The Drama Club
If you’re looking for the kids, and it’s a Friday afternoon during the school term, look no further than the theater down Risorgimento Martyrs Street, close to the on-ramp to the highway leading to Rome. Rain or shine, ninety-four pages left to study for a biology test on Monday or not, they will be sitting in the orchestra anywhere between the first and the fifth row, and always at the center, of course, because that’s where they can get the best view of the stage, even though some of them will actually have their backs turned to it and their gaze directed toward their friends. After all, no play has ever been performed here, no actor has ever stepped onto this stage to enthrall an audience with his interpretation of Hamlet, so the five kids might as well watch the dramas unfolding among themselves. One day the girl with indigo streaks in her hair laments the tragic loss of her most beloved book to a leak in the ceiling, her voice sonorous, her gesticulation wild, while a ray of the setting sun spotlights the fierceness of her expression. Another day the boy with an American-sounding nickname remonstrates about the frequent (and never announced) cancellation of the buses heading to the capital, and his monologue is echoed by a chorus of “Yeah,” “I know, right?” and “Fuck this town” that fades out as the sunlight dims. Some days, instead, it’s a screen that captures their attention, and they all cluster around the kid holding the phone and laugh at a comedy sketch, saying “That’s you” every time a character acts just like one of them. The “you” chuckles the loudest and agrees. “That’s me.”
To be fair, the kids do not always remain sprawled on the tiers. There are afternoons when they climb over the brick parapet into the boxes like restless monkeys, others when they roam about the building in stunned silence, taking in the geometric pattern of the truss upholding the paneled roof, staring at the scaffolding towering at the back of the stage. Like foreign tourists visiting the Colosseum and trying to imagine what it looked like in the past, the kids try to imagine what the theater would look like in the future. Rows of velvet chairs, a purple curtain dropping from the ceiling to brush against the wooden floor of the stage, the walls painted gold and the pillars a veined white to look like marble columns—the kids’ vision is detailed, and faithful to the digital rendering of the theater, a masterwork of 3-D virtual design at which they marveled when the project was first announced. That was six years ago. The kids were only ten back then, yet they won’t forget what they were promised. Children never do.
Picture this: with a seating capacity of 426, the Lavinium Theater was set to be the largest venue in the whole province of Rome, Rome itself excluded. Companies would come from all over the country to perform Shakespeare, Pirandello, and their own original pieces on its brand-new stage, and the townspeople would have the privilege of being the first audience to see productions that would go on to win national acclaim. Moreover, the theater would open its doors to schoolchildren in the morning, and to teenagers in the afternoon, so that the youth of the town could have “a place to gather, to play, to make art.” Now, you must understand that the kids have watched dozens of American movies in their lives, and that these movies have led them to entertain the belief that anything can happen at a drama club. The high school jock discovers a burning passion for singing. The shy science nerd overcomes her fears and delivers a performance to remember. Two star-crossed lovers share their first kiss behind the backcloth on opening night, while even the most austere parents tear up with pride and jump from their seats clapping after the final act. So you can imagine the kids’ excitement at the prospect of a plot of uncultivated land being transformed into a framework of pillars and crossbeams, how that excitement simmered as the months passed and the building rose in front of their eyes, all while the kids’ bodies, too, transformed, getting taller by the day, and growing hairs and breasts where there once were only glabrous, flat surfaces. Glancing at the sign posted at the entrance to the construction site, the kids did the math: the works would be complete by the time they turned fourteen, just in time for them to live their high school years to the fullest. It was perfect. Almost too good to be true.
