There’s nothing like a bit of Italian driving to wake you up after nine and a half hours of travelling. I swear traffic lights are just used as road side decoration in that country. But we all survived, all 11 of us, and made it to Monte Compatri ready to start a week at the JéMBE Festival of international theatre and education…
Monte Compatri, which is just outside of Rome, is a small town built almost entirely on a hill.
Advantage: rather incredible views of Rome. Disadvantage: even walking to the ice cream shop was like a fully-fledged gym workout (which, due to the slightly alarming amount of ice cream we must have eaten, was probably a good thing.) Mountain climbing aside, the town itself was lined with cobbled streets, fountains, and yellow houses adorned with shutters, lizards, and greenery. Not a bad place to be spending a week in the sun…
The house we stayed in had two bedrooms; two and a half beds, one shower, one toilet – between ten of us. I think it’s fair to say that boundaries between our group are certainly now a thing of the past.
We were the entertainment for that first night, performing a fire show we’ve been rehearsing for weeks, in the town centre. It was surprisingly well received by the Italian public who out of no-where had a bunch of Scottish misfits spilling kerosene and blaring out bagpipe music in their quaint little square at 9.30pm on a Sunday night. We even ended up in someone’s Facebook live stream – talk about hitting the big time!
Later that night we went to see what would turn out to be one of my favourite parts of the week – a traditional Italian serenade. It felt like half the town was climbing through the narrow streets with hushed voices until we came to a stop outside a tall pale house with two balconies. The unsuspecting maiden inside was about to have her fiancé and his friends sing to her in celebration of their upcoming wedding. The singing began and the crowd fell silent. Eventually she appeared on her balcony and attempted to catch a rose thrown to her by her fiancé. That took a couple of tries and an eventual piggyback but it was all still rather lovely. Soon the crowd joined in whistling and clapping and having fun.
We finished the first day stood on the Belvedere – or ‘beautiful view’. And that it was. The square looks right out over Rome, over the thousands of shimmering lights that could have easily been mistaken for stars that had decided to take up residence on the ground.
Day two. Chased by rabid dogs. Survived. *
The morning started off calmly with croissants, coffee, and fruit juice. Then we trekked down the hill to meet everyone that would be taking part in the festival, play games, and say ciao. We had a group of 12 young people that took part in the stilt workshop we were teaching. Stilts and language barriers are a fun combination. But we didn’t kill anyone so all in all a success.
After lunch we huddled in a shady corner of the park, desperately avoiding the 30 degree heat that would turn us ghostly Scots immediately into scarlet lobsters, and started putting together a routine inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform in the final parade at the end of the week.
* On the subject of the rabid dogs, I partially take responsibility as I feel that had I not been quite so insistent on venturing up a particular street that happened to be their home, they would have perhaps, indeed, left us alone…
The next couple of days of workshops went as planned. Hiding from any direct sunlight, picking up stilt walkers, and repeating “If we shadows have offended” in ever so slightly different tones. We took the stilt walkers a-wandering up to the town and successfully caused a scene. Later on they marched right up to the Belvedere – goodness knows how someone who learnt to walk on stilts 2 days ago manages to walk a mile up a 90 degree hill in the sweltering heat, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we were very impressed.
The day after we taught them two traditional Scottish country dances to perform at the end of the week. They all jumped into it with their best stilt forward and seemed to really enjoy themselves! This was a pleasant contrast to the expectations matching every pupil who is forced to learn them in school. Our Shakespeare routine gradually became more of a performance too and we slowly started to memorise our lines in Italian.
Halfway through the week, we performed our second show – The Blootoon Picaroons! – which is a bouncy pirate show where juggling clubs become bottles of rum, people become pirate ships, and children turn into the Kraken itself when handed water balloons… The show went brilliantly, despite a few technical glitches, and it felt great to saunter about in our pirate costumes feeling like we owned the place – right up until the moment where we all got thrown into the fountain and had to climb out chilly and dripping before the audience, but perhaps feeling even more like a pirate… even if it was one who had walked the plank.
We took advantage of the free night after and went in three cars to Lake Albano, a wonderful lake in the top of an extinct volcano, also acting as the view to the Pope’s summer house. As lakes go, this one was quite small which meant that it was actually warm enough to jump into. We spent the next hour splashing about and seeing who could be thrown the furthest. I practiced my doggy paddling.
On the final day of the festival, we did the parade and performances in the afternoon. The stilters did their fantastic Scottish dancing, the clowning workshop made everyone laugh, and we (supposedly the professionals) messed up a juggling routine. Then we climbed up to the Belvedere with about 200 audience members and participants where the puppet and Commedia dell’Arte workshops did their performances overlooking Rome. And then even further up we marched to the Piazza Fanti for the fire, circus, and Shakespeare routines. Everything went brilliantly – even if I did get giggled at for the pronunciation of my Italian lines – and everyone seemed to love our fire routine at the end.
So, festival over, and the next day we ventured into Rome. I’ve done the tourist parts of Rome before, but the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Altare della Patria are the kind of things that are quite incredible no matter how many times you’ve seen them. This time in Rome was different to my last in that we also visited St Peter’s Chapel, which I hadn’t ever seen before. Through the security and past the scary guards who check you’re wearing enough clothes, and through the grand doors of the chapel. The exciting thing was, unlike with the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain which is pasted all over the internet, I had no idea what to expect from the chapel. I think I spent the first ten minutes of the visit staring, mouth wide open and catching flies. It really was quite mesmerising – all the carvings and paintings and caskets. Luckily for us, there was also a service going on so the eerie sounds of the choir and organ echoed throughout the massive building and drifted around the statues. After they had finished, the priests all calmly walked past and through a door as if there was nothing to see here.
That night we had our final get together and ate dinner with everyone that had been involved in making the festival happen. First off there was a lovely pasta dish that we all wolfed down and hoped there was seconds. There was seconds. But it wasn’t pasta. Tripe. It was tripe. Blech. It was quite a change to the north east fish and chips we’re used to. But I put on a brave face and finished the whole plate. Blech.
The night went on, accordions were played, wine was drunk, songs were sung, and new friends were hugged, all in a little stone building decorated with shields, corn, and a hog’s head. It was nothing like what we would call a community centre here, but I think more so than here, it made you feel like part of a community.
In the end, I think the JéMBE Festival was a huge success and I am so grateful to have gone, taken part, performed, made friends, wondered at the views, and met people that I won’t ever forget. I also managed to eat a few more ice creams than would be recommended – but it was glorious – and I can’t wait to go back next year.