Interview with performer, human rights activist and director of 'La Nonna' Samuel Dariol

The evening of 4 September, 2019, saw the CO.AS.IT hosting of a Q&A event on Italian Matriarchy and Queerness: Exploring La Nonna, where director, performer and human rights activist Samuel Dariol engaged in conversation with renowned Deakin University scholar Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli.

Throughout this thoroughly enjoyable evening, for which we thank CO.AS.IT, the diverse audience was sensorially stimulated through dance, role play/performance arts, and the staged reconstruction of memories and ideas of a woman who, in the words of her grandson, becomes “a bigger than life character”. The easy and flowy conversation between Pallotta-Chiarolli and feisty and charismatic Samuel Dariol brought the listeners to Italy and back, and into the Italian home and family setup, as the conversationalists naturally explored societal structures, different value systems, contrasting yet intersecting cultures, sexuality, gender, and human rights.

Samuel Dariol, a pleasure to meet you and speak face to face. I would like to ask you more about culture/cultural identity, and gender fluidity in relation to gender performance, and your life and career, values and attitude. In an article in Italian magazine Il Globo (published 25/01/2018) La Nonna is said to be a homage to your Sicilian-born “nonna” and her own journey as a post-war migrant. In the play the personality of la “nonna”/your grandmother “grapples with tradition in a fast-changing world and reflects on a life divided between being neither Italian nor Australian”.

How much does the “nonna” and her existential issues, queries and ponderings reflect your own concerns around identity and cultural belonging?

I think setting about the show there was definitely this intention to understand more about the life of my “nonna” in order to understand more of myself, and the idea that I had projected that culture during my adolescence because I didn’t really know how to settle inside being queer. But, also, it wasn’t really taught to me and I didn’t really know what it meant. I think the idea of a cultural identity in Australia is a really tricky one and yet a really interesting one because people are often discouraged from having an identity that is outside the mainstream or the norm. I think in Australia this sentiment can be particularly strong. I suppose “nonna” had an existential crisis about her own belonging, part Italian/ part Australian. What is her identity? Where does she belong? She’s not Italian anymore either (she’s hasn’t really been there for some 60 years) but she’s Australian in the way that many people won’t identify her as being not Australian. That is a real challenge among people from migrant or refugee backgrounds: There is an enforcement of their difference and that enforcement of difference is also something that parallels the queer experience of growing up with a gender and sexual identity that isn’t the normative or normal. You are kind of forced to be different. I think in being queer there is an embrace of that and rather than feeling shame about that difference there’s a pride and I think there’s a lot to parallel there.

Your father is of Italian heritage while your mother has Irish ancestry. You yourself grew up in Melbourne suburb Pascoe Vale and spent formative years in Melbourne and Australia. Where does that leave you in terms of cultural identification and national sympathies?

It’s a really good question and it resembles one I was asked at the CO.AS.IT event: “Do you feel proud to be Italian?” You know I’m not even sure I identify as Italian and I’m also not really sure I identify as Australian, because I think the ideas of what it means to Australian or Italian are generally pretty rigid. I’m more interested in forming an identity that is more aligned with what I think isn’t necessarily formed along national lines. My show is really more about [not identifying as Italian or Australian or queer or straight or whatever you want to identify yourself as]. It doesn’t really matter; you can choose what you want to be and you can change and bring nuances. All this can be very messy and the show ends in a very messy way to make that point very clear.

Has your on-stage portrayal of your “nonna” paved a way for you in terms of an increased feeling of self-discovery?

“Yes definitely, there are a lot of qualities in my personal life” [that I owe to my nonna]. He explains how he translates the confidence he has gained through his “nonna” and his sassiness on stage into his everyday life: “It has prompted me to develop a practice of asking more questions and listening to a lot of stories by my “nonna”. A lot of stories I’ve gathered are not the ones that have been really forthcoming, they have been given unprompted. Her stories and arguments require a bit of reading between the lines and deeper listening and I think that skill is very important as it allows you to hear what people are saying when they may not be saying it explicitly.”

What are some of the main values passed on to you from your Italian grandmother and do Australian grandmothers have anything to learn from their Italian counterparts?

When I first sat down to write this show I thought of featuring both my Italian grandmother and my Anglo English/ Irish grandmother on my mother’s side because the original intention was that this was a piece about elders. But then I realised that they are very different stories and in a one-hour show it’s a really hard thing to do. As for whether they have something to learn, what I found interesting about both my grandparents is that they really hold the family together. The lesson in the show is also generosity in relation to food.

What are the advantages of being part of a collectivist culture like the Italian compared to more individualist Australia?