In fact, according to the kids’ parents, it was never true. Didn’t the kids know how things worked in Italy? The owner of the construction company must have been a friend of a friend of whoever allocated the money for the theater. Anyone who took the trouble to do a little digging would soon have found out that some guy high up in government had gotten himself a penthouse overlooking the Tiber before the ink of his signature had dried on the project approval document. The building was never meant to be finished. Only to be paid for. “Don’t hold your breath, kids, or you’ll choke.” For a while the parents groused at such squandering of public money, but one can harbor such an emotion for only so long before it becomes wearying and trite. Wasn’t there a hint of satisfaction in their voices when they said “I told you so” after the workers stopped coming to the construction yard? Yet the kids, being pigheaded, as kids are, didn’t believe them. They couldn’t fathom how the workers could simply walk out on a building they’d labored so hard to raise, how they could be so indifferent after they’d sweated off fat and health to lay the foundation, brick upon brick. Years have gone by, but the kids still await the workers’ return. In the meantime, they take what they can get and claim their seats in the closed-off construction site. After all, they technically own the place.
This is what the indigo girl said to the girl with freckles on the day they first contemplated breaking into the theater: “It’s technically ours, you know.” The freckled girl frowned. Though the sign clearly stated KEEP OUT, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, she knew that didn’t mean them. But the indigo girl has always had a flair for rhetoric, more so since they studied Aristotle at school. “Hear me out,” she said. The theater was paid for with public money. Public money comes from taxes. The kids’ parents pay taxes. What the kids’ parents pay for belongs to the parents. What belongs to the parents belongs to the kids. Therefore, the theater belongs to the kids. It was a simple syllogism, its conclusion as elementary to the indigo girl as the fact that being human makes us mortal. Without further dispute, the freckled girl followed the others inside. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else they could go anyway.
When they were younger, they had other places. They could spend time in one of the playgrounds scattered around town, but now the swings creak as soon as the kids rest their butts on the seats, and elementary school children pout and glower at them. Next to each playground, even the dogs have their own parks. The kids used to have a bar where they hung out, but it has gone out of business, while the other bars are thronged with retirees playing scala quaranta from morning till dusk. Nor do the kids wish to cross paths with the other dreamers in town, the middle-aged men and women who look up at the TV screen calling lottery numbers and have faith that the next time will be the one, just wait and see, can you imagine how many things you can buy with six million euros? “Play these numbers, Anto’, quick, only fifteen seconds left before the draw.”
What about the main square? you might ask. Sure, it would be the perfect place to hang out, if only people didn’t die every other day, and mourners didn’t pour out of the church into the square, drowning out the kids’ laughter with their weeping, shaming the girls’ shrill voices into silence with their muttered condolences. And the streets? A parade of shops that have succumbed to the economic crisis, closed shutters and empty windows everywhere, sidewalks like paths through a graveyard—you’ll agree that it makes a gloomy backdrop for a stroll. Can’t they just meet in one of the kids’ apartments, then? Where? In the bedrooms they share with their elder siblings, grumpy old men at the age of twenty-eight, their degrees gathering dust on the wall while they scrape together money with temporary nighttime jobs? Or do you mean in the living rooms, where their laid-off parents pretend to watch TV from the couch while eavesdropping on the kids’ every conversation, unfailingly offering unsolicited advice as a substitute for the allowance they don’t always pay? No, it won’t do, so let the kids embark on the little adventure of sneaking through the holes in the fence and working their way through the weeds. What’s the harm in it, really? Let them have this, at least.
Look at them, how skillfully and dauntlessly they climb the scaffolding to reach the highest point—you’d think they were five Quasimodos, grown up amid pillars as naked as fleshless bones, well versed in hiding their luminous pimply faces from people in the streets. Look how cozily they sit there on the tiers, feasting on barbecue potato chips and Coke, listening to Drake, Imagine Dragons, and De André from a Bluetooth speaker, confident that the music will be drowned out by the noise of passing cars. When the indigo girl is in charge of the soundtrack, you might hear Broadway cast recordings playing on repeat. Lately she’s gotten into Dear Evan Hansen, and she takes the stage to prove to the others that she’d be a perfect Zoe, given half a chance. “We only need three more people to have the full cast. We can rehearse here. Come on, it’ll be fun.” She’s bought a book about the show, with photos and interviews with the cast. She’s listened to the album countless times. She’s seen pictures and videos posted on the official Twitter and YouTube sites for the musical, and every morning at breakfast she watches the stories of the actors and understudies on Instagram. “Trust me, it’ll be as good as the real thing.” The “American” boy is intrigued. He wants to be a millionaire, and you’ve got to start somewhere. His rags-to-riches story might take off from playing the lead in an amateur production. Who knows? He can see the headlines already: FROM THE PROJECTS IN THE PONTINE MARSHES TO A SEVEN-BEDROOM VILLA IN HOLLYWOOD. Like Jim Carrey and Jessica Chastain. Like Emma Stone in La La Land. He wants to buy his parents a house, where his father will finally have a big kitchen with the one-thousand-euro food processor he’s always said he wants before he dies. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do this, guys.”
