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Interview: Cayla Lawrence & Frank Pagliaro of WE ARE FAMILY: VIRTUAL ONE ACT'S at Nutley Little Theatre

Cayla Lawrence and Frank Pagliaro star in Nutley Little Theatre's virtual Readers' Theatre performance of John Kiely's "Obituary."

Interview: Cayla Lawrence & Frank Pagliaro of WE ARE FAMILY: VIRTUAL ONE ACT'S at Nutley Little Theatre Nutley Little Theatre's Virtual Readers' Theatre presents We Are Family: Virtual One Acts on December 17th at 8 PM. One of the double billed pieces being presented is "Obituary," written by John Kiely and directed by Jessalyn Gerbholz. Kiely's short piece follows estranged siblings Richard and Roberta who reunite to write an obituary for their mother. They last saw each other four years ago, when Roberta's name was Robert. The cast includes Cayla Lawrence of Kansas City, MO as Roberta and Frank Pagliaro of Harwich, MA as Richard.

I had the honor of asking Cayla Lawrence and Frank Pagliaro a few questions about their journey in theater and their adventure of navigating this virtual piece.

What was your earliest interest in the performing arts?

Lawrence: I started performing as a violinist, that then became a folk fiddler who competed in contests in Arkansas. As I got older I wanted to express myself on a deeper level, and started to dream of being a comedian. Over the past few years I've begun to frequent local open mics and absolutely love it. Very recently, I became pretty as a woman and stumbled into fashion modeling, which I had previously never dreamed possible. After a year of comedy and modeling, I started believing I could actually do acting. This is my first role, and working with Frank and Jessalyn has been a dream.

Pagliaro: My mom signed me up for a Creative Movement class at the Cape Cod Theatre Company, Home of the Harwich Junior Theatre, when I was three years old. Of course I didn't know it at the time - but I'd found my first love!

Is there anyone in particular who inspired your career?

Lawrence: The Serbian model/actor Andreja Pejic was who I wanted to be as a teenager. She's also transgender, and she made me believe I could be a beautiful woman like she is. It was difficult to find role models for trans women back then when the internet was just finding its feet as a social platform. I googled her name on an incognito browser (because my parents would've been angry to find out I was following a transgender woman) almost every day to see if she'd done anything else in her career. I never thought I could actually be like her, and it's a dream to be on any sort of stage as my true self :)

Pagliaro: I was blessed to have a number of amazingly inspirational teachers at the Harwich Junior Theatre, such as Andrea Healy, who taught the aforementioned Creative Movement class. I also credit Nina Schuessler, Tamara Harper, and Lisa Canto, who have all taught and performed at the Theatre for decades. I was also inspired by Jay Bragan, my high school drama teacher, and Joe Goscinski, Sophia Treanor, and Thiago Felix, all of whom taught me at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

What have been some challenges in your acting career?

Lawrence: Getting started. I was never really comfortable in front of a camera until recently, as I wasn't ok with my gender as a man. Being allowed to transition and having access to the resources to ease the process finally made the idea of acting possible. Trying to get into acting at age 27 with absolutely no acting training prior is a daunting task, and I really got lucky with landing this role. The writer and director insisted on this role being played by a trans woman, which gave me a chance as we can be kind of rare.

Pagliaro: Before COVID-19, I would've said that the hardest part of my acting career was completing the Two-Year Conservatory program at Stella Adler while holding down a full-time job. That was tough! However, the havoc wreaked by the pandemic has been most challenging of late. As fun as Zoom performances are, they'll just never subsitute for in-person theatre. Actors thrive on the energy we receive from an audience - not just the applause of curtain call, but the laughter of comedy, the sniffles and sobs of tragedy, the subtle but intense sensation of viewers understanding and identifying with the story playing out before them. It's addicting, and I'm in withdrawal.

Tell us a little bit about your role in The Obituary.

Lawrence: I play a young woman named Roberta (previously known as Robert). She hasn't seen her brother in a few years, during which she began her transition. We begin talking again right before our mother's funeral, and the ensuing conversation between Roberta and her brother Richard is the premise for the play. The setting and script are very accurate to my and other trans girl's lives. Often the only time estranged family members will talk to you after transitioning is a funeral of a mutual loved one. In my experience, I've been totally disowned by my family and have yet to see any of them (save a short conversation with my sister) since I begun hormone replacement therapy. They've avoided cousin's weddings, left the house when I came by to get some of my childhood things- but I imagine they'll have to talk to me at the next funeral. I imagine the conversation will go relatively similarly to what Frank and I have in the play- and I hope my real life ending is somewhat happy as well.

