Interview with Fabrizio Crisafulli.

By Ludovico Cantisani.

Fabrizio Crisafulli, born 1948, is an Italian theater director and visual artist, an exponent of the so-called research theater. Trained in the fertile environment of the Roman cellars, following Giuliano Vasilicò for a long time, his conception of theater and art has always placed great emphasis on the creative and expressive potential of light. His Teatro dei luoghi project was reported at the 1998 Ubu Awards. Among the various critical publications devoted to his work are Fabrizio Crisafulli. A Theater of Being (Editoria & Spettacolo, 2010), edited by Silvia Tarquini, and the recent Light and the City. Fabrizio Crisafulli and the RUC students at Roskilde Lysfest (Lettera Ventidue, 2022), edited by Bjørn Laursen, dedicated to the Lysfest (Festival of Light) realized by Crisafulli between 2013 and 2017 in Roskilde, Denmark, at the invitation of the local university, which also awarded him an honorary degree in 2015.

We interviewed Crisafulli about his entire journey and his search for light, from his beginnings in the world of independent theater in the 1970s to his most recent installation Bagliori, made in Principina a Mare in September 2022.

Centro e ali, ideazione di Fabrizio Crisafulli e Giovanna Summo, regia e luci di Fabrizio Crisafulli. Nelle foto: Giovanna Summo, Anne Line Redtrøen, Carmen López Luna (foto Serafino Amato)
In a lecture-self-portrait you gave at the MACRO in Rome a few years ago1,1you recount that you began your directorial research starting with light because, in general, it seemed to be the least cared-for and in-depth element in theatrical practices. From what moment did you begin to be specifically interested in the creative potential of light?

It was probably attending the so-called "Roman cellars" in the 1970s, a very important phenomenon of Italian theatrical research, that gave me the decisive push in this direction. In the shows I was seeing and in the experiences I was coming into contact with at that time - I am thinking of Carmelo Bene, Memè Perlini and especially Giuliano Vasilicò, whose path I followed closely for years - one could see an employment of light that was very different from what I had seen in theaters up to that time. Light had a poetic presence that often equaled that of the word and the actor. In Vasilicò, in particular, it also contributed substantially to structuring the performance dramaturgically and rhythmically. This seemed to me to finally reconnect light, even in its scenic declination, to the autonomous force and energetic and generative quality it possesses in reality.

Can you outline the most important characteristics of your research on light?

In principle, I try precisely to make stage light acquire the strength and determining power proper to light in reality, where it is a primary, originating element that determines the organization and quality of life and actions. I think for this reason that stage light should not be relegated to a secondary position, as is often the case in common practices, where it is generally prepared in the last days of rehearsals. I think that this devaluation of the rising role of light makes the theater lose its ability to resonate the real. The question is not to imitate natural light, but to recover the energy and arousing power of light, whatever form it takes on stage, even the most abstract. There have been in the history of theater several moments of awareness of this aspect. Some of its implications were already quite clear, for example, to certain Baroque theater treatisers, to many Enlightenment intellectuals, to great stage reformers of the years at the turn of the nineteenth century such as Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig. And they are found, more or less under the radar, in much theatrical research from the historical avant-gardes to the present. But, in general, practices have continued to prefer the usual path, although there are extraordinary exceptions. This is a subject on which I have had the opportunity to reflect a great deal, trying to make use, in identifying its many aspects, of my own operational experience2.

When and how did your concrete research in this specific field begin?

In the second half of the 1980s I started workshops, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Catania, in a small Italian-style theater. I aimed to explore the possible articulations of light as a language, with a view to making it regain strength and authority on stage. In that specific field of study, we were making performances without text or actors, based entirely on light, objects, and sound. To test their effectiveness from the point of view we were interested in, we would systematically present them to the audience. The central question was to investigate the capacity that light possesses to independently initiate and carry on its own discourse. And to elaborate a language sufficiently articulated to enable it then to develop relationships on par with other expressive elements, in works with performers and the rest. In the workshops, we were trying to construct sensible concatenations of "happenings" with light: dramaturgies. It was not about supporting the narrative and dramatic development of a theatrical piece, nor, on the other side, about making son et lumière performances, successions of "effects" in relation to music. Instead, it was a matter of making theater and dramaturgy in the proper sense, with light. Leading the latter beyond the sphere to which it is predominantly made to belong, that of the image, to make it act in an important way as time and as action.

