Lucia Frangione is an internationally produced, award winning playwright and actor residing in Vancouver. She has had twenty-five plays produced, including Leave of Absence (Pacific Theatre), Paradise Garden (Arts Club Theatre) and Espresso (Pacific Theatre). Lucia is a recipient of the Gordon Armstrong Award, the Sydney Riske Award and the Stage West CAEA emerging artist award.
Lucia’s work inspires me because it is fiercely uncompromising. When she writes about a contentious subject, such as the role of women within Christianity, she tackles every perspective without simplification. Moreover, she does not hesitate to bring intensely personal experiences to the stage.
How did your playwriting career begin, and was it linked to the beginning of your acting career?
Playwriting, acting and spiritual practice have always been linked for me. I took drama in Grade 12 to get over my fear of public speaking so I could be of service in the church as a minister or teacher. I very quickly adopted the theatre as my church, in a sense, because I prefer to ask questions rather than give answers. I went to Rosebud School of the Arts: sort of a Bible college and theatre school combined. I took acting but I wrote a play my first year there and they liked it so much they paid me and produced it that summer for their dinner theatre. I switched my major to playwriting and studied for four years, but I always performed in my own plays. I continue to do so, but also work independently in both fields. It still is weird for me to write something and not perform in it. It feels like throwing a big party and not attending. For you, how does the idea for a play start? With a character, a topic, an image—or something else entirely?
Each play starts from a different spark. It’s usually character driven. It’s usually someone I see very clearly and think to myself, “Why on EARTH do they do that?” My opera, Off Leash, started with a person I saw walking down the street with a dog in a baby carriage all dressed up in a sweater and bows. What gets a human to that place?
Sometimes I mash together two people I would love to have had meet. Leave of Absence was based on a fourteen year old girl brutalized at my high school for being a lesbian, and I put her in the room with a dear friend of mine, a former Catholic priest from Toronto, who works with disaffected youth and is all about LGBTQ dignity and equality. Sometimes it’s an historic event: Espresso was based on actual events of my father’s car accident. Working up in Barkerville, I was standing between Chinatown and the rest of the town and pondered: who had the courage to have the first bi-racial marriage? I wrote Cariboo Magi.
Sometimes the commission restrictions are very tight. St Lawrence Shakespeare Company commissioned me to write a play based on Love’s Labours Lost, share a cast with Hamlet, be set during the war of 1812 and include lots of comedy and music for the outdoor stage. My boyfriend at the time decided to dump me and have a baby with his ex, so I put that dynamic at the centre of the play and it helped me to laugh about how stupid the whole situation was. But sometimes it is pure compassion that drives me. Hate messages were left at a local mosque so I wrote Paradise Garden: a play about a modern Caucasian Muslim family from Turkey.
What do you think is the most challenging part of a playwright’s process (writing, rewriting, workshops, production) and why?
I find dialogue and characters effortless to write. Forming a solid plot structure is my biggest challenge. I get epic too quickly and my plays can get junky with too many subplots and time lapses. I am trying to write simpler (which isn’t simple at all). I think most people are surprised by just how many hours and how many drafts go into a good play. And of course the biggest challenge for a playwright is to get that mythical second production. I’ve written over twenty-five plays and only seven of them have had second productions. And that’s pretty good.
Aside from your work as a writer, you work as an actor, teacher, freelance dramaturge and editor for Talon Books. How do balance these commitments?
Admittedly, it isn’t easy. And sometimes they don’t pay enough so I also nanny and do housecleaning. I have to prioritize. I look at my week and I write out the weekly goals. I write out my weekly menu so I have everything I need in the fridge. I use my time wisely. The moment I lose my inspiration, I don’t sit in my chair and languish. I don’t have that luxury. I work on my lines, I mark an assignment, I go for a jog, I clean the bathroom. I multi-task and somehow it all gets done eventually. By and large I am decent with my deadlines but I always seem to be five minutes late. And once in a while, I will drop a ball and completely forget something rather huge.
Your plays Espresso and Leave of Absence challenge stereotypes about the role of women in Christianity. What draws you to this topic?
I write about hope and I write about love. My greatest avenue to these things has been through Christ. Not every play of mine is Christ-centred. I do believe Divine Love is in all religions, in nature, in children, in sex, in art, in physics, in the best of us – in our spirits. So, it’s been a beautiful, challenging and rewarding investigation – finding the Divine in all things. I also think much destruction has been done in the name of Christ and it makes me SICK. It is with great anger that I address racism, homophobia and sexism in my plays.
Espresso features realistic scenes between family members, alongside fantasy scenes with the character of Amante. What is your advice to writers blending realism and fantasy?
