Q&A with Giorgia Ciampi

12 March 2014 | Journal


Giorgia Ciampi was born in 1989 in Florence, Italy from an Italian father and Greek mother. She volunteered for 3 years as assistant director of Florentine theatre company ‘Perelandra’. At 18 years old, she obtained a place at the University of Exeter where she graduated with a BA in Drama and subsequently with an MA in Actor Training and Directing under the supervision of renowned theatre practitioner/pedagogue Phillip Zarrilli. Her roles ranged from playwright to director, stage manager, composer and performer. Giorgia feels that her experience in ITI has completed her Western training with the practice of Asian traditional trainings in an intercultural environment, and that the meeting and interaction of cultures through the actors’ body-minds is a very important strand of her current enquiry.


Q: What made you decide to come to Singapore?

When I was in England, I was involved in works that were less text-based, it was more experimental, more physical theatre than what I had experienced so far in Italy, and that really appealed to me because it was the opposite of what I was familiar with, and I started to get a taste of what it was like to train as well. Especially with a particular module called the Intercultural Performer Training with Phillip Zarrilli, where he taught us a training method, which included different Asian martial arts – yoga, Taiji and Kalaripayattu – and this was a very new concept for me, to work through the body that way. I was fascinated by it, so after university, I wanted to go to India and continue to train in Kalaripayattu.

And so I had began to arrange everything to go to India, but just as I was finishing up my 3 year course, Phillip called me and said ‘look, there’s this school re-opening in Singapore, ITI.’ He showed me the programme and I immediately thought: ‘this is the path I need to embark on’. Because at that time I had already started to reflect about this split that we often feel in everyday life, this split between our minds and our bodies. I had suffered in the past from mild forms of panic and I believed that these ‘extreme experiences’ sprung from this inability to reconcile my mind and body. So, when Phillip proposed this training programme, I felt it would really give me a chance to deal practically with this sense of split by discovering my inner connections between thinking and feeling. I believed that deepening my experience of the living body/mind needed to be my way into theatre.

So coming to this programme was also a challenge to myself to see whether I could get through this experience, despite my fears. Maybe that also was partly behind my decision to go to university in England. I’ve always unconsciously done this: as a way to fight my fears, I try to put myself through situations that are increasingly challenging for me. I think: if I can get through this, then I won’t be scared anymore. I literally rushed to Singapore in the middle of my MA, thinking: this is my chance! My chance to prove to myself that life doesn’t scare me all that much! On the first day ,we all sat in a circle and shared a little bit about ourselves: the first thing I said about myself was…that I was scared. Sasi asked me: ‘Of what?’ I said: ‘…life!’ He smiled and said with his characteristic warm irony: ‘Join the queue!’ We all laughed, the tension melted away, and inside I instantly knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

Q: How do you find your experience here?

It’s full of contradictions. As I expected, especially at the beginning, there were difficult moments, which were not particularly related to the programme, I had to overcome my own personal difficulties in life. But the fact that I was studying and practising and training was helpful. I could find some teachings inside the training that would help me overcome the difficulties that I had in life. Even without being too conscious of it, I think that was what was happening. And I think I began to develop a taste for contradictions: before they only puzzled me, but now they delight me, they wake me up. There’s nothing more exciting than being constantly proved wrong in my judgements or constantly being surprised by people’s rich expressiveness and behaviour.

In fact, for all the training that we get and self-discovery and knowledge, it would mean nothing if it was not helping us to understand and communicate to other people. I have come to realise that the reason I train hard every day is not only to ‘tune and refine my instrument’ as an actor, but to try to feel increasingly more open to listen and ready to communicate with others, as a person. Without this, the experience of theatre has no meaning to me. The new encounters and the discussions on life and theatre, unexpected improvisations born from nothing even in the halls outside the studios, finding ways to adjust or tune yourself to everyone’s different sensibilities, admitting you have been wrong or rash, accepting you’re not always in the position to understand. Because everyone has their own world inside, their own songs to sing, their own dances to teach. I can get a glimpse of their worlds from their gestures, smiles, from the special ways in which they blink, knit their eyebrows or push forward their lips, how they tilt their heads; every detail of how they express themselves is a gift. And that’s the most exciting.

I have come to realise that the reason I train hard every day is not only to ‘tune and refine my instrument’ as an actor, but to try to feel increasingly more open to listen and ready to communicate with others, as a person.

Q: What was the most rewarding experience in your theatrical life?

I think it was the Berlin Symposium. There were lots of moments that were building up to it. It’s not just one thing. But I think in that moment it was a kind of realisation for me of what I had been doing so far. It was not just the experience of the performance but working with practitioners from other countries and relating ourselves with the other students, that experience as a whole was very fulfilling. When we revisited Kutiyattam during a demonstration, it was like like a fire came into my body and I wasn’t expecting that, and that was fantastic, not only because I realised how deep the work I had done had gone, but also because it opened a window into how much further I could go.

Q: Any favourite modules?

I think Kutiyattam is the traditional form that has given me the most… and Wayang Wong I would say. I think what I need most as a performer are the qualities that we need to bring to a Kutiyattam performance. The groundedness, the earthiness, the spine… how malleable and alive the face has to be, and how connected to your emotions inside. So yeah…

Q: What is the most important lesson that you will take away?

