Centaur Theatre's new playwright in residence is on the trail of her doppelgänger

Montreal playwright Michaela Di Cesare is writing a play about a 19th-century Italian rebel and brigand who may well be her ancestor.

Michaela Di Cesare is writing a play about a 19th-century Italian rebel who may well be her ancestor

Montreal playwright Michaela Di Cesare is the playwright in residence at the Centaur Theatre for the 2019-20 season. (Centaur Theatre)

The first time Montreal playwright Michaela Di Cesare encountered Michelina Di Cesare, it was a case of mistaken identity.

The women share almost the same name and look strikingly alike — only they were born more than a century apart.

It all started when Michaela Di Cesare's mother-in-law googled Michaela's name, trying to buy tickets to a show in which her daughter-in-law was performing.

What came up was a reference to Michelina Di Cesare.

Michelina was a brigand and a rebel, fighting against the unification of Italy. She was captured and killed by soldiers in 1868.

Staring at the photo on a computer screen, Michaela Di Cesare was struck by the physical resemblance.

"She looked exactly like me," she told CBC Montreal's Let's Go. "I had never heard of her before."

Beyond the similarities in name and appearance, Michelina hailed from Caspoli, in the province of Caserta — the same small town in southern Italy where Michaela's father was born.

Unlikely a coincidence

After two years of research, Michaela Di Cesare has concluded that can't be mere coincidence.

"​It seems like there's likely a connection between us — a family connection," she said.

It's difficult to know for sure, since so many records were destroyed in the Second World War. But the journey back in time into her own family history inspired her to write a new play.

The working title of her play is Terroni: A "Spaghetti" Western, and it focuses on Michelina and her fellow rebels' fight for their territory.

Di Cesare said she's drawing on old Westerns and cowboy motifs in order to create a "really epic saga."

She said the history of Italian unification was largely unknown to her growing up as an Italian-Canadian in Montreal, and she's learned a great deal through her research.

Spending time thinking about her "twin" Michelina, Di Cesare said she was moved by the rebel's willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause she believed in.

"She's teaching me a lot about myself. I consider myself an activist. I consider myself a feminist. And then I look at this woman, and she was willing to die for something. It makes you question your own ideals."

Finding a place to write

Di Cesare, whose most recent play Successions premiered at the Centaur Theatre last season, spent the better part of last year working on Terroni: A "Spaghetti" Western.

With a first draft in hand, she approached Centaur Theatre's artistic director, Eda Holmes, to pitch her idea.

Since the 1970s, Centaur Theatre has been supporting English-language Montreal playwrights such as Vittorio Rossi and David Fennario, through its residency program.

This year, Di Cesare will follow in their footsteps as the playwright in residence for the 2019-20 season.

She said the residency "provides structure and stability" — as well as a firm deadline to work toward. 

"The biggest thing is that it means I need to get dressed to write," she joked. "I spent a lot of last year in a bathrobe."

"Honestly, just getting up and having a desk and having a place to go is a huge motivator for writers."

Di Cesare hopes to have a production-ready version of her script by the end of the spring.

Looking forward to the stage

Di Cesare said writing can be a "lonesome process," and she's looking forward to sharing her work — first, with other artists at the Centaur, and eventually, with the public.

This comes with its own challenges, however.

Used to performing in her own plays, she said the staging of Successions was the first time she sat in the audience and watched with everyone else. It left her feeling "vulnerable," she said.

"Sitting in the audience and people not knowing that you're the writer behind it is so much scarier than being onstage," she said. "They can say anything. They can say they hate it, and you're sitting right there."

When it comes to Terroni: A "Spaghetti" Western, Di Cesare said she hasn't closed the door on performing in the role of Michelina herself.

"It would be really tough in an audition process because we're already identical twins," she said. 

"Somebody would really have to convince me that someone else should play the part."

About the Author

Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.

With files from CBC's Let's Go


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