Interview with Nadia Malverti

Nadia Malverti was born in Modena, but has lived in Germany since 1984. She was an actress in the experimental theatre in Munich and Bologna. After moving to Hamburg, she devoted herself to children’s literature, creating texts for fairy tales and radio plays and organising creative expression workshops. Her figurative poetry is strongly visionary: alongside elements of everyday life, Nature is strongly present and childhood resurfaces with its playful and disturbing aspects.


Francesca Della Ventura (FDV): Dear Nadia, you’ve been living and working in Germany for many years now, can you tell us about the German cultural environment when you arrived, before the fall of the Wall, and what has changed over the years?

Nadia Malverti (NM): I want to specify that I am speaking from a strictly personal point of view, about how I lived my first years in Germany. I was very young when I moved to Munich, I was 22 years old in 1984. At that time I was working in an avant-garde theatre group, the Theater Winterquartier. I managed to support myself by integrating other jobs and playing the organ on the street. That kind of life would have been impossible for me in Italy in those years. So for me, Germany meant first and foremost freedom of expression, both through my new way of life after being freed from my family, and through my work as an actress in a research theatre that used a wide range of means of expression: acrobatics, dance, singing, music, movement. We produced the shows with the help of municipal subsidies and low salaries, so at the same time the artists gave lessons in theatre, dance, drove taxis, worked as waiters in pubs, etc. In short, we made a living. In short, we all managed to make a living and realise projects.

One of the merits of the cultural scene in Germany is simply that there is more money in circulation, and therefore the subsidies for theatre groups, cultural projects and artists are higher than in Italy. I also think that the way the individual is perceived in Germany and in other northern European countries has a certain influence. Often in Italy, when dealing with institutions or even with the police who stop you for a roadside check, I have had the impression that just because you exist you are a potential criminal, a person not to be trusted regardless. Therefore, you are looked upon with suspicion, as a person who, in addition to presenting an exposé, certainly has some ulterior motive and is certainly trying to outwit you. It is essential to have the knowledge to fit in. I have the impression, and I repeat this is a personal opinion, that in Germany the situation is a bit different. I was able to work with German institutions and have my radio plays produced without having any connections within the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, for example, simply based on my qualifications and the trust I was given.  For example, the radio plays I submitted to various radio stations were always read and I always received a response, even if it had to be a rejection.

Perhaps one of the difficult aspects for me in the German world, especially in publishing, is the strictness of the schemes by which manuscripts are now evaluated. You have to write with great accuracy, harness your creativity, in a certain way, otherwise your work is not saleable. But this is probably a phenomenon that is not limited to Germany but is the result of a change that involves the whole of Europe and the laws of the market. I also find this schematic in the world of education.

FDV: Why did you decide to play theatre? What is there of this environment in the everyday life of your work in the pedagogical-cultural field?

NM: The desire to do theatre came apparently out of the blue. I was 17 and still in high school. I was attending one of the many shows in the summer in Modena. A dancing actor left the stage, went up dancing on the hail and continued dancing in the audience. I was taken aback by his unexpected departure from the ranks of his stage and coming among us to ‘infect’ us with his lightness, his art. At that moment, as she passed me by, a light burst in my head and it was immediately clear to me that I wanted to be like that too, that I wanted to do theatre, to become an actress. But if you think about it, I was brought to this moment by the creative stimuli I had been subjected to since I was a child. Between the 1970s and 1980s in Modena there was an explosion of cultural activities – the idea that culture is an asset of collective interest had already been growing in the city since the 1960s – ranging from the promotion of libraries to design, art and photography exhibitions, children’s film festivals and theatre seasons with an eclectic panorama ranging from traditional to avant-garde theatre. This is the rich soil that has nurtured me and for which I am infinitely grateful. This is an example of how the city’s cultural climate is crucial for the formation of new generations.

I was attracted to both traditional and more alternative theatre; I decided to combine my interests and after graduating from high school I enrolled in the Bologna School of Theatre, founded and then still directed by Alessandra Galante Garrone.&nbspIn the theatre I moved in a parallel world, where a new Nadia who had now learned to speak in diction – something that irritated my old friends – to use masks, to improvise, could create a reality of her own on stage. This world was good for me in so many ways, it was a kind of liberation from the themes that my family had passed on to me – the war that scarred my parents, the struggle and commitment to ensure that such a disaster would never happen again – and which had certainly been too dominant in my life. After theatre school, I could not fit into the Italian theatre scene, I was a bit confused. In the end, I took the opportunity of a summer job in Munich – I already spoke good German, having studied it at school – to peek into the theatre scene there. I joined a director and a group of young actors and together we founded Theater Winterquartier, a research group with which I worked for five years. After its dissolution in 1989, I moved to Bologna for a few years, where I worked in theatre for another three years, always in research theatre groups.

Theatre remains the basis of my artistic activities. When I write radio plays or stories for children, I always read aloud to check that the sentences ‘sound right’, that they are believable in the mouth of the character. Expressiveness through voice and body also helps me a lot in readings for schools, where it is necessary to keep the children’s attention and involve them. Theatre also accompanies me when I paint. Improvisation techniques apply to both theatre and painting, at least the one I like to do. You leave and you don’t know where you’re going to get to, it’s a kind of journey. You have to give yourself time and trust yourself. It’s not always easy, especially this last point.

FDV: You have been working in Hamburg for many years as a children’s writer, creating fairytale texts and radio plays. What does working with children mean to you and when did you start? What kind of creative workshops do you organise?

