When Silvia Mercuriali walks into a cafe, she smells the coffee and hears the chatter, but what she sees is a blank canvas that can be coloured with an alternate reality. Together with Anthony Hampton, Silvia pioneered the autoteatro style of theatre, in which audience members perform works by following a series of instructions often delivered in public places such as cafes. Autoteatro began as an evolution of instructional theatre and, in continuing to explore the art form, Silvia has teamed up with filmmaker Simon Wilkinson to introduce film into her productions. Their show The Great Spavaldos will feature at World Theatre Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse.
Discovering your passion, the thing that makes you tick and gives you purpose, can be a lifelong endeavour for some. For Silvia Mercuriali, it’s her love for performance and theatre that inspires her and propels her through life. While she is now a professional theatremaker, Silvia’s love for performance began when she stepped onto an ice skating rink at ten years of age. Instantly enamoured by the sport, she practised to the point where she travelled the world competing as a professional ice skater. “Going fast and twirling and just feeling this sense that you could just be inventive and make up your own parts, that’s what I really loved,” Silvia recalls of her ice-skating days.
For many years, Silvia dreamed of nothing else than ice skating, but the idea of the theatre sat quietly in her subconscious, biding its time. She first considered acting when she asked her parents if she could attend a secondary school that offered theatre. Her parents steered her down the scientific path instead, but, not ready to give up on the idea, she joined after-school acting groups. “I haven’t been encouraged whatsoever by anybody,” Silvia laughs. “But I did love it and I didn’t really care what they thought, so I just went and did my thing.”
Eventually she left her ice-skating club and after finishing school she studied physical theatre in Milan. By the age of 22, Silvia was touring around Italy as part of a theatre company. It was then that she attended a workshop and met Anthony Hampton, who asked her: “What colour do you think theatre is?” The two instantly clicked and began developing their own shows before moving to the UK and starting their own company, Rotozaza.
In the early days of Rotozaza, the pair experimented with instruction-based performance, where the performers are told their lines while they are on stage. “The idea was that we were more interested in the person,” Silvia explains of the style of theatre. “We weren’t interested in the mask that you put on as a performer, but we were interested in actually seeing what a person brings to the live action.”
For their first instruction-based shows, they called upon any willing participants, from truck drivers to musicians, as well as trained actors. As their understanding of this style of theatre grew, they were drawn to the idea of allowing the audience to take part in the experience as well. “We wanted to make something whereby two audience members could share a moment, could share an experience,” she recalls.
From this idea, Silvia and Anthony created their first autoteatro show, Etiquette, which has toured the world for seven years and been translated into 15 languages. The show is for two audience members only, who sit at a table in a real cafe and follow instructions delivered through headphones. The cafe setting of Etiquette takes performance into real life, allowing two people to step into a public space and experience the alternate reality described through the headphones.
After working with Anthony for ten years, Silvia then met filmmaker Simon Wilkinson, who was exploring how he could create a filmic experience that involved audience interaction. Silvia was also interested in using film to create more extreme autoteatro narratives that the audience could experience in safe and controlled environments. Together they formed Il Pixel Rosso, and their latest creation is The Great Spavaldos – a show where two audience members don video goggles and headphones before experiencing the thrill of flying on a trapeze.
When seeking inspiration, Silvia turns to the world around her, marvelling at landscapes and the happenings in everyday places such as supermarkets. “I am interested in allowing the audience to be part of an experience, to be fully within a world that I create,” Silvia explains of her inspiration. “I am interested in anything that is live, that is real and really happening around me, even if it’s not really happening, but I perceive it as real.”
While her inspiration comes from real life, Silvia explains that her best ideas are sculpted by her experiences, through which she has learned the importance of creating opportunities for herself. “Do, do, do as much as possible,” she enthuses. “The more you create, the more you have ideas, and the more you understand what it is that you have to give.”