Posted March 7, 2018

 

 

INTERVIEW

 

Michaela Di Cesare on Her New Play, Successions

by Liana Cusmano

 

Your new play Successions comes on the heels of your hit comedies 8 Ways My Mother Was Conceived, and In Search of Mrs Pirandello. It is the story of two second-generation Italian-Canadian brothers: one, an uptight, upwardly mobile lawyer running for office; the other, an easy-going fellow who would rather party than work. After the sudden death of their parents, the brothers must decide what to do with the rundown family home that is stuffed with worthless junk.

 

What inspired you to write this play?

I have always been fascinated with siblings. I grew up an only child, but I was close to sibling relationships – close but apart. My mother has four siblings and her youngest sisters are very close to me in age (seven and nine years older respectively). In a lot of ways I felt like I had sisters my whole life, but in other ways I was acutely aware that I do not actually 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. 

 

What I always found 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 have 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, I wrote a play that was never produced called Family Business. It had to do with my grandfather's passing and how I witnessed my mother and her siblings behave at this time. My grandmother had passed several years earlier. There were moments during this difficult time when I was shocked by the hostility and resentment between siblings, and then deeply moved by their seemingly bottomless capacity for love and forgiveness.

 

I observed something at that time that I always wanted to write about: a “new Canadian” family finding itself cut off at the head – without a patriarch or matriarch, the original ties to home. I noticed that this loss of the established hierarchy shifted sibling dynamics: in some ways for the better, in some 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 as well. And, of course, the first time we try out these new uninhibited versions of ourselves comes with the discussion of the inheritance.

 

I revisit a lot of the themes in that never-produced play in Successions. I chose to make it brothers instead of sisters for two reasons. One, I've been accused of being “disinterested in men” in my work (whatever that means). So I thought, why not? 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. My newest play, Extra Beautiful U, continues my examination of siblings with a pair of sisters at its centre. 

 

What are your objectives in telling this story?

I wanted to give our community the chance to see professional work written by a woman, that's for sure. I was also looking to explore themes which I hope will lead to a broader discussion among Italo-Canadians in Montreal: Feminism, patriarchy and internalized misogyny; the Canadian dream, class struggles, and anti-intellectualism; and shame.

 

With regard to feminism, patriarchy and internalized misogyny, every character in the piece exhibits some behaviours related to internalized misogyny. For example, between the two women in the piece, there is a living debate about feminism. One of them identifies as a feminist, but fails to live up to her ideology because of the baggage she carries from her upbringing. The other (younger) woman rejects feminism as an ideology, but is living life on her own terms and is much less critical of other women.

 

When it comes to the Canadian dream, class struggles and anti-intellectualism, we are used to seeing neat and tidy representations of the immigrant experience – especially in reference to the Italian community. But what about those who still feel uprooted? Who haven’t found an “easy” life? Who are burdened by the decisions of the previous generation – whether it was the choice to immigrate in the first place, the need to care for an elderly parent, or the (mis)management of the family business? The play also looks at the assumptions we make about people based on their profession and level of education. Certain occupations evoke automatic respect in immigrant communities, and this programs shame and judgment onto children before they even choose what to do in life.

 

And this brings us to “Shame.” I started to notice that what the patriarchy has done in our community is instilled a lot of shame – in men and women – and this shame, this disdain for ourselves when we don’t live up to a very narrow idea of what is “good” and “proper” causes us to lash out and hurt one another. One brother in the play has internalized so much shame that he has allowed it to poison all his relationships, with his family and with his wife.

 

How does your personal experience influence your writing?

I think every artist's personal experience affects their work. How could it not? If there is “art” out there that is not at all influenced by the artist's lived experience, I imagine it would ring false and be very boring. I seek to translate a certain emotional truth to my work – meaning, I remember very well the way certain events in my life made me feel and I want to reproduce those feelings in a way that will resonate with an audience.

 

Do you ever blur the lines between what really happened and what you transformed into a story?

Of course! I think it would do a great disservice to my craft to allow people to believe that all I'm doing is transcribing life verbatim. The danger of my first professional work having been an autobiographical solo show has led some audiences to always assume that I write the Gospel Truth. The literal truth has no place on stage. Even my solo show was embellished, stretched, heightened. The tagline was “the truth is a real problem” for a reason. Playwrights are not historians or journalists, we’re artists. We invent from things that inspire us.

 

For this play I started with what I knew, and then I created hybrid characters: they contain relics of those who have passed and who I hold in my heart, they house qualities of people I know now, and they also behave in ways entirely dictated by my imagination – in ways that are useful to the story being told. So many times I have audience members come up to me and say it’s as though I’ve written their personal story. That’s because I seek to make the personal universal. I am interested in patterns in my work. In the things that happen to us over and over again, generation to generation. I hope that the more we recognize the patterns, the easier it will be to break them.

 

How does your Italian heritage influence your creative work?

My heritage affects my work tremendously. 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. There's always a little piece of displacement, of tradition, of culture – whether I'm embracing it or fighting it.

 

(This text was lightly edited for clarity. Photo credit: Sabrina Reeves. Successions is at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre from April 10 to May 6, 2018.)

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