Marco Calvani / by Declan Maloney Drummond

I met Marco Calvani at his house in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to have a conversation about his life and art. Calvani, an award-winning playwright across several countries, is trying to find similar success in America. I first met the 2015 Edward F. Albee Fellow at a reading of his play, Strong Hands (2006), and soon followed his work wherever it popped up across New York City. We drank coffee and smoked cigarettes on the patio in his backyard, him musing about his journey from Tuscany to New York, between acting, directing and writing for theatre & film.

THE DIONYSIAN: You’re an Italian playwright in New York. How did you get here? 

MARCO CALVANI: I was in Italy, acting in a horrible play and I would come home every night and think, “what the fuck am I doing?” I didn’t want to be involved in something so terrible and meaningless. It was a key moment in my life, and when I started to write. I went on writing and acting for ten years, founded a company, directed and staged productions of plays I wrote, managed co-productions across Europe, but then there was a point where I became tired, I was drained. I was writing for my company, for productions, for other people. I asked myself, “who am I? What do I want to do? Why am I writing?” It all came to a head when there was a retrospective of my work at a theatre (Teatro Metastasio Stabile della Toscana) in January 2013. In one week, we had three shows. And after that, I got lost. I guess a retrospective is supposed to celebrate, but to me I don’t really know what it means. What is it? I don’t know what I’m going to write next. So I left everything, literally, and came here for a production at La MaMa and never went back. 

THE DIONYSIAN: Your first production at La MaMa (New York) was a collaboration with Neil LaBute. How did that journey begin?

MARCO CALVANI: It was actually in Barcelona, that was the beginning of this project that I created with Neil LaBute, called ‘Author Directing Author’ (AdA).  We created this project four years ago after we met there in Barcelona in 2010 - we were both professors at the Obrador organized by Sala Beckett, which is basically a week long intensive of workshops from professionals from all over the world. We were both teaching, I was giving class to actors, he was giving class to directors and we got to know each other, not just personally but we got the chance to spy each other’s work, and I think we felt that we had something in common. I think he also was inspired by the work he saw that I was doing with the actors, which goes along with what he writes. And the same for me, I mean his material is great - as you know - and inspiring as a director but also as a playwright, or just as a member of the audience. So, at some point we said “okay, let’s work together”, but what can we do? I mean we’re both playwrights and directors! So we created this project, for which we each write a short play about something we agree in common – a theme – and I direct his play, he directs mine, and it forms a single show. And so that happened in 2012, in Italy & Spain, at the Madrid Fringe Festival, and that year we ended up at La MaMa (New York) for the first time. The show ran for a month with Estelle Parsons & Larry Pine, it was a big hit. We were all kind of shocked - very amused - but also shocked. We weren’t expecting it! It was AdA First Edition and my play was ‘Things of This World’ and Neil’s was ‘Lovely Head’. They formed their own play together, like two acts from one single show. That year was mine first with Estelle & Craig Bierko, directed by Neil, intermission, then Neil’s play directed by me with Larry Pine & Gia Crovatin. So you have a full show about the same theme. Yes, our writing is very different, with different levels, but they can get along very well. And most important of all we have a lot of fun doing it. We don’t share characters or anything, we just decide the theme and write a play and then give each other the play when it’s done. 

THE DIONYSIAN: What was your role in The Rose Tattoo (Williamstown Theatre Festival) last Summer?

MARCO CALVANI: In The Rose Tattoo I was hired as artistic advisor & consultant. But I basically worked with the actors, especially with Marisa [Tomei]. I also helped Trip [Cullman] with stuff artistically, but Broadway rules are crazy. Rose Tattoo is a massive play with many characters. And he staged it in four weeks, and five days of those four weeks were for tech! So basically they did it in a little over three weeks. I mean it was great, he did a great job, but you can’t work with fine detail in such a short time, and actors love working carefully and specifically, so I was basically his eyes and voice with the actors. He was glad I was there and I was glad too! I enjoy being a director, though I haven’t done much directing here in New York. I’m much more focused on my writing here.

THE DIONYSIAN: As a director who loves to work with actors to find nuance in the story, how do you hand over your play, as a playwright, to another director and have someone else take over the room? 

MARCO CALVANI: Directors are directors. You need to compromise a little bit, that’s for sure. You need to give space to the director and sometimes you need to bite your tongue. As a playwright, I can suffer a little bit, because I’ve always considered directing to be the last step of my writing. So the process with the actors is still a writing moment for me. So when I’m not the one who’s directing - I think you need to find a good collaborator who you can share with.

THE DIONYSIAN: How does directing help shape your writing? 

