An interview with Maria Cassi

Autobiography in a Foreign Language: in Florence and New York

L'autotraduction ou la création parallèle peuvent [...] apparaître comme une façon de trascender le clivage, de réconcilier les deux moitiés de l'être intérieurement déchiré en faisant cohabiter harmonieusement les deux langues
(klein-lataud 1996:228)

Authors who choose to be their own translators see themselves in the role of cultural mediator, like an expatriate who observes reality through new eyes as suggested, among others, by BOND 2011 (66):

L'individu qui s'expatrie se crèe un autre moi, un double qu'il tient à distance et qu'il observe de loin. Il se voit par les yeux de ceux qui appartiennent à son nouveau pays et à sa nouvelle culture, devenant à la fois ceux qui voient et ce qui est vu.

Seen in this light, an analysis of the self-translation process is particularly interesting because the importance of studying the target and the author's cultural surroundings emerge at once, beginning with the assessment of different typologies and questions concerning the role of the author-transposer.

When the self-translation process is applied in the theatrical context the audience, which is both present and alive, plays a role that is even more important. In fact, the diverse reservoir of participants will determine the choice of movement within the play, from the mode of expression to adjustments in style and tone.

A fine example of self-translation, which confirms the importance of the audience and the innate complexity of the transposition process, can be seen in the circle of contemporary Italian-American theatre: La mia vita con gli uomini... e altri animali (My Life With Men... and Other Animals), written by Patrick Pacheco and Maria Cassi (who is also the onstage protagonist) and directed by Peter Schneider, premiered at the Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi in June 2010.

After her studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Maria Cassi based her preparation on the lessons of Jacques Lecoq at the Alessandra Galante Garrone theatre school in Bologna and continued her training with clown Pierre Byland. In 1986, she began a world tour of over one thousand performances of A Saintrotwist, produced by Av Produzioni. Other productions followed: The Beatles' Song Book, La follia della libertà, Portraits and Zavattini, Galateo.

In 2003, Cassi and Fabio Picchi founded the Teatro del Sale Association in Florence. As chairman and artistic director, she oversees programming of music, dance and theatre, interweaving her own performances for which the stage at Teatro del Sale is ideal. In 2004, she was nominated Councillor for Culture in the provincial government of Florence. In 2005, the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, invited her to the presidential palace to represent Italian theatre. In 2006, she was invited to be the sole performer to inaugurate the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. She also founded the Maria Cassi Company in 2006. In 2007, the company produced La porta aperta, inspired by Peter Brook's essay, and Crepapelle.

In 2008, she met Peter Schneider and that encounter landed her, with Crepapelle, onstage at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse of Los Angeles. At the twenty-fifth Villa Faraldi Festival in Imperia she was awarded the prize for best soloist author/performer. In 2008–2009 she authored, directed and performed two musical shows: Suoniemozioni, inspired by Lucio Battisti's songs, and Concertino d'amore. In 2009, she took Crepapelle to Théâtre du Rond Point in Paris, directed by Jean Michel Ribes, and created a stir. Le Monde published two special reports with moving comparisons of her work to that of Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and Charlie Chaplin, while Le Figaro ranked her as one of the top two successes of the Paris season.

As the title suggests, La mia vita con gli uomini... e altri animali (My life with men... and other animals) is characterized by a homogeneous linguistic duality. The performer narrates an autobiographical monologue of her life in Florence and New York, reciting each phrase in Italian, with its simultaneous translation in English, or vice versa. Although she initiated her training at the Alessandra Galante Garrone theatrical academy in Bologna, Cassi owes her success to audiences in New York where she performs regularly. Cassi and her colleague Pacheco intend to represent both her souls in this autobiographical performance to pay homage to both her audiences: her homeland and the nation that first acclaimed her.

The purpose of this interview is, in part, to analyse the linguistic and communications strategies of this particular instance of intratextual translation by means of an interview with the co-author–performer.

Maria Cassi, please tell us about what inspired My Life and the decision to create a completely bilingual structure.

My Life is my first experience with a structured bilingual script, but actually I have been absorbed by the relationship between language and non-language since I entered the theatre. During my artistic career I have always treated music as a true element of drama and, therefore, like another form of language that becomes word and gesture in a process that might well be defined as a distinct form of self-translation because it is indeed a veritable transcoding. My Life was inspired by my encounter with Peter Schneider in January 2008 at Teatro del Sale, where he had seen another show of mine, Crepapelle, which represents a comical comparison of Florentines and Parisians. Based on a sketched-out scenario, it had developed with the contribution of my audiences, who are truly my one and only director, and who came to see me night after night and provided me with the feedback to construct and reconstruct it. Schneider was fascinated by me and my way of working and proposed to take this creation of mine to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre (Pasadena Playhouse) in Los Angeles. In one week of performances there, as a response to the audience's reaction, I created the English language version of my show and effectively transformed it into a different show which even included new elements. For example, the expression "fender bender" meaning collision inspired me to create two characters: the sisters Fender and Bender. That was very interesting for me because I had to use a meta-language that unhinged automatisms and created a completely different result. After this success, Schneider invited me to create a performance precisely with that structure, conceived specifically for American audiences. I accepted and that was also the origin of my collaboration with Patrick Pacheco, a journalist and critic to whom Peter introduced me. Our cooperation resulted in My Life, a performance that unlike Crepapelle has a precise structure, born of my theatrical improvisations but delineated and crystalized by Patrick's painstaking work of writing and rewriting the pieces while I was busy creating them onstage. So the real novelty of this performance is not actually the simultaneous self-translation, but the fact that it is contained within a well-defined written structure forming the foundation for narrating the story.