NM: I started working with children here in Hamburg. In the beginning it was through a weekly workshop at the Spielhaus in Niendorf Nord, a centre where children participated in various free afternoon activities. Then I dedicated myself to teaching Italian to Italian or German-Italian children through creative activities at the bilingual school in Hamburg’s Döhrnstrasse. We had a lot of fun: we played with words, invented stories and nursery rhymes, built puppets and put on a show with their stories, discovered the geography of the Italian regions through an ideal trip to visit the grandparents of the children in the workshop. I realised quite early on, right from the first reading in the library in Modena in 1992, that what we actors and artists give them will be the basis for their development. Very often they will never forget us. So it is very important to be sincere in what we do, to believe in it and to give them not only an artistic product but an example of life. It almost sounds like an exaggeration but it is not. On stage or in the classroom in front of them, we actors and artists – and of course the teachers are also – become human beings that I define as ‘empowered’, we are therefore an example to our audience of growing humans. That is why I pay so much attention to my activities with children.

“Si conta e si racconta”, by Nadia Malverti ©Nadia Malverti

Another great pleasure was the creation of the collection of Italian fairy tales. At that time, Italian families in Hamburg were missing stories for their children to listen to. As I came into closer contact with the Italian community in Hamburg, I had the idea of creating a high-quality audio product in Italian for children and adults. This is how “Si conta e si racconta” (www.si-conta-e-si-racconta.eu), a three-CD collection of twenty traditional Italian fairy tales, came about in 2011. These are fairy tales whose original language is the dialect of the various areas of origin, which I transposed into Italian. It was therefore a great deal of work, very interesting, first of choice, then of translation and then finally of recording. During this phase, I also involved my friends from the theatre school, so we were able to work together on a common project, even if only for a few days. It was beautiful, a true gift of life. You can feel the intensity and affection that binds us when you listen to the tales. The result was a wonderful product, made up of small radio plays and simple readings edited with music and sound effects. On this occasion, I started working with coloured pencils again and created the drawings for the graphics of the box set and the CDs. With Si conta e si racconta I also did a series of readings in Bologna and Modena. It was very exciting to present myself in my city after so many years.

Back to the workshops: after my first exhibition here in Hamburg in 2017, creative workshops for children and families were born. To give an example open to : mask making, about building your own book, about Harlequin and collage, about portrait and self-portrait. The children absorb everything. It’s great to see how grateful the children are for all the impulses offered to them. I like to work with different impulses. In these pictures the children before starting choose an object that they like, that inspires them. They can also include the object in their drawing, which they make in different stages: watercolour, coloured pencils and collage. I learn a lot from the children.

Writing workshop, July 2020 – making a frottage with tree bark ©Nadia Malverti

For a few years now, I have been working with two women writers on writing workshops in primary schools. These activities are part of the German Ministry of Education’s “Kultur macht stark” project, in collaboration with an association that promotes reading by authors in schools and kindergartens, the Friedrich-Bödecker-Kreis e.V. We try to stimulate a love of writing and reading in children, to bring them into contact with the world of books. On the one hand because electronic media are often more present and dominant in children’s lives than books, and on the other hand because many of them come from families where the value of culture is not very present, or from families with such a migration background that even if they wanted to they do not have the means to offer their children such direct and concrete contact with the world of books. My colleagues and I always try to get the children to express themselves through drawing, colouring, collage, clay modelling, and of course also through theatre, by staging their own stories.

The writer Susanne Orosz, to whom I am also linked by a strong friendship, and I have expanded our repertoire of workshops by also using kamishibai theatre. We produce the sets and paper characters for our stories ourselves.

Susanne Orosz and I with a fabric set for the “History of the turnip”, kamishibai theatre. ©Nadia Malverti

In short, my activities are very varied and require a lot of commitment and energy. As you can see, some of my work is done together with others. There are artists who like to work alone. I really like working in a team. It’s something that has been going on since I was an actress. That is why the inwomen.Gallery project is so attractive to me now. This eclecticism of mine has often been a burden on me, as I don’t fit into any particular genre. It is often useful and healthy to be able to say: “I am an actress”. This is not the case for me. I’m constantly moving between different worlds and drawing on them. I’ve decided that’s fine.

FDV: Four your Monotypes are exhibited on inWomen.Gallery. The monotype technique is less used today in painting. How do you create your works? Why did you dedicate yourself to this particular technique? What do you tell with your monotypes?

NM: Because of the closure of schools in spring 2020 due to the pandemic, I have tried to offer online workshops. Every Thursday a group of girls and I meet to paint together. I wanted to try out new things to offer the girls because not everything is possible if you work online, you have to find the right things. I started experimenting and that’s how the monotypes were born. I started and I couldn’t stop. It was like watching flowers grow continuously, one after the other. The motifs jumped out on their own, then they focused on a figure of a woman orbiting between the planets.

“Cesarina”, monotype, acrylic and watercolour, 13cmx18cm, 2020, ©Nadia Malverti

What do I tell with my work? I always find out later what I want to say. To be honest, I often don’t know. For me, painting is a field of great freedom, where I trust myself, I let myself go. Lately, the figures of women that have emerged both from monotypes and from my latest works on movement seem to indicate more than the search for a position of their own, that the position you have is fine as it is. I mean: often we women have the tendency to underestimate ourselves and to believe that we have to do or be something else or more in order to be accepted. On the other hand, very often we already have all the qualities to succeed, it’s just that we don’t realise it.

Exhibition set-up ‘Emotions in motion’ Hamburg 2017 ©Nadia Malverti
Francesca Della Ventura
Francesca Della Ventura

Francesca Della Ventura is a journalist, curator and contemporary art critic, as well as founder and director of inWomen.Gallery.