Friday, March 27, 2009

Blood Type: Ragu

This is the transcipt of the podcast appearing on our podcast page.

Carolyn: Frank Ingrasciotta is a veteran of the New York stage and television. He is also the heart and soul behind his one man show, Blood Type: Ragu, currently at the Actors’ Playhouse in Greenwich Village, New York City. Raised in Brooklyn by his Sicilian immigrant parents, Frank became the bridge not only between each of his parents, but also between his parents and 1960’s America. This created pressure and confusion for Frank and his siblings, and they each coped in the best way they knew how. Blood Type: Ragu distills the poignancy and hilarity of a dysfunctional Italian American family in a time of turbulence in America. Andy Webster of the New York Times says, “It’s the understanding and forgiveness that gives Blood Type: Ragu its lasting, rewarding flavor.”

Tell me about how the show has evolved. Tell me where it started.

Frank: I always had these stories that I would tell my friends and they would always crack up. And I thought it was normal, but I found out it wasn’t normal by the way everyone was cracking up. Because you know it’s funny as a kid you grow up as a first generation child in a house that I have to imagine that not just Italian Americans go through this but I’m sure every culture that’s coming into this county goes through this, whether it’s Chinese or Latino. And it would be one life in your house and one life in your more Americanized friends’ house. So, I knew those stories were always something that I would recount to my friends and by the way they laughed at the stories, my non-Italian friends, I knew that there must have been something there.

So they kept saying you really should make it into a stand-up comedy act. So when I married Theresa, the gift of the story came out. When meeting a Sicilian woman and marrying her and reconnecting to her family, that was a big Italian family. And I had pretty much divorced myself from the culture from everything that I had been through. I was reintroduced to the culture in a more positive way and also it afforded me the opportunity to open myself up And Theresa kept saying to me, “You know, the last time you saw your family there you were 7. Why don’t you go look them up?”

I was already in my mid-30s at that time and I was so scared. Because every time she would mention it, the shame of the whole story coming out of like, I would feel it. The idea of knocking door was just reminding me of the whole story. Because my mother and father were ashamed of their own relationship they divorced themselves from the entire family.

And then I thought, OK, I’m going to go there, I’m going to find the courage, I’ll go. And then the rest of the story you’ll come and see the show and see what happens. I was in the elevator after I had met my aunt and uncle. I turned to Theresa and said, I’ve been given a gift. A gift of the ending. Now I’ve just got to thread it together. But this is the story. And I know I had something wild and it was a gift, I thank God every day for it, you know?

So I sat, I started to write. And then from there I did a reading at Dixon Place and from there I got a producer at the Belmont Playhouse in Little Italy in the Bronx brought me in. I was supposed to last there 4 weeks, I lasted there 4 months. Then, after that, I always thought I was going to put it down but I’d get a booking here, solo performance festivals, and then it built a momentum. But it took 9 years.

Carolyn: The show doesn’t present the expected romanticized view of an Italian American upbringing. Why did you make the choice to go a more complex route and have you encountered problems?

Frank: My reasoning for presenting it in this way is because I wanted to tell a truthful story from my experience and I felt there was more to be said between the dynamics of a mother/son relationship and a father/son relationship and I wanted to show what the holy trinity is like when the mother and father are having problems and a child takes on the roles that the mother and father should be giving each other more fully.

So I thought there was a lot to be said to talking about a story that had a little more depth than just the romanticism of it. I mean I do romanticize things, but it’s been done. The food has been done. I wanted to tell a deeper story.

Carolyn: And you definitely do. The story takes you in so many different directions in terms of, it’s very, very funny in certain spots and I’m still repeating certain lines from the show, because they are just so funny. But then, you’re laughing and then the next second something happens and then you’re shocked. It really takes your breath away, it’s like “Wow! He went there!” It’s amazing. So that takes tremendous courage on your part.

Frank: Thank you. Well, I watch one man shows, and I’ve studied them. And some of the most brilliant people that I admire and respect, when I see them going there, what they tend to do is cut it with a punch line, or not go deep. and I think there’s a fear of that, and I knew what I was doing when I went there and I wanted to take the risk to do it I was afraid in the beginning and I’d be lying to say I wasn’t because I thought ‘are people really going to get this?’ but I thought, the more truth I tell, as long as it’s from an honest place I feel, at least, I can’t go wrong, you know?

Carolyn: Well, I think it certainly makes it more universal. It’s getting beyond the Italian story, it’s a very human story.

Frank: Thank you. That’s what I really intended. Thank you. Because you see, people, it’s so funny. Like some people who were thinking of wanting to produce this piece, they didn’t take the time to read the script and I always knew when they did and when they didn’t.

Because when they started saying things to me like, ‘Well I don’t know if it’s universal or it’s just for Italians’ I was like, ‘you didn’t read the script’. So of course if you’re Italian you get it in a much more visceral way, but it’s for anybody who’s grown up in a family, and we all have.

Carolyn: One of the things I’d like to discuss which I found so refreshing about the content of the show is the poetry and there’s a literary quality to the writing that I appreciated so much and the audience appreciated so much. There’s this unspoken respect from your writing that, my audience, they’re smart people, they’re going to get this. So can you talk a little bit about this, because I think that’s pretty unusual on stage and in a lot of entertainment.

