Born in Calgary and based in Vancouver, Lucia Frangione is an internationally-produced playwright and actor. She studied playwriting at the Rosebud School of the Arts in Alberta, and acting at Langara College in Vancouver. She published her first poem at 17 and produced her first play at 18.
One of BC’s most respected writers, she is a recipient of the Gordon Armstrong award (1998 and 2006) and Sydney Risk award (2001) for playwriting. Her play Espresso was nominated for seven Jessie Richardson awards. Also acclaimed as an actor, she was nominated for a Jessie award for her performances in her plays Holy Mo and Espresso, and she won the CAEA Stage West National Acting Award in 2003.
Her plays Cariboo Magi, Paradise Garden and Espresso are published by Talon Books. Her short film Pop Switch was an Official Selection at several international film festivals and was nominated for a Leo Award for Best Screenwriting in a Short Drama.
Lucia was with the Chemainus Theatre from its beginnings in 1993 through 1999, as an actor, artistic director and playwright. She was back in Chemainus on September 21 for the opening of Chickens, the portrayal of a couple struggling to keep their farm afloat while their lives are mirrored by the hens and roosters in the chicken coop. The script is layered with humour, insight and brilliant dialogue. First produced in Chemainus, it has since been performed in theatres in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. I was fortunate to be able to attend opening night, and delighted at the opportunity to interview Lucia.
Chickens was originally performed at the Chemainus Theatre in 1995, how does it feel to be back?
I was honoured that [Artistic Director] Mark DuMez chose to bring back this play, and with it, a nostalgic nod to the original company that founded Chemainus in 1993. I was Artistic Director at the time Chickens was first produced, living in Chemainus, and those years were precious to me: I love this town. I have since rewritten the script extensively and it has matured with me. Since Chemainus gave it its first professional production, the script has played across North America: hands down my best seller. I’m extremely grateful.
Your work has covered some serious subject matter, including internment camps, WWII and death. Chickens is described as ‘a rural musical comedy.’ Was it a departure for you? What inspired you to write it?
I was only 23 years old when I first wrote Chickens and I wrote it because our family farm was in danger of being lost. Watching the play now is like having lunch with my younger self. So bizarre. So fascinating. I could never be that person again who wrote that particular play. I had such an optimism and such an unabashed goofiness. This is why young people should write. They see the world in a way that we all need to be reminded of. Chickens is indeed very silly but it is also very serious. It’s dealing with the loss of home, a crisis of faith and a struggling marriage. And my Italian internment play, Fresco, was indeed about war and human rights and family secrets, but it was also full of grown men running around in kerchiefs playing hilarious little bossy old Italian grandmothers. All my plays have depth and all my plays have utter silliness. I think life is like that. We cry at weddings and we laugh at funerals. It’s a roller coaster.
Earlier this year, you wrote the script of your play Diamond Willow on the sidewalk in reaction to the announcement of the closing of the Vancouver Playhouse.
The Vancouver Playhouse should be saved and still could be if we actually had corporations or prominent families in Canada who cared about their own culture. Simple as that. It’s fifty years old, it’s a valued part of our history. How its debt accumulated is largely due to a crippling civic space rental agreement and it was never eligible for a municipal operating grant because of it: unlike most arts organizations in Vancouver and unlike all regional theatres in Canada. It’s a bit of a miracle it lasted this long. I believe it was doing some beautiful bold and important work under Max Reimer’s artistic direction and it had a fantastic staff. I mourn the legacy. I mourn all the lost jobs for artists. I mourn the big beautiful stories that have to find a home elsewhere. I miss theatre being downtown. In my case, Diamond Willow has been picked up by Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg and John Mann (Spirit of the West front man) is currently writing the score for it. Maybe the only chance for Vancouver to see it will be on the pavement. BC is full of vibrant inventive inspiring artists. World class theatre gets made in our province. Talent has never been the problem. The problem is finding work that will pay so artists can continue to scrape by in the most expensive city in North America. We can’t live on air. It drives me bananas when rednecks and their elected officials say art should pay for itself. Stupid asses. Look at history, morons! Nothing truly important pays for itself: arts, education, religion, culture, hospitals, care for the needy…they all rely on charity because at heart, they are all charitable.
All my plays have depth and all my plays have utter silliness. I think life is like that. We cry at weddings and we laugh at funerals. It’s a roller coaster.”
As a playwright, how involved are you, typically, in the production of your plays? Once a play is written, is your part completed and does it go fully into the hands of directors and performers, or is there an ongoing role for the playwright?
I almost always perform in my play’s first production. But I’m a little rare because I write and act equally well and some just do one or the other. I’m not unique though: Daniel McIvor, Robert LePage and collectives like Electric Company work this way too for instance. But that said, when I hand over the play to the director in rehearsals I feel they can see the play and understand it better than I can. Much like this: I can’t see my own face. I am inside my body, the director can see my face and know it better than I do. My play is like that. I’m inside of it. So I rely on the director very heavily to tell me all about the play and all about my character and I never presume I know what’s best. And even more than this, it’s about layers. A director will add another layer onto all the ideas I’ve put on the page and it’s a fascinating and wonderful experience. Sure, sometimes a director takes it in a bad direction and yes, this is akin to swallowing rat poison and cut glass with orange juice…but most of the time, a director will make choices that bring the play to life even more. When I perform in it I get a first hand experience, day in, day out, of what is working, what lags, where actors trip up, how the rhythm moves…it’s incredibly valuable information. After the play has its first run I always rewrite it, sometimes for years, and hand it off for others to perform.
How does being an actor affect or influence your writing?
I started writing because nobody was hiring me as an actor and I wanted to create work for myself. Now I get hired to do both or do either separately. I think being an actor gives me a strong sense of theatricality. I know firsthand the power of physical action, silence and stage design. It’s perhaps easier for me to imagine the play on its feet and include devices that are unique to this medium.
What was the last thing you saw in a theatre that excited you?
The last thing that truly excited me was The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. It was, overall, a terrific cast. My ex-husband played Satan in that. And I mean it as a compliment when I say ‘he was born to play that role.’ He was terrifying and amazing and won the Best Actor Jessie award for it: very well deserved. I’m so proud of him. The writing is crazy smart audacious and wonderful and deeply spiritual. Ron Reed from Pacific Theatre was amazing in it too.
What is your advice for young or developing playwrights?
Take my on-line playwriting course. Get to know your theatres and cultivate a relationship with the one you feel your writing serves best. Watch plays and read them. You’ll learn more about playwriting from taking an acting class than taking four years at university getting an English degree. Follow another playwright around and ask what they’re reading and ask to read their various drafts so you see where a great play comes from. DD Kugler has a great dramaturgy course at Simon Fraser University too. Take that.
What are you working on now?
This year I’m world premiering two new plays: Leave of Absence for Pacific Theatre and Maid for a Musket for St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, Ontario. Holy Mo is being done in Fort Langley as we speak and Cariboo Magi is being performed in Kitchener, Ontario this fall. I have two plays in the works: Diamond Willow, first encouraged by Playwrights Theatre Centre and the Vancouver Playhouse, now in the hands of Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg. I’m working with John Mann on that one. And I have a play in development with the Arts Club called Haven. I’m also going to write an operetta for Fugue Theatre called Dog Park and this Christmas I tour around a little one woman churchie show about the mother of Jesus called Mother Mary.
Thank you, Lucia!