When a group of artists took over the Teatro Valle, Rome’s oldest theater, in June 2011, nobody thought they would last long. Yet the artists, actors and crew members who first barricaded themselves in Valle soon grew into a crowd of fierce Occupiers who under the national media spotlight became the country’s foremost anti-austerity crusaders.

The past year has brought a great number of Italian theaters into the political spotlight in what might be considered the country’s parallel to the Spanish indignados or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Though two different efforts to kick-start an Italian version of the indignados failed—the first large one taking place in June and the second in late October of 2011—the ongoing Valle occupation is a unique response to the austerity crisis crippling much of Europe’s economy.

Matteo Bianchini, 24, an engineering student at Sapienza University of Rome and one of the 50 people currently occupying the Valle, explains: “We are not against the concept of privatization. What we don’t want is a form of privatization that only benefits [those who are] already rich. A privatization that is done by politicians for politicians. We decided we had to end that vicious cycle and take control of the theater ourselves in order to give it back to the people and the community.”

Today, similar occupations are underway at four other major theaters in Palermo, Catania, Venice and Rome, along with smaller theaters around the country. Over the past year, these scattered initiatives have become a single intertwined reality that has created a perpetual cycle of plays, shows, exhibitions and talks that move through the occupied stages of Italian cities.

Critics should also be reminded that in 1921, Teatro Valle staged the first performance of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of Author,” a precursor to what would become known as the Theater of the Absurd. At the end of that show, the crowd chased Pirandello down the corridor and into his dressing room, shouting: “Mental hospital! Mental hospital!”

Inspired by Pirandello, the Valle’s Occupiers are defending their theater from an angry crowd that is shouting: “Austerity! Austerity!” 

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