While the Fringe Festival goes on until August 28, there is another festival that starts exactly when the Fringe ends and goes through September 18. The festival is called Dream Up and was started by The Theater for the New City, the famous Off Off incubator on First Avenue, with the goal of giving a stage to new work coming from all over the world. One of them arrives from New Jersey, thanks to a prolific Italian American playwright, Frank J. Avella. Mr. Avella has written several plays, most of them dedicated to social issues. Lured, to be presented in September at the festival, is very political. The story tells of the heavy persecutions that the LGTB community suffers every day in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Why did you write such play?
“The idea to write Lured came to me in 2014 when the reports of the Russian persecution of gays were making headlines. I watched a few of the videos and I was so appalled by what was going on that I wanted to do what I could―the only thing I have the talent for―to speak out about it. I also knew I wanted to put my own twist on the real and horrific events that were unfolding. But it wasn’t until I had the great good fortune of receiving a residency award at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation that I had the time to immerse myself in that dark and frightening world to do the play justice―to tell the story with all the brutality intact. For me this was key. I didn’t want to lesson the savagery. I didn’t feel the need to water it down and make it easy for audiences to take. I wanted to present with all the severity but make certain the audience understood that that hate is not a trait we are born with. It is learned. It is taught.”
You love writing about social issues. Do you ever think of doing something less political?
“Most of the work I did post-NYU grad school wasn’t political. At least, not on the surface. But my writing has always had a decidedly social edge. And since I wrote Vatican Falls, my play set against the backdrop of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, I guess my work has been much more about injustice. But as a playwright, social and political plays interest me, not as polemics but as works that can truly affect change by challenging the audience so they leave the theatre thinking and discussing. If I create dialogue, then my work is done, regardless of whether you agree with my point of view. Actually, I hope you leave not being able to know what my take is on every issue and theme. I am so tired of mindless “entertainment” being produced, especially on Broadway. Silly musical revivals that have no business being revived because they have nothing new to say. More Shakespeare being done just because a movie star wants to prove he/she can speak in iambic pentameter. Oh, and the movie musicals “thrown” onto a stage. Don’t get me wrong, there is room for everything, but can we give the “original” play a chance, too? I don’t think we give audiences enough credit. I think that if the production is done well and the work is sincere, audiences will respond to it, even if there are no singing dames at sea or dancing sailors on the town! For your information, one of the newer pieces I am working on is absurdist and, so far, has no real political message… although that’s not really true…”
How difficult is it to write about social issues? Do you usually face censorship?
:Well, it’s certainly not the most popular stage genre! With Vatican Falls, I get the best rejection letters, praising the writing and structure and characters but being told it’s just too controversial. You would be shocked if I named some of the “daring” theatres that have said that. With Consent, which tackles bullying and homophobia, I was asked to remove certain racial and homophobic slurs, even though they were integral to telling the story. (I refused). On the other hand, I did willingly fashion a teen-friendly version because I wrote the play to reach teens who felt that they were being made to feel like pariahs because of what they were and who they loved. The strange thing with Lured (the Sicilian is knocking on wood) is that, so far, everyone who has come on board, has had no issues with the subject matter and the way it’s handled (and it is the harshest piece I have ever written). There’s a visceral reaction I am getting that is palpable. And I am so surprised. And so grateful.”
What do you think is the state of playwriting in America? It seems that many are avoiding the big issues and that the mainstream goes only for revivals…
“I think many revivals are a waste of time unless you have something new to offer, something current to say or an exciting way to present it. This past year, A View from the Bridge and Long Days Journey Into Night were fantastic revivals that provoked audiences and stirred emotions. But, too often, especially with the musicals, they’re just produced because it will mean instant tourist money! As far as the plays, a lot of exciting work is being done off-Broadway. There are too many to name. I will say Punk Rock, by Simon Stephens –at MCC– was one of the best, most startling plays I have seen in the last few years. Too few are able to make the leap to Broadway (mostly, the safe stuff) but do have a regional life. I just wish that these theaters would take more chances on lesser known writers and abridge their policy of not accepting unsolicited scripts. I realize there’s a cost issue but they could be missing out on discovering the next Kushner!”
Your work is now featured at the Dream Up Festival: How important is it for a playwright to be able to participate in festivals?
