Italian Actors And New York City: A Starry-Eyed Love Story

As Broadway comes back to life after COVID-19, actress Francesca Ravera shares her experience on the NYC stage.

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 closed Richard Rodgers Theater, home to Hamilton, during the Broadway shutdown in 2020. Photo: Heloise Wilson.

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.