Pagliaro: I play Richard, a transphobe whose sister - once identified as his brother - is attempting to reenter Richard's life, if only for the funeral of their mother, Bernadette. While I disagree with Richard's politics (he's a Trump supporter), I deeply identify with his conflict over family loyalty. Being so desperate to see himself as a good person, he offered up everything he had - financially, mentally, spiritually - to Bernadette in her twilight years, and while he's satisfied about his sacrifice on a certain level, he's also deeply scarred by the experience of giving up his own health, happiness, and emotional wellbeing for his parent.

We'd love to know about your co-star and the creative team.

Lawrence: Frank was an absolute pleasure to work with and made me feel comfortable in my first ever role. He's a lot more experienced than me, and I really appreciate his patience and kindness as I learned. This entire thing was rehearsed on zoom, so I've never met Frank in person, but would love to one day soon when this whole apocalypse ends.
Jessalyn and I grew up in the same community in Arkansas and were similarly ostracized, so we have a lot in common. I had never worked with her before, but was always very proud that someone from my community was able to do what she does. It was a pleasure to see her in action, and she made me feel completely comfortable and capable of bringing the emotion to the script it deserved.

Pagliaro: As I mentioned, COVID-19 has transformed the theatrical landscape across the United States. One of the unfortunate realities is that it's just not as easy to get to know your castmates when you're rehearsing via Zoom. Normally, castmates might chat during a break between runs, go out for a drink after rehearsal, or even host each other for a meal in our apartments. Though Cayla and I weren't able to do any of this, I've deeply enjoyed working with her and I appreciate how much honesty and care she brought to the performance. Jessalyn (Director) is a classmate of mine at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. She's an incredible actress, beautiful singer, and also makes hilarious Tik Toks! I'm so excited to watch the unfolding of her directing career. Her intelligence is only matched by her compassion for marginalized voices and stories; I cannot wait to see her continued exploration of her craft.

Why do you think it's important for this play to be performed in 2020?

Lawrence: There are a few themes in this play that are very relevant to 2020. One being transgender awareness is increasing, and exposure for trans experiences helps all of us to understand something so interesting and so recently tabooed. It sounds trite, but seeing transgender women on the screen gave me hope that I wouldn't be cursed to live as a man forever. A theme even more unique to 2020 is the concept of a zoom call planning of an obituary for a suddenly deceased loved one. COVID has rocked all of us to our core, and many of us have lost people close to us. I imagine many of these sad calls have been made this year, and hope that those who've had to make them identify with the performance.

Pagliaro: According to the website of Human Rights Campaign, 41 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been fatally shot or otherwise killed by violent means in 2020 (most of them Black and/or Latinx transgender women). This is the highest number since HRC began collecting data in 2013. The Obituary is so important seven years later because - unbelievably, tragically, outrageously - most of us cis people require a reminder that trans folks are loving partners, parents, siblings, friends, and community members. They grieve and celebrate just like gender conforming folks, and they experience the same kinds of losses and disappointments that we do. It is so, so sad that we need these reminders, but until the violence subsides and a trans person has the same rights and respect as a I do, plays like these remain vitally important to our society.

What important conversations do you think the piece will inspire?

Lawrence: My wish is for viewers with estranged family members to think about their own situations and realize that life is short and most squabbles are trivial in the big picture. I understand some relationships can never be repaired, unfortunately, but many can. Especially during such a rough year, I think the best way to get through everything is together. Empathy and forgiveness heals the world.

Pagliaro: I hope that The Obituary might inspire a viewer with a trans friend or family member to reach out to that person, just to say "I love you." I think it'd be amazing if the play catalyzed some kind of dramatic reconciliation between siblings, or between parents and their child - but short of that, I'd take the simple affirmation of care and respect.

We Are Family: Virtual One Acts at NLT's Readers' Theatre -12/17/2020- 8 PM.

Presented for free on NLT's Facebook page and YouTube Channel, this double bill of original one-acts explores family dynamics and evolving identities. The other piece being presented is "Choices" by Constance Wagner.

While performances are free, donations are gratefully accepted through PayPal at, GoFundMe at, and Venmo at @nutleylittletheatre or by mailing a check to NLT.

For more information, please visit or follow them on Facebook: @NutleyLittleTheatre and Instagram: @NutleyLittleTheatreNJ

Artwork by: Stephen Crooks

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