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I was lucky enough to interview the lovely, talented and prolific Lucia Frangione in the weeks leading up to opening night for FRESCO, her latest play, a collaboration with BellaLuna Productions. FRESCO centres on a woman who inherits a family house that opens up a world of secrets, including ties to Italian-Canadian internment camps during WWII. And like many Vancouverites, she has to face the housing market and must decide whether or not to sell this property as she unearths a hidden familial past.
The award-winning playwright and performer shares her thoughts on secrets and shelter, creative collaboration, the loneliness of writing and Italian-Canadian history. Read on and be delighted.
– Dina Del Bucchia
Dina Del Bucchia: There’s something about old houses, even ones that you believe to be familiar, that feel mysterious. They hold secrets, hidden places and stories and in FRESCO secrets that emerge from an inherited house set the action in motion. Why do you think we’re constantly drawn to secrets being revealed and unspoken family narratives being unearthed?
Lucia Frangione: It seems imperative for humanity to seek out the unknown and yet it is also imperative for us to seek out a shelter. When we seek out the unknown in our shelter it becomes a sanctuary for both. We have a place to live and so does mystery. We find a home and mystery is imbedded in that particular location. We renew ourselves and we can also, in some ways, renew the dreams that built the house in the first place. We pull up carpet, three colours of lino, padding, glue, and finally get down to the original hardwood someone once lovingly laid and sanded. It is so rewarding to reclaim what has been lost and unearth a secret, to value what someone once valued and give it another life, especially if it is connected to family. However, there is always the inevitability of unearthing unknown deaths, deceits and despair. What do these four walls help us remember? What must we respect, what must we not repeat? The haunted house motif in literature will never die because of this. Neither will Scarlet O’ Hara’s Tara, the Wuthering Heights of Thrushcross Grange, or the Keller home in All My Sons.
I’ve always been drawn to history and in particular, old homes. I remember being eleven, sleeping beside Nonna in her old white house in Palazzo San Gervasio, the flies buzzing around our heads, the strangled piglet in the kitchen, the tomatoes drying in the sun, knowing not much had changed since she was a girl. When I went to the farm outside Stettler AB I would often walk along the old wagon trail and run my hand along the teepee rings left, still visible in the grass. Even as a child, I wanted to know more about who came before. As a teenager I lived in the old Rosebud Hotel built in 1912 and the windows would shake whenever the train passed. When I moved to Vancouver I lived ten years in an old ramshackle house on King Edward and Main, built around 1907. And my love at the time lived in a similar house off Fir and 7th. Later I bought a house in Chemainus a little younger, circa 1950s. Now the last three houses I mentioned have all been torn down and the farm has been sold. The only homes left that are familiar to me and connect me to my past are Nonna’s and Rosebud. It is of no surprise that I return to these places at least once a year to remember who I am. Almost all of my plays are about “home”, maybe because I have moved about twenty five times in my life and am often on tour.
When I stroll down Strathcona and see some of these old homes being bulldozed, I know that the mystery imbedded in those walls will be lost forever. And then you get someone like my colleague, Carol Sawyer and her partner, who lovingly took over an old Italian owned home near Union Street and uncovered all these hand painted frescos on the walls from the early part of the twentieth century.
DDB: You also address a part of our history, something that I was unaware of, and how Italian-Canadians were affected by WWII. Could you speak a little about that history, and what your research process was like?
LF: I was greatly honoured when BellaLuna productions asked me to write a play for their ensemble. It’s part of the A Question Of Loyalty project initiated by the Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver, funded by the government of Canada. There is also a museum exhibit at the ICC and a beautiful book written by esteemed local historian, Ray Culos.
I only had a short period of time to write this play and the research required was daunting. Luckily the ICC has an excellent library and Ray Culos was very generous in sharing his knowledge with me and some of his interviews with children of the interned. He also double-checked my facts in the latest draft I wrote. I read several of his books and I also read the newly published Whoever Gives Us Bread by Lynne Bowen.
