When people think of Italian culture in Alberta, it’s probably more than likely the mountain town of Jasper in the 1970s is not top of mind.
Yet for actor and comedian Farren Timoteo in his solo show Made in Italy, the backdrop of growing up in Alberta while navigating the eccentricities of the small Italian community makes for a rich tapestry of storytelling.
“The whole thing is sort of a love story to my family, who mostly is no longer with us, and to my culture being Italian. These are the sort of the textures that really inspired the creation of it in the first place,” said Timoteo.
“On one hand, I knew my family story: My grandfather immigrating in the 50s trying to give his family a better life, and I knew that my father struggled in the 70s growing up in Jasper as one of a very small group of Italians. But what was also compelling about it to me as a musical theater performer and as a comedian was that it’s against this really bright backdrop of Italian pop culture at that time.”
The production follows a young Francesco Mantini growing up in Jasper as a second-generation Italian immigrant struggling to find his place in the world as he re-invents himself as ladies’ man and crooner Frank Martin in the era of Rocky Balboa and John Travolta.
“Every time I’m ramping up to do Made in Italy. I carefully groom my hair and style it each morning, you know, to try and evoke that,” Timoteo said.
“We’ve got disco music, which is part and parcel of the whole thing. So, all of that blended together with traditional Italian music, with traditional Italian culture, creates this interesting elevated clash of colours that I think is really fun to explore.”
One performer, 25 roles
Timoteo performs as 25 different characters in the production, which ranges from Mantini, to Mantini’s father, uncle, aunt, and many other assorted characters in the community.
“I worked really really closely with Daryl Cloran, director [of Made in Italy], to make sure that each of those 25 plus characters has a really unique identity and is very identifiable, both vocally and physically, and in some ways, kind of spiritually evoke a different sort of feeling for each of them,” he said.
“We’re still tweaking, even after seven years discussing ways that we can make each one brighter and more clear.”
He said that as an actor, taking on so many different characters was a powerful experience as an actor.
“You do feel these people take over one bit at a time and I think that’s part of the fun for the audience.”
One of the surprising things about performing Made in Italy, he said, was that it has been a production that has connected with Italians and non-Italians alike—something he was initially insecure about whether it would be too specific to the Italian-immigrant experience.
“What I started to learn immediately, once we started performing it for audiences, was that people from a vast spectrum of class and culture were greeting me after the show to say that this is their family. This was their experience. People think it’s their exact story, whether or not they’re Italian,” Timoteo said.
“So there’s something very beautiful to me now about recognizing that while my father may have felt alienated all those years ago, what I’ve learned is that there’s a world of people having this exact same experience. And I can’t go back and tell him that when maybe he needed to hear it most, I do think there’s some retroactive healing in that.”
Part of that experience is a loving connection between the fictional world of Mantini and the real world of Timoteo. The set, which lovingly re-creates his grandmother’s dining room, is decorated in Timoteo’s real family photos.
“This is my actual family. A lot of them are no longer with us, particularly my grandmother back there, passed away when I was about eight years old and we were very, very close,” he said.
” So there’s something very powerful about this experience for me because when I come out on stage, my family literally has my back there – right there.”
Timoteo was the 2022 winner of the Jessie Award for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Comedic Role for Made in Italy.
The production is the second for the 2023-24 season of Theatre Calgary, and is a joint presentation with Alberta Theatre Projects at the Martha Cohen Theatre, and runs from October 17 to November 11.