Playwright Vittorio Rossi Revisits a Dark Page of Italian/Canadian History

Drawing on the events of Camp Petawawa, Paradise by the River presents the epic and moving story of Romano, an Italian immigrant unjustly arrested in his Ville Emard home. It was in that same Ville Emard district that Vittorio Rossi, a Montreal native originally from the Italian province of Isernia, spent his childhood. His creative literary language is English but he also speaks a colloquial Italian and expresses himself in the Isernian dialect with his family.

Having graduated in Dramatic Arts (B.F.A.) at Concordia University, Rossi, barely into his twenties, received an award for ‘best theatrical opera’ from the Quebec Drama Festival for two one-act plays: Little Blood Brother and Backstreets. From that moment on, his artistic path would be distinguished by other prestigious acknowledgements.

As an actor, Rossi has interpreted the role of Dino Marrone in the television series Urban Angels, as well as that of Tom Celano in the TV drama Omerta. On the big screen he appeared in Day One, Malarek, Canvass, Le Sphinx, and The Timekeeper. Former “playwright in residence” at Concordia University and the Centaur Theatre, Rossi possesses an extraordinary capacity to understand time and space and to accurately recreate Montreal’s social reality.

Panoram Italia: What does it mean for an artist and Italian-Canadian to be at the center of this commemoration?

Vittorio Rossi: It’s such an important moment for me. ‘Paradise’ has been a huge undertaking and probably the most significant work I’ve ever written. It’s a drama that concerns an entire generation of Italians. My father was the soul that drove this creation into being. What happened at Camp Petawawa represents the darkest moment of our Italian Canadian heritage. Twelve years ago, I was driven to write a story that would make sure that the treatment we received by the Canadian Government during the last World War would not go unnoticed.

Panoram Italia: You have spoken of your father as a source of inspiration…

Vittorio Rossi: In fact much of my inspiration to create comes from my parents. My father, even without much schooling, had this uncanny ability as a storyteller. He suffered a lot through life; fighting in Africa, injured, prisoner in England. The memory and pain of losing my mother is also a driving force. At forty nine years old the thought of her makes me rediscover every day the vulnerability and fragility of the child.

Panoram Italia: What is the significance of the title “Paradise” and “River”?

Vittorio Rossi: Italians that left their country in the past, forced by hard economic conditions, were searching for a “paradise”, a new world to restart their lives. The “river” not only represents Montreal’s location, on the St. Lawrence River, but also where Petawawa internment camp was situated, between the Ottawa and Petawawa Rivers. So we have “paradise” by the “river”: a vision of paradise next to the image of hell.

Panoram Italia: How did the initial idea for this play arise, and why did the Centaur Theatre see it fit to kick off its 2010-2011 season with its revival?

Vittorio Rossi: Fifteen years ago, I was asked to write a movie screenplay about the events at Petawawa. After two years of research, the project never took off so I decided to adapt the text for the stage. Thanks to producer Ciro Cucciniello’s help, I was at least able to present it as a play twelve years ago.

Its revival this year is also due to Ciro, who encouraged me to dust off the old script. He had recently informed me about Bill C-302, a proposed law forwarded by Saint Leonard M.P. Massimo Pacetti, in which it was asked that the Canadian Government apologize to the Italian community for its shameful treatment of our people during the War. The timing seemed ideal for another representation of our story and the Centaur Theatre accepted our proposal with great enthusiasm.

Panoram Italia: What made you decide to act in the new version? Are there any other actors of Italian origin? Who’s directing it?

Vittorio Rossi: Joel Miller is the same director that had worked on the original version. Other Italian Canadian actors include Guido Cocomello, Tara Nicodemo and Tony Calabretta. As for myself I decided to act primarily because it isn’t a new production and also because my acting spark had reignited last Fall when I took part in ‘In Piazza San Domenico’ at the Centaur.

Panoram Italia: Joel Miller directed most of your plays. What are the reasons?

Joel is brilliant. He makes me see things I sometimes can’t on my own. He incites me to go deeper.We’re just on the same wavelength. There is dialogue, collaboration and respect. Not all directors have respect for the author. Joel is a man of great culture. He’s the ex-director of the English section of the National Theatre School. Originally from California, he speaks perfect French and understands the Italian mentality.

Panoram Italia: What is your main concern when telling a story?

Vittorio Rossi: It was Edward Albee that said that the purpose of art is not to pacify but to disturb. I reach my objective when the spectator is taken to a place in which he would have never imagined himself being.

Panoram Italia: Any advice for an emerging author?

Vittorio Rossi: Study and read… Shakespeare, Moliere, the Greeks, the Romans. Never wait for anybody to come and look for you. Create, invent, propose, and produce even when it takes much personal sacrifice. Determined commitment is a must.

“Paradise by the River” was presented from October 5 to October 31 2010 at the Centaur Theatre.

written by Lidia Russo