If we had to write about an Italian performer doing his part to make New York one of the most unique cities in existence, Danilo Ottaviani would be a prime example of an actor who uses all his multifaceted qualities and varieties of style to become a true craftsman of acting. The American audience saw him last year in the role of Ivan Lomov in Chekhov’s The Proposal for the Lambs Club, his performance enhanced by his superb use of the character mask.
This year, he did another series of performances in the role of Smirnov in The Bear, also by Chekhov, putting himself in the shoes of a completely different character. At first, the story seems to deal with an ordinary request for money sent to the widow Elena Popova (played by the talented young Annette Berning) who has locked herself in her house in mourning ever since her husband died and refuses to meet with any man, despite her footman Luka’s attempts to coax her out of her estate. Her dead husband was indebted to Smirnov, and it is here that the young landowner enters the game. Smirnov is angered by her refusal to pay him back, and decides not to leave the estate until all his debts are settled. Here Danilo Ottaviani’s gifts rise to the surface: he has a flair for striking a perfect balance between the drama the Russian playwright requires, and a touch of Vaudeville.
I met Danilo in his studio, reading various other scripts. At the beginning he is a bit too superstitious to tell me much about his upcoming projects, but I try anyway to ply him with a little cup of Italian espresso. His multifaceted qualities express themselves in his intense focus.
You’re an Italian in New York acting in a Russian classic like Chekhov. What has your experience been like?
It all started when I joined the Lambs Club. It’s a place for actors and artists from all over the world, with a history that goes back to 1874. At the time, being part of a professional club like that one was huge. People like Fred Astaire, Mark Twain and John Wayne were all Lambs, and the Actors Equity union was founded by Lambs. It’s very exciting to be a member of a club that, at the time, was the real epicenter for artists of that caliber. Every time I walk into the Club House in the heart of NYC, I can feel the weight of all its history.
When I became a member a few years ago, my instinct was to use their beautiful space, which is absolutely perfect for late-nineteenth-century plays. That’s how the idea of doing the Chekhov one-act plays came to mind. I teamed up with two fellow actors, Annette Berning and Peter Kingsley, and together we started working on The Proposal. It’s a beautifully written, 25-minute, three-character play. We had so much fun working on it, and the rehearsal process was certainly one of the best I’ve experienced in a long time. The show was also accepted into the International Theatre Festival in Melikhovo, Russia.
What was the impulse that convinced you to come try your craft here in New York?
I arrived in NYC in 2013, and since then I’ve been experiencing literally every aspect of the craft. I’ve done street theater, voiceovers, dubbing, commercials, music videos, reenactment shows, and straight theater. I feel like the moment you start to consider yourself a “theater” actor is when you automatically prevent yourself from doing everything else, which is all extremely interesting work. I like jumping between projects that are completely different from one other. I love doing theater, but at the same time, I could never do only theater for the rest of my life. I would get bored pretty easily. I’d love to do movies and TV and keep doing what I already do. Being dynamic keeps me alive.
What kind of incentive and new energy have your past adventures brought you?
I think that every artist who comes to the city gets stimulated by its energy. It’s just the perfect place to be as a young artist. There’s no place like NYC: it’s considered the capital of the world for a reason. For me, coming to the city was a life-changing experience. I’ve been here for more than six years and I feel that my time here is not over yet. I’m excited to see what the future has in store.
Do you believe theater is still an art form that the American audience can find relevant to their current affairs? Do you agree with that old stereotype?
I believe that the audience in general goes to the theater to see themselves represented on stage. That’s one of the main reasons why theater still exists nowadays. It will probably never die, because it’s the only art form that puts one human being in front of another human being, so the observer can see himself as if he were looking into a mirror, and say: “I’m just like him.” And this empathic mechanism happens live in real time. It makes the theater immortal. It has already survived for thousands of years, despite the era of movies, TV and social media. It’s still thriving, and if a play is good, people will go see it.
How has your gift of being Italian, and your past experience in acting schools, played a role – excuse the pun – in your approach to future projects?
Just as I don’t consider myself a theater actor, I also don’t like to consider myself an “Italian actor.” I am an artist, who was lucky enough to be born in what I consider the most beautiful country in the world. Our history and cultural heritage is studied all over the world. I’m very proud to be Italian and so happy to have grown up surrounded by art and beauty. Being born in Italy inevitably makes you understand and appreciate art on a different level, it’s as simple as that, it comes naturally to us. On the other hand, I would never want my nationality to prevent me from acting in Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Molière or Shakespeare. That would be silly.
Can we talk about what you have coming up in the next few months?
I have a few different projects I’m working on. I just finished recording a podcast for Stitcher, it’s a reenactment show that comes out in February in which I play the lead. I can’t say anything more about it until it’s released. I’m also planning to do more shows at the Lambs – there’s a beautiful one-act by Strindberg called Pariah that I’d love to do. And there’s Chekhov’s The Festivities, which I hope to be able to do in 2020.