Alessandro Fersen and the birth of mnemodrama
Alessandro Fajrajzen, known as Alessandro Fersen, is one of the greatest masters of twentieth century western drama. His mnemodrama marks a milestone in the process of transformation of acting techniques which was begun by Stanislavsky and amplified and modified by other great figures in drama such as Artaud, Craig, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and Grotowski.
We might say that his life encompassed an entire century in the history of drama, including two world wars. Alessandro Fajrajzen was born into a Jewish family in Łódź, Poland in 1911. When he was only three years old his family moved to Genoa, Italy, where he attended elementary school, secondary school and university. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, he went to Paris, where he frequented the cartel, an artistic partnership of directors including Dullin, Jouvet, Baty, Pitoev and Copeau which began around the year 1930 as a reaction against nineteenth-century commercial and academic theatre. He moved from Paris to Warsaw and Belarus, miraculously managing to escape in 1939 just before the frontiers were closed due to the war begun by the Nazis’ criminal folly. This marked the start of Alessandro Fersen’s fight against fascism, which saw him join a group of intellectuals founded by Carlo Rosselli and Giuseppe Rensi. He joined the resistance movement early in 1943 and was soon forced to flee to Switzerland with his family. He moved about from one refugee camp to another until he was able to return to Italy in 1945, where Sandro Pertini appointed him secretary of the National Liberation Committee for Genoa and Liguria. Fersen accepted the appointment while at the same time working on the newspaper “Corriere del Popolo”, but he was primarily interested in theatre. In 1947 he staged the comedy Lea Lebowitz, based on an ancient Hasidic legend, with sets and costumes by Emanuele Luzzati, a great friend and partner of his, marking the beginning of a prodigious career in the theatre, as director, playwright and teacher. In 1957 he founded Studio Fersen di Arti Sceniche in Rome, where he initially applied the Stanislavsky method, though he later abandoned it because he considered it overly influenced by early twentieth-century naturalism and positivism. He held that modern theatre had lost the power to affect the way people behave in the world and become a strictly aesthetic, ludic activity. He was convinced that true, total rebirth of the theatre needed to draw on anthropology, the only science capable of helping the pedagogue educate a new kind of actor capable of re-acquiring the lost ancestral memory common to all human beings, re-appropriating the primal act of theatre, that of “man who identifies with God, who becomes God”. At this point Alessandro Fersen undertook a lengthy, fatiguing voyage in Brazil, where he studied magic and ancestral rituals still practiced by indigenous populations. He himself described the reasons for this long and complex study in a rare film segment: “While the other arts have managed to renew their expressive capacity, the theatre continues to use its traditional idiom. The result, above all in comparison with the mass media, is a sort of confusion of languages. In this situation of uncertainty, I believe it is necessary to search for a true language of theatre, if one does exist, going back to the origins of theatre to discover how theatre was in its original culture, its position, its language. And this is where anthropology comes into it. Anthropology can provide us with very accurate information on that original form of theatre that is ritual. In ritual, the practitioner identifies with his god, loses his own identity and becomes god. This is the core of theatre, that is, the ability to become something other than what you are. God was later replaced with a character, but it’s still the same operation. This operation has now become oddly frustrated, distorted, even obliterated by the conditioning of modern life. And so we need to see if it is possible to restore it to its original form. In the workshop, I began with the consideration that in all rituals there are symbolic objects, rituals that are fixed or manipulated by believers, by participants, which have the power to trigger deep states of consciousness, states of trance. It is in this highly theatrical event that is the trance that we may observe the birth of the theatrical event. In our culture we have no symbolic objects which are valid for everyone, because our cultural horizon is extremely fragmented, and we cannot depend on significant symbolic objects. In the workshop we therefore resorted to a series of objects from everyday life, abstract or commonplace objects, on the basis of the hypothesis that there is a psychic structure which oversees the theatrical act and is always the same, but has fallen into disuse. Can we bring it back? This is the question. I therefore created a particular technique, which I refer to as mnemodrama, or drama of memory. But not of private memory, or not just of private memory; of ancestral and collective memory.”
Back in Italy, he and his young pupils experimented with a new technique in the workshop which he called mnemodrama, while his Studio di Arti Sceniche became an interdisciplinary cultural centre frequented by artists and intellectuals. Between 1975 and 1978 he directed Teatro Stabile in Bolzano, where he presented, among other performances, one of the Studio’s works, Leviathan, in which the actors work in accordance with the mnemodrama technique.
Alessandro Fersen died in Rome on October 3 2001. His daughter Ariela established Alessandro Fersen Foundation in 2004 with the intention of promoting, developing and studying the great master’s works and teaching methods, methods which have already been the subject of graduate theses in Italy and abroad and are practiced by many of his former students and academics.
from “Scena”, n.57, 2OO9