They loved high drama and preferred lots of tears to their tales. And when there werent enough to suit their tastes, they rewrote the scripts to keep the handkerchiefs dabbing, explained Loredana Cipriani Ciabatti of her recently unveiled jewel. They, she explained, werent the mercenaries of Broadway or the West End but rather the 120 inhabitants of a remote, 500-metre-high, wind-swept village in central Italy, so parched for entertainment over a century ago that they had to brew it themselves. It was the same sort of cultural thirst that brought lecturers such as Oscar Wilde to the dusty mining towns of the American west, and opera companies to the jungles of Brazil. Tuscanys out-of-the-way hamlet of Vetriano shared an equal enthusiasm for being entertained, and the villagers were to create an enchanting playhouse that, at 71 sqm, would later enter the records as the smallest historical theatre in the world.

Vetriano, directly north of Lucca in northwest Tuscany, is neatly sandwiched between the Garfagnana and the craggy, marble-laden Apuan Alps, up a narrow, austere valley dotted with handsome stone towers. Historically very poor, it saw many of its citizens pack their bags and head elsewhere for a more promising life.

When Vetrianos bigwig Virgilio Biagini approached the villagers in 1889 to offer them a small, cramped hayloft, there were strings attached: it had to be used specifically as a theatre, and they had to begin restoration within two months. No problem, they replied. Twenty-two of them banded together into a theatrical association and reached into their own pockets to finance at two lire apiece, for starters the work and initial cost of maintaining the hayloft as a performance centre. Heart and soul were poured into the enterprise, as villagers rallied round. Two tiers of wooden balconies were built and lovingly decorated with garlanded floral themes. Hand-painted vertical panels for the 6-metre-wide stage pulled out as curtains between acts. Seating was something you brought from home. And, more often than not, it was your neighbour up on stage performing.

Some titles give the drift of local tastes at the time: A Night in Florence, Sad Loves, The Doctors Duties, A Lantern in the Window. The locals were justly jubilant with the fruits of their labour. The pint-sized playhouse, which they called simply Il Teatrino, soldiered on for over 70 years, until the place simply wore out: the roof began to leak, paintwork peeled, earth tremors etched cracks in the walls and the descendants of the original association members migrated, often to foreign lands. Tastes changed too, with television wooing residents away from the little stage. The site became a storage depot, and eventually the doors closed to any further entertainment.

So it remained, in a suspended, limbo-like state for decades. In 1997, Biaginis descendants approached Italys foremost fairy godmother association, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI). Since 1975, FAI has undertaken a wide range of interesting projects throughout Italy, pulling some 29 properties back from the edge. Would this Milan-based group, whose aim is to rescue as much of the countrys historic, artistic and environmental heritage as it can within its own budgetary restraints, step in and consider saving the tiny theatre?

Vetriano, five years ago, was FAIs first patient in the Tuscan region, and the Teatrino could not have had a better on-the-spot nurse than Ciabatti. A long-time member of FAI, well-connected in her hometown of Lucca, she even has theatre in her blood: one grandfather was a stage prompter while a grandmother was an actress. She was the local overseer and coordinator, and saw the task to completion. Local banks were approached to give donations, and seats were sold symbolically to other neighbouring benefactors to bring in further funding. Ciabatti herself sat down at a sewing machine to stitch together lustrous red curtains, to take the strain off the fragile panels which miraculously were still just barely intact. Specialist restorers were mobilised to mend the decorations on the balconies. The floor was covered with wood panelling. Electricians were summoned to convert the lovely old gaslight fixtures above the stage and on the ceiling. Two slivers of space flanking each side of the old theatre were purchased and incorporated into the main body to accommodate restrooms to the left and a ticket booth-cum-refreshment stand on the right.

Finally, years of hard work were over and the Teatrino di Vetriano held its formal opening ceremony on 28 September 2002. The very next night, the curtains went up on a performance of Benvenuti in Casa Gori. With that, the little theatre was once again up and running. There were concerts, childrens plays, a little Pirandello, a satire on Molire all perhaps a little meatier and less nostril-flaring than the tastes of

yesteryear, when the 60-seat bomboniera of Vetriano was born.

A new season at the Teatrino di Vetriano began on 28 September.

For information about performances, contact FAI, Via della Stufa 12, Lucca, tel. / fax 058356891, e-mail: failucca@failucca.it.