By Richard Schultz, April 2016 Issue.
Donnie Cianciotto (pictured), a transgender man with an extensive performance career in Arizona, has been cast in a new musical in New York City.
Presented by The Public Theater, Southern Comfort is a true story of a group of transgender friends living life on their own terms in the back hills of rural Georgia. Based on Kate Davis’ 2001 Sundance Award-winning documentary, Southