshment room, services and a booking office.
Unlike most other places open during the week-end Vetriano’s Teatrino actually belongs to FAI, having been given to it by a local donation. You can become a member of FAI at the little theatre or if you are a member of the UK’s National Trust (we are life members) you can use your card to get into any of FAI’s properties free of charge or at a reduced rate. Reciprocal arrangements exist for FAI members in the UK – a great example of conservation groups collaboration.
I left the theatre having bought a ticket for the next production which is called “La Toscanaccia”, (now the total of eighty seats are all sold out), and sped home through the hailstorm on my scooter for Sunday lunch.
(Events are listed at http://www.fondoambiente.it/beni/Index.aspx?q=gli-eventi-del-teatrino-di-vetriano).
How wonderful it is that all those theatres in our Serchio valley, thought-up and built by enterprising minds in past centuries, are still functioning and providing great entertainment and social venues for the local population. When I think of all the theatres that have closed in my former residency at Woolwich, London (there are none left there now), and the barbaric threats to the remaining theatres left in Greenwich, I cannot understand how, in a huge and rich metropolis like London, these things can be allowed to pass – they certainly haven’t been allowed to happen here thank goodness!