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Il Theatro Minimo by an Expatriate in Florence, Italy

Amy Luckenbach’s Magic Show Goes on the Road

Some people might call Amy Luckenbach a puppeteer, but those who have seen her work call her a magician who happens also to be an artist.

Amy, who has collaborated with a number of composers to choreograph spectacular puppet “ballets,” is currently working with Maurice Sendak on “Fantasy Sketches” and with Philip Glass on “The Night Kitchen,” the first of her pieces to be performed in the U.S.

An American who has chosen to live and work in Italy together with her artist husband, Amy is among many talented American artists who have fallen under the Italian spell. In Amy’s case, the place is a beautiful spot in the hills behind Florence, in the villa which once was the home of the Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher. (A tiny chapel with an alterpiece painted by Domenico’s son, Ridolfo, is attached to the villa.)

Born and raised in Illinois, where she studied theater at Southern Illinois Univ., Amy was so struck by an exhibition of the Italian Marino Marini’s work in Saint Louis that she changed the direction of her studies and decided to concentrate in sculpture. At 19, she met and married the Russian-Polish emigre painter Nick Kraczyna, and in 1968, at Nick’s urging, the couple left for Florence to continue their studies.

Their first years were spent in a cold-water flat with no bathroom on the Lungarno. Their next apartment consisted of two rooms in the Piazza Santo Spirito where the damp cold obliged them to sleep in their clothes. The women neighbors, horrified to see that the baby of the “due artisti” had “almost nothing to wear,” gathered their used baby clothes to give to Amy. After the first child was born, a schoolteacher neighbor taught her fifth-grade pupils to knit so that they would keep the baby well clothed.

Why did Amy and Nick endure such hardships when it would have been easier for them to live comfortably in America, I asked? Amy’s reply was simple and direct. When she first arrived in Florence, she was overwhelmed by its beauty. “This is the place where I want to live,” she said. Nick agreed and devised a plan to stay. He asked 12 friends in the U.S. to send him $10 a month for which they would receive, at the end of the year, the choice of his work. With $120 a month, Nick and Amy lived frugally but well in the working class quarter of Santo Spirito, where the artisans gave Nick frames for his paintings.

For the first few years Amy was able to do little of her own work while she adjusted to her new life and to motherhood. Nick eventually found teaching jobs in the various art programs run by American colleges and universities. Amy “just soaked up the atmosphere,” learning Italian in the streets and admiring the city from the rooftop terrace which their landlord had fixed up for them (they lived next door to the Pensione Bartolini where Forster had written Room with a View). Concerts at La Pergola and cheap Saturday tickets to museums and galleries had their effect on a midwestern girl. “Italy changed me,” Amy says.

Within a few years, on a Sunday walk Nick and Amy found the perfect house in the hills overlooking Florence, a villa complex (called “un borgo” in Italy) where the villa which had belonged to Ghirlandaio was vacant. The aging landlady eventually adopted the growing family; they became her family and she became theirs

After five years of hard labor modernizing the “ancient pile,” Amy was ready to begin her own work. She started by making toys for her children (by this time she was the mother of two) and then, fascinated by books like Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, she decided that such works needed music and animation.

After taking a course with a Czech puppetmaker, she began to produce her own idiosyncratic puppets: child-sized and made of cloth and papier-mache. Then, in collboration with a composer friend, she produced Sendak’s story for a street theater and passed a hat around to pay for their expenses.

In 1972 the Marchese Antinori invited Amy to produce Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale as part of a puppet festival in the courtyard of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Meanwhile, Nick was working with her idol, Marino Marini, and had opened up a shop for making prints. He was also teaching in Rome and Florence. By 1978, inspired again by Marini’s figures, she asked the artist if she could use his imagery to do Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” (which will be performed once again this year in the Teatro Comunale of Florence).

Meanwhile, Nick had founded a summer school in Barga, above Lucca. There Amy met an Englishwoman who was also working with puppets and they formed a company called “Burretini a spasso” (“Puppets Out Walking!”).

The company grew and toured with performances of “Babar the Elephant” and a “ballet” to Debussy’s “Boite a Joux-Joux.” Then, in 1994 Amy met the renowned Italian composer Luciano Berio and produced a masterpiece of theatre-choreography-puppetry called “A-Ronni,” which was performed in Milan and reviewed nationally. It was Berio who suggested that she rename her company “Il Teatro Minimo.”

Amy has recently completed a piece on a work of the poet Sanguinetti (Novissimum Testamentus) as well as developing Sendak’s “Night Kitchen” with Glass. The oldest of Amy’s three children have remained to establish themselves in Florence and her youngest daughter, Emma, joins her parents on their yearly trip to the Czech Republic where Nick teaches for the month of August each year and where they are reconstructing another ancient house.

Amy has grown used to living in two worlds: Italy and now Czechoslovakia. At the same time she keeps her American roots by regular visits to family in Illinois. Her self-imposed exile has resulted in an extraordinary burst of talent nurtured by contacts with renowned European as well as American artists-a talent which might never have brought her work to such brilliant fruition had she not made the wager to leave the U.S. and immerse herself in another culture.

JOANNA HUBBS is Professor of Russian Cultural History at Hampshire College and the author of Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture.

 
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