Directing Thesis Interview: Elena Vannoni

November 16, 2022

For the first directing thesis production presented at Lenfest this fall, Elena Vannoni presents The Sea Does Not Reach Naples, a play based on Anna Maria Ortese's 1953 collection Il mare non bagna Napoli, a lively representation of everyday life in post-WWII Naples, Italy. We sat down with director, Elena Vannoni, to discuss her acting process and the upcoming production.

What made you excited about directing this particular play for your thesis project?

I love Anna Maria Ortese and the original work on which this play is based, Il mare non bagna Napoli. I find Ortese's language so poetic and evocative, and I wanted to bring that mix of realism and fantasy to the stage. And within this one play, I also have the chance to work with three different stories that combine various degrees of surrealism, realism, and magical realism, and can demonstrate how to deliver a reality in different ways of storytelling. 

I also love that this piece wrestles with the idea of oppressive destiny, karma, fate, etc., you can call it whatever you want, but in Italy we say “Chi nasce tondo non può morir quadrato” – Those who are born round, can’t die square. To decide to break from one’s destiny is to invite hubris. I myself was born to a simple and lovely family – but not an artistic one. I had to make the choice and take on that challenge in order to pursue being an artist. But all the people in this play have to live in a world in which they don’t have a choice – contrast that with Chekhov, where characters have the chance to make the right choices but they don't. Here, they don't have a choice due to their limiting circumstances, or if they do, like in the case of the character Eugenia, it is like a terrible boomerang, and destiny comes back at you doubled. With this play, I ask, how can you change your destiny, your karma, in one lifetime? It is impossible for the characters in this play. Perhaps the next generation, or the generation after that, but it could be a Sisyphean effort.

This play was also another chance to collaborate with my dear friend Siting Yang, a dramaturg and playwright that I have worked with since my first year [at Columbia]. I fell in love with her talent when we worked together in making an adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and she wrote a masterpiece of an adaptation of Chekhov’s Ward No. Six that I directed last year. I’m very proud of our work together in creating this unique adaptation of Ortese’s stories.


How has your own experience growing up in Italy informed this production? 

Directing this piece is a reflection of my feelings for Italy. I am an Italian and born and raised in Italy, but I first left home fairly early in my life and have lived a large part of my life as a nomad. I think when you are outside of the culture you belong to, you feel more of a pull from those roots. I wanted to do this play about Italy, but outside Italy, to represent the history and culture beyond the cheap stereotypes (like the Mafia, which I find the most exasperating). This play is set in post-World War II Naples, and I wanted to show the resilience of the Neapolitans in what it was like to build back after the war, because I think it is a very different perspective than what the experience was in the US – what it meant to have to recover during that period amidst the ruin was much more immediate, much more pressing.


What will be (or has been) the greatest challenge with directing this play?

I want to respect and do justice to the life of Anna Maria Ortese herself. She was a very intelligent person, a voracious reader, an autodidact, but this is a person who had a hard life – an artistic woman's life in 1950s Italy was a hard life. She eventually died in poverty, but she was "problematic" in life in an admirable way throughout. Ortese lived during that time with an unusual freedom and she never gave up writing. 

What Ortese did with her writing wassimple and rich at the same time: not easy, but simple; not overbearing, but rich. Those were not contradicting ideas for Ortese, and this is what I really want to do in the theatre.


What are you hoping audiences take away from this production?

When I create theatre, my goal isn’t to give audiences an answer, a solution, or even advice; what I want is to gift them a question that they bring home with them – suspense sans resolution. I like to get to the beating heart of the audience, past the analytic and the emotional, to reach the visceral feelings right in the gut. And for the audience to go home and think of a moment in the play that moved them, even if they can't explain precisely why. I also believe that audiences will find parallels between the state of Naples and their own surroundings. The play talks of the putrefaction of a part of the city, of society, and I think the world finds itself in such a place today. I remember how, during the height of the COVID pandemic, we, as a society, lost the ability to see the people – we could not see the faces of the dead, similar to how people had to mourn during the war and its aftermath. And it isn’t just limited to grand, world events: I was passing by a church today and was struck by how long the line was at its soup kitchen. There exist the faceless all around us, those that are victims of inescapable circumstance. We just pretend that they don’t exist. How do we mourn them? 


Do you have a personal philosophy for directing?

I’m very keen on all the work I direct, and for me it starts with preparation. I probably over-prepare in a sense, because I gorge myself on research and study to the point of figurative indigestion. I’m up to my eyes in it all but I love it. And once I know I’m at that point, I take the next step and start to make sense of it.

Once I get to rehearsals, I take care to create a free space: so free that the actors are free to make mistakes; a space that wants mistakes. The only condition I have on those mistakes is that they must be big: make mistakes, but make them with conviction. I want my actors to feel free to be completely generous inside the rehearsal room, comfortable in making thoughtful mistakes. 


What kind of work do you want to be directing in the next five years?

I want to delve into work that is politic-poetic: politic in the etymological sense, as awareness of the public world around oneself–I'm always drawn to directing work that explores circumstances. And I’ll always be interested in any play that allows me to work with imagination on stage, imagination in actions. And I want to direct an opera.