• Ven. Set 24th, 2021

Raising the curtain on sex and sexism in Italian theatre

Mag 13, 2021
Disparità di genere nel teatro

If, as Shakespeare said, ‘The whole world is a stage’, then the stage is also a world … That’s the view of Cinzia Spanò, 46, born in Milan, an actress and playwright who for many years has campaigned for  women’s rights especially in the world of theatre.  

Cinzia was chosen as one of the 110 ‘Women of 2020’ by Italy’s most respected newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, and now she is the President of Amleta (a feminisation of Amleto – the Italian word for Hamlet), a new group made up of theater professionals to fight against gender inequality. Amleta has used the crisis caused by the enforced closure of theaters due to Covid restrictions to call for reflection and change in the dynamics of the system itself, which are at the root of the inequalities.

How was the Amleta born?

The group was born in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything kicked off in Italy at the beginning of the lockdown. In March 2020, with the forced closure of the theaters, the Actresses and Actors United movement was formed, aimed at creating a discussion forum on issues related to the acting profession.

Within it, various discussion groups were formed, among them one on gender issues, which became the first meeting point between actresses focused on what was to become the central theme of Amleta’s commitment: gender issues in the entertainment sector.

Amleta started off with 28 founding members: actors, playwrights and theater trainers from all over Italy, who met weekly through online meetings.

The network immediately expanded to 100 members who subscribed to a newsletter, which then quickly became 200. In December 2020, Amleta was established as a social promotion association. Since February, the association has been involved in a membership campaign and now has almost 400 signed-up members. The expansion is not only because of the need for funds, but because, “the more we are, the more we can be effective”, explains Cinzia Spanò. “We also have several men registered, and they are very welcome. It is important to have more and more supporters so as to have an impact at a decision-making level. “

The first goal: mapping

The first important goal for Amleta was to take an accurate snapshot of the current situation. So a detailed mapping of the presence of women in Italian theater was carried out.

“Our starting point was the desire to prove our belief that there was gender disparity in the world of live entertainment,” says Alessia Bedini, 40, actress, performer, trainer and co-founder of Amleta based in Milan. “So we decided to analyse the billboards of the theatrical seasons of the last three years, from 2017 to 2020, of the National Theaters, of the TRICs (Theaters of Relevant Cultural Interest), and of the Piccolo Teatro Foundation in Milan, all of which are supported by public funds.

“The aim was to understand how funds were distributed within our sector. From there, thanks to detailed research work, started in June 2020, we were able to map the situation. This was the first very concrete goal achieved by Amleta, and it allowed us both to put pen to paper about an issue which up until then had just been an impression, and to have data to use to start promoting change.”

The mapping revealed data that speak for themselves: among the most serious is the total lack of women in charge of the National Theaters in Italy, while only 6 TRICs are headed by women.

The overall presence of women, across all professions in the theater – directors, playwrights, screen writers and actresses – is only 32.4 per cent, while the male presence is double that at 67.6 per cent.

Women playwrights they represent only 14.6 per cent of the total, and the gap becomes shocking when it comes to directors – 82.9 per cent men and just 17.1 per cent women.

And the actors? Even here, parity is a distant dream: on the main stages, women make up just 37.5 per cent of the total and just 35.9 per cent in the main national theaters.

These data take on important nuances if we consider that according to Istat, the Italian Statistics Agency’s ‘Culture and Free Time’ report, with data gathered up to 2018, women of all age groups are much more likely to actually go to the theater – 21.5 per cent of women against 16.8 per cent of men. In particular, girls aged 15-17 are 10 percentage points ahead of their male peers.  Despite these disappointing statistics the Amleta project isn’t discouraged. Its work lies in the active and coordinated support of new projects and activities.

Monica Faggiani, 49, born in the southern city of Salerno and now living in Milan, is an actress, author, trainer and co-founder of Amleta. Speaking of the mapping, she says: “It was a demanding task that we carried out over the summer, working on it together and remotely. To let you understand, you have to remember that each theater has an average of three performance spaces or sometimes even more, and that we wanted to count the presence of actors, actresses, playwrights, and all the entertainment professions. We spent a bit of money having the data analysed which meant we had pie charts and graphs we could use, because we know how much images matter. It was our Amleta associate  Eleonora Giovanardi who transformed the data into a video that we distributed to the community ”.