MARCO CALVANI: I’m not really aware of what I write sometimes. Of course I’m aware of the theme I want to explore, but for me every play is research; it’s a journey that I need to take, in which the most important thing to be focused on are the political consequences that my work can possibly have. That being said, there’s not a play of mine that I didn’t deeply need to write. I like to use what I do to try and understand what’s going on in the world, and to give voices to the people in the world who don’t have one. This is important, but it also needs to be connected to what I feel. When I decide to write a play, it can last six months to a year. And I need to be every single character of the play. Edward Albee once asked me if I was working on something new. "I have this idea," I started, and he cut me off. ”That’s your problem,” he said, “don’t start with ideas. Start with characters.”

THE DIONYSIAN: A lot of your work revolves around the refugee crisis happening around the world. Is this related to your philosophy that everything relates to power, identity & death?

MARCO CALVANI: Totally. It’s something that’s not easy to understand – at least for me! – but it’s true that I’m much luckier than any refugee in the world to be in my situation. It’s also true that it’s something I really care about and I think it’s something everybody should care about on a human level. I don’t know if it’s connected to the fact I’m an orphan, so the sense of belonging has a deep meaning to me - not just about a country but a community. Even a name.

THE DIONYSIAN: I had no idea you were an orphan.

MARCO CALVANI: Yeah. I mean I had parents when I was young, but at some point I lost them and I suddenly had sort of nothing. I lost my mother first, through a stupid accident at home, and then my father a few years after. It was actually very sad because I think they actually really loved each other, so when my mother died, my father started dying. In fact, it’s how he killed himself; he started to drink and that’s how he died. And then I really had nothing. And I realized the only thing I had left with was my name. That might sound sad and pathetic, but it’s true. And that was the moment I started to write, when I started to consider doing theatre. Honestly, I’m actually grateful, it seems this is what I’m meant to be. I’ve suffered a lot because of this loss, but I remember making a switch - I had spent years grieving for myself, instead of grieving for my parents. I finally understood that these were two young people, who died too soon. That switch was a huge moment in my life, and when I started seeing the world differently. I think this loss really gave me a personality and this vocation of theatre gave me a home.

THE DIONYSIAN: This happened before you became an actor? 

MARCO CALVANI: Yes, I was fourteen. And then I found life again and I began to feel a lot about the world, I feel like we have to save what’s savable. We have to use this space to express and to put it out into the world. I tried faith for a while, but it didn’t work out for me. Then I started to write. Now, I write a lot about refugees, about people who don’t have a home in their world. Even now, I’m writing a feature film and again it’s about a woman - I don’t want to tell you much - an old woman - I’m very fascinated by old age - who is forced to leave everything and come to the US. And so again it’s about someone who is alone with not much in terms of money, language, connections, who is forced to start again without resources in every sense. And I think that’s a great foundation for not just stories, but for humanity; and in humanity I include comedy. I feel very engaged in that.

THE DIONYSIAN: So it’s not so much a refugee story as much as it is a story of uprooting and being taken away. 

MARCO CALVANI: All the stories I write are basically about the lonely human condition. I think it can be very exhausting, but we must constantly face the big questions of ‘who are we’, and ‘what right do we have to have something in this world’? All my characters basically have a chance to discover it again. And so I give this chance the audience, and to myself, when I write it.

THE DIONYSIAN: Do you write for yourself or do you write for your audience?

MARCO CALVANI: [laughs] Well, I write for myself. I have ideas--no, that’s not true. Because the instinct is all mine, and it helps me every time. I can’t stop doing it, so in that sense, I do it for myself. I mean, I use my life, I try to be careful and aware to what happens to me – from outside and inside – and then I can use it and transform it. Often my characters live the life I dream about, or the life I’m scared of. But since the beginning, when I think of a title, or the structure, I think of the audience. Because I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be fulfilled by it. You must; if not then it’s not theatre. It’s just you ruminating about your issues and problems, and it’s not funny. Kind of like my first play, which was pretty horrible! I didn’t go to school for writing, and so if I wasn’t constantly asking myself, ‘what the fuck did you write, Marco?’ and constantly getting feedback, I wouldn’t be getting any better.

THE DIONYSIAN: How do you take feedback about your work?

MARCO CALVANI: Well, when it happens, when I share my work during the course of a workshop or a lab, at the end of the day, I don’t bring home everything they say, only what it resonates in me. It was quite tough that night [after a staged reading of Calvani’s play, Maspeth], because first of all you give something of yours to the world, you send your child to school and the teacher returns saying your child has a few problems! But I’ve learned how to listen and how to answer, and what to listen to. But that night, there was one woman who was becoming a little nasty, a little aggressive. She was passionate anyway, or that’s what I thought, ‘okay, she’s just passionate about it because maybe she really needed to hear it’. I mean once, last year, Estelle [Parsons] directed a reading of mine, ‘The City Beneath’ at the Actors Studio [Calvani is a member of the Playwrights/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio, NY] which is basically about terrorism. It’s a three act, very long, deep, dark play. Not very positive, but that’s really what’s happening right now. I wrote it ten years ago. It was there then, and now it’s really exploded. And so it was a very socially political play. Anyway this woman at the end was so pissed, she thought it was a very macho play and the female characters were so weak and was really offended by me. For me it was so unfair and not true, and I said “actually, the two women are the only people alive at the end of the play. They have the final scene, which is really poetic.” She left the room mumbling something against me to herself. I thought she got stuck in the first part of the play. She just saw that, and not the bigger picture of my story. 

