Volterra prison in Italy: theatre behind bars

Article published on May 10, 2010
Article published on May 10, 2010
Twenty-two years ago, a surreal project took over a group of life, majority illiterate inmates in a high-security prison. Someone’s dream and belief in this theatrical project led to making the Compagnia della Fortezza ('company of the fortress') an award-winning reality

Volterra is a place where anarchists were jailed till the end of the 1800s. It's the hard prison where troublemakers were wrestled and punished at the end of the sixties. It's where high security units were established in 1977. Today, this is the place where murderers can become the Marquis de Sade, and where prisoners can denounce the 'Sharks' which remain outside the fortress.

Imagine a theatre prison in Italy pre-1988

Image from a performance of Virgil's AeneidThe theatrical laboratory of the prison of Volterra ('Laboratorio Teatrale nel Carcere di Volterra') was launched in August 1988 by the Carte Blanche association, managed by Armando Punzo. Many classical as well as contemporary theatrical productions have been staged since then, from La Gatta Cenerentola (a Neapolitan fable from the 1600s similar to Cinderella) to the recent Alice in Wonderland – A Theatrical Essay On The End Of A Civilisation, from Orlando Furioso ('The Frenzy of Orlando') to The Emptiness, Or What’s Left Of Bertolt Brecht, not forgetting the company’s pièce de résistence, Marat/ Sade; the 1963 play by the German Peter Weiss details the prison life of the French artistocrat the Marquis de Sade. 'I simply didn’t see a prison,' declares Armando Punzo as he recounts the birth of the project. 'I saw a theatre through the bars. My view didn’t stop at the barriers. I began to see a potential in the inmates’ qualities which was not immediately obvious. That’s why they began to believe in me and my project. We started working together and achieved astounding results.' The group is now on tour throughout Italy, albeit abiding by the penitentiary rules and regulations. Shows in the prison are open to the public. Training now involves around fifty people between actors, stage-hands and technicians. Inside a prison, the detainees have discovered the attraction of the stage, because onstage 'they have found the opportunity to look inside themselves, of dealing with cultural and philosophical questions which they would not have attempted to address when outside,' the director adds. 'The theatre embodies a well of life-changing experiences for everyone, whether a prisoner or not.'

'Drama therapy' has been such a success in Volterra that it has been exported to the jail of Roumieh, north-east of Beirut

The Volterra prison has become a repertory company to all intents and purposes. For its twentieth anniversary, the doors were thrown open for a backstage tour of all the spaces used in theatrical activities. The prison has become a professional space in an unusual setting, made by people who are not professionals. 'But that’s fine, because I didn’t want to work with professionals,' Punzo says. In 2000, a protocol agreement was signed between the justice ministry, the penitentiary administration department, the region of Tuscany, the province of Pisa, the Volterra city council and the board of Italian theatres, for the establishment of the Centro Nazionale Teatro e Carcere. In 2001 the ministry of arts awarded a carte blanche 'special project' for the work done by the Compagnia della Fortezza. The Volterra prison is not only famous for its past, but also for its present: the experiment which may be referred to as 'drama therapy' has been such a success in Volterra that it has been exported to the jail of Roumieh, a village north-east of Beirut in Lebanon, which is an absolute novelty for a prison in the Arabic world. Slowly, the experiment has become a seed of cultural revolution which pushed open the door - just where you would not think that culture would gain an entrance.

Image and video ©Lavinia Baroni and Compagnia della Fortezza