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Willem Dafoe Named Artistic Director of Venice Biennale Theater

Willem Dafoe Named Artistic Director of Venice Biennale Theater

Willem Dafoe is the new artistic director of the theater department of the Italian arts organization La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Biennale, for a two-year term 2025-2026. 

“Theater is in fact the original home of his lustrous career,” said Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, chair of the board of directors of the Biennale, which is the foundation that oversees the Venice Film Festival. “One of the founders of the legendary Wooster Group in 1977, the perfect control of his body on stage has always stemmed from discipline, knowledge, passion and a profound awareness of theater. I can’t wait, like everyone else, to be a spectator at the festival he will build as artistic director and – from his lectern as an absolute maestro – to watch the young men and women of the Theater College grow in their art.”

Said Dafoe: “I was first surprised then happy to receive Pietrangelo Buttafuoco’s invitation.” He continued: “I realize that I am known as a film actor, but I was born in the theater, the theater trained me and galvanized me. I am a stage animal. I am an actor. Theater taught me about art and life.” Concluded Dafoe: “I worked with the Wooster Group for 27 years, I have collaborated with great directors from Richard Foreman to Bob Wilson. The direction of my theater program will be charted by my personal development. A sort of exploration of the essence of the body.”

Dafoe began his artistic career as a university student in Milwaukee where at age 19 he joined Theatre X (1975-1977), one of the first experimental theater groups in the U.S., with which he performed in Offending the Audience by Peter Handke and in many plays by the director and artistic director John Schneider. In Europe, where he lived in 1976, he worked at the legendary Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam, the heart of alternative international theater, where he performed on stage in Folter Follies, a work by the founder, actor, director, playwright, producer and visual artist Ritsaert ten Cate.

“But he began his most important theater training in New York, where together with director Elizabeth LeCompte and actors Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Jim Clayburgh and Peyton Smith, he co-founded The Wooster Group, with which he would perform on stage for over 20 years (1977-2003), participating in many of the productions, which featured a singular blend of languages and texts – from the classics to American counterculture, from Flaubert to Lenny Bruce – that made it the fulcrum of the underground scene in 1980s New York,  establishing collaborations with many artists – Ken Kobland, Jim Strahs, Richard Foreman, Trisha Brown, John Lurie, Bruce Odland, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tipton, Frances McDormand, Hans Peter Kuhn, Amir ElSaffar,” the Biennale said.

In 2016, he participated in the Biennale Teatro program in the masterclass section, teaching a workshop dedicated to acting.

Dafoe has been nominated for four Oscars. This year he will be in the cast of the opening film of the 81st Venice Film Festival, Beetlejuice Beetlejuice by Tim Burton.

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Biennale Teatro was founded as an independent department of La Biennale di Venezia in 1934, following its departments for art (1895), music (1930) and cinema (1932). “It has been directed by important figures in the world of culture and entertainment, such as Renato Simoni, Luca Ronconi, Franco Quadri, Carmelo Bene, Lluís Pasqual,” the organization said.

Since 1998, it has been programmed yearly, including by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (1998-2002), Peter Sellars (2003), Massimo Castri (2004), Romeo Castellucci (2005), Maurizio Scaparro (2006-2009), Álex Rigola (2010-2016), Antonio Latella (2017-2020), and Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte (2021-2024).

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