Ms. Censabella has been awarded three grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts: two in playwriting for Abandoned in Queens and Three Italian Women (a/k/a Carla Cooks The War), and The Geri Ashur Award in Screenwriting for her original screenplay Truly Mary. Truly Mary was subsequently developed at The New Harmony Project with director Angelo Pizzo and producer Michael London. She has also been a two-time participant in the O'Neill Playwrights Conference for Abandoned in Queens and Jazz Wives Jazz Lives and has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The New Harmony Project and the O’Neill. Her short play Posing was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and The Actual Footage won the Tennessee Chapbook Prize for Drama. Both plays are published in Poems & Plays (Numbers Five and Seven), as is her play Stones Fall, Birds Fly (Number Sixteen). Her play Interviewing Miss Davis is published in the St. Petersburg Review 4/5 and online by IndependentPlaywrights.com; and her long one act Abandoned in Queens will be published in The Best American Short Plays of 2014.
Ms. Censabella's teaching experience includes the New School for Drama (current, Distinguished University-Wide Teaching Award), Sarah Lawrence College, the Actors Studio Drama School, Columbia University's School of the Arts, Columbia College's Undergraduate Writing Program, City University's MFA Writing Program, The Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia.
She has written the short film adaptation Physics for HBO's Women: Breaking the Rules series, and for two years she wrote for daytime serial television, winning two Emmy Awards. Her half-hour independent film Last Call (directed by Robert Bailey and starring Jude Ciccolella and Dana Dewes) was an official selection in festivals throughout the world, and won the Best Short Drama Award at the Breckenridge Film Festival.It is released by Cinequest on a compilation DVD entitled Second Sight: Cinequest Favorite Short Films, Volume II and is available on Netflix (search: Second Sight, Vol. 2).
She is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild of America, East, and the League of Professional Theatre Women. She received a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale College.
Laura Censabella is a writer I learned of via Jacqueline Reinhold, who I was lucky to reconnect with last year. Laura's play, Carla Cooks The War, is a sneak up on you and clutch you in the throat read. In fact, having had a deep relationship with my grandmother, and a more complicated one with my mother, (many women do) I keenly felt the innate comedic tension in the relationships of the 3 primary characters, but set these fairly fraught dynamics in the grips of the Fascist/Nazi take-over and invasion of Italy, and it's an explosive play. Yet funny and relatable. And even more yet, as much as the play is about the factual history of who people revealed themselves to be in wartime- it's about how one person's heroism is another person's abuse. And the spiciest layer of this drama lasagna is the depiction of unreliable memoirs- of how, especially in wartime, the stories we choose to remember about ourselves may vary wildly depending on who was also there... or as my mother likes to say, "I like my version better." But wait, there's even more! Anna Magnani makes an iconic appearance as well. A vivid and wrenching play which will stay with you for weeks and weeks, and yet also make you want to eat a big bowl of fettucine as soon as humanly possible.
Laura Maria Censabella with Kathleen Dennehy
What or whom inspired you to write this play?
My grandmother inspired Carla Cooks The War, both for her heroism during the war and the contradictions in her character, and for the questions those contradictions raised. First, I wanted to know what makes some people courageous and some people not? Why did my grandmother take so many actions during the Second World War that could have gotten her killed? She sheltered deserting German soldiers, hid the partisans on her farm and in her house, pleaded for the release of prisoners, refused to salute Heil Hitler, etc. What is the difference between her and the person who would not stick her neck out for others?
That then begs the question, why would she risk the safety of her two young children? Which is more important, keeping your children safe, or the path that my grandmother chose, making the world safe for your children? What are the costs of such heroism on the child, on one’s own psyche, and on one’s ability to live a “normal” life after wartime? And heroism in war demands a certain skill set which isn’t completely transferable to a happy personal life. It demands the ability to lie, to live on adrenalin, and to sublimate one’s primal fears.
Did you delve into your own family’s personal history or did you do research into the Fascist movement and how it affected smaller town life in Italy? I’m curious mainly because the scenes as described within the school system were especially harrowing to learn about.
I did both. My grandmother was an incredible storyteller, and every holiday my grandmother, grandfather, mother and aunt would tell stories of the war. That sounds grim but it wasn’t. The stories were so suspenseful, and the trickery that my grandmother engaged in against the Fascists and Nazis was so entertaining that we would all laugh at these horrific events. Of course, we could laugh because they all survived and because the right side won that war. The fact that that war had a right side makes it different from many other wars.
