interview Marleen Scholten
‘You have a number, and you know you will need to wait another 65 numbers’
Interview with Marleen Scholten, maker of La codista
by Evelien Lindeboom
Actress and theatre maker Marleen Scholten is a member of the Flemmish-Dutch acting collective Wunderbaum. She has lived in Milan since 2016. Her theatre monologue La codista is about someone who is paid to wait in line for other people. A piece about standing still and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. She was awarded Italy’s Antonio Conti national playwright’s prize for the piece. Now, she is bringing the monologue to the Holland Festival in Dutch.
You are a cofounder and member of the acting collective Wunderbaum since 2001, and you moved to Italy in 2016. How does that work?
‘I truly enjoy acting in different languages. I perform La codista in Italian in Italy and in Dutch in the Netherlands. We had often done things in English or German already with Wunderbaum, so now Italian can be added to the list as well. Of course, it is not always easy to live so far apart as a group. Two colleagues are also in Jena, so we travel a lot. But most of all, we feel enriched to be able to show our work in different countries and languages.’
How did La codista come about?
‘I had read an article in de Volkskrant about the Milanese Giovanni Cafaro. He had lost his job, and as a form of silent protest against the high unemployment numbers he came up with this job for himself. He made waiting in line for other people an official profession. There is a considerable market for this in Italy; its bureaucracy is more complex than in the Netherlands, and they still use a lot of paper, so there are often lengthy queues at post offices, pharmacies and such.
He was pleasantly surprised when I contacted him. It is an easy subject to make fun of, obviously, but this did not interest me. I really looked into what this job involves. You need a good sense of how things work to be able to do this kind of work. Giovanni was able to tell me about the strategies he had come up with and what loopholes in the law he had discovered. Once, when I needed a document myself and did not get it, he told me I should call and make a big drama out of it. I did not want to do that at first, but it worked, absurdly enough. You need to be persuasive in a bureaucracy like this. You can imagine how difficult this is for people who do not speak the language very well.’
You wrote this text in Italian and even won an award for it. So you are fluent in Italian in speech, writing and acting. And now you have translated the piece into Dutch. To what extent does it remain an Italian piece?
‘The piece was written in Italian and clearly takes place in Italy, but it is not necessarily about Italy. Much less so than my previous piece, Who is the real Italian?, for example. It tells a larger story about people facing uncertainty, who literally have to wait and hope this results in things changing or getting better. I wrote it before corona broke out, and I was overtaken by real-world events. All of a sudden, people could no longer think about the future. Everyone found themselves in the here and now. This is also reflected in the monologue: the narrator is on standby, as it were.’
What else is La codista about?
‘As a ‘codista’, you wait in line for other people for hours on end. When you are next to be served, you call the person you are queuing up for so they come and take your place. A codista will sometimes even be authorised to pretend to be this other person, for example when applying for unemployment benefits. The activities are often highly personal in nature and can be emotionally laden. La codista is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and taking on another’s identity.
For myself, it also turned into a story about the fear of standing still and losing time. It is not easy to admit to yourself that you are doing or being something else than what you aspire to. This is precisely the tragedy of the codista: nobody dreams of waiting in line for someone else.’
To what extent did it end up being a personal story as well?
‘I waited in line for hours myself, just as myself. Even when you speak the language and are from the EU - if you are not Italian, things are extra complicated here. Waiting times are even longer, and you end up on a ‘we’ll need to look into this’ pile. It took me one and a half years to become an official resident, and then I still needed to get an insurance card... I began to observe everything while waiting in line: what are things like there, how do people relate to each other and to me? My own fear of standing still is reflected in the piece as well: this idea that life should always be bigger and better. The way I experience the world, as a performance society. And I wondered what I would do myself to be able to maintain such a job. This is why my character learns poems by rote, as a counterbalance to this hyperreality of waiting. I selected these poems based on what the piece means to me. It includes a poem by the Dutch poet J. Slauerhoff, De vrouw aan het venster (‘The woman at the window’), which is about someone who sees the world isolated from behind a window and who does not know what life is like outside. I felt this fit well with this stage image of a lonely figure under a fluorescent lamp. Life outside goes on while she is forced to wait.’
There is often a political statement in Wunderbaum’s pieces. Is this work also intended as commentary on something?
‘Giovanni’s story is a political story: unemployment is high, there is a national brain drain and the system is not working. All Wunderbaum’s pieces contain a message, and so does this one. But for us, the political is always connected with the personal. I hope this piece will cause the audience to reflect on the meaning of time and how we cope with this, through various personal and recognisable subjects. For example, there is a part about WhatsApp groups: about the pressure to reply quickly and come across a certain way in relation to the group. Wunderbaum’s pieces never provide answers. Rather, we wish to leave the audience with a question.’
You usually work together with others. What is it like to write and perform a monologue?
‘I never made a piece all by myself like this. It feels exciting. I have no music, no amplification, nothing at all. Hopefully, this is also the strength of the piece. It is exceedingly open towards the audience, which I feel to be its co-star. I started writing from interviews, and on the basis of this I made a construction : you have a number, and you know you, together with the audience, will still need to wait another 65 numbers’. And I knew how it would end from the start...’
13 - 14 June, Frascatie