Don’t pull back from the real stuff if you’re afraid of exposing yourself or family. Always tell yourself, “I can change names” or “I can write under a pen name and nobody will know!” The thing to not sacrifice is the rawness of the real. That said, only write when you can fully embrace the dark and the light in all your characters. If you have a true and through villain, it means you’re going to have a true and through martyr and that’s going to feel like a “poor me” play or a “glorification of my ancestry” play or something that just isn’t objective enough to be engaging and full. So, do your therapy, then write your play. Allow yourself fiction within your true story. It really frees you up to create a strong plot line because “real life” can be repetitive, go on tangents, it can be unclear… it can be too melodramatic!
If you are going to write a “true story,” get permission from the people in the story; it’s only respectful. Writing out of revenge is an abuse of power. Settle grudges and legal matters privately. And if you still want to write about it, change all the names, change a few situations, call it fiction. You will still get your message across to your abuser, you will still feel the catharsis of writing, you will still inform and move people with a true story, but you give us and yourself a tiny breath of respect by giving a little room to wonder how much of it was true. It’s not that I want to protect abusive people, but there are others to think about: extended family, children, etc.
In an interview, you mentioned that before writing Leave of Absence, you weren’t sure if you were qualified to write about bigotry towards homosexuality. What is your advice to writers questioning whether or not a story is theirs to tell?
My advice is to listen listen listen, read read read. Interview the real McCoy and all his relatives. Write a draft and have it vetted by people in the know. When I wrote Paradise Garden I passed it by seven different Muslims and five of them were Turkish. They had varying opinions. When I wrote Leave of Absence I had it vetted by a friend of mine who is a lesbian and has a relationship with Christianity. I also worked very closely with the priest I wrote the play around.
The initiative Equity in Theatre has stated that though women form the majority of Playwrights Guild of Canada’s membership, they did not account for even 25% of the plays produced on our nation’s stages last year. Why do you think it is so difficult for female playwrights to get their work produced?
That’s a good question and we can only guess at the answer. I think it’s a problem with society. I think men are still largely only interested in male stories and I think women are still largely only interested in male stories. A play is about survival. We watch a play so we can learn and remember something that helps us survive. Men want to know how to survive as men and women want to know how to survive in a world still largely run by men. No?
Only one-third of the artistic directors in Canada are women. In my experience, male artistic directors are interested in male narrative. They want to direct it and they have their perfect best friend buddy to play the lead. Sure, I think it’s totally a boys club still. I’m so sick of it that I am starting to avoid overt male narratives of the Mamet variety altogether because I think if I see another swinging dick with a monologue I am going to vomit. But at least there’s awareness! At least once in a while they catch themselves and think, “Oh man… we should throw in a Colleen Murphy play or something… you know… a chick, but with balls.”
I’ve heard from artistic directors in their defence that men are more aggressive when approaching them for production. I have to say this is true in my experience. I am sheepish to call people up and promote my work. It isn’t my nature to do the conquest thing. It is my nature to do the community thing. When I get a grant I am happy but half the time I don’t apply because I feel others may need it more or I question my right to public funding. This is humble and “sweet” but it sure doesn’t help me feed my family.
I also think women writers can sometimes ghettoize themselves by writing about their vaginas. Oh my God, along with the swinging dick plays, I also avoid “men are shitheads” plays, “I was molested as a child” plays, and “I am going to joke about how my body changes with childbirth and menopause” plays. This is why Colleen Murphy gets produced because she’s writing about things that are beyond gender. They’re riveting, dangerous, vital and universal. This is my aim. Finally, I think we have some remarkable playwrights in Canada, both men and women. I’m proud of them. I think the bigger issue is getting Canadians out to see Canadian work. And I believe that is improving as well.
What do you think is the biggest fear emerging writers have, and what can they do about it?
The fear I come across in my students is apathy. They are afraid of their own lack of commitment to their art. They are afraid of their own laziness, their own lack of passion, their own lack of initiative and their own lack of persistence. They are afraid they have nothing to say and I have to admit, half the time, they might be right. I have no idea how to help them with this, to be honest. I’ve always had passion and initiative because my writing is connected to what I consider to be a Holy vocation. So, I just say “Find a reason to write that is beyond yourself”—and hope for the best.
Veronique West is an emerging playwright from Vancouver, B.C. Her play Intrusion won Tarragon Theatre’s 20/20 Playwriting Competition in 2013 and was produced at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2012. A staged reading of her newest play, Marrow, will be presented by Sarasvati Productions in 2015. Veronique is currently completing her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC.