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Restoring Beauty: Playwright Claudia Shear Talks Restoration

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Restoring Beauty: Playwright Claudia Shear Talks Restoration

Claudia Shear burst onto the New York stage in 1994 with her autobiographical solo show Blown Sideways Through Life. The Brooklyn-born writer and actress regaled audiences with a hilarious and poignant account of her previous 64 attempts of making it in the workplace (waitress, receptionist in a bordello, proofreader, model, pastry chef), some sleazier than others. But it was clear she had finally found a job that was going to stick—working in the theater. Blown Sideways enjoyed an extended run Off Broadway and was turned into a movie. Shear followed up with Dirty Blonde, a play about and inspired by Mae West, which ran for a year on Broadway and then toured for another. Her new play, Restoration, is about a difficult but talented woman named Giuilia who gets the job of restoring Michelangelo’s David in Florence. “Everything about the David is true; everything else is fiction,” Shear explains in a program note. In her play, it’s not only the five century-old marble masterpiece that gets restored, but also the woman who painstakingly removes the layers of accumulated grime. Restoration was originally commissioned in 2007 by Christopher Ashley (who also directed Blown Sideways) for the La Jolla Playhouse. Two years later, the play premiered there, in San Diego, under Ashley’s direction. The production is now playing in the East Village at the New York Theater Workshop (through June 13). Shear sat down with us recently to talk about her new play.

Was it the restoration or Michelangelo’s statue that got you started on this play?

I was always interested in art restoration. I don’t know why. My mother was obsessed with paintings and beautiful things. And when I lived in Italy, I had two very good friends, Marina and Theresa, who restored paper—these two young Italian girls, with the cigarettes and the sunglasses, standing outside their little studio in some corner of Rome. They would be restoring this paper with what looked like an ivory tongue depressor. That really fascinated me. Then, in 2004, I read this story in the newspaper about the woman who had restored the David and how she was overcome when they unveiled him—and that made an impression on me.

Did you get to meet with the woman who restored the David?

Yes, I did. Cinzia Parnigoni. She’s a lovely woman and became a good friend. I had managed to blag my way into Accademia Gallery in Florence [where the David is installed] and I met the woman who runs it, this lovely but very intimidating woman. She said, “Well, have you spoken to Parnigoni?” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no. You know, I’m making all this stuff up and I’m going to play the restorer. What if she doesn’t like that?” And she said, very coolly, “I’m sure she can understand the concept of fiction,” and she gave me the phone number. So I went and sat in a courtyard of the Accademia and called her—and I’m doing this on pennies, literally. I said, “Can I come to Milan tomorrow and meet you?” And she said, “Of course.” I didn’t eat dinner that night so I could buy a train ticket. I went to Milan and we just had an amazing time.

How did she feel about you basing a character on her?

She is so—as with all people I find touched with a bit of greatness—humble, curious, enthusiastic. I have found that whether it’s Stephen Sondheim or Cinzia Parnigoni, the people that don’t have to prove anything, the people who have done the great thing—they are the kindest, most supportive people. She gave me a dinner party, I hung out in Milan, and stayed at her house…I mean, she was just great.

Has she seen the production?

She came to the opening and she loved it. She doesn’t speak any English, so I wrote her a synopsis. She was thrilled that anybody even knew her name, thrilled that anybody thought this was a cool thing. This woman, she’s just lovely.

Did you originally plan on writing a documentary about the actual restoration of the David?

No, but I spent the first six months researching it as though I were, because I am obsessed with facts and research. I knew I didn’t want to write a love story, because I had done that in Dirty Blonde. But I really did think about these things as I would sit all day in the Accademia and watch people look at him, in their squashy trousers with their water bottles and their cameras around their necks. And I actually did meet a security guard who asked me out to dinner. I said, “No, I’m married,” and he said, “So am I.” There was the cleaning lady who couldn’t have been less impressed by me when I tried to interview her. She looked right through me and walked away.

