Christina Masciotti: Playwright

Photography by Maria Baranova

Photography by Maria Baranova

Bio: Christina Masciotti is a playwright-in-residence at Lincoln Center Theater, a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Drama and Performance, and one of The New York Times’ 2015 “Faces to Watch.” Her most recent production, Raw Bacon from Poland (2017), was a New York Times’ Critic’s Pick, and her earlier work includes: Social Security, a five-star reviewed Time Out New York Critic’s Pick, cited as a Best Show of 2015 by Helen Shaw, and recognized with an honorable mention from The Kilroys; Adult (2014) a Time Out New York Critic’s Pick; Vision Disturbance, one of Time Out New York’s Top Ten Shows of 2010. The original manuscripts for Adult and Vision Disturbance were selected for preservation in the Permanent Archives of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and went on to be published by Broadway Play Publishing (along with Social Security and Raw Bacon from Poland). Her work has also been anthologized by Smith and Kraus and Applause Theater and Cinema Books: Best Contemporary Monologues for Women (2014), The Best Women’s Stage Monologues of 2016, and The Best Men’s Stage Monologues of 2018.

Your work has become known for your singular use of dialogue. Ben Brantley of The New York Times has described it as “distinctively awkward…organic…revelatory of character” and replete with “heroic poetry.” What has informed your approach to writing dialogue?

Well, my parents are from different countries. They spoke different languages. To each other they spoke English, but their own versions of it, which tended to jumble communication – in a way that I guess I’m stuck replicating because it continually plays out in my writing. The character pairings boil down to two people from different worlds, trying to understand each other.

My mother would generally reinvent the English language every time she spoke. So that tuned my ears. And my awareness. I paid close attention to how people responded. If anyone made fun, however subtly, I felt it. Shy as I was, I wanted to set people straight. They were wrong. I reveled in the glamour and beauty and humor of her unabashed twists. Over time, I came to admire the inventiveness and vulnerability inherent in any voice.

That’s where the poetic dimension comes in. I’m not writing verse. There’s nothing flowery about my characters’ speech. But for “heroic poetry” to be attributed to the voice of an 80-year-old, Pennsylvania Dutch, deaf, retired pretzel factory worker who dropped out of junior high to support her family – that’s significant. Or the shoe salesman who happens to be a veteran, who was traumatized before he ever enlisted, with gaps in his schooling and profound shame about what he’s had to do to survive – to regard his shattered voice as lyrical – that’s important and true, and also healing for me.

To an extent, that’s what writing a play is to me: taking these insignificant, misfit scraps of language – that seemingly belong on a trash heap – and using them to force a kind of double take. To see value where you didn’t before.

Your finely-detailed character studies have garnered wide acclaim. You mentioned the Iraq veteran adjusting to life as a shoe salesman in Raw Bacon from Poland, and the retired pretzel factory worker in Social Security. Others range from a Greek immigrant going through a divorce (Vision Disturbance), to a deadbeat dad gun dealer (Adult), a slot machine addict (Bethlehem Steel), a Russian tailor (No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh), and the list goes on. Time Out New York has affirmed that your “character work can’t be surpassed” and you find “the magic and weirdness among ordinary folk.” The Wall Street Journal has highlighted your “uncommon kindness toward troubled characters.” How do you come up with these characters?

For the most part, I don’t. They’re based on friends and family; sometimes strangers. For example, No Good Things was based on a tailor in my neighborhood. She made an offhand comment that caught me by surprise. Something about the amount of training tailors have, much more than doctors, however, doctors are much more arrogant by comparison. There was just a spark to whatever she said. Her indomitable spirit was always on full display, even in the tiniest utterance.

I’ve also had a life-long appreciation for the skills involved in tailoring because both sides of my family have worked in textiles for generations. Yet I haven’t ever seen a tailor portrayed as a master artist. And the profession conjured shifting norms around gendered work that I wanted to explore; what’s culturally acceptable for women, in particular, to pursue, or not, now versus a generation ago. All of this bubbled up into the play. And I don’t know that any of it would’ve crystallized had I not encountered the enigmatic tailor in my neighborhood.

That’s why my work tends to focus on portraiture. I’m not consciously writing about myself. I’m presenting other people. But there’s certainly an element of self-discovery in figuring out the connections. Hopefully, something similar happens for the audience.

From 2010 to 2017, your play Vision Disturbance premiered in New York and went on to be featured in festivals in New York, Boston, France (Paris/Gennevilliers, Toulouse, Strasbourg), Croatia (Zagreb), Italy (Modena, Milan) as well as an independent production in Germany (Bonn) and a workshop in Chile (Santiago). Did you travel with the play?

I did. I worked with the translators on the supertitles. That was a big job to translate the language slips and malapropisms. It couldn’t come across as a shoddy translation riddled with careless mistakes – but it wouldn’t make sense if the character was speaking in this impeccable, polished way either. A few translators were into it, and I think others wanted me to go away.

The conversations would be like: “Is ‘red flag’ an expression in Italian? Yes. Well, she says ‘wrong flag.’ But that only works because ‘wrong’ sounds like ‘red.’ Does ‘wrong’ sound like ‘red’ in Italian? Not at all. What does?” I think we settled on “Russian flag” for that translation because “Russa” and “rossa” were just one letter apart: “bandiera Russa” as opposed to “bandiera rossa.”

What did you learn from seeing your work performed all over the world?

First and foremost, I learned that the play held its own. People got it. Across cultures and languages. So that was encouraging. And it was also the first time I got to see how much a show can grow over a longer run. From its shaky first steps to really finding its footing. The play has two roles, played by Linda Mancini and Jay Smith, and we were lucky that they were available for all the tours because they are amazing actors and great to work with. We began in New York with only about two weeks’ rehearsal, then the show ran for three weekends. We never thought we’d have years to work on it. All of that time in front of an audience was invaluable.

And the audiences were different in every city. For example, there’s some Catholic humor in the play – that did not go over well in Italy. And much of what went over as jokes in the States took on much more sociological heft in France. The first time the show was reviewed in New York, the main character was described as basically “a quirky Greek immigrant who can’t see right.” She’s suffering from an eye disorder triggered by her divorce, and she meets a doctor who prescribes music therapy to treat her. In France, though, it was a play about: “Women and Medicine, the legal system, the world of work, the integration of immigrants, the place of art in society and Church.” The range of interpretations was a marvel to me.

Many of your plays and screenplays take place in your hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. Why do you choose to set so much of your work there?

It grounds me; knowing it well is a comfort. And my father’s side of the family has been there since 1897, so there’s deep personal history beckoning. But aside from all that, as a setting, it’s unique because it’s not a small town or a big city or a suburb – it has elements of all three. It’s also a lively mix of many ethnicities and clashing ways of life from the inner city to the Amish and Mennonite farms in the countryside. Geographically, it’s nestled in a valley, so being able to look up from a gritty, urban street scene to the lush, surrounding mountains reinforces this sense of worlds colliding. In a lot of ways it’s an unfolding drama unto itself – any story rooted in a location like that is only that much richer for it.

In 2016, you were one of five artists across the United Stated and Canada to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama and Performance. How did that Fellowship impact your work?

In many incredible ways, both tangible and intangible. Practically speaking, it made my next production possible. A production (Raw Bacon from Poland) that was a breakthrough for me artistically. And I think as an artist, when recognition comes through on such a grand scale, it can have a powerful effect on your psyche. For example, I always wrote a lot, but over the course of that Fellowship year, my output doubled. And it’s stayed at that more prolific level since.

Photography by Maria Baranova

Photography by Maria Baranova

What’s next for you?

I’ll be traveling to Duke University as a guest artist this fall (2019) to workshop a new play. In the spring (2020), I’ll be presenting that work in my hometown at the Yocum Institute for Arts Education. So I’m excited to have this time to nurture the play, and then be able to share it with the community that’s nurtured and inspired me. Later next year, I’ll be bringing the play to a wider audience in New York.

Where can we find out more information about your upcoming performances?

My website: christinamasciotti.com or follow: @masciotti