Francesca in The Nina Variations in New York at the Chain Theatre. Photo credit : ACV Photography
The city that never sleeps is home to many Italian actors working in theater on Broadway and Off-Broadway. While the dream is enticing, the pandemic and the subsequent shut down have brought many challenges to New York City artists. Now that lights are back on in the theaters, what is the landscape like?
Italian Broadway today and yesterday
On March 11, 2020, Broadway, the beating heart of New York, closed its 41 playhouses at 5 p.m. due to COVID-19. It was a historic event, the first time it was shut down due to a pandemic — ironically Broadway had remained open throughout the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.
The famous Phantom of the Opera was the last performance. After the NBA suspended its season the previous night, Broadway actors and other artists began to stock up from grocery stores, preparing for lock down and a very uncertain future. No one knew when theaters would reopen. During the first few months of the pandemic, many left New York or began to teach classes online or find other ways to survive financially.
The New York theater is rich and immigrants have long contributed to its diversity and vibrancy. Among them are many Italian artists, actors, directors, writers — they run theater companies, spaces, produce plays and star in them. The first Italian stage in New York was Palmo’s Opera House, a 19th-century theater in Manhattan located very close to Little Italy. As it had more than a thousand seats, it soon after was transformed into a Broadway theater. The theater was conceived by Ferdinand Palmo, an Italian immigrant.
Now, things have evolved. We can enjoy shows at La Casa Italiana, a cultural center with a rich programming developed by New York University and the Department of Italian studies. The company in residence, Kairos Theater, offers a cultural exchange program between Italy and the US by producing shows in both countries. It also operates as a springboard for Italian talent in New York City.
We could also mention the Italian American playwright project, which produces and translates Italian plays for American audiences. Italian culture is alive and well in New York City, but what about the Italian actors behind it? With the recent brain drain in Italy, it might be true that artists are also making the choice to settle in culturally rich cities like New York where they can develop their network and reach bigger opportunities.
Francesca Ravera: the New York journey of an Italian actress beating the pavement
Francesca is a hard worker. She combines theater and film credits of mostly American productions. Taxi Tales at Marylin Monroe Theater as well as Rules of Love, and A Thousand Clowns. She’s also starred Off-Broadway in plays written by American playwrights such as Lee Blessing and Edward Allan Baker. Francesca is trained in Meisner technique (the famous ‘method acting’ that so many American actors use), so it is not surprising she will be drawn towards contemporary American writers.
Because being a performer in New York isn’t a monolith, the city is home to many immigrant actors who contribute to the American cannon while also adding their own cultural mix to the melting pot recipe. The challenges might be different from American-born performers however: a tough immigration process, working halfway across the world from their hometowns, new networks to establish, and the most competitive industry in the world. This did not discourage Francesca, who recently opened Blackbird by British playwright David Harrower in her first performance after theaters reopened.
The air is giddy in New York. Restaurants have installed terraces. After almost two years of a cultural desert, theaters are thriving and following a strict sanitary protocol of mandatory vaccinations. They are full — audiences were starved and are now pleased to be here more than ever. We decided to ask a few questions to Francesca, to feel this energy and learn more about her background and the details of her life as a New York City-based actress. One thing can be certain, the show really does always go on.
Could you tell me about your background and where you grew up?
I grew up in Italy, in a small town near Torino.
How did you become an actress and why did you choose New York City?
I fell in love with acting at a very young age: since elementary school I took part in all school plays and I was always looking forward to the next show. Growing up, however, I started feeling that I had to put my dream aside to follow a more secure path. I felt a huge pressure to not disappoint my family and their expectations — I wasn’t born to a family of artists. So, after graduating from high school I enrolled in dental school. But a big part of me was missing, and I realized that I just couldn’t fight my love for acting no matter how hard I tried. It was always there. Long story short, after graduating from dental school, I gathered all my courage, took a leap and decided to fully devote myself to acting. I chose New York because at that time I wanted to deepen my acting training by studying Meisner technique and method acting.
What are some highlights of your career in American theater?
I worked in several productions in New York and I loved all of them. One that is particularly close to my heart is Two Rooms, a play by Lee Blessing that tells the story of Lainie, whose husband is held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon. I also loved The Way We Get By by Neil LaBute, because it gave me an opportunity to perform both in NYC and in Italy. The last production I starred in is Blackbird by David Harrower, a gripping story about a young woman who confronts the man who abused her 15 years before, when she was 12.
Let’s talk about the brain drain in Italy and its influences on the arts. There are many Italian theater artists who work abroad. What is your stance on it?
I know several Italian actors who work abroad, in other European countries and outside Europe as well. I also know artists from around the world who moved to Italy. Everyone has their own story, so it would not be right to generalize, but I think what artists have in common is a high curiosity and a longing for adventure and pursuing the unknown.
At the same time, as more and more productions all across the globe are seeking diversity, it is not surprising that actors are enjoying success abroad.
New York theater lights went dark for almost 15 months. Now that Broadway is back, what is the atmosphere like? You also just closed a play you starred in. Can you tell us how different this experience was from pre-pandemic shows?
Yes, I starred in Blackbird by David Harrower, which had a run at the New Ohio Theatre (in Manhattan) last September. It was among the first shows to open since the pandemic. Of course, many things have changed: audiences have to wear masks, actors and audiences must be vaccinated, and, despite all the precautions in place to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission, many people are still hesitant about attending live, in-person events. We had a very good run with a very high attendance. Overall, I was just too excited and grateful to be back on stage.
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