The importance of ongoing formation

Lifelong learning is another goal for Amleta. Every Wednesday there are online training courses that involve the collaboration of male and female experts on gender issues: film critics, philosophers, writers and sociolinguists.

“The training is not only aimed at gaining information,” Monica continues, “but also about creating a common approach to setting our goals, and finding the strategies to carry them forward in the best possible way. By sharing these video reports, taken from our meetings, we want to encourage the community to get organised, because there is still a lot to understand when it comes to gender disparity and feminism.”

Gender Wednesdays, carried on Amleta’s Facebook page, have so far seen a series of big names in Italian theatre take part: Igiaba Scego, the writer, Lorenzo Gasparrini, the feminist philosopher, Diana De Marchi, President of the Equal Opportunities and Civil Rights Commission of the city of Milan, Attilio Palmieri , the film critic, the lawyers Roberta De Leo and Lara Benetti, Maura Gancitano, the philosopher and founder with Andrea Colamedici of the Tlon library, Marina Pierri, the film critic and author and Vera Gheno, the well-known sociolinguist.

Language as a ‘place’ to change reality

When it comes to language, Amleta is committed to creating a shared common vocabulary, because, as Alessia Bedini states: “You can have a sensitivity, that’s fine, but training yourself so that that sensitivity becomes proper understanding is something else.”

Laura Tedesco, 34, an actress and author from Palermo who now lives in Rome, is the co-founder of Amleta and says: “It’s about creating a language that can shape the reality that surrounds us, and modify it. That is why Gender Wednesdays are a regular fixture. Through those who follow us, language becomes a place to change situations and overcome gender inequality. For this reason, the next step after the mapping was to work on the formation of a vocabulary that could become a symbol and a promoter of change, so that together with us more and more people become aware of the issues.”

From Gender Wednesdays, a collaboration was also born between Amleta and the Tlon Bookstore in Rome – which deals with personal philosophical growth. Tlon will promote material proposed by Amleta – everything from plays to children’s books – to help raise awareness.

Amleta’s activity follows two parallel tracks.

One is the cultural track, as Cinzia Spanò explains: “The moment you put on your gender lenses the world changes, and it’s like turning on a light bulb in a dark room. You have to work to focus your gaze, because growing up immersed in a patriarchal culture since childhood, it is not easy to see clearly.”

The other track for Amleta is their practical planning in the fight for equality and against gender-based violence. It has started an open dialogue with a number of agencies: trade unions, the Ministry of Culture, the Higher Council of Entertainment, playwrights, directors and organizers who have expressed a desire to meet the association.

“There is a common front among all the workers in the entertainment industry, the male workers too, because men are not excluded, and indeed we ask their support.  We are their allies in the battle for their rights too.”

The importance of the network in the fight against gender-based violence

Many partnerships have been established with other associations in Italy that have signed up to the Amleta manifesto: Among them are the Dire Fare Cambiare [Say, Do, Change] cultural association, RES – the union of Veneto companies and Difference Woman, an association of lawyers and experts that has been dealing with gender violence since 1989. The latter is supporting the entertainment workers involved in cases of violence and abuse by offering psychological and legal assistance.

 It’s that alliance with Difference Donna that led to the arrest of Claudio Marini, the ‘director’ from the Ciociaria area south of Rome who organized fake auditions to carry out violence against young actresses.

Cinzia says: “Speaking out about violence means tackling a hidden and sensitive issue. We know that for years there have been abuses that no one has ever talked about; situations that have been going on for many years. Violence comes in many forms. We set up a protected email address which allows people to report what has happened to them, which is only read by three Amleta members, myself included, and many reports arrive that way.

In the case of Claudio Marini, before summer, we received reports about a young girl who, after having suffered an attempted episode of abuse, managed to escape from the fake director, and it was only later that she discovered that several colleagues had found themselves in a situation similar to hers. She found various reports about his behaviour online and discovered the existence of a private Facebook group made up of very young actresses who had suffered attempted assaults by him. The number of girls involved was very large, and complaints had already been filed with the police.