Unlucky for them, not all the kids are moved by such lofty aspirations. The freckled girl has grown to like the theater well enough, but only in the most concrete sense of the word. She might concede that the building, seemingly stable and already roofed, does its job as a shelter from the rain. However, becoming a star is not in her plans, which involve studying environmental engineering and being a brain drainee in Australia. When it comes to the hulking boy and the girl with a henna tattoo, on the other hand, I guess you could call their ambitions “artistic” if you consider love to be a form of art. A painting or a poem is seldom interesting when it’s uncomplicated and its meaning transparent. Similarly, it would be too straightforward and easy for these two smitten kids to simply ask each other out, so instead they give each other fleeting glances and faint smiles, their lips quivering, their fingers itching to reach out and touch the other’s skin.
“Who the fuck did this shit?”
Clearly the indigo girl doesn’t like what she’s seeing today. And how could you blame her? On the parapet of the boxes, on the right side, some graffiti has cropped up, and nothing about it would lead them to think that the tagger might turn out to be the next Banksy. BITCHES CAN SUCK MY DICK, accompanied by an unambiguously phallic drawing. The hulking boy blushes and averts his eyes. The indigo girl is outraged at the desecration of the venue and googles “how to remove graffiti,” only to learn that she can’t simply scrub it off with bleach and water. The daub is there to stay. Gone is the confidence that when the workers come back, they will find everything exactly as they left it. The end has begun, thanks to what the indigo girl calls “a jerk with no regard for public property.” In her eyes, the graffiti counts as an act of self-sabotage. The freckled girl tells her not to fret too much about it. After all, isn’t this kind of like the beginning of In the Heights? (The musical was the indigo girl’s favorite a couple of months ago, and the kids all know the plot and the songs by heart at this point.) The indigo girl hesitates but eventually agrees, and as they walk home later tonight, the kids will feel a bit like the protagonists of In the Heights, torn between their yearning to leave this godforsaken town and their dogged determination to save it.
The henna girl already has a project in store, its blueprint mapped out down to the tiniest detail in her mind. She’s going to redeem what used to be their favorite bar by turning it into a board-game pub where a fusion of Italian food and Chinese, Romanian, Pakistani, and Ecuadoran dishes will be served. When someone expresses doubt that she’ll succeed, she says “Watch me” and smiles a knowing
smile. Little does she know, however, that she’ll be the first one to leave, and that her departure won’t be a glorious flight to Berlin or Shanghai or New York but merely a relocation to another lousy hole after her mother’s employer presents her with a simple choice: either she moves her whole family to the North or she loses her job. What good would it do the henna girl’s mother to say that it makes no difference where her ass is sitting—whether in the office here or in another branch in the North—since all she does at work is exchange emails with co-workers in India and Poland and oversee contracts negotiated on the Internet? She keeps quiet and holds on tight to the family’s only source of income. She agrees to go. The henna girl must go with her.