Fog-Malevič, spettacolo di luce del laboratorio dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Catania condotto da Fabrizio Crisafulli, 1990 (courtesy Gatd).
Does your research on light also feed on confrontation with other artistic languages?

Of course, inevitably. And the comparison happens both in the specific processes of construction of the individual work and in the general research on language. Regarding the latter, a very strong reference has always been music. Light can be composed like music: it possesses the same malleability and availability to elaboration, the same souplesse-as Appia said, who wrote fundamental pages3- the same capacity to produce meaning and poetry, and the same possibilities of linguistic exactitude. I have conducted workshops on light continuously over the years, alongside my directorial work with actors, dancers, literary references. And that has been a very important experience for me. That, in my directorial and dramaturgical work, has put me in a position to propose to the performers and all the collaborators, already at the initial stage of each creation, concrete terrains of relationship, articulated, living, with their own logics: "worlds," in which, as in reality, light possesses its own laws, and has a great importance and influence on everything that happens.

Another central theme of your research is the concept of "theater of places." On the occasion of the honorary degree you were awarded in 2015 by the University of Roskilde, Denmark, you gave a lectio magistralis in which you stated that this particular mode of your work "attributes to the place where the performance is constructed and presented a role as a starting element of creation similar to that played by the text in other kinds of theater"4Can you explain in more detail the starting basis and purpose of the theater of places?

It is a kind of work that does not correspond, as perhaps the definition might suggest, with making shows outside theaters. Nor with "setting" work. It does not mean using the venue as a "set," nor does it mean "adapting" theatrical pieces in non-theatrical spaces. It operates a reversal from the usual way of operating: the place becomes the first point of reference of creation, its matrix. And by place I do not mean only the physical site, but the sphere of relationships that, in the construction of the work, are established with the people, activities, and memories with which it comes into contact, as well as with its material data. Relations that, incidentally, can also occur within the theater, if the theater is considered precisely as a place, with its history, its operating relations, its identity, and not merely a host space and a medium. I say this because, in fact, the moment in which for the first time I had a perception of how the place of relationships can become generative of work, was precisely during the light workshops I mentioned, which were taking place on stage. There was a phase in which, stimulated also by the shortage of resources, we began to turn our attention to the stage and its equipment - wings, backdrops, "Americas," ropes, counterweights, pulleys, lighting fixtures - seen no longer only as tools and mechanisms, but also as elements that carry history, culture, identity. To see their evocative and potentially poetic side linked, for example, to the memory of stagecraft and the performance represented. There was born a strand of work that we called "dramas of technique," which brought the stage and its equipment into play as symbolic and poetic generators, which became absolute protagonists, together with the stagehand-poets who moved them, of the performance. I had then, already in those early years, many opportunities to verify how the indications that place provides and the impetus it exerts on choices are even more extensive when working in non-theatrical type sites, urban or "natural" spaces that they may be, which of course are usually even more powerful and implication-laden pre-existences. But, as I said, this does not mean that theater of places is distinguished by the fact that it takes place in non-theatrical spaces.

Teatro dei luoghi a Pomarance, ideazione di Fabrizio Crisafulli e Giovanna Summo, regia e luci di Fabrizio Crisafulli, 1998. Nella foto: Giovanna Summo (courtesy Gatd)
How come you use the definition theater of places and not site-specific theater?

Mike Pearson5 has rightly observed how the site-specific adjective applied to performance is very generic, and is therefore understood in different ways depending on the artists and contexts that employ it. Moreover, the term refers to place understood as a physical location (site) and not in a broader sense. I needed to use a definition more relevant to my own work, which I identified at some point through concrete work and reflections.6.

What is the relationship between site theater and the use of light?