THE DIONYSIAN: And now, fast forward a year, after the staged reading of Maspeth (directed by Shira-Lee Shalit), the feedback was that you wrote two wonderfully strong and complex female characters who were so well grounded, but the male character seemed one dimensional to the audience.

MARCO CALVANI: That was the biggest feedback, right, that Sam was an asshole? (laughs) I went back immediately to the script of course, because I never realized that. I added more insight at the end, but that probably needed to occur earlier on. But to me the conflict was so clear, that Sam was so driven for his mission that he simply is not a good person when the play starts. I added things afterwards, to his relationship with the women, especially Anya, but I always thought that I’d written enough to justify his poor nature by the end of the play. I did make some dangerous choices with the end of the play, but I couldn’t help it, for me, I had to. What’s great about collaboration is that other people see things that make you go farther because sometimes you aren’t aware of every possibility - and thank God, I mean if a playwright were aware every time of what he writes, I don’t think plays would ever become great. 

THE DIONYSIAN: What is your writing process, if you have one?

MARCO CALVANI: What I usually do is create an intellectually safe environment where I can be free to explore with words. And that means I need to know what I want to say, I need to know what the characters want, I need to know the style & genre. I need to create this environment and then I can feel free to lose myself. To write and trash, and write again. I need to know what the characters think in order to let them speak. A lot of my characters don’t say what they think, they hide stuff. And this creates the third dimension, because not often do we say what we really feel or think. And then what comes is how the characters feel. And coming back to directing; this is the part that I love. Seeing a character’s feeling coming through an actor’s body. Because the human body doesn’t lie - when the character’s lines are saying something, the actor’s body allows the character’s feelings to say something else. And as a director, I feel much more engaged in the bodies than the words.

THE DIONYSIAN: Do you turn personal issues into larger issues when writing, or do you start with large issues and see how they affect you through your characters? 

MARCO CALVANI: I tend to do both. It depends - there some issues that are already ingrained in me. Usually, ideas for a play or a story can come from anything; an image, a song, from an idea itself. But they’re already fuelled because they come from me, so I don’t need to make an effort to channel an issue. Even now, as I’m writing this movie, I think, “fuck, Marco, you’re still basically writing the same conflict.” I’m becoming more aware each day what I’ve always been writing about. My characters are pretty lonely. My play, The View From Up Here, came from my own need to understand the refugee problem [in Syria], but also from the fear that I couldn’t escape the paranoia of terrorism. I needed to understand the problem, so I wrote these characters to work it out. And again, I find, it’s about territory, belonging.

THE DIONYSIAN: Will you ever write a play that’s exclusively about yourself? 

MARCO CALVANI: [Laughs] I was about to tell you, every play is about me! It’s probably a very narcissistic way to create, I don’t know any other one that works for me though. But yes, I wrote a play, which - funnily enough - has never been produced, which is only about me. And I guess that’s probably why it never got produced. I kept rewriting it for years, I think I finished it ten years after I started it [in 2004]. Seven characters, three acts. It’s definitely about me! It will be very interesting and incredibly important for me if it ever gets staged. I think that play has a beautiful soul though, not because it’s about me, but because there’s something so vulnerable in it. Which makes it more universal, I think. Most of the time, theatre goers don’t know the technical side of things, but they can recognize honesty behind the words. If they can’t recognize any honesty, they can’t recognize themselves. They can’t feel it. And I really believe in people - I don’t like every person - but I truly believe in people. More than I believe in God, that’s for sure. I’m hopeful for humanity, believe it or not. And I think that can be seen through what I write. Although most of my characters are broken, lonely and lost, and very angry, I think that’s it’s important to show the dark underbelly of human beings so that the audience can make their choice. That’s where the hope can shine, in the little things; in a smile, a little moment at the end of a play. My characters may be broken and lonely, but they aren’t hopeless. They all have hope for something. 

THE DIONYSIAN: Do you feel lucky that you’ve been able to cultivate your creativity from a young age?

MARCO CALVANI: Of course. I encourage the people I meet to do it. Often people are melancholic when they talk about what they used to do when they were young and free, about what they used to write, what they used to create before they went to college and went on to work. I think we all need to create because it’s how we express ourselves. I guess this comes back to being an orphan, I had a juxtapositional blessing where I was free to do what I wanted and I didn’t need permission. My sister and I were allowed to make our own choices every day; we decided when we felt like going to school and when we didn’t. And although writing for me is very lonely, I need it. I need it to comprehend what I see around me.