Farewell, native home. Farewell, ye mountains of trash at the side of the roads, ye school nicknamed Alcatraz, which now sounds like a term of endearment instilling tenderness in the girl’s heart. Farewell, hulking boy, who on the last day almost shies away from hugging the henna girl, though eventually they’re in each other’s arms, and the warmth of their bodies feeds their imagination about what they could have had: timid kisses in the privacy of the backstage, hands held in a mild PDA, and, who knows, perhaps even undressing to expose the flesh and find out what happens after a lovemaking scene fades to black. All they say before the henna girl leaves is “Let’s keep in touch.” But “touch” is a treacherous word, because touching is what they won’t be doing when they text and group-Skype, and the promises made online—”Of course I’ll come to visit you all!”—are never fulfilled, either because of the high price of the train tickets or because it is onerous to lead a double life, split between reality and what-ifs. And this is what the hulking boy’s reality will look like: though anatomy books will offer him some knowledge of women during his time in med school, he won’t be able to fathom how his own body could ever perform the biological functions that the books so accurately describe; he will never quite think of himself as a suitable protagonist for a rom-com, and even when he falls in love again at the age of twenty-seven, he will dawdle in the first act for far too long, held back by his fear of attachment, his fear of loss, the chance that his desires might never be satisfied.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kids are still sixteen years old and still sitting in the orchestra, though there’s only three of them now. It’s been a few weeks since the last time the hulking boy joined them, and they already think of two months ago as “back in the old days,” which is what their grandparents say when they talk about the postwar years and the economic boom. None of them speaks of the theater being finished anymore. Perhaps they worry that they’d jinx their wishes if they voiced them, so instead they discuss what happened this morning at school, and to say “Fingers crossed that Mrs. Narducci won’t test me next week” is as much as they dare to hope out loud.
The theater is now littered with smashed beer bottles and cigarette butts. Graffiti has mushroomed all around the building, even in places where the kids haven’t been brave enough to venture. “Pigs,” the indigo girl mutters, booting a can of Red Bull and sending it bouncing down the tiers toward the stage. The freckled girl glances at it but doesn’t move. She used to pick up the trash, but lately it’s started to feel like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Whatever, the workers will clean up. If they ever come back. In the meantime, the “pigs” serve the role of common enemy, which history has proved time and again to constitute the most resistant of social glues. The kids fantasize about catching the hooligans red-handed, as the saying goes, their hands in this case literally red with spray paint. The indigo girl imagines a scenario à la West Side Story, with the two gangs of kids glaring at one another, not foreseeing that it’ll be the American boy she’ll have to face one day to save this place from destruction.
When the day comes, she screams at him to stop while he punches the walls and kicks the pillars, as though he is trying to tear the building down with his blows. His knuckles are bleeding. His eyes are red from crying, and all they see now, when they look at the theater, is six million euros’ worth of waste. How many things can you buy with six million euros? Loads of food and clothes and infinite months of rent and bills. A man’s life—the American boy’s father’s, who three days ago hung himself outside of the factory where he used to work, because he couldn’t bear not being able to provide for his children, as any good father is supposed to do. How expensive hopes can be, and what’s the use of a half-finished theater, anyway? The American boy climbs the scaffolding in a fury, aiming for the top. The two girls go after him, terrified that he might decide to follow his father and jump off, but he only wants to feel the strength of his muscles, to make sure that a heart is still pounding in his ribcage. “Leave me alone!” he shouts when the indigo girl grabs him by the arm, and after he shoves her away, she falters backwards and bumps against the freckled girl, who slips off the platform and falls onto the stage.
Something cracks when she touches the ground. Perhaps a femur. Perhaps her spine. The freckled girl’s thoughts are too fuzzy to make an accurate assessment, though she can see with clarity that her friends are climbing down toward her, and when the indigo girl yells “I’m calling an ambulance!” she’s keenly aware of what this means. The town will find out that the kids have been trespassing on the construction site. Parents will worry that their foolhardy children will be the next to come back home with a fractured bone, or to not come back home at all. Concerned citizens will rally to demand the razing of the building, and in a few months, when municipal elections are held, the demolition of the Lavinium Theater will be among the campaign promises on every candidate’s leaflet, and perhaps the easiest one for the future mayor to keep. What an unhappy ending for the kids, right? And yet, if you look closely, you will see that the freckled girl is actually smiling. The demolition company her father works for has not been doing too well lately. He’ll be glad to hear that there’s business coming their way.