When we learned what was happening, we began to investigate, with the help of our lawyers, how it was possible that this fake director-attacker was still active.”

Marini, like many abusers, organized fake auditions with an almost maniacal regularity.

The cities where he set out to entrap his victims, always in the same way, were Rome, Milan and in some cases Bologna.

The procedure was always the same: a first audition that took place in rented studio appartments with cameras, lights and staff.

The girls often had an unpleasant feeling even at that first meeting, but the situation still had a semblance of credibility. The actresses were then summoned for a call back, which took place in completely different ways: a rendez-vous outside a McDonald’s, for example, after which they were taken by car – by Marini – to a vacant small apartment, the place of the alleged audition, but this time without cameras, without a film crew …

The pretence of the audition continued, until he asked the girls to play a scene on a sofa, which involved kissing and love scenes.

“At that point many girls left immediately,” says Cinzia.

“It is very difficult to take this step for a young actress, since in this business there is undoubtedly  a dark side … if you are young you do not understand what is legitimate or illegal to ask, what is right or wrong to be expected to undergo. And that is one of the things Amleta works on. “The work we do on social networks creates ‘antibodies’ that allow very young girls to understand what they should not be expected to do in a professional situation. It is not a simple task, because this work of education is not taught in drama school, and sooner or later that will have to be addressed.

“The lawyers were as surprised as we were that Marini had not yet been stopped, because today, by law, when reports of this type arrive at the Prosecutor’s Office within a few days, the Magistrates are required to speak to the injured party. In his case the girls had never been contacted.”

When the most serious report came in, concerning the rape of a 19-year-old girl, Cinzia Spanò called Attorney Teresa Manente, of the Difference Woman project, who specializes in gender violence, and is one of the best in Italy in this field. Manente listened to the rape victim and set up an appointment. The next day Manente went to the magistrate and after about two weeks Claudio Marini was arrested.

“The lesson here is that we must turn to specialists in gender-based violence,” concludes Cinzia, “because the first lawyer had never filed the reports or complaints, allowing Marini to attack women for another year. It is important to act promptly and use the right means.”

The use of nude images taken from theatrical performances in online pornography channels

With the support of Difference Woman, Amleta is financially supporting – accompanying them in the complaint process – colleagues who are victims of another type of violence: the non-consensual dissemination of nude images on pornographic websites, images lifted from videos takem at theatrical performances or from films on the net.

Cinzia says: “As soon as we received the first report relating to nude scenes we immediately reported it to the police. A month later we received a second report, this time relating to images taken from a film, and similar reports followed.” Here too, Amleta is operating on several fronts: by providing economic and emotional support, and financing legal costs where possible.

To pay for the first case costing 2000 euros, the 28 founding members of Amleta made a personal commitment, optimistically hoping for more funds to be raised through other activities.

For example: to mark November 25, the World Day of Awareness of Violence Against Women, Amleta released a special video, a collage of all the shows of the actress-members on the theme of gender-based violence, and sold it to a hospital that broadcast it to patients.

Another important source of funds is the membership campaign.“Because it is important for us at this stage to be able to count on help and solidarity from the outside,” explains Cinzia, “inside Amleta there is ongoing voluntary work that involves the commitment of very hard working members who give hours and hours of their time to our causes day in, day out…”  

Theaters’ responsibility

Amleta also encourages theaters and online platforms to take responsibility in combatting this form of exploitation. It’s an area in which there is still much sensitization to be done.

“We are urging theaters to protect those images. Video recordings of shows are not intended to be distributed outside the theater. They serve as an archive and for this reason they should remain protected, not be shared in public. And here too we often have to intervene because often the release forms we are asked to sign in our first contracts involve the relinquishing of control over our image.

“There is also the question of the right to be paid for the use made of that material…We just want to ensure that actresses who do a nude scene in a show – and that can range from Shakespeare to Genet – do not subsequently find their bodies ‘exposed’ in pornographic sites with tens of thousands of comments and views. Theaters need to take responsibility too. And contracts must protect this material. Our work is long and tiring, but if we can raise awareness, people will think twice before publishing material on a free platform for everyone to view without permission.”