As I said, in this kind of work, place becomes the "matrix" of creation. This also applies to light, which does not relate to place in terms of "illumination," but in a more complex way. One could say that it tends to create with the place an exchange. More than an element "projected" from outside, it is matter "belonging" to it. And from the place, in a sense, it seems to "come". I am not talking about sending light toward the audience, an eventuality that can also happen, but about a kind of mutual determination between light and place. The most immediate case of understanding is perhaps that of light taking on the forms of architecture as a matrix, to some extent "tracing" them, reworking them and returning them in a new "vision." But the question is more articulated and concerns the relationships with all the elements of the scene: the actors, the objects, the sound. And it brings movement into play.

Are you referring to the use of mapping techniques?

Also. Or rather, I would say that mapping is an issue that should be considered in the context of issues such as those just mentioned. Definitions such as projection-mapping or video-mapping refer today to a precise form of contemporary urban performance. But this is something that has more distant motives and origins. If one thinks of the arrangement of flame lamps along the main lines of architecture in the events of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, one realizes how they were mappings. Mappings made by hand through the physical arrangement of lumens on plinths, cornices and other parts of the architecture. In this way the building became precisely a "matrix" of the forms of light. But what was this kind of choice related to? To understand well what it is about one would have to look at all the ways of mutual determination between object and light over time. To the different forms they have taken. Which is a whole story. I can also think of later examples: pre-cinema, nineteenth-century optical shows, the magic lantern even before electricity. And to episodes closer to us: in the late 1960s, in the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, California, the faces of a group of singers filmed in 16 mm. were projected onto their respective sculptural portraits, which then, even with the help of sound, seemed to animate and sing. That, too, was mapping. As was At the Shrink's, a 1975 installation by Laurie Anderson, an extraordinary artist of great technical inventiveness who has always been an important reference in my workshops, in which an alter ego of the author, recorded in Super8 while talking to her psychoanalyst, was projected onto a clay figurine of the artist herself sitting in an armchair7.

Within your own journey, have you used such modalities?

They are modes that are immanent in the work, the use of which is always linked to specific motives. In my workshops in the 1980s, for example, we used light-object or light-body adhesion techniques, employing the analog tools then available, such as film projections, fixed (slides) and moving (Super8 film), and especially handmade masks arranged on the top of lecture whiteboards, according to a mode elaborated in workshops, which I often used later on as well. The modesty well in view, the first show of my company, born in 1991 just from the Sicilian workshops, was moreover based, as far as the light was concerned, on devices of that kind, which allowed to create continuous exchanges and reversals between real and virtual, body and image. We were not using the term mapping, which perhaps did not yet exist. I was very interested in exploring these modes of exchange and, in the case of that show, reasoning about the process of substitution of reality operated in our time by the image. Generally, I tend to frame the use of such techniques within a more general discourse on language. Sometimes, in the reasoning that always accompanies workshops, I have found it useful to make theoretical distinctions between different categories of light. For didactic purposes as well, at one point I found myself, for example, distinguishing between functional light, which is light that serves to illuminate the scene and the actors, and positive light, as I defined it, which is instead light-form and light that moves and acts; thus light not "to see," but "to be seen." The identification of this pair supported me in the concrete work on the dynamics and interchanges between light and object, and beyond. The use of mapping should also be seen within a linguistic framework, for it to have a ground on which to progress. Incidentally, the introduction to su tempo of digital projections and ad hoc software, in addition to creating new opportunities, seems to me to have contributed to "isolating" this modality and making it think of itself as a "genre." And this, from my occasional observatory of this kind of work, seems to me to have made its use even more vulnerable to what is an ever lurking danger in the design of light in performance, related precisely to its limited linguistic tradition, which is that of effectsism. With often degenerative outcomes, it seems to me, also related to borrowing from other fields and languages, such as video games.

Il pudore bene in vista, ideazione, regia e luci di Fabrizio Crisafulli, 1991. Nella foto: Agata Monterosso, Giusi Gizzo, Ramona Mirabella (courtesy Gatd).
Were there other kinds of considerations and theoretical distinctions that helped you in your work with light?