“I am not a fan of festivals and I never apply to festivals. That’s the simple truth. A show can get lost in a big festival. Not to mention the fact that if you can raise the money usually needed for a festival, you can produce your own showcase! Dream Up, however, is different. They target a specific type of work and keep the shows at a reasonable number. I also adore Michael Scott-Price, the Dream Up Festival Director. He’s a good, honest guy who believes in theatre. He selected Vatican Falls for their New Works, New Blood Series a few years back when everyone else was afraid of it. And Dream Up and Lured are a good fit.”
How excited are you to see you work on stage? How, if at all, do you work with the actors and the director in shaping the text?
“Very excited! I can’t wait to get an audience reaction. That said, I am incredibly nervous, too. The violent aspect of the piece means some audience members may be turned off. We shall see. I love working with actors and we have an amazing group of devoted and talented young actors in this cast. Each and every one is a boon to this production. And Rod Kaats, our intrepid director, brings so many terrific ideas and concepts to the table.”
Tell us about your writing process.
“My writing process is different on every script I write. Lured was researched a bit but then written in a week’s time–a really scary, bubble-world week where I isolated myself from the outside world and dove deep into a pit of scary. Other plays have developed over time. Vatican Falls is still being tweaked and the first draft of that is almost a decade old. And I’m an author who believes that work is forever evolving so there is never a definitive version, meaning I have gone back to past work and updated and revised them. I am very fortunate because I have yet to ever be blocked. I just need the time to devote and I can go to town!”
You are Italian and American. Does that show up in your playwriting and how much do you think of yourself as an Italian?
“I am very proud of my ethnicity. And I often consider myself an Italian first, although I wasn’t born in Italia. I am proud of being an American, but with a Trump presidency looming, that could change (Hey, Dixie Chicks, do you need a fourth, a boychick perhaps?) The Italian culture is in my blood, it’s who I am. When I was a wee lad, I spoke both English and Italian (I still do but my Italian isn’t what it should be) and there were many people in my own family who advised my mamma to forbid me from speaking Italian at home. They argued that the kids at school would make fun of me if I knew both languages. What a load of horseshit! Thank God my mamma didn’t listen to them. I realized later that these were self-hating, ‘assimilating’ Italians whose identities were defined by a desperation to belong. There is nothing wrong with loving both cultures and celebrating both cultures and that’s how we should raise our children. I love writing about Italian-Americans and their struggles. I have a few projects I would love to develop that are either about Italian-Americans or take place in Italia. And I love the idea of writing bilingual pieces.”
Italian-Americans aren’t always that supportive of their people’s culture. Would yu like to send any message to the Italian community to encourage them to be more active with the cultural side of our country?
“We should all be supporting Italian theatre and Italian-American theatre, which doesn’t take away from supporting all theatre. But wouldn’t it be nice if Americans were exposed to Italians who weren’t in the mafia for a change?”
Tell our readers why they should come see the show.
“Audiences should come see Lured, first and foremost to experience electrifying theatre (and I am referring to the work my actors are doing)! In addition, and just as important, Lured sheds light on a type of hate that is permeating many countries, including ours, and inciting people to violence because it scapegoats certain groups (in this case LGBTQ people). Let’s not forget that scapegoating and discrimination is the way genocide usually begins. I’ve set about to try and understand how good people can be brainwashed into believing that someone’s sexual orientation could really be at the root of economic and social strife. The Putin propaganda machine, in Russia, has been hard at work since he took office brainwashing Russian citizens to deflect against the government’s responsibilities and, instead, blame ‘deviants’ influenced by the immorality of the ‘west’ for all of Russia’s woes. And Putin’s propaganda law is nothing more than a license for homophobia, giving vigilante groups carte blanche to hunt down LGBT people as prey. Lured goes a few steps further adding a fictional twist to the harsh realities, as the play wonders if revenge is ever an option? How much must people be maltreated and oppressed before they decide to fight back? The piece does not advocate revolution or retribution, but it does make a case for organized resistance. It also shows how easy it can be to dehumanize oneself once a people are pushed to their limits.”
Lured cast includes: John J. Ball, Carlotta Brentan, Cali Gilman, Brian Patterson, Cameron August, Dave Stishan and Ian Whitt. Directed by Rod Kaats. Mario Marone (Stage Manager), John David West (Social Media Czar), Kris Caplinger (Fight choreographer) and Christine Cox (Associate Producer).