At a certain point I started to tape those stories, and I completed that project over a period of ten years. Listening back to the tapes is pretty headache-inducing because everyone is talking on top of one another and contradicting one another. And I started to notice some of the moral ambiguities that the family glossed over as I began thinking about the play.
I also read a beautiful book by Jane Slaughter called Women and the Italian Resistance recommended to me by the director Valentina Fratti. The book confirmed my family stories and gave me some context for them. I also did basic research about the role of Fascism in the school system, the church, etc. and the region that my family comes from in northern Italy and its overall response to Fascism.
I’m curious why you also incorporated cooking into the Grandmother-Mother-Daughter equation. Of course, I know Italian cooking is considered amongst the most powerful tools for education, family bonding as well as seduction, but I’m curious what the cooking means to you.
The play began as a monologue that I presented in an evening of short excerpts of work-in-progress at Ensemble Studio Theatre. In that monologue I heard my grandmother speaking as she was cooking. So that was very organic and non-thought out. I kept the device as I enlarged the piece because her imagining that she was the star of a television cooking show (while in her hospital bed) seemed a fresh device and a way to preserve and honor the black humor of the events described in the play. I’m a huge fan of black humor as a coping mechanism.
Finally, the former partisan Giovanna Zangrandi has observed that the Italian Resistance struggle was a war “nested in kitchens.” The kitchen was where meetings were often held amongst the partisans; women’s cooking was a great contribution to the struggle when food had to be taken out to the soldiers hiding in the woods; and finally, there were many mothers who joined the Resistance when they felt they couldn’t keep their children safe--so the Resistance was an extension of their nurturing.
The construct of Antonia needing to enlist her daughter to get her ill mother to sign the DNR form is really disturbing and intrinsically dramatic—is this based in reality or simply a great plot point?
It takes a lot in this culture to get someone declared non compos mentis, and that is perhaps as it should be, but it is my experience that there are an awful lot of senile people running around who the law says are completely sane! This is something I’ve experienced in my own life.
I will also say that I very consciously wanted to write a fictional memoir for the stage. I love the form of memoir and it isn’t done that often in theatre. Of course, I needed to fictionalize considerably to create some distance between the characters and myself, and also to help the story have focus and drive.
Anna Magnani is a wonderful additional character in the play. I like having her cinematic scenes interplay with Carla’s vision of herself as well as her personal life being almost considered family lore—what inspired you to include her?
Anna Magnani is so linked with the Italian Resistance because of Open City, the great Rossellini classic of neo-realist Italian cinema. My grandmother consciously patterned herself after Anna. She looked like Anna. She also had a tremendous appetite for life, gargantuan emotions, sensuality, a depth of soul and a dramatic flair like Anna. My grandmother’s acting ability came in very handy a number of times during the war when she was about to be killed or when she had to lie to protect others. I remember once I asked my grandmother to sing a certain song from the 1930s that my mother was alluding to. We were eating the soup course of a big dinner. My grandmother put down her spoon, sang a verse or two so soulfully that tears came to her eyes (and mine), then she picked up her spoon and resumed eating as if nothing had transpired. She was a great actress.
Have you workshopped this play or scenes from it? I’m curious if the changing of the roles—having Antonia (or Olivia) play her own father, or an abortion counselor—makes those moments inherently more dramatic and heartbreaking since we are also connected to those original characters?
Yes, I have seen the play in readings and a couple of workshops and the story seems to work very deeply on an audience so I do think they get what I intend. I wanted the doubled roles to mirror some aspect of their “real” characters so that the doubling becomes a way of playing out their inner conflicts. Additionally, I felt that role-playing reinforced the themes of this play—what is real, what is revisionism, etc.?
I’ve had only one negative experience with the play when a Chicago theatre cast an actress with an Irish brogue as the Italian matriarch. This actress also brought out the wrong version of the script onto the stage and kept shuffling through the pages frantically as the reading continued around her. Needless to say, the audience was not impressed. But that’s the fun and hazard of theatre! If nothing else, you collect another good story from the experience.