An important distinction was that between "illuminated scene" and "illuminating scene," which concerns the viewer's perception of the direction of light, and which, as can be guessed, also has relations to the binomial functional light-positive light: in the former case-that of the "illuminated scene"-light "goes" from outside to the scene; in the latter-the "illuminating scene"-it "goes," or seems to go, from the scene to the viewer. The distinction came to my mind while reading a 1915 "manifesto" by Enrico Prampolini8 and other Futurist writings where the idea of the "illuminating scene" is combined with that of a set design that is not subordinate to the actor, independent, dynamic, "acting." A scene that also acts by "sending" light. Sending it in an apparent way (by reflection, or even, in the case of the practices adopted by the Futurists, through the use of photoluminescent colors for the scenography), or actually, by illuminating the audience, as in a crucial moment of Feu d'Artifice, the pioneering show realized by Giacomo Balla in 1917, made only of light and scenic elements; a moment in which, in accordance with a very fast and rhythmic score, suddenly and for a few seconds, the hall was illuminated9 ; or as in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "circular theater" project of the early 1930s, where the lights were designed to be pointed at the spectators from the stage that surrounded them 360 degrees, to make them part of the performance10. In my work I have frequently activated dialectics and exchanges between the illuminated scene and the illuminating scene, which have generally been quite productive, both in terms of linguistic articulation of light and symbolic production.

Can you give an example?

I mention the rods in a 1977 show called Slow Thunderbolt, dedicated to Yves Klein: scenic objects that played a relevant role in defining the structure and meaning of the work. In the course of the performance, the rods were moved by the actresses themselves and arranged in different positions in the center of the stage, entering into different kinds of relationships with light. They were the "world." A changing world, which the people on stage at the same time constructed and found themselves around as an influential "condition" on the actions. At some moments it happened that the rods, white, were struck by blades of light (white or colored, depending on the scene) perfectly coinciding with them. Because of the exact light-object superimposition, they did not produce shadows, and thus seemed to light up and emit light like neon, like "illuminating" objects, precisely, despite being made of Styrofoam. Instead, at other times they received light from wide-beam, frontal or backlit fixtures. And, producing shadows, carried and proper, they appeared, what they actually were, "illuminated." At certain times both types of light were present; thus the "illuminated" and the "illuminant" coexisted in common even prolonged, changing situations, with varying degrees of relationship over time. This, in combination with the actions of the actresses, speech, space, and sound, contributed significantly to articulating the performance, visually and in terms of dramaturgy and meaning.

A recent installation of yours, Bagliori, made in Principina a Mare, near Grosseto, in the context of the "Dune" festival, seems to me to have brought into play luministic themes such as those you are talking about. It stretched for several hundred meters along the so-called "hut beach," characterized by constructions made spontaneously from tree trunks, and included luminous presences consisting of individual forms "applied" to huts. These, we read in your working notes, "contain within themselves two dimensions - geometry and color - which in their purity are absent from the site. But they were not conceived in opposition to the existing. On the contrary. The act of applying them to the huts corresponds to the operation that has been done by the locals for so long: that of building by successive additions a fantastic place."

For decades local people have created on the beach, as protection from the sun and shelter, these constructions that give the place a unique character. Creating a meaningful new vision out of such a powerful pre-existence, spanning miles, at first seemed to me an almost impossible task. My choices were also directed by this. I gave the intervention considerable scope, and arranged the forms in the space so that, although they were distant from each other, they created partial visual continuities. Each form, in addition to showing itself, signaled subsequent forms in the distance, and the existence of a path. Moreover, the succession in the viewer's enjoyment of the different "stations" also corresponded to the perception of the site that I had had during the inspection, by gradual discoveries of the different huts, and continuous surprises related to their revealing themselves in succession. As you rightly noted, regarding light, the illuminated scene-illuminating scene issue was also being brought into play here: I used a specific form, Not based not on movements, successions or temporal dynamics of light, but on the perceptual ambiguity light-object. To give light to the shapes, I used fairly generic LED luminaires, with non-shapeable beam and non-adjustable aperture; but I aimed them closely, so that they hit the colored silhouettes first and only marginally the huts, which were perceived in half-light. In this way, the silhouettes shone in the darkness with a bright light (hence, Glares), as "emissions" of form and color. The action that Melissa Lohman, whom I had invited to intervene, created within Gleams also fit into the path because of its sense of place. Melissa chose to work in an open log structure made up of the remnants of a hut destroyed by storm surges. And, in her sensitive contact with the place, she created a direct and subtle performance that seemed "generated" at the same time by the place and the installation. Her costume - red, two-piece, somewhat geometrically shaped - in addition to being an imaginative reminder of the idea of the bather, established a connection with the colorful silhouettes applied to the huts.