I think it’s a really interesting one. I think what is ingrained in the Australian identity is that it’s quite private and you’re a little island on the sea of suburbia whereas in Italy there is more of a sense of community [and he mentions the economic capitalist model upon which Australian society rests and that this leads to a more individualist lifestyle]. I think there’s a real focus on the family in Italy, which is also referred to in the show.

How much does the current version of the play differ from last year’s (shown at the La Mama Midsumma festival)?

In essence it’s the same show and similar stories but at La Mama it was really fresh and it was pulled together in a month. It had a lot of energy and heart but not a lot of polish and this time around we spend much more time developing the script. It’s a story about identity and belonging in Australia seen through the lens of my “nonna” and my own queerness - but it’s a broader story.

Where does your interest in drag/cabaret and gender performativity (with La Nonna being called a “cabaret-cum Italian restaurant extravaganza”) come from?

“I’ve always been interested in performing and cross-dressing and that over-the-top transformation of oneself. It’s probably not a coincidence that not long after I came out I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do” [performing]. “I went to university and studied Spanish and politics and then I realised I wanted to do multiple things and try to perform but not as my main gig. I think there was a retreat into this performing when I was younger – it was an escape, I performed something that wasn’t me as I was insecure about who I was.” Reflecting on gender identity, he says: “People infer your queerness by the way you act, dress, talk and move your wrists and that subsequently creates this intense reflection and self-policing about your behaviour. The whole idea of subversive gender performance and of gender is that it’s a performed identity. Instead of saying: This is what it looks like to be a man or a woman, Irish or Italian, queer or straight, whatever, we have an opportunity to reclaim and redefine that. And that is what drag and gender performance is”.

Do you feel that you are stepping into a different personality and identity through your cross-dressing and do you feel closer to your “nonna” as a result?

Yes definitely, I am stepping into a character and there’s a greater vulnerability when I’m myself but when I’m my “nonna” [on stage] I feel much more confident and wise and I have much more history and grounding and I think I feel closer to my “nonna” as a result. It’s an homage to her and a reflection on how much I respect her. The show is a representation of this; I embody an aspect of her and I already embody a part of her just by the fact that I’m her grandson [and he says drag was a suitable way to portray or reflect this intergenerational embodiment].

You are openly gay – has it been a struggle for you to embrace and come to terms with your sexual identity? What does being queer mean to you?

I think I’m probably quite lucky I was born into the time and the world I was in terms of being queer because it was a real challenge. No one in my school of 220 boys came out and that is an indication of how accepting things are. And even if the consequences were not as harsh as they used to be (being disowned by one’s family, etc) something prevented everyone in my year level at that time from admitting who they were and recognising they were queer or gay. That internal self-policing and struggle with coming to terms with it myself was the hardest part. I couldn’t be this ideal image that I was supposed to be. That made me wrong and different and the idea of being wrong and different the rest of my life was foundational. [I felt as if] there was something wrong with me in essence.  

I think to a lot of people today it may not be clear what queer means. To me being gay simply means I’m a man and I am attracted to other men and that’s it. It doesn’t really mean much beyond that. People can infer what they want but that’s what it means. Whereas to be queer to me means a lot more because it’s basically that I am not normative, I am not part of the dominant narrative around gender and sexuality. Why I use the term “queer” a lot more is because it allows me to perform my gender. I can be in solidarity with other people who define as queer but have a very different experience from me (they may be trans or bisexual or just straight men who are very feminine). For me the idea of queer is that it’s about anything that is not the standard heteronormative straight masculine-feminine binaries: It’s a space in between. I find it much more an empowering an idea to be sitting in between because it allows things to change. I’m not here to be who I am for the rest of my life whereas gay [seems] to be your choice for life. Who says, we can be whatever we want whenever we wanna be and queer I think allows for that.

You are very much involved in human rights and have worked for the Refugee Council of Australia as Title Campaigns and Digital Coordinator for 3 years. You also have your own Twitter page where you voice your social and political concerns and raise a call for action. And your email footer acknowledges “the Traditional owners and custodians of the land I work and live on” and that “Sovereignty was never ceded”, which reflects your work also in support of Australian minorities and the Aboriginal people. How much does your humanitarian work influence or impact on your artistic endeavours?

All of my work reflects an interest in issues related to solidarity with people in Australia and how people on this land relate to each other, how they connect to the elders. And listening to their stories prompted me to ask questions relating to my own family. My work at the refugee council is also about this: Where are you from? What’s your history and who are your people?

What future society do you envision? If you could have one wish with regards to society what would the ideal society look and feel like?

I believe in a society where people can be different and where differences are celebrated and respected. Humans are different with different beliefs and experiences and that is wonderful. We can have robust processes in place and we can live alongside each other but we can work out ways in which we can all respect each other [despite our inherent differences]. I believe in a less decentralised society that is more about local communities able to make their own decisions, a more empathetic society.

