Treading the boards in the Alps

Giovanni Netzer posing in front of the walls of Riom Castle Willy Spieler /

The 2007 winner of Switzerland's top theatre award, Giovanni Netzer, tells swissinfo about the challenges of putting on plays in an isolated mountain environment.

This content was published on August 12, 2007 - 10:23

Netzer founded the first professional Romansh-language theatre in Switzerland, giving the country's fourth and little-spoken language a greater artistic platform.

The theatre director studied theology and theatre sciences in Munich, Germany, before returning to his native village Savognin in Graubünden, eastern Switzerland.

He set up the Romansh Origen theatre association and a Romansh theatre was opened in Riom Castle in 2006.

Latin-based Romansh is Switzerland fourth official language, but is only spoken by about 0.5 per cent of the population, mostly in Graubünden.

swissinfo: How closely related are theatre and religion?

Giovanni Netzer: I got my first taste of the stage at church and not in a theatre. I owe it all to a priest who paid particular attention to the role of altar boys during church services. I was completely fascinated by this. We also had an excellent church choir which provided the musical and emotional dimension.

During my studies I learned that there was an inherent link between the theatre and church services. Take away the naturalistic side from theatre and you're left with liturgical elements.

Religion and the theatre both have a spiritual side. The theatre can put people, spirits and ideas that do not exist on stage. Liturgy and religion also have non-present realities.
This complexity makes the theatre extremely fascinating.

swissinfo: You lived and studied in Munich for ten years. Do you sometimes miss the urban lifestyle?

G.N.: What I miss are the cultural exchanges that are possible in a big city. But it's just as interesting to try and stage plays in an environment where nobody expects such things.

In Munich I often felt as if I couldn't really contribute anything to an already thriving cultural scene.

Here in the mountains you need to build up a big network if you want to escape from cultural isolation. This is what I am trying to do.

swissinfo: Do you feel freer in a rural environment?

G.N.: If you're happy to work as an artist off-stage promoting, organising and fundraising for the theatre, then you certainly enjoy plenty of freedom. There is more than enough work to do, but you have time to develop your own ideas.

swissinfo: You have described your Graubünden as a 'treasure chest'. What riches are stored away there?

G.N.: The presence of the Alps and nature makes you aware of the non-human dimension of existence.

The conflict between man and nature is also very much part of old Romansh legends, which are a very valuable source of inspiration.

This metaphysical presence of nature, this enormous natural play that is repeated every day, with its different shades of colour and weather - this is very important for me.

swissinfo: What role does Romansh play?

G.N.: The multilingual environment here is fascinating; people use different languages on a daily basis. We have staged several multilingual plays that reflect this.

We certainly don't want to create a Romansh ghetto. On the contrary, we hope to build an environment where you can hear the harsh tones of Romansh and can see that the language is alive.

swissinfo: When did you start thinking about transforming Riom Castle into a theatre?

G.N.: The idea goes back more than 30 years; I have merely continued to promote it.

The castle has always been part of my life. As a child I was disappointed that it was empty and didn't have any kings or princesses.

I later changed my mind and it became a precious space to me because it was so huge, without any decoration and reduced to its basic structure, giving it a great dramatic impact.

swissinfo: How does the audience react to your uncompromising style of theatre?

G.N.: It might be an unusual form of theatre, but I believe that reducing it to the essentials makes it more accessible for the audience.

True, it takes a while to get used to the language, but ultimately this is not very difficult.

Sometimes it is an advantage to work away from the well-trodden paths of urban culture because people are more inclined to accept new ideas. They don't have very many opportunities to compare them with other performances.

swissinfo: You've been honoured with the top Swiss theatre award at the age of 40. How did you react to the nomination?

G.N.: I knew of course that the prize usually goes to people who have been in the profession for a long time. I'm not quite in the same category and I still have plenty of ideas and projects for the future.

The award is a huge challenge and encouragement. At the same time it is an enormous boost for introducing our theatre to a larger audience. This is necessary because otherwise it will die out.

swissinfo-interview: Andrea Tognina in Savognin

In brief

The Hans-Reinhardt ring is Switzerland's top theatre prize.

It takes its name from the poet and patron of the arts, Hans Reinhardt, who lived between 1880-1963 and founded the award.

The Society for Swiss Theatre Sciences has awarded the prize since 1957 for outstanding merit in the Swiss theatre world. The Federal Culture Office co-sponsors the award.

The actual task of choosing a winner is carried out by an independent jury on behalf of the society.

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Giovanni Netzer

Netzer was born in eastern Switzerland in 1967.

He began his theology studies in Chur, Switzerland, and later moved to Munich, Germany, where he did a doctorate on the Romansh theatre of the Baroque period.

Netzer later worked for Romansh-language radio and television. He was also president of the Association of Romansh literature, vice-president of the International Theatre Institute, and director of the Chesa Planta Museum in Samedan, Switzerland.

Netzer has received awards from the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, as well as from the Graubünden cantonal government and several cultural organisations in the Romansh-speaking region.

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