By Barbara Ford

Fringe Festival: In Search of Mrs. Pirandello.  Davide Chiazzese & Michaela Di Cesare. Photo: LivWright

Michaela Di Cesare: A Fresh Italian Canadian Voice

Centaur Stage: Were you always interested in writing for theatre?


Michaela Di Cesare: I wrote and performed a lot as a child and teenager, which I attribute to what I call my "Only Child Syndrome". I wrote a short story in grade 3 about my grandmother's passing and was accused of getting my parents' help. My mom had to come to the school to set the teacher straight and that year, I won the English Proficiency Award from the Ministry. I went on to write and perform poetry, published a few poetry anthologies and even wrote a novel when I was sent to the library for solo study during all of Grade 9 English; it was an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I also wrote a screenplay between high school and Cegep, so I dabbled in other genres.


CS: Did you study both acting and writing?


MDC: I studied both at Concordia. I also took countless acting workshops in the city for voice/film/TV. The Master's program at University of Toronto had a self-directed approach where I could choose my path; that's where I chose to focus on solo performance, again writing and performing. I’ve always been interested in developing both.


CS: It was your dream to perform at Centaur. How were you first exposed to it?


MDC: I truly believe it was my early exposure to Centaur that made theatre a serious goal of mine. For my sweet sixteen, my aunt and uncle gave me a student subscription. I was very involved in my high school drama club and they thought I would appreciate the exposure to professional theatre. I did. It changed me. In my first subscription season, I had the pleasure of seeing Tara Nicodemo in The Shape of Things.  She had recently appeared in the film version of Mambo Italiano and her family shopped at my family's deli, so "knowing" her, or of her, was a big deal to me at 16 years old. I looked up to her and I looked up to the theatre and I’ve never looked back.


CS: What prompted you to write plays for yourself?


MDC: I wrote 8 Ways my Mother was Conceived (my one-woman show) and subsequent works in order to give myself opportunities to which I felt I had no access. On the film side of things, I was routinely being cast as exotic/sexy and in theatre, complex roles for young women are rare and when they do exist, the competition is fierce. Since my writing has taken off, the transition seems to be with the perception of others: I'm constantly being asked to choose, or asked which I prefer, or being told I'm seen mostly this way or that. I find that hilarious. For years, men who wear many hats have been lauded as geniuses and auteurs, whether they want to write and direct or act and direct or be quadruple threats. I'd like to know if anyone asked Shakespeare to choose only one role, or Daniel MacIvor, or... Woody Allen?


CS: Your 2011 break-out play, 8 Ways My Mother Was Conceived, followed by In Search of Mrs. Pirandello, (Wildside Festival 2016), were your stories to tell. Can you envision other actors performing them some day?


MDC: Yes, I'm definitely ready to see 8 Ways in other hands—as strange as that might be—because I've done everything I wanted to do with it and I think I've aged out of the role. Although, I recently played an 8-year-old, so maybe I haven't technically aged out of it, but I really do feel I've given that role, (or the 15 characters I portray in that story), everything I have to offer and would love to pass the torch. When it comes to Mrs. Pirandello, I have high hopes for the play's continued life—with or without me—but as a performing artist I'm not done with the role of The Searcher; I'd like to spend more time with her. It was a very cathartic role for me and I'd like to come back to it, having been purged of that; come to it with more freedom.


CS: What prompted you to write a play about family and inheritance?


MDC: I have always been fascinated with siblings. I may have been an only child but I was raised close to sibling relationships. Close but apart. My mother has 4 siblings and her youngest sisters are very close to me in age so in a lot of ways, I felt like I had sisters my whole life but in tons of other ways, I was acutely aware that I don’t have sisters. What they have is different. I also felt this way as an only child vis a vis my parents: close but apart, separate from what they have as a couple, which I think is great for a marriage, don't get me wrong.


What I find so interesting about siblings is that they are the only people who bear witness to your whole life. They are the ones who understand what drives you crazy about your parents. At the same time, I’ve observed the capacity siblings have to push buttons, to hurt one another in ways no one else can. And in many of these cases, I have been privileged to witness the kind of forgiveness that goes without saying.


During my undergrad studies, I wrote a play that was never produced called Family Business. It had to do with my grandfather's passing and the ways in which I witnessed my mother and her siblings behave at that time. My grandmother had passed several years earlier so the siblings had now lost both parents. There were moments during this difficult time when I was shocked by the hostility and resentment expressed between siblings and then deeply moved by their seemingly bottomless capacity for love and forgiveness.


I observed something that I wanted to write about: a “new Canadian” family finding itself cut off at the head, without its patriarch or matriarch … its original ties to home. I noticed that this loss of the established hierarchy shifted sibling dynamics, in some ways for the better, but in other ways for the worse. It’s as though we perform a version of ourselves for our parents and once they’re gone, the need for the act disappears too. And one of the first times we try out these new uninhibited versions of ourselves is during the family discussions about the inheritance.


In Successions, I revisit a lot of the themes from that never-produced play but chose to make it brothers, instead of sisters, for two reasons. Firstly, the phrase "disinterested in men" has been used to describe my work so I set out to write a feminist play about men to explore the ways in which the expectations of our culture—immigrant, Italian, patriarchal—affect and manipulate them from childhood. Secondly, I had the immense privilege of acquiring a brother-in-law through marriage. I find the relationship between my husband and his brother to be a beautiful representation of support, tenderness and masculinity in all its manifestations: expected and unexpected, flawed and divine. Successions is the play in which I have chosen to explore brotherhood.


CS: How much does being of Italian decent shape you and your work? Do you feel at all pressured, internally or externally, to infuse all of your plays with an Italian aspect?


MDC: Being Italian has a tremendous effect on me and my work, even when I resist it, or perhaps especially when I resist it. I can't help but still feel "other" in this province. I don't feel very removed from my mother's immigration. It feels a part of me even though I was born here. And because my identity is at the core of my work, my lineage becomes entangled in my writing. However I don't feel pressured to infuse everything I write with my “Italian-ness”; it is an intrinsic part of who I am. Lots of other things are also part of who I am. That tapestry is uniquely mine and my uniqueness is what I seek to bring to all my work.


CS: Do you think Successions is an inherently Italian family story?


MDC: Absolutely not. For me, one of the highlights from the talkback session after the staged reading of the play at Centaur, was commentary from two audience members. One woman self-identified as Vietnamese and another young man self-identified as Latino and both of them said the play could have been written about their families. I think the specifics of this work, the blood and the accents and the places that I know intimately, actually make it more universal.


CS: More and more, people of all ethnicities can be seen on stage, however communities often attend theatre only when the stories reflect their own lives, but not other plays. What are your thoughts?


MDC: I don't think people only want to see themselves on stage. I think representation is very important for everyone, the same way it was important for my 16-year-old self to see Tara up on stage. I think the key question is which came first: the desire for a community to see itself represented in an art form, or the boxing off of an ethnic community's artwork as separate from what is considered high art or mainstream Canadian art? There is no simple answer to this, but I do know I want to soften the edges of this box when it comes to me and my work. There is a danger of ghettoizing ethnic work if it is used as token representation rather than the legitimately Canadian or Quebecois work that it is. On the other hand, I understand the appeal and the pride that comes with representing one's community.


At the end of the day, it's better to lead someone to the theatre who wouldn't have otherwise been there—that’s a great start—but what about repeatability and fostering future patrons? In my opinion, that will follow from not merely being represented but from being elevated. I also think it's important to note that there isn't one "Italian" experience. For the generations of Italian Canadian writers who that came before me— Rossi, Galluccio—we didn't hear women's voices as the authors of their own stories. Furthermore, Italy is a young country and does not have as homogeneous a culture or history as some might think. My upcoming work looks specifically at what it means to be from the South of Italy and what has been done to whitewash the history of Southern Italians.


CS: Now that you can tick having one of your plays produced at Centaur off your bucket list, what are some of your other aspirations and/or upcoming projects?


MDC: Even though I’ve acted at Centaur in the Wildside Festival, I'd still like to perform in a Centaur main stage production; that was my sweet sixteen dream. I am also continuing my relationship with Infinithéâtre as I work on my latest play, Extra Beautiful U. This summer, I am going to my father's hometown, Mignano, to do research into Michelina Di Cesare. In the 1860s, she was a freedom fighter (they called her a brigand) who was opposed to the Italian Unification and the havoc it was wreaking on Southerners. I am so proud to bring my father along on this trip because he has never been to Italy (he was born here, my mother wasn't) and I am eager to finally bring him into my work. 8 Ways was a love letter to my mother, Successions is for my impossible (in every sense of the word) husband, and this next project will be dedicated to my father who, through all my other projects that have virtually ignored him, has been my greatest advocate with the fewest words.


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