Frank: Italian, to me, is poetry. Because growing up it was never just, you know, ‘drop dead’ it was, your tongue should whither and fall out’, you know? It was never just saying a curse word, but it was just, ‘go back to the womb of your mother’. It was just these things, and even as a child I would say, that’s like pretty intense as a form of expression. There’s a poetry even in the way they put each other down and curse each other out. ‘Face of a cow turd’, those kinds of things.

Frank: I think in the way things are described in the culture it’s always so visual, it creates pictures in your mind, there’s such an imagery there. I really feel that’s part of what makes Italian culture so special.

I didn’t just want to say, ‘my mother left the kitchen’, but I put it in a way where I was saying, ‘a malfunction exiled the holy mother’s conveyer belt arms from the dinner table to the kitchen where she now eats alone as a declaration of her independence.’

Now there’s a lot of metaphor coming at people, there’s a lot of images, and I know that’s like 4 or 5 of them there. And I also have learned to simplify some things. But I want people to think about what that means, you know?

Carolyn: And they do. I can tell you as an audience member, when I left, I was still thinking about the story, I was still thinking about the language. It clings to you. It’s a story and a presentation with a lot of depth.

When Frank was 7 years old he traveled to Sicily with his mother. There, he was exposed to a life he never imagined existed. His time in Sicily created some of his show’s most unforgettable moments.

Frank: And I got off the plane and it was just a whole other world and back then, in the late ‘60s, Sicily was a different place than what it is now. Now I want to go live there, they live better than us. They’re not coming here anymore. They have it together and they know how to live, much better than we do. But back then it was primitive. The chickens were still running thru the streets and the mule was still in the basement in the stall, and they didn’t have indoor plumbing. My grandmother had one running water faucet down in the basement.

I had this photographic memory of images growing up as a boy and those 4 months I spent there as a child at the age of 7 was such a culture shock from what I knew. And I was not warned, I was not told, I just showed up.

There’s a scene in the play where my mother takes me to Rimina Vendura, a soothsayer, to rub a curse off of us that was put on the family by, supposedly a family member. And that really did happen, that was true. I still have memories of that woman with olive oil smeared on her eyelids, rubbing me down to take the curse out. I had to… (laughter).

Carolyn: So you’re rubbed down with olive oil.

Frank: Right. Ragu, garlic and olive oil, that was the 3 ingredients she used. My grandmother was there, my mother was there and I was there. I don’t recall if she actually rubbed down my mother’s stomach to take the curse out, or my grandmother’s stomach, but I distinctly remember incantations and prayers and I still remember what she said.

I just remember that this is freaky and spooky. And I was a big fan of Bugs Bunny growing up, and I thought she was a Bugs Bunny character. That’s why I mentioned that in the show.

Carolyn: One thing that impressed me in the show was your acknowledgement of the tarantella, the phenomenon of tarantate, tarantismo, the whole thing. Many people don’t refer to that or if they do they refer to it in a very traditional kind of wedding dance sort of way and not the phenomenon of the bite of the tarantula. But tell me your thinking. Why did you bring that in and how?

Frank: I saw this wonderful documentary about the history of the tarantella that I actually still have on some old video somewhere that explained the whole mystery behind it. Women would have these little mini breakdowns out in the fields, from whatever they were going thru, everybody would gather around that woman who was having the emotional breakdown and they would play instruments to exorcise out the evil spirits. It was literally an exorcism. So, I brought in the whole notion of the tarantella because of that story with the fattura and the curse and her taking it out of me and I needed to find something that connected the play in the beginning to what happens in the end.

The tarantella is misunderstood, maybe not misunderstood, it’s just not known, what the history is. And they think it’s just a celebration dance that’s played at weddings where everybody just dances around and holds hands and does the grapevine, but that’s not what it is.

Carolyn: It has such deep cultural meaning,

Frank: Right. And because of the metaphor of the exorcism that’s what it took for me to get where I am now in my life and what I talk about, so what perfect metaphor than to use the image of the tarantella because it was my journey, as well.

Carolyn: I’d like to talk a little bit about the challenges of doing a one man show in terms of the stamina that you need. You do about 22 characters, right?

Frank: I do 22 characters, men and women. And it’s a challenge.

So it’s all about preparation. I have to take care of my voice, I have to pick and choose who I want to talk to on the telephone. I’m under the care of a chiropractor and a naturopath. I’m on a high vitamin, high protein diet and that’s what I’m doing. Just lots of tea and herbal drops and I have to just pace myself to be able to do it. Because I’ve never done 8 shows a week, and that’s what I’m doing. Two on Wednesday, two on Saturday, two on Sunday, so it’s a lot.

To do two in a day, and on the weekend I do five. An hour and a half just me on stage. So I’m just so grateful I can do it. I did the first week and now I’m like, OK, I’m going to build a rhythm, I’m going to figure it out. And I am. You have to really pace yourself.

Blood Type: Ragu opened on March 5, 2009 at the Actors Playhouse on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, for an open ended run. To learn more, visit