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ANIMATAZINE

EARTH

MARIA SPAZZI

Maria Spazzi graduated with a degree in set design in 1995 from the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.

Since 1995, she has worked as a set designer, overseeing the staging of plays and operas for numerous theatrical institutions, including the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Grand Théâtre de Genève, Macerata Opera Festival, Rof, Landestheater in Salzburg, as well as various national stable and private theaters.

Her primary collaboration has been with director Serena Sinigaglia, with whom she has formed a close artistic partnership.

In 1996, she participated in the founding of the theater company Atir, which managed the Teatro Ringhiera in Milan from 2007 to 2017.

For years, she has conducted set design seminars at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland in Mendris.

In 2017, she was awarded the Hystrio Altre Muse Prize.

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Some objects photographed in Maria Spazzi's workshop - Milan 2023.

WHAT DOES THE ELEMENT EARTH REPRESENT TO YOU AND WHAT THOUGHTS, IMAGES, EMOTIONS, AND MEMORIES DOES IT EVOKE IN YOU?

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The initial response is silence. Perhaps because it's something so inherent to me that it's overlooked, like eyelashes. We glimpse them occasionally, but soon forget about them.

Yet, I appreciate the question as it prompted me to reflect.

Where does the earth stand? Do I utilize it? Does it pertain to me?

In an instant, numerous responses flooded my mind. I believe it's pertinent to share the responses stemming from memories rather than abstract concepts or overthinking.

One such memory is encapsulated in a recent exchange with a dear friend. Having realized a lifelong dream, I've recently established a garden. My friend inquired, "But why a garden?"

After pondering for a while, a response emerged, which I'll recount without further ado: "Tonight, sleep eludes me. I yearn to awaken tomorrow and dive into myriad tasks, even if the day proves insufficient, leading me to retire late once more. Yet your question lingers, why a garden? To immerse myself wholly in this inner whirlwind, hands in the soil, devoid of compromise, without reduction, absent of logic, and pale sensibilities. A sanctuary of space and time for unfettered freedom, kneading under the sun, sans obligation, sans roles. A realm to revel in the senses, the touch, the warmth of the sun's rays. A soul mingled with earthworms, immersed in primal colors and materials. Creating from scratch, painting and sculpting from ground zero. A palette, untamed before refinement, perpetually self-regenerating. A myriad of green hues, alive and pulsating, yet open to interference."

Considering the late hour, my thoughts may have been somewhat disjointed.

The following day: 
"I desire a garden, but why? I continue to mull over this. Because I crave a space of unadulterated liberty. Earth, sun, nature, people—these are my only requisites. A sanctuary to conduct spontaneous rituals of rejuvenation, camouflaged amidst horticultural pursuits. We yearn for a shamanic haven to reclaim our inherent purpose, usurped by societal constructs."

This is a deeply personal response, intimate in its essence, from one human to another.

My earliest recollection of earth dates back to childhood, frolicking outdoors. It was winter, bitterly cold, yet inexplicably, we wore shorts. In the '70s, such antics were commonplace.

We children frequented the small patches of green, essentially just fields, for I dwelled on the outskirts, where urban and rural boundaries blurred seamlessly.


Often, I'd play alone amidst a throng of children, reveling in the freedom to pursue my whims. It was a solitude of exquisite beauty. I'd immerse myself in the earth, feeling its muddy embrace on my knees as I dug, occasionally unearthing pink earthworms.

Recalling this memory stirred within me an overwhelming tenderness for earthworms and the earth itself. A delicate sentiment for an element so vast and formidable.

This memory resurfaced one day, prompted by a conversation with Patrizio Dell'Argine about spirit animals. Unfamiliar with the concept, I found myself pondering, "What might my spirit animal be?"

Instantly, the answer came to me: "The earthworm!"

For the earthworm is a creature that rejuvenates the earth, oxygenates it, creating space and air.

Yes, indeed, the earthworm is my lifelong companion.

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Maria Spazzi - Good Morning New - Image from Facebook profile 2023

WHERE HAVE YOU INCORPORATED THE ELEMENT OF EARTH IN THE SCENOGRAPHIC RESEARCH YOU'VE UNDERTAKEN OVER TIME?