What role does arts play in all this?

Art has the ability to tell complex stories in ways that are more tangible. The interesting thing about La Nonna is that it’s a very accessible story about queerness and belonging in Australia (a stolen land). The play is very accessible and I’m interested in an entry point for people to think about these issues. Art has an important role to play, and it invokes empathy.

Samuel Dariol

Should arts become more politically engaged across the board in Australia and the world at large?

“To be politically engaged is also to tell hard stories about people’s lives without the gloss.” And he adds that arts should be politically engaged and that it mostly is, in the sense that there are stories told that are real; not clean, shiny versions of reality but messy and complicated.

Does political correctness still have a place in Australia and the world today or does PC-ism somehow stifle real action and political engagement?

I don’t like the idea of political correctness. I think it’s just generally used by people who don’t want to change their behaviour. The idea of self-policing is maybe an interesting one in terms of if we should [have to] second guess what we say constantly. As humans we must be able to be ourselves. The response should be to do some critical self-reflection.

I want to address the intersection between arts and accountability. Is the real role of the artist to leave people in a thinking mode and open up to new thoughts and ideas?

Yeah, I definitely think so. The intention of the show is to make sure that when you leave things a bit open and nuanced people are able to come to their own conclusion rather than thinking they have been told to do something.

Does the new generation of artists play a part in a changing mindset among Australians spectators or audiences?  

Yeah, I think artists are constantly adapting and changing the conversation. The media can be very comfortable and very unchallenging, it’s easy to continue to do the same shows on repeat for entertainment purposes. I think there is [more] interesting important arts out there and I’m very excited to be part of it and to see it.

When you step out of your role as an artist, how do you see yourself taking your values to the public also off stage?

I think I’m constantly trying to ground myself and my thinking and actions and art is clear in [seeking to promote] values that are constantly evolving and changing and being informed by different experiences. For me it’s about developing a core set of values that I can live by and relating to other people and being part of social change.

Does performance art such as drag shows have to be interactive and engage the audiences in an almost intimate manner to be effective?

I think something like drag, because it’s an exaggerated version of real life, works well when it is interactive because real life is interactive. La nonna wouldn’t work unless there is interaction, that is what a “nonna” is all about, whereas cabaret, etc., is more about being aloof [in the sense of creating more of a distance between the performer and the audience].

Have you ever considered taking your theatre plays to the screen? Is that feasible and how much of the original play and the organic feel to it may be lost or, alternatively, gain momentum if the play was transferred to the screen?

Never, mostly because it is small scale yet large scale in terms of support groups. But yes, it would be easy to create a sensorial experience – transferred to the screen. The idea of the show is there is performativity in everything. Almodóvar comes to mind and he plays with time, location and perspective (I saw Pain and Glory and that film could have been a play).

La Nonna will be performed at the Rattlesnake Saloon on Lygon Street, Carlton. Does this rather intimate venue give real credit to your show and allow it to take off?

I think the venue is amazing: it’s got charm and wood panel walls and is Italian and yes, the intimacy of that space will make sure that the audience is really close to the action. I’m looking forward to staging the play there.

Please comment on the experience of adopting different personalities or personas as a single performer and having a shifting or fluid personality.

When performing and taking on a character I try to develop a club drag persona. You maintain one core identity and you do different things. I don’t think I have I have only one club drag persona – I have multiple. That’s a big part of me: being able to play out different aspects of my personality.

If you were to take your play to Italy, what do you think the audience reaction would be? Would the reaction be different from native Italians compared to Italo-Australians (i.e. second or third generation Italians, born in Australia)?

Absolutely, I mean I don’t know really because I’ve never performed in Italy and I don’t speak Italian. I’m presenting a version of Italy that is very different: It’s not about language, it’s about an experience. [With regard to La Nonna] I think there’s something very endearing and universal about the story [and he mentions Arnold Zable’s idea of the more specific a story you tell, the more universal it is.

Finally, where will this play lead you? Where do we have the pleasure of seeing you next?

It’s a good question. I don’t know yet. Let’s think about how we can bring things together and what things emerge. Keep your eyes peeled. Thanks.

Mille grazie  ̶  in bocca al lupo per lo spettacolo!

Jytte Holmqvist

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne and a keen interest in contemporary Spanish and Italian culture. She has established a publishing record and presented at conferences nationally and abroad. Her interest in Italian film began in earnest at the University of Auckland when in the paper Italy on Screen she explored films by Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, the Taviani brothers, and Pasolini - to mention but a few. With that grew a love for Italian cinema and the fascinating world that it opens up to the viewer.