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Immigrants from around the world live together at Spin Time Labs in Rome, “Women Crossing” theater features migrants’ true stories

The first time I walked into Spin Time Labs [the abandoned building] I felt surprised. A huge empty hall is lined by an enormous staircase on either side. Long corridors on each floor provide space for families to hang their laundry to dry. It feels like a neighborhood entirely indoors.

  • 4 weeks ago
  • June 24, 2024
7 min read
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Alessandra Cutolo is a distinguished theater director and filmmaker with a focus on socially impactful projects. Throughout her career, she has led theater classes and staged plays in prisons, bringing light and hope to confined individuals. In 2017, Cutolo founded “Women Crossing,” a theater company of Nigerian actresses, stemming from her work at the Di Donato school in Rome.
background information
Spin Time Labs, a former INPDAP office building in Rome’s San Giovanni neighborhood, has been occupied and partly repurposed by its inhabitants since 2011 to create livable spaces. Rome faces a housing emergency where workers’ incomes increasingly fall short of covering rental or mortgage costs, despite an abundance of housing. This crisis has fueled movements advocating for the right to housing, with self-rehabilitation of disused buildings emerging as a key strategy. Spin Time Labs stands out among such occupations, addressing the urgent need for housing and integrating services for the community, including a popular school, cinema, theater workshops, and more. Spin Time Labs not only responds to the housing emergency but also tries to integrate itself by offering services to both the neighborhood and the building’s neighbors.

ROME, Italy — As I stroll through the streets of Rome, the vibrant, multicultural landscape woven by many immigrants strikes me. People from all corners of the globe move through the city, yet they often remain disconnected. Racist rhetoric gains ground, and the people who fled difficult circumstances to be here face an uphill battle attempting to integrate.

As a film and theater director, I harness the power of art to bridge these divides. My work remains rooted in a social perspective, and I learned to collaborate with those who have no acting experience. Today, I focus on working with immigrant women in precarious housing situations in Rome, helping them share their stories through theater.

Read more immigration stories at Orato World Media.

A glimpse into immigration: As mothers from the same school, we forge trust, allowing stories to emerge

I grew up and developed my profession in Naples, where I staged plays with prison inmates. In that gray, desolate place, confinement dampens spirits and suppresses emotions. We managed to bring some light to the jail. Journeying through the inmates’ stories changed their reality, even if just for a while. Faces, usually serious and dull, lit up with smiles during the applause. Eyes, normally downcast from mistreatment, lifted with pride.

In 2013, I moved to Rome and had my fourth child. When he started school, I met mothers from different parts of the world at the gate. These immigrant women bore different features and skin tones than my own. The depth in their eyes revealed a history of struggle. As mothers from the same school, we forged trust which allowed their stories to emerge. Listening to them, I felt heartbroken. Their faces transformed as they recounted what they endured to get to Europe.

Rape, subhuman travel conditions, attacks, beatings, and the desire for a better life drove them here. I became convinced, sharing their stories in Italy was crucial to counteract political discourse claiming they invaded us and should return to Africa. A vacant building, with its glazed facade and missing letters on the canopy, became home to many immigrants.

The neighborhood teems with people from all over the world. From the outside, the empty parking lot and broken perimeter fence leave the building looking abandoned. Inside, however, life thrives with intensity. Hundreds of migrants live there.

Spin Time Labs is a magical place: each door leads to a new environment

When I arrived in Rome, I struggled to find a place to live. Owners repeatedly turned me down because my theatrical contracts were temporary. I had to ask friends to act as guarantors. It highlighted how complicated renting an apartment in Rome can be. For immigrant women, these difficulties escalate. Seeing their efforts, I realized the importance of organizing as a community to handle these complexities.

The first time I walked into Spin Time Labs [the abandoned building] I felt surprised. A huge empty hall is lined by an enormous staircase on either side. Long corridors on each floor provide space for families to hang their laundry to dry. It feels like a neighborhood entirely indoors. Without a garden or playground, children run around, using their bicycles and skateboards. They invent a parallel universe, adapting to their surroundings. The children smile and have fun, oblivious to the difficulties their mothers face.

In a way, Spin Time Labs feels like a magical place where each door leads to a completely different world. Open a door, and you suddenly find yourself in Ethiopia. The smell of local food, the music, the taste of the coffee, and the unique décor invade your senses. The hospitable Ethiopian mothers offer their rituals when attending to a guest. It feels like traveling without ever leaving Rome.

Close that door, walk a few meters away, and open another door to enter Nigeria. At times, I found myself in Bangladesh or Eastern Italy. Having visited these countries before, witnessing how these women rebuilt their homeland inside four walls moved me.

Not everything is idyllic in Spin Time: Conflicts arise in the building

Inside Spin Time – a building not designed for living – the rooms do not include bathrooms. Families share bathrooms down the hallways, and each family must clean up after themselves, causing friction. The inherent multiculturalism presents challenges. Immigrants from the East, for example, complain about immigrants from Africa making too much noise. They say the children shout too much, interrupting their rest. These issues exist in any building but become amplified by cultural differences.

To prevent conflicts from escalating, a committee enforces the rules of coexistence. When families approach the committee room, they lower their voices and abide by the decisions made. They prohibit violence in any form. If a man hits his wife, they immediately expel him with no second chances. Evicting is far from a perfect solution. Removing the violent man stops the beatings but leaves the woman alone, responsible for the house and her children, with only one income.

It becomes difficult to decide to evict someone; to measure the difficult balance between safety of all the residents and considering a person with limited resources whose life will become much more complicated. In general, when the council makes such a decision, one sees resignation rather than anger amongst those affected.

Many of these immigrants feel used to losing. It becomes just another defeat in their sad journey. When I proposed forming a theater company with a group of the women to tell their stories through art, I sensed their enthusiasm. Feeling listened to and valued put smiles on their faces. These “actresses of the soul” often deliver their lines in a raw and real way. The pain behind the character transcends the mask of acting and becomes evident.

Theater allows immigrant women to share what they endured with the Italian community

Theater occupies little space in the daily lives of the immigrants. Once a week, I meet the women to discuss our work. These women earn very little money, often cleaning at offices, hotels, or the homes of rich people. After taking their children to school and working long hours, they meet me at dusk. Their tired bodies and worried faces reveal the weight they carry.

The hardship of their lives becomes noticeable in their posture. Yet, as soon as they immerse themselves in collective creation, their countenance changes. It seems as if all their difficulties balance out, leaving space for pleasure and self-realization.

The “Women Crossing” theatre features immigrant women in Rome. | Photo courtesy of f Alessandra Cutolo

The first few times the women made it through the script, which is based on their stories, it felt difficult. The pain of traumatic events, such as watching people drown while traveling in a precarious boat to Europe, left scars on their souls. They break down and cry inconsolably. They can’t speak as they choke on tears and must stop several times before finishing.

For this reason, the opening performance of each show possesses an impressive power. Every word, tone, and gesture convey the violence of their experiences. As the performances continue, the women process these experiences, and the difficulty begins to fade. The script becomes a story. While this diminishes the show’s intensity, it is precisely what we want because it is best for them. Once the story no longer hurts and the play loses its strength, we change and tackle another one.

At the end of the shows, when people applaud, I see these women hold their heads high as smiles spread across their faces. Their eyes shine with emotion, and their chests puff out with pride. Art allows them to be recognized, and to share with the Italian community what they endured to get here.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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