Why did you decide to maintain the bilingual structure when you performed here in Italy?

Because Schneider, who was absolutely fascinated by the idea of the double, did not want to abandon this duality and the creation of a new space for telling a story and testing oneself. The attraction of these matches is precisely the fact that your non-language is, above all, the language of freedom because this process and this space become a free zone where you can glide without limits.

So, in effect, this choice was only partially influenced by your biographical life and learning experiences played out in both Italian and American theatrical surroundings?

Precisely. It all depended on Schneider's proposal. He took what I was already doing and set it inside a new structure. The plot took shape later, also drawing on some narrative elements from another earlier performance of mine, Suoniemozioni.

How was this choice perceived by the two audiences, Italian and American?

Both were truly enthusiastic about this choice because both had developed in the presence of humour. Even when the Americans didn't understand something, they remained elastic, open and generous.

If you should decide to present this performance to a third target, the French public for example, would you make any language-related changes or would you present the original Italian-American version?

My Life hasn't been staged in Paris yet because we're not sure how a French audience would react to foreign languages. They might be sceptical but, personally, I am convinced they would enjoy it. We have often wondered about how to present it there, but really this American story can't be told in French because that would distort it. However, we still hope to create something that is tailored to fit Parisian audiences, perhaps something with a self-translation between their language and mine.

The performance includes typical expressions of the spoken language in Florence, such as your mother's humorous "si more". It is quoted many times during the performance and it is very difficult to interpret. What criteria did you apply in the self-translation process?

Our strong Florentine accent is, first of all, the accent in my heart. It is the language I grew up with but over time, especially because of the image it has acquired on television, it is taken to suggest cantankerousness. I use it because it's a part of me but I try to keep it sincere and avoid vulgarity, to use the accent that represents a soul, a history, and a very specific culture. Some expressions have stayed in their original form anyway. If "si more" were translated to "si muore (to die)" it would lose its musical quality and therefore its comical connotation too.

The staging provides a graphic support for your transposition procedure. What were your reasons for this choice and what effects does it produce?

In My Life, writing is an integral part of the scenario. We created a mix of written and spoken language so that the audience can perceive everything without any difficulty. We based our decision on American audiences so they would be able to follow the whole story without missing anything essential.

Watching the performance, it's clear that you don't translate everything literally. Some lines are spoken in Italian and at the same time a written message in English appears behind you, but it's really just a summary of what you're saying. What's the reason for this particular choice?

Well, I believe that in the theatre it's important to understand, but not necessarily everything. If an actor is capable of transmitting emotions, it won't matter if the audience doesn't understand every single word. Some elements are universal and get through to everyone, such as physicality and music, so they form the score. What foreign audiences get from my performance is the sound of my voice, my physical demeanour, and the concept expressed in English. My theatre is not primarily words but emotions. That's why this performance can go anywhere, because it tells a universal story.

There are some passages that you narrate in Italian and the English translation appears in graphic form only, such as the "Canto" dedicated to your best friend Dodi and the death of her life partner. Why did you make this choice?

Patrick, Peter and I talked a long time about how to handle those passages that were particularly moving for me and for them. In the end, we agreed that some pieces were so strong and personal that they had to be narrated and expressed in my own language, Italian, or the story itself would probably have lost all its intimacy.

So with this performance you're really taking yourself, your personal history, and your Tuscan hills out of Italy to America or other foreign countries. But how would you define your identity and your nationality when you are performing outside of Italy?

The possibility of telling my story in a language that is not completely my own is really quite exceptional. One of the first lines in the show says as much: "I need to tell a story- Io ho bisogno di comunicare una storia, questa storia". I have a profound love of knowledge, travel, and the desire to fully comprehend other societies. I have a great love for the human soul, so universal and profound. Nationality does not exist for me. There's a story to be told. I always feel the same whether I'm performing in Florence or on a stage in New York.

For an actress like yourself performing a long monologue, is reciting in two languages at the same time a difficulty or, on the contrary, a positive factor?

Switching from one language to another, even abruptly, is wonderful because the non-language becomes the only language. You don't feel that there are two different languages but a new harmony that is pervasive and becomes a sort of Romansh or personal dialect. Clearly, at the beginning it's a trauma, but only during the phase of creating the structure. When I did it in Crepapelle it was spontaneous and came to me in an absolutely natural manner.

Do you, having also played the role of Councillor for Culture in the provincial government of Florence, feel that intratextual self-translation of a work of art (whether literary, theatrical or of another nature) as a form of double language and/or culture in general, can constitute an incentive for human and cultural expansion of a nation or even of a local artistic reality?

The point is that someone like myself, who wants to communicate and move something in those who are with me and listen to me, must consider the juxtaposition of different languages, especially when they facilitate comprehension and thus make a tiny but valuable contribution to the communion among people and to peace on earth.