I had much to learn. To examine the internment itself in isolation would be a mistake. I had to have an understanding of who the Italians were in British Columbia, what sort of Italy they had come from and why, what fascism was, what BC turn of the century into the forties looked like and how the wars and the Great Depression had effected everyone.
Over six hundred Italians in Canada were interned in World War II under the War Measures Act, their civil liberties revoked, no trial. Forty-four of these men were from the Vancouver area. I was shocked to hear that Italians were interned to this degree. I had no idea. Some men were only taken for a few weeks, our POW camp was in Kananaskis, and some were held for several years, shipped to Petawawa, outside of Ottawa. None of them were given a trial and none were ever charged with anything. They were simply taken and then eventually shipped home with no explanation.
While the men were interned their families were not eligible for any kind of social assistance and their bank accounts were frozen. Italians who were not yet Canadian citizens had to register once a month as enemy aliens at 33rd and Heather. Those who lived too close to shore had to move inland. Italian schools were shut down. It was illegal to speak Italian with more than five people at once. Businesses were boycotted. Italian families were kicked out of tenancies and fired from their jobs for their nationality. It wasn’t so much the financial devastation that the Italian community was hurt by but the racial profiling: the shame. Many of these families were established members of the community and had children who were Canadian citizens. Some were lawyers, doctors, police chiefs, even the mayor of Montreal, C. Houde, was interned. And some were simple labourers working in the mines and shipping yards and sending their money home to Italy to support their families. The reason why many men during that time period did not become Canadian citizens was because Mussolini would not allow them into the country to visit their families if they gave up their Italian citizenship.
For the most part, the Italian community has been reluctant to share stories with us and when they do agree to an interview or hand an artifact in to the museum, they often ask to be anonymous. Even though the men interned have all passed away now, their children still feel the stigma and the pain. This is what moves me most. This is what compels me to tell this story.
Also, there are conflicting responses to us doing this project. Some in the Italian community have said those men deserved to be interned, they were all fascists with a statue of El Duce on their mantle! Some have said I’m so glad you’re addressing this injustice. Those families were never financially compensated for their massive losses; all the men interned were innocent. And some simply think it is best not to dredge up a time in history that was painful. Who wants to remember being called a dirty Dago and beaten up in school? Who wants to recall what their mothers had to do to make money to feed their children? Who wants to picture their father coming home from camp: white haired, broken, having lost so much of what they worked so hard for all their lives? Who wants to remember a Mussolini who began his reign saving Italy from economic ruin and ended it with betrayal and devastation?
The wonderful thing about fiction is that I can create characters of varying experiences and viewpoints, and through their experiences and opinions, I can ask questions that the audience can mull over and answer for themselves. I suppose if I have any sort of answer it is this: we must protect our civil liberties. It happened to my people, it can happen again.
DDB: What drew you to this particular subject? Is there a personal connection for you?
LF: I have been looking for a way to say “thank you” to my Nonna and Nonno’s generation for their courage and their sacrifice. My Nonno, Guiseppe, was conscripted into Mussolini’s army and fought in Albania. Meanwhile, his wife, Maria, died in childbirth with their first son, Vito. To keep the child in the family, Maria’s younger sister, Lucia aged 13, married this 26 year old soldier and gave him the opportunity to work as an agriculturalist on the family farm, making him exempt from military service. Lucia bore him five more children. In 1956 they moved to Canada and became Canadian citizens. They came here with nothing. They faced racism and all the struggles that come with adjusting to a new life. And now my uncles and aunts and several cousins who followed in their footsteps are very successful businessmen and businesswomen. Most notably the Frangiones run the largest independent hardware retailer in Canada: Preston Hardware. My Dad ran a Latino disco karaoke bar that didn’t fare as well, but damn he could make a mean cappuccino. My family is only one great story of many in our country. To truly appreciate the accomplishments, one must look at the hardships. I hope this play accomplishes this.
FRESCO Promotional Photo of Stefano Giulianetti, Sabine Freschi and Susan Bertoia, courtesy of Aaron Freschi
DDB: Writing is a solitary act, but theatre is most often collaborative. With FRESCO you did collaborate with a theatre company, BellaLuna. How was that experience?
LF: BellaLuna’s work has investigated Commedia del arte and Italian Futurism. It was a challenge and joy to figure out how to incorporate that sort of sensibility and style here and there in the script and lift the play out of the world of historic drama. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Futurism. Marinetti’s manifesto is enough to make anyone’s hair curl. But I had a much greater appreciation for it once I understood what point in history it came out of. I love the playfulness we have found and the surreal moments. Collaborating with a playwright moved the Bellaloonies into working with a full-length narrative for the first time. We weren’t sure how this play would evolve structure wise. They came in with a lot of image, movement, sound and style ideas. I incorporated as much of that as I could and crafted a story and they were really good about letting me be loose and trusting me to do all the writing. I enjoy creating roles for specific actors and playing to their strengths. It was easy to write for them. What I appreciate most about BellaLuna’s Stefano (Giulianetti), Marco (Soriano) and Susan (Bertoia) is their ability to be side splittingly funny and yet also be able to handle the drama. So, FRESCO has both.
DDB: We hear about the “tortured artist” so often, so what I want to know is this: what is the most enjoyable part of the writing process?
LF: Oh so much of it I enjoy and am very grateful for. I love doing the research: poking around books and websites and meeting someone like Ray Culos whose eyes light up when I can talk about the shoe shiners at the Dodson Hotel. Or when I can talk to my friend Larry Fourchalk about his Dad who owned the Eldorado Inn and his Grandfather who changed his name in 1911 from Quattrociocchi to Fourchalk and pedalled his home made ice cream from a cart along English Bay. I love reading about world-renowned sculptor Charles Marega and pointing out the caratyds on the Sun Building, appreciate the artistry of the lions on the bridge. I am honored to have a public forum in which to discuss things I am most passionate about and hopefully to start conversations. I love to give the dead a voice. I love to give the disenfranchised a place, a victory, even if it’s only on the stage. I love to make people laugh. I love to believe in love. I love to investigate true stories and where people fought great odds to find dignity. I love to create work for other artists to work on. I love to create stories about Canada. Anyone who thinks Canadian history is boring doesn’t read.
DDB: As well, what parts of theatre production do you love? What keeps that magic alive?
LF: It’s frightening and wonderful to see someone take your “baby” and layer their own interpretation onto it, be it a director, designer or performer. 90% of the time it enhances the work and makes it even more magical and 10% of the time it’s a freaking nightmare and I want to run out of the building screaming, “horror, horror, horror!”
DDB: You’re not performing in this production, though you often perform in your own work. What kind of relationship do you have with FRESCO compared to plays you’ve written and performed in? Is there a difference?
LF: I find writing very lonely. I am able to stand it knowing I will end up performing in it. It is an awful feeling to spend so much time creating a world and then not be a part of the actual storytelling. It’s like preparing a big beautiful party and not being invited. Other writers are different, but I’m a storyteller from start to finish. It is violently abrupt to stop the creation process for me and not actually tell the story I created. However, I took on this project because I believe in it so much. I live through, actor, Susan Bertoia. I sort of tricked myself. I said, “maybe she can’t do it and then I can step in.” Ha, ha!
DDB: Once secrets are revealed they bring new truths out into the world, whether good or bad. What do you want the audience to come away knowing?
LF: I am hoping they will come away with a new appreciation for their civil liberties and a greater respect for the poor. Specifically, this play talks about fascism, Italians, Vancouver 1940s and the internment.
DDB: Okay. This show is going up. What awesome projects are next for you?
LF: I’m working on four new shows. One is a divisive work called The Forgiveness Project with Horseshoes And Hand Grenades Theatre. The other is a really fun adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost for St. Lawrence Shakespeare Company in Prescott. I’m writing a play called Diamond Willow, specifically for me and John Mann to perform and sing and working on a play called Sanctuary that the Arts Club has been interested in. I hope to get back on stage this year. Pacific Theatre is going to produce my play Leave Of Absence, next season. I am so thrilled!