Coming from a family of story-tellers and truth-benders, I especially related to the concept of how people revise history to suit themselves or excuse how their lives turned out... Of course it’s been done before dramatically, notably in Death of a Salesman, but I’m curious about your thoughts on familial revisionism, especially during wartime...?
Quite honestly, I could never get the definitive version of a family story. There would often be such conflicting versions from my mother, grandmother, grandfather and aunt. In fact, I eventually had to make decisions about what the truth might be and that was quite difficult. I myself didn’t want to pin it down. War is so dark, so emotional, so terrifying—it is only natural that the mind protects itself from it, and revising the past is one way of doing that. And even apart from the subject of war, human beings can rarely agree on what happened in the past!
When I visited my grandmother’s small village in my twenties, I realized how revered my grandmother still was. This image of her as heroine always contrasted with my mother’s version of her as a manipulator and the biggest bully of all. I wanted to get to the bottom of that contradiction. Also, my mother was the one who had to minister to my grandmother’s panic and collapse after her heroic deeds, so she was the only one privy to the non-public face of my grandmother. (My aunt was a bit younger and had a less complicated relationship with her mother during the war.) My mother also suffered from tremendous PTSD, which reared its head in her early thirties so she wasn’t always a reliable narrator either.
Assuming you’ve written other plays, do you write about family or women frequently? It’s so powerful how Carla metaphorically throws her own daughter under the bus in order to preserve her personal myth that I’m curious if you are driven to further write about and explore the complex interplay of female family role models...
Yes, in the last ten years I have been writing mostly about women. I’m interested in the interface between a woman’s public persona and her home life. We are expected to be the guardians of the domestic, but how do we do that when the exterior world is so compelling and often in opposition to that home life?
When I was a younger playwright, I often centered my stories on male protagonists. I was produced more when I wrote about men! (Although the playwright Lee Blessing once said about my play Abandoned in Queens that I managed to write a feminist play with no female characters in it.)
I’m about to workshop a new play called Paradise that has a Yemeni-American teenager (and devout Muslim) as the main character. It was inspired by young girls I taught poetry to in the public schools in Brooklyn in the 1990s who were all facing arranged marriages.
How did you become a playwright? It’s always so fascinatingly different with every writer, so feel free to tell me all about it!
I wanted to be an actress when I was a teenager. When I went to Yale as an undergraduate, there were no classes that broke down the craft of acting, only scene study classes. We were told to read Stanislavski on our own and employ those techniques in our work. I remember preparing for scenes from Chekhov and really being able to visualize the snow outside my window, the longing to get to Moscow, etc, but somehow, when I performed on stage, what was inside was blocked. I was too self-conscious and didn’t have access to the emotions. When I was assigned the task of writing an original scene in a theatre studies class, however, suddenly everything that was blocked inside me began to flow out and I was brave and in touch with my emotions and all the details I had imagined for my characters. It took me a while to accept myself as a would-be playwright as I grew up in a working class environment in Queens, NY where there were no role models of women writers of any type, never mind playwrights. (And the only women playwrights I knew were Lillian Hellman and Lorraine Hansberry so I didn’t really think a woman could become a playwright no matter what her background.)
Who are writers, playwrights and others, that inspire you?
I love Caryl Churchill for the thrill and high wire act of what she does, and the inspiration she provides that you can do anything in theatre. I love the teleplays of Dennis Potter for the way he theatricalizes how fantasy permeates every second of our lives. I love the humor of Alan Bennett. I’m very much a character writer so I love the character-driven work of Arthur Miller, Paula Vogel (also her sense of play) and Donald Margulies. And I love the sheer punch of Mamet.
I read a lot of non-fiction these days, particularly science as I have an Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan commission for the above play Paradise.
And I love memoirs, for their specificity, the suspense of the best of them, and their intimacy.
Contemporary literary fiction is hard for me to read as it often doesn’t have enough narrative drive (although I do love Alice McDermott), and I’m not partial to genre fiction. However, I also love the short stories of Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, Josip Novakovich, Barry Hannah, Chekhov—they’re like little plays.
What are you working on now?
As I mentioned above, I am working on the play Paradise, which combines a Yemeni-American girl facing an arranged marriage with a disgraced scientist who happens to be teaching science in her public school. Both of them find refuge and salvation in science and each other although they come from radically different worlds.