Volterra Prison Drama

(published 16th November, 2007 on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website)


Volterra. A typical Tuscan hill town. Romantic archways, cobbled streets, postcard sunsets… oh and a maximum security prison. In fact, the prison is Volterra’s landmark but, since it’s located in a 500-year-old Medici fortress, it actually looks perfectly in place. And it seems almost symbolic of the way the prison’s presence manages to blend in with the local community.

The majority of the inmates at Volterra’s prison are serving long sentences for Mafia related crimes, armed-robbery, even murder.  But unless they are high-risk or dangerous, none of them is excluded from joining the prison’s theatre group, the Compagnia della Fortezza (the Company of the Fortress). Ironically, director Armando Punzo tells me that this gives him the advantage of having plenty of time to work with his actors. And they really do work: 5 hours a day, 6 days a week, 11 months a year. Every July they put on a new performance and it’s always the highlight of the Volterra Theatre Festival.

There’s a tremendous spirit of acceptance that you really notice in Volterra. I felt it when mingling with the inmate-performers in the prison courtyard, witnessing their animated conversations with the complimentary public. But I got a true sense of the depth of this local acceptance an hour or two after the performance. Sitting at an outdoor café table, who should walk past but Santolo Matrone, one of the cast of Pinocchio I’d been speaking to earlier. Unaccompanied, he was trotting down the street, listening to his mp3 player. “Hi, Santino!” I called out, using his nickname. He broke into a broad smile and came over to the table. “I’m on my way to work,” he said, “I work in an alabaster workshop in the afternoons.” Volterra is famous for its alabaster stone. We exchanged a few more words and then he said he’d better be going or he’d be late for work. I spotted him again in the early evening walking back towards the prison, talking on his mobile phone.

It was a perfect example of Volterra prison’s ethos. Since the success of Armando Punzo’s theatre project – which built the initial bridge between prison and local populations – Volterra’s become a model of social reintegration programmes. Once prisoners are considered ready, they can go out to work during the daytime in local businesses, where they earn a wage and perhaps learn a profession. And the prison authorities have recently experimented a new project: exclusive dinners inside the prison chapel with gourmet meals cooked and served by the inmates.

It’s all about social rehabilitation, yes, but it’s also about self-respect. The actors I met in Armando Punzo’s Compagnia della Fortezza read books, work out in the gym, listen to music, hold down jobs, and have hopes and aspirations for the future. Several tell me they would like to continue as professional actors when they finish serving their sentences. Volterra’s given them the opportunity to turn their lives around and the spirit to realise their dreams.

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