I've curated a selection of performances that may particularly resonate with the theme of Earth.

Let's begin with Romeo and Juliet.

This production features a scenography anchored by cords: these cords are suspended under tension, symbolizing the resilience of the earth. Through the earth's resilience, we're able to generate tension, much akin to the strings of a guitar, which, being solid, create tension and produce sound.

Tension allows us to dance, to play music.

At times, I fail to notice the presence of the earth as my attention is drawn to the cords, to the dance. Without the earth's resistance, I feel incapable of achieving anything.

It's intrinsically linked to the body, physical movement, and the fortitude of nerves: I perceive the earth as akin to a body.

It's a force that propels us forward, enabling joy at its core.

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Maria Spazzi - Romeo and Juliet - By William Shakespeare - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - ATIR 1996

Then there's Like a Camel in a Gutter, where I make specific use of the earth.

We were young girls at the time, just 25 years old, and it was one of the very first projects we embarked on. Perhaps that's why it holds such interest.

The performance unfolds on an empty stage, with actors reciting the final letters of partisans condemned to death.

These letters are written on tissue paper. The closing scene is a visual one: actors gather the letters, lay them on the ground, cover them with earth, and place a slender cross atop them, signifying the end—a burial.

The creative process back then was beautifully unrestrained. I was a member of ATIR, which remains my company to this day. We had a residency in Asti to develop this performance.

Outside the theater, all that surrounded us was earth, everything that fascinated me; thus, it felt natural to gather soil and incorporate it into the stage, using this material to enrich the rehearsal process.

Additionally, we utilized wooden sticks. That's all.

This simplicity of intervention, I believe, speaks volumes. In theater, where myriad elements converge—words, actors, time, music, audience—sometimes, it takes very little, just being present in the moment.

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@Maria Spazzi - Like a Camel in a Gutter - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Franco Parenti Theater in Milan - ATIR 1998

Then I move on to Trojans. From this performance, I mostly recall one line: "Troy was a breath of civilization."

In this case, we were working in the Melato studio, although it wasn't yet known as the Melato studio at that time. There was a floor and backdrop painted with earth, and then there were suitcases containing the only pieces of earth that the women carried away, supporting this single line that touches your heart: "Troy was a breath of civilization." For the rest, it's war, oppression, and violence.

The counterpart to these elements was barrels of oil, which tell the reasons why we wage wars, namely theft: we want to steal the earth's wealth. To go underground and commit violence so strong that it poisons the entire planet. Therefore, the finale is the burning of Troy.

Oil often recurs among the materials I use.

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@Maria Spazzi - Trojans - By Euripides - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - ATIR 2004

Next, we come to Women in Parliament. The stage for this production was crafted using numerous kitchen tables.

What intrigued me most was the space beneath the tables, as it served as the entry point for the actors: the arrangement of the tables created an under-stage. In this context, the sturdiness of the tables symbolized resilience.

The tables were coated in bronze because bronze resonates, emanating warmth and energy; it embodies a feminine essence, echoing themes of the earth, much like copper, whose chemical symbol is CU, derived from Cyprus: the birthplace of Venus.* Copper exudes a feminine energy—dynamic, resonant, and warm, yet with a tempered intensity.

Materials often harbor inexplicable mysteries that deeply resonate with me.

In the final scene, honey, wine, food, and fruit were poured onto the tables, trickling and cascading to the ground, engulfing everything in their wake.

The earth is a blend that can be sculpted, allowing for things on different scales: from a wooden drawer emerges a fork, but the table covered in sand becomes a plain, a landscape, just as long as the actor lying on it strokes the sand as if on the beach.

*In ancient times, the majority of copper was sourced from the island of Cyprus, known as aes Cyprium, or "copper of Cyprus" (ed. note)

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@Maria Spazzi - Sketch for Women in Parliament - by Aristophanes - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Piccolo Teatro di Milano - Teatro Studio

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@Maria Spazzi - Women in Parliament - by Aristophanes - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Piccolo Teatro di Milano - Teatro Studio

Here's Blood Wedding, a play by Lorca, rewritten in Sardinian and performed by actors fluent in the Sardinian language.

The stage is dominated by a sharply inclined, curved platform, adorned with chairs whose legs resemble twisted branches morphing into roots. The scene depicting bloodshed is brought to life with thrown grape must.

The arrangement of chairs evokes a chessboard, symbolizing the Spanish-Sardinian patio, where every move is observed, and a deadly game unfolds.

What I find particularly compelling about this experiment is the concept of the chessboard.

This idea emerged from collaboration with Serena Senigallia, the director I've collaborated with extensively. She often urged me to strip away, insisting that "less is more." Her guidance encouraged me to focus on the essential, the concise.

At times, as a set designer, there's a tendency to create to meet external expectations, striving for beauty. Breaking free from this mindset isn't easy.

Yet, Serena has been a remarkable ally in this regard. Her revolutionary approach pushes individuals to delve deep into their core.

From this project, I take away the framework of the game—a set design resembling a chessboard with hinted-at rules—allowing flexibility rather than strict adherence.

Ultimately, much of the narrative is left to the actors. Even in this scenario, the stage pushes back against their actions.

Initially, with a classical, academic background, I viewed space as an entity separate from performance.

However, after designing over a hundred sets, I now recognize that a set design must complement and enhance the actors' actions.

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@Maria Spazzi - Blood Wedding - Federico García Lorca - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Teatro Stabile di Sardegna and ATIR 2010

Presenting Tosca, at La Fenice. It's an interplay between the wooden stage and the emerging earth.

Did you know that Venice is built upon a silty mud that serves as its foundation, a gray, silvery mud that preserves wood like a fossil?

The stage design begins with an initial crack, gradually revealing the earth, symbolizing the transformation of Tosca's character: the mud evolves into the iconic final raft, the Naviglio, where she and her lover dream of escaping together.

The stage props maintain historical authenticity, ensuring that all essential elements of Tosca are faithfully depicted, including the traditional sofa.

What truly breaks the mold is the utilization of the setting, the landscape: a chasm slowly and progressively opens up, achieved through scene transitions, either in full view or concealed in darkness, employing the traditional method with stagehands removing modules.

Thus, the chasm widens, creating an increasingly dramatic impact.

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@Maria Spazzi - Tosca - Music by Giacomo Puccini - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Teatro La Fenice, Venice 2014

6 Bianca, staged at the Stabile di Torino, unfolds in six episodes where the scenography evolves from one state to another.

It narrates the tragic tale of workers abandoned to perish in a fire due to the failure to open an exit door, a case of murder conveniently swept under the rug.

So let's begin with the warehouse of the abandoned factory, years after the fire, bearing the unmistakable scars of the blaze, adorned with numerous tangible, earthy elements, strewn with debris and entangled in vines.

The factory undergoes restoration and is repurposed into a Foundation: an utterly hypocritical gesture.

We witness episode after episode, each unveiling the steps toward its refurbishment.

Yet, there always remains that door, and a specter—a manifestation of the daughter of the affluent proprietor (the primary perpetrator of the tragedy)—who takes her own life upon suspecting the truth and refusing to be complicit in such duplicity.


The set design unfolds like a dynamic landscape, while the actors navigate through the scenes as if conducting business as usual in mundane settings.

In this way, the set design emerges as a poignant narrative element, evoking profound emotions.

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@Maria Spazzi - 6 Bianca - By Stephen Amidon, directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Teatro Stabile di Torino 2015

With Utoya, a more recent theme resonates deeply within my consciousness: a yearning for nature, for the untamed, free world.

It recounts the tragic tale of the massacre of youths on the island of Utoya, draped in the hues of red firs.

These torn, shattered logs serve as poignant reminders of the violence inflicted upon those individuals, cruelly snatched away from life.

Materiality can serve as a conduit, allowing one to articulate the unspeakable, such as violence; for through it, one can confront and convey even the most harrowing of truths.

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@Maria Spazzi - Utoya - by Edoardo Erba - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - featuring Arianna Scommegna and Mattia Fabris - Metastasio Theatre, Prato 2015

Three Hotels. It's the tale of a tycoon who opts to starve an entire continent to sell his powdered milk. Eventually, he faces bankruptcy, a fitting downfall.

The stage is set as a powdered milk warehouse. Through intricate mechanics involving counterweights, cans ascend, releasing powdered milk due to gravity.

Essentially, it's a poignant portrayal of loss, a poignant metaphor for relinquishing what was once yours: akin to mourning.

The essential narrative revolves around loss, the act of relinquishing what once belonged to you—it's akin to mourning. What lingers is the evocation of the Mexican desert, the actual setting for the second act.

I consistently strive to capture the emotional essence of the realistic locations depicted in the text. Take, for example, the transition from a warehouse to a desert; it's this dramatic movement that intrigues me, prompting an exploration of how best to portray it on stage.

Within this dynamic, the scene change often proves pivotal, becoming, as in this instance, the centerpiece of the spatial arrangement.

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@Maria Spazzi - Three Hotels - By J.R. Baitz - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Stabile Theater Friuli Venezia Giulia, Rossetti Theater, Trieste 2017

Then there's Macbeth.

Before arriving at the final model, which ironically turned out to be the first one I created, I went through 80 iterations. Shakespeare's text is monumental. It fed me creatively, but it also left me feeling utterly drained.

In this rendition, the stage becomes a void: it commences with the cauldron, where the witches foretell, "something will happen here," marking the earth. Initially, the void on stage is veiled in sand. Deciphering what surrounded this void proved to be a meticulous process.

It became a battle of precision. We crafted a black, inclined platform with a surrounding corridor. Shakespeare's writing is unforgiving; you sense he composed for a stage of exacting dimensions, demanding constant construction to accommodate the actors' entrances.

In this instance, constructing a barrier around the void was imperative, enhancing the prominence of the shadowy expanse. A sleek, white corridor emerged, composed of the finest quartz sand.

The performance begins on a level stage, which then transforms into a sinister abyss at its core. It is from this abyss that the specter of Banco arises. It's also where the stone throne, symbolizing power and greed, emerges for Macbeth's claim.

The earth becomes a coveted object, driven by greed, love, attraction, and gravity: the stone is my throne, and I'll stop at nothing to seize it!

As the play reaches its climax, the backdrop advances to envelop the entire scene, while technicians behind the scenes spray water into the midst, conjuring forth the iconic bloodstain of Lady Macbeth.

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@Maria Spazzi - Macbeth - By William Shakespeare - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Produced by Teatro Stabile di Bolzano 2018

Ice tells the story of a murder: a young girl tortured, killed, and buried beneath the ground in a shack made of plastic sheets.

The play begins with the mother pruning her peach tree in the winter.

Within the shack, we witness the peach tree spatially intertwining with the scene of her daughter's murder. What sets this story apart is the mother's eventual forgiveness of the murderer, despite the unimaginable brutality of the act. Her journey represents a remarkable evolution, born out of necessity for survival, as without it, she would be doomed to madness.

The scene is depicted through a model: the tree spans across three dimensions of madness, encapsulated within three huts, each nestled within the other.

But why these huts? It all stems from the pivotal moment when the mother is presented with her daughter's head. Despite the horror, she chooses to accept it all. When she visits the morgue, she demands to see her daughter's bones, which are handed to her in a box—a symbolic representation of the void that now consumes her.

These three huts symbolize the multiplication of this emptiness: the mother traverses these spaces of void, madness, and anguish.

It wasn't until I realized the necessity of creating an earthy floor that everything fell into place: the earth, a symbol of grounding and connection, envelops and encompasses all.

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@Maria Spazzi - Ice - By Bryony Lavery - Directed by Filippo Dini - Produced by Teatro Stabile di Torino 2022

Let's delve into The Suppliants: here, everything is earth, devoid of water, and arid soil.

The actors adorn themselves with fragments of earth unearthed from an artifact, as if it were the final remnant of the world: all that remains is earth and fire. And oil.

The women reminisce about a time when the earth still thrived, bearing a profound sense of mourning.

The Suppliants is a text that deeply affected me, its intensity is almost unbearable.

Occasionally, I manage to extend the scope of the scenography I conceive by curating exhibitions that delve into the material essence through paintings. For this particular exhibition on The Suppliants, I utilized tar as a medium, juxtaposing it with the most poignant elements of the dramaturgy. These pieces speak of defeat, representing the only viable recourse. From one of these studies, we derived the poster for the show.

There's a passage by Cioran that asserts one can only truly learn to lose, to surrender, and to allow things to fade away.

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@Maria Spazzi - The Suppliants - By Euripides - Directed by Serena Sinigaglia - Produced by ATIR - Critics' Award 2022 - 2022

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@Maria Spazzi - Poster for "The Suppliants" - Tar painting from the exhibition "Materials - Exhibition for The Suppliants" - Curated by Maria Spazzi, Stage photo by S. Serrani - Paintings by M. Spazzi - At Teatro Carcano - Produced by ATIR 2023

El nost Milan by Bertolazzi. Last year, we portrayed poverty in Milan, and this year, it's the portrayal of wealth.

For the poverty segment, a simple yet profound element takes center stage: dust. It's omnipresent, coating the sets and clinging to the costumes. Dust becomes the embodiment of poverty.

Now, as we delve into the theme of wealth, my vision crystallizes into a colossal sphere. It's a closed, inaccessible entity that commands attention, a dark celestial body coveted by all. Around this imposing sphere, akin to a revered black idol, stand 160 individuals on stage.

Amidst the darkness, a priestess emerges, leading the sphere's slow advance. As it rolls forward, its hidden side is revealed, shimmering in gold. Actors, their hands adorned in golden hues, reach out to touch the sphere. It's an act of greed, yes, but also one of profound longing—a reminder of our primal desires etched in the caves of time.

Thus, this scenic portrayal, with its celestial orb, feels intrinsically linked to the Earth, grounding our human ambitions in the cosmic dance of desire.

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@Maria Spazzi - El nost Milan - First and second parts of the three-year participatory art project, curated by ATIR, conceived and directed by Serena Sinigaglia, featuring 150 citizens on stage and the extraordinary participation of Lella Costa. Produced by Atir and Teatro Carcano. 2022-2023.

TO WRAP UP, FOLLOWING THIS REMARKABLE EXPLORATION OF YOUR WORKS, COULD YOU SHARE WITH US A UNIQUE ASPECT OF YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS, SPECIFICALLY REGARDING THE UTILIZATION OF CLAY IN CRAFTING YOUR SCENOGRAPHIC MODELS?


When the idea struck me to sketch with clay instead of pencil, which lacks the third dimension, it ignited something within me.

It's a more liberated, tactile approach to design, akin to sculpting: while I also paint when necessary, using clay allows for the incorporation of other materials.

This method keeps the constructive aspect of scenes close to me—a more physical, material engagement.

Traditionally, the transition from model to stage materials occurs through scenographic production managed by scenotechnical workshops.

However, of late, whenever possible, I've been returning to crafting some scene elements myself. I find great satisfaction in reclaiming this aspect of creation.

The physicality of creation is paramount to me. Designing up to a certain point, and then completing the process through hands-on work, allows for intervention and adaptation along the way. This approach brings me much joy and a stronger connection to the work—from conceptualization to realization.

Over time, I found myself prioritizing actors' needs, but deep down, I've always desired to animate and shape my scenes personally.

By engaging in scene construction, I'm reclaiming a piece of myself—a vital aspect that had been somewhat neglected.

Perhaps this parallels the work of puppeteers, who breathe life into their creations, as I'm discovering a similar need for physicality in my craft.

While I may have limited experience in this realm, I see it as a promising opportunity to delve deeper into a world where the body shapes and animates matter.

In essence, the journey of exploration continues, but it's abundantly clear that scenography is a process deeply rooted in physicality and embodied creativity.

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Some scenographic clay models photographed in Maria Spazzi's workshop - Milan 2023.

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