The Drama Studies Program hosts revered actor at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre

By Nick Ward
Photos by Fangliang Xu

Celebrated Italian actor and storyteller, Mario Pirovano, felt it was his duty to translate Lu Santo Jullare Francesco from Italian to English. This play was written by his mentor and theatre legend, Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (1997).

First published in English by Pirovano as Francis the Holy Jester in 2009, and then republished as Holy Jester! The Saint Francis Tales, Fo’s play tells the story of the misunderstood life of Francis, the 13th Century Saint of Assisi. Fo relied upon historical texts and documented folklore written in Old Italian dialects to tell the tale of Saint. Francis of Assisi is represented as a jester, not because he was a comedian or prankster, but because he was able to alarm and enrage the rich and powerful with his gift to enliven the poor, powerless masses.

Through an extraordinary one person performance without props or scenery that took place at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre (CDCC), Carleton’s recently acquired downtown arts centre, Pirovano used his veteran acting and theatre experience to bring Fo’s story of Francis to life.

Mario Pirovana performs as Francis the Holy Jester

Mario Pirovana performs as Francis the Holy Jester

“The story of Francis is about prejudice and ignorance. It is about the removal of a wall between the privileged and non-privileged,” said Pirovano moments before taking the stage at CDCC. “Francis was a saint who never asked to be a Saint, but threatened the church which ordained him by doing what he believed was for the good of mankind, not for the few in power.”

Following in the footsteps of his progressive, politically minded mentor, and given our contemporary context with the rise of right-wing governments who instrumentalize faith to justify their actions, Pirovano felt the story of a holy man committed to the principle of helping those in need, demanded a retelling. For Pirovano, the story of Francis is about so much more than religion.

“There was not a single pope named Francis for 600 years because of Francis’ non-conformity to how the church operated. His compassion and empathy for people, animals, and the earth was enlightened and dangerous, but it garnered him a massive following,” explains Pirovano. “Francis was very much like The Beatles of his time. He was entertaining to the masses and perceived as a threat by the powerbrokers.”

Pirovano’s powerful performance of Francis at CDCC served as a reminder to the importance of art, particularly theatre, in a healthy society. As Pirovano puts it, “theatre challenges people and challenges power structures. It can break down barriers and punches us in the stomach, all while entertaining.”

“Theatre is life,” he says.

Pirovana points to the CDCC stage.

Pirovana points to the CDCC stage.

CDCC and the Necessity of Theatre

Professor of English and Carleton’s Drama Studies coordinator, Janne Cleveland organized this event. Like Pirovano, she believes theatre is a cultural necessity. “Theatre and performance not only give us perspective, it brings people together. It reaches into the social realm and extracts a collective community.” Cleveland says she cannot overstate how meaningful the CDCC space is towards achieving this end, as it offers students and the greater Ottawa community at large, an ideal hub to engage with and experience theatre. “Proximity matters,” she explains. “CDCC is accessible and provides us with a real opportunity to put Carleton on the map in terms of art. It is doing a lot of good.” Pirovano’s performance highlighted the setting of the CDCC Concert Hall for performances of all kinds, not just music. “Mario’s show was minimalist, without props, but the architectural space of the sanctuary that surrounded him made his performance feel enormous to the audience while allowing each person watching to be engaged in an intimate manner.”

Cleveland has personally studied Dario Fo’s work, so seeing it live was an extraordinary opportunity she never expected to have. “This play still speaks to contemporary issues and is a masterclass in form and narrative. Mario brings the story to a level beyond that of simply reading the story of Francis,” says Cleveland. She was not alone in this sentiment — many event attendees tracked her down after the show to inform her just how much the evening meant to them. Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Ottawa, Cristina Perissinotto, was one those of those audience members impressed with the evening: “Pirovano performed Fo’s play beautifully, and succeeded in bringing the character of Francesco to life once again for the audience. It was a rare chance to see a Dario Fo’s piece performed live, for some of us for the first time.” Donato Santeramo, Head of the Department of Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, elaborates on the importance of Pirovano’s work. “He gave life to Francis’ stance against war, poverty and human exploitation. Mario’s performance took us back to the Middle Ages while, at the same time, actualizing Francis’ words and actions that have been obfuscated for centuries from official history”.

Professor of English and Carleton's Drama Studies coordinator, Janne Cleveland discusses performance with Pirovana

Professor of English and Carleton’s Drama Studies coordinator, Janne Cleveland discusses performance with Pirovana

“Mario was able to keep the audience’s attention through his asides that helped to fill in historical gaps. His comedic timing, gestures, facial expressions, and voices rendered all the characters vivid and alive on stage,” says Santermo. “It was a theatrical feat that really spoke to today’s world with a message of condemnation of the many terrible events that are taking place, but at the same time, with a sense of hope and a smile. It is not by chance that Fo publically declared Mario to be his artistic heir.”

Drama Studies is Thriving at CU

The success of the Mario Pirovano event underscored the promising progress of Drama as a flourishing discipline studied at Carleton. Although the program is small, it is growing, and is nurtured by its strong roots, says Cleveland. “In recent years we’ve brought in highly regarded theatre professionals to address our students in the Annual Drama Studies Lecture Series, including Tompson Highway and Robert Lepage. This lecture series is open to the public, and this year we are delighted to present a talk by Artistic Associate of the NAC Indigenous Theatre, Lindsay Lachance on February 12 at 1p.m. in room 252 of the MacOdrum Library. Everyone is welcome. ”

Theatre at Carleton has a long and rich history,” explains Cleveland. The dynamic Carleton based theatre group Sock n’ Buskin performed its first play in 1943, designating them as the oldest ongoing club on campus. Amazingly, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) — the celebrated company that promotes Canadian theatre — got its start in the English Department at Carleton University through a small group of activist-minded professors and graduate students in the 1970s. Although the GCTC has since become its own successful independent group, the strong relationship between the English Department and the theatre company endures today.

This creative, grassroots spirit that prompted a burgeoning local theatre scene so many decades ago runs through the rejuvenated Drama Studies program offered by the Department of English. The program, which is open to English majors as a Concentration and to non-majors as a Minor, weaves academic coursework on film, playwriting, theatre history, and staging strategies, with drama workshops that enhance the creative and performance skills taught by experienced theatre professionals. Moving forward, the CDCC space will be at the heart of many of the activities of the program. “As a drama student, the only thing that limits you, is your imagination, and the same principle holds for how we want to grow the program,” says Cleveland.

An engaged CDCC audience asks Pirovana a post-performance question.

An engaged CDCC audience asks Pirovana a post-performance question.

Undergraduate Psychology student Calille Smale grew up taking part in local theatre and has always had an interest in reading plays, so the Drama Studies program has been a perfect fit for her. “Drama Studies has given me the ability to examine a variety of plays and make use of new skills that I’ve developed since starting the class.”

“I’ve learned how to interpret several parts of a play in many different ways by taking into account aspects like the writing style and stage directions,” she says.

The Mario Pirovano event further validated to her the power of theatre. “I learned about a new type of performance that I had not seen before. The nuances of Pirovano’s acting grabbed my attention and made me laugh, all while gaining an understanding of my passion for theatre. I was also able to bring my grandfather to this event, which made it even more special as I was able to share it with someone important to me.”

Distinguished Research Professor (College of the Humanities/Art History), Retired Faculty Member, and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, John Osborne is a fervent believer in the magic of drama. “It is a powerful medium for self-reflection, revealing us to ourselves. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’. But the same principle applies to all of us, not only to kings,” he says.

As a Carleton undergrad in the early 1970s, Osborne witnessed many memorable performances on campus and at the NAC. “Drama has always played an important role in my life, and I hope that it will continue to do so for current and future generations of the Carleton community.”

Pirovana gives skilled and passionate solo performance

Pirovana gives skilled and passionate solo performance.

As the coordinator of the program, Cleveland believes the CDCC will encourage additional meaningful connections with the local theatre community throughout Ottawa. “CDCC puts us downtown and proximity matters. Our new space provides us a real opportunity to strengthen our position as a hub of art, culture, and performance. For this event, for example, we were fortunate to have the support of members of the Italian community, including the Italian ambassador, whose office provided a beautiful pre-show reception.”

Mario Pirovano’s spectacular one-person show on Saint Francis did not simply highlight the time tested enthusiasm from Carleton students for drama and the practical beauty of The Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre, it served as a reminder that a robust, evolving art scene is an essential facet of a healthy society. Echoing Pirovano’s belief that ‘art is life,’ Cleveland states: “Theatre and performance matters. Dance, comedy, acting, music all reach into the social realm and produce a collective community. Arts and performance provide perspective and bring us together.”

For more information on Drama Studies at Carleton:

Cleveland and Priovana take a bow.

Cleveland and Priovana take a bow.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 in
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