And I had been young in Florence. I went to school to the University for Foreigners in Perugia and studied Italian and art history and then I lived in Florence. I developed a life in Italy. I made these friends, Theresa, Marina, Beatrice—all the names in the play are named after my friends in Italy. If there was ever a moment when I was young and beautiful, it was when I was in Florence. And I’m neither now. That sounds depressingly self-deprecating, but I am neither now. I was 22 and young and as beautiful as I ever was. So to be back in Florence and walk those streets…the very bittersweet thing was that I was walking those streets as a playwright, which, when I was first there, I certainly was not. And you are never going to be that age again—what that felt like. All that very much fed into what the play became. And the passionate affairs I had there. I had a boyfriend there at one point. I spent a lot of the glory days, of a very misspent youth, in Italy.

Not quite so misspent, evidently…

Everybody asks me about the bad jobs, but nobody realizes that because I was so incredibly dysfunctional and unsuccessful I could do what I liked. There was a point after Blown Sideways where I wasn’t as dysfunctional and I was no longer unsuccessful, I spent some good solid time going to Paris to give cocktail parties with my friend Alice. Yes, it has been quite picaresque and some of it has been quite glittery and cocktail dressy. Obviously, things like answering phones in a whorehouse and cleaning toilets are far grittier. It was difficult and sometimes despairing, but I always very strongly believed in having a lot of fun. That’s not a very scented-candle way of expressing myself, but it’s true.

How much of Claudia did you put into the character of Giulia?

Less of me than people think. It was me in Blown Sideways—every single word. But Dirty Blonde was not me. I did not have affairs with married men, for example, which is Giulia’s only contact with the opposite sex. She is very defended and closed off, very cold in her way. She is not very physical, she doesn’t like to be touched, which is really not me. And, of course, no one would ever let me restore anything. Everybody else’s dressing room table is tidy and mine looks like somebody burgled it. They would need someone to restore things after I touched them.

There are a few things that are me in this play—for instance, people breathing on statues and flashing cameras at frescos. I’ve had a few public meltdowns about that. I went with a group of 12 people to the Vassari corridor, which is this private corridor that the Medici’s built in Florence. Here you are part of this privileged group—these were all Italian people—who have paid a lot of money to see these paintings and every time the guide turned around, one man would whip out his camera and take a picture. I finally went up to him and I said, “If you pick up that camera one more time I will kick it to the ground, trust me.” He put his camera away. The selfishness of that is just outstanding to me—the notion of “well, I’m seeing the picture, if it disintegrates after I see it, who cares?” That I found…well I get a little cranky sometimes. There’s also one thing in the play that I would say is my moment as an art historian, which is when Giulia talks about the painting of the Odalisque and she says, “When does the maid get to look at the mirror?” That gives me a great moment of pride, if I am allowed that, because I think you just don’t look at the painting the same way afterwards.

What do you feel the restoration of the statue does for Guilia?

There is, of course, the artificial relationship that she starts to have with the David, where she falls in love with this object. But the real restoration—and I’ve found this true in real life—happens with other people. It’s the people you work with in an office, the guy you talk to at the deli every day. It’s human contact that’s the grit that makes the pearl. I’ve had profound friendships, profound relationships, as deep, as personal, life-changing and personality-altering as any love affair, as with any family member. When I was a proofreader, we were locked in this window-less closet for sometimes 18 hours at a time with people that you saw six nights a week. Yes, these were real relationships. We are human and we connect with whoever we are with, and it is not always just your husband, your wife, your mum, and your dad. Or at least that’s what I think.

Any final thoughts on Michelangelo’s David?

I have watched people walk into that room for days at a time, and I have that monologue in the play about how they see all that shit for sale on the streets—the boxer shorts with the penis on it, etcetera. I have seen more things with David on them in Florence because I actually go around and look for this stuff. But you can’t oversell it. I never saw anybody walk in and shrug. I never saw anybody look up and go, “Really, that’s it?” Cinzia Parnigoni—and she is a very pragmatic, exact, meticulous person—said to me, “At first I loved my David, but when I touched it, I felt the man who made it.” She said, “He put something of himself inside that statue and I felt that.” That is probably the most amazing thing I have had anybody actually say to me.

Gerard Raymond writes about theater, film, travel and culture and lives in New York City.