“The message we are trying to get out to young actresses and theatrical colleagues is this: You are not alone,” says Monica Faggiani. “Unfortunately we have always been in a blackmail situation in our industry. You know the script: ‘You’re not prepared to do what I ask? You are prepared to publicise what’s happened? Then you’ll never work again.”

“If you are 20 or 25 year old you find yourself wondering, what do I do here? How can I do what I should? Who do I tell? Will I be believed? Will I not be believed?

“Now they know that we are here for them. If a complaint is filed, Amleta acts as a civil party in the case because we must give a clear sign that violence is not acceptable. We have to stop thinking that because we are actresses, and we work with our bodies, then we have to shut up.

“Even when we are accused of infringing on directors’ freedoms…I always say: ‘we will stop them’. I don’t know how long it will take, we will take however long it takes. It’s not easy. It’s expensive and requires constant work and networking, but that’s what we’re here for.”

Concrete support for parenting and new drama for women

There is one other very important area in which Amleta is active: the issue of parenting. The aim is to ensure effective support is in place to allow a woman to actively choose motherhood, without having to give up the profession as a result.

Monica again: “This is a problem not confined to theater, unfortunately. When I was in the final month of pregnancy I could only be an assistant, not an actress, because there were no roles for pregnant women and no one was offering me a part. You are fragile and it is risky if something happens to you while you are working. This is another issue that is emerging …”

Another important theme is the reformulation of some drama offerings, a campaign that involves collaborations with various universities, to understand how to build a dramaturgy that contains non-stereotyped female characters that do not correspond to the usual narrative.

Laura Tedesco explains: “When it comes to our work on dramaturgy – it’s an issue for actresses and writers – we ask, through a test, for a varied and multifaceted representation of the female character. The woman is not only the 18-year-old girl, not only the mother figure, women are real, 3D characters. It is no use limiting our roles to figures who almost always seem to play second fiddle to men.”

Amelta is investigating how existing playwrights write about and treat women, both in terms of numbers – by calculating for example how many female characters compared to males there are in a cast – but also how these women are presented; what language is used in their characterisation.

“We are interested in knowing if the woman is only described in idealizing or disparaging language and if so, what such language is for. Our study collects data on numbers, attendances and so on, but, at the same time it tries to ask the right questions, helping to switch on light bulbs within the industry’s darker corners to tackle issues in a different way. This might seem a purely intellectual exercise, but the aim is very practical. We are also on the lookout for new opportunities  for female directors and writers,” saya Laura.

We have to remember that we are dealing here with the majority of the theater audience who are women who come to see plays about women written by men. Clearly women are exposed to stereotypical and patriarchal narratives from which it is hard to break free. We are not calling for women to do everything but at least we should aim for a 50/50 split, so that the women in the audience can watch performances narrated in a non-stereotypical way. This is a long-term goal that impacts the culture of our society. Italy is light years behind on all gender issues compared to many European countries,” says Monica.

Gender Pay Gap

According to the Global Gender Pay Gap Report 2020 drawn up by the World Economic Forum, Italy ranks 76th out of 153 countries, one of the worst in Europe (along with Greece and the Czech Republic). “Italy ranks after many countries that have far fewer resources than us. And these data cannot be ignored,” says Cinzia, “because they have a serious cultural impact on people’s lives and we want to ensure that women no longer have to experience this kind of disparity.”

To carry forward this campaign, Amleta has adopted the words of Simon de Beauvoir: “Never forget that all that is needed is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights are never fully acquired. You will have to remain vigilant throughout your life”.

Making progress through clear communication and ensuring practical help and support for women: this is surely the lesson we can all learn from Amleta.

And if – as seems likely – the results of many of the group’s projects will become more visible over time, it will mean that the seeds sown in less than a year of activity have borne good fruit.

Translation by Ronnie Convery Italian Version

This story is published in the Solutions Journalism Network Story Tracker

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