What role did sound play in the installation?

A weaving role, first and foremost. Andreino Salvadori created at some points of the installation paths made up of noises that seemed to be produced by the site (also for this specific aspect, we gave the place a "matrix" role): woods, waves, footsteps on the ground. Only in the final part did the sound have a minimally "musical" configuration, as well as noise, in a concluding area, almost a point of meditation after the long walk, where the viewer came to face a blue round, a kind of "moon" applied to the last hut of the path.

La “spiaggia delle capanne” di Principina a Mare (GR) (foto Carlo Bonazza).
How did the choice of shapes to be applied to the huts come about?

I chose simple shapes, wooden silhouettes of different sizes, rounds, squares, rectangles, triangles, painted with primary colors. The choice was intuitive, partly prompted also by the consideration that, in such a situation, those who visit the place at night are unlikely to shy away from remembering it in its daytime aspect; and this also led me to work on the tension between day and night, before and after, lack and presence of pure color, organic forms of the logs and exact geometry of the applied shapes. Tension that was combined with that between "illuminated" and "illuminating," and with the perceptual ambiguity light-object, which I mentioned. As is usual for me, this was not a work based on direct meanings, but on the activation between the performance and the viewer of a circulation of thought, memory, imagination.

You have stated that you consider a work of yours successful if it teaches something to yourself as well. What has Bagliori taught you?

One thing it taught me is really about shapes. I saw that the attractiveness they set in motion in that particular situation differed from shape to shape. More instantaneous and less prolonged that exerted by triangles and rectangles, more profound and spellbinding that of squares and especially rounds, which, with their colored luminous surfaces, in some cases stopped the viewer in a protracted observation, in an almost hypnotic condition. As if by a lunar suggestion or a ganzfeld effect. I was reminded of the astonishment I had felt in sensing the audience's reaction and my own to Olafur Eliasson's large installation The Weather Project at the Tate Modern in London in 200311. There, as is well known, at the center of it all was a large, artificial, translucent flat sun, arranged high up in the museum's large Turbine Hall, which transmitted light from a series of single-frequency, yellow back lamps toward the audience. Viewers tended to linger in the space for a long time, in many cases sitting or lying on the floor, attracted by that large, fixed luminous round; with the contribution, in that case, of the mirrored ceiling that towered over the entire hall and the artificial fog.

What were the reactions of spectators, local and "outsiders," to Glares?

Some perceived a link between the work and the commitment to the environment, which locally is remarkable, given also that the "hut beach" is located in the Uccellina Park and that the context was the festival "Dunes. Arts, Landscapes, Utopias." And this pleased me very much. Sometimes that kind of connection is felt because of ancillary choices, such as using "green" energy for the lights. In our case, it seems to me that respect for the place was appreciated more generally. A respect not conservative, but one of perspective. I liked the enthusiasm of people affectively connected to this magnificent place. And also some singular remarks by "outsiders": one person, for example, said that "we must have gone to an enormous effort to build those log structures to support the colored silhouettes," which, in addition to amusing me greatly because of the surreal reversal, nevertheless seemed to me to translate a feeling of intervention-place unity, unhindered by the visionary character of the installation. And that also pleased me very much.

Alongside your work in the field of light, you have written extensively on the subject. I was struck by the fact that in both prefaces to the English and French editions of your volume Active Light, you emphasize the timeliness of the book, despite the fact that the two translations were published several years after its first Italian release, which was in 2007. Dorita Hannah speaks, precisely, of a "timely" book12 and Anne Surgers of a book "that begins to fill an almost complete void in the French bibliography on the subject of theatrical light."13Do you feel that there is, in general, little attention to the subject of light?

Perhaps so. But to trace attention one must also look to nonspecialized fields of activity and thought. And to the past, where very advanced ideas can be found. I am reminded of Giacomo Leopardi's famous passage about the infinite forms and qualities that natural light takes in its relations to matter and space, in the innumerable interposed ways through which we perceive it14: a passage I often point out to my students to make them understand how, in the design phase, observing in depth the relationships that light establishes with things, people, spaces, surfaces, materials, inclinations, the production of shadows, reflections, and the outcomes on apparently insignificant, secondary or distant parts of the scene, is crucial. And how the observation and then the design care of these relationships is just as important as the study and care to be given to direct light and lighting fixtures, to which young people tend instead to give their greatest attention, induced also by designing with software, done on a screen and only eventually verified in real space, in relation to the body, matter, depths. I think that in every age the thought and experience of light has had very high moments. James Turrell has often talked about how important it was for him and his large Roden Crater project underway in Arizona, how much about natural light the natives of the area taught him15. They pointed out to him, for example, how, in that desert, on a moonless night, it is possible to see the shadows produced by the light of Venus; a condition that creates spaces to perception not easily imagined for us contemporaries. But certainly the age in which we live and the technologies available to us enable us to notice so many other things, as Turrell's own extraordinary work demonstrates.

1 Fabrizio Crisafulli, Autoritratto, in AA. VV., Macro Asilo Diario, MACRO/Palaexpo, Roma, 2019.

2Cfr. Fabrizio Crisafulli, Luce attiva. Questioni della luce nel teatro contemporaneo, Titivillus, Corazzano (PI), 2007.

3Cfr. Adolphe Appia, Oeuvres complètes, ed. in 4 tomi elaborata e commentata da M.-L. Bablet-Hahn, L’Age d’Homme, Losanna, 1986.

4Fabrizio Crisafulli, Il luogo, la luce, il corpo del teatro, in «Teatri delle Diversità», n. 73-76, dicembre 2016-maggio 2017, p. I; ediz. originale inglese:Place, Light, Body in Theatre, «Theatre Arts Journal», vol. 4, n. 1, 2017. Al teatro dei luoghi Crisafulli ha dedicato il volume Il teatro dei luoghi: lo spettacolo generato dalla realtà, Artdigiland, Dublino, 2015 e numerose altre pubblicazioni.

5Cfr. M. Pearson, Site-Specific Performance, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstock (UK), 2010.

6 Cfr. nota 4.

7Cfr. Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, Harper Perennial, New York, 1994.

8Enrico Prampolini, Scenografia e coreografia futuriste (1915), in Paolo Fossati, La realtà attrezza, Einaudi, Torino, 1977, p. 231.

9Lo spettacolo fu definito dall’artista un “balletto senza ballerini”. Cfr. E. Gigli, Giochi di luce e forme strane di Giacomo Balla, De Luca, Roma, 2005.

10Cfr. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Il teatro totale e la sua architettura, in «Futurismo», n. 13, anno II, 15 gennaio 1933.

11  Cfr. Susan May (a cura di), Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project, Tate Gallery, Londra, 2003. 

12Dorita Hannah, The Event of Light. Foreword, in Fabrizio Crisafulli, Active Light. Issues of Light in Contemporary Theatre, Artdigiland, Dublino, 2013, p. 11.

13Anne Surgers, Eclat de la lumière. Préface, in Fabrizio Crisafulli, Lumière active. Poétiques de la lumière dans le théâtre contemporain, Artdigiland, Dublino, 2015, p. 12.

14Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone dei pensieri, frammenti 1744-1745 del 20 settembre 1821.

15Cfr. Gaia Sambonet (a cura di), James Turrell. Dipinto con la luce, Motta Architettura, Milano, 1998.