I think for all the forms that we have gone through, they are very codified, they have a long tradition of being shaped in a certain way, and as we go through them, there is always an anxiety to get it right. You see the movement, you imitate the master, and you want to perform it right straightaway. And I think that anxiety is one of the worst enemies of the performer and of the student performer. Because all your focus goes into being correct, and you lose the sense of the kind of energy that you need to perform those gestures. You miss the essence. So you try to understand from your mind the external shape, instead of letting it come from inside the body. I think part of the journey is to learn how to learn. Accepting that you won’t do it right straight away may just be your best learning path. And often the things that I take most time to learn are the ones that go deeper into my body/mind. Understanding this means making the process worthwhile rather than racing towards ‘doing it perfect’ for the presentation. Making the process worthwhile means that, for example, two years from now, when you summon Kutiyattam techniques back to your body/mind, it immediately lights you up ‘like fire burns dry wood’ (as Venu-ji. says), because you have made a deep connection with it, though you took a long time to learn it.

So now, what I think I need to keep as a lesson is to catch myself when I become too concerned with getting it right…just be there! Don’t try to be perfect, don’t try to always have the right answer… it’s okay.

Q: Your thoughts about graduation?

I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but there’s one thing I do know: whatever I do, I have to find a way to make sure I never stop developing, discovering and learning from it. I am by no means at the end of my learning, I’ve just began.

Q: Let’s talk about Pericles, how is it so far?

Oh, Pericles! It’s a great learning process! I feel I am discovering so much about how to translate the analysis of the play text into performance. How to lift the words from the page and understand them anew in terms of actions, emotions and relationships. One small remark your character makes, can be such a powerful window into his emotional landscape. In fact, once I understood the structure and rhythm of the text, I’ve started to see my text as being dotted here and there with small mysterious windows that open on a world of possibilities. I try to use these as hooks into new shades of meaning and emotions, and this is important to stimulate my imagination.

Q: Do you find your multiple roles challenging?

I believe it’s going to be fine. I’m not daunted by it. Maybe for me having to play just one role is more daunting because I would feel more pressure. In a play like this you have a lot of characterisations that you get to play –  the wise advisor, the rich spoilt lord, the fisherman, the knight, the sailor…you have all this variety of humanity that you can play with and discover how you would be if you were in that kind of situation. It’s great fun!

Q: Do you have a certain character that you look forward to playing?

I have one character, Pericles’ daughter, Marina. To me, she’s very interesting because at the beginning she could be mistaken for just the kind of character that’s good, sweet, shy, demure, but she reveals herself to be so much more than this. She proves to be very resourceful when put in impossible situations, she might be intimidated at first but she finds such strength to deal with them. So now I’m playing with the complexity of her personality, finding the level of strength, cunning, shrewdness and biting wit that she displays while retaining some of the sweetness and vulnerability. It’s very important that I find the right tension between these opposing qualities.

Q: Do you have a favourite quote?

Yes, there’s this moment I really like that is a real test of her character. She’s been sold to a brothel and Lysimachus, the governor of the country, comes to the brothel and is left alone with her. So he starts a conversation and asks ‘how long have you been in your trade?’ He doesn’t dare say ‘how long have you been a prostitute?’. She picks up on this and pushes him and dares him to name her supposed profession in order to shame him into not taking advantage of her. She says: ‘I cannot be offended with my profession. Please you to name it!’ with the implication that he’s not even brave enough to admit what he has come here to do. So I like this scene because it reveals she has this sting, you know, this biting quality…

Q: One final question, any advice for up-and-coming actors and actresses?

I’ll say something that Venu-ji told me, I don’t know why, it might seem like a really simple thing and maybe at that time I didn’t fully understand why he said it to me but later it revealed itself immensely important throughout my journey here and it will always stay with me. He said to me ‘Giorgia, don’t lose faith’. And sure enough, every time I went through some dark moments, every time I felt everything was too much for me, every time I doubted myself in what I was doing, I remembered what he said, I held on to it really tight and I got through. In essence he told me to believe… And now that I think about it, how can you do theatre without this unconditional sense of belief…?

Oh and the other thing is: ‘don’t try to get it right!’. (Laughs)

Q: Do you feel that ‘getting it right’ is a predominant problem for you?

I cannot pretend. I think the first thing I have to do is to admit that I always have this innate urge to do it right. I have to admit it to myself and only then can I truly overcome it. The moment I think I’m safe, it unconsciously comes back so I guess I have to check myself on it, and it will slowly become less and less of a habit…

Q: Do you have anything else you want to add?

The funny thing is…in a way I think I came here hoping to come out a ‘changed person’ but I’ve come to realise that that’s an absurd goal because it’s so abstract, changed to what? you can never change completely, and you can only get frustrated by aspiring to an idealised version of yourself. But that doesn’t mean you cannot fight your habits or challenge yourself to abandon your comfort zone. Because through this fight, you can learn how to really deal with what you have, how to accept certain things about yourself and how to make some others less of a block or a burden, you can meet other people half-way and you can discover parts of yourself you didn’t know existed. I am not now a different person than I was, no, I am still me. But I’ve learnt to deal with certain problematic aspects of my character and let some things go. It’s a daily fight with myself and I guess I’ve developed quite a taste for it!

*Venu-ji, a.k.a Gopalan Venu, is Director of Natanakairali Research and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts and Artistic Director of the Kutiyattam Repertory Troupe and an ITI faculty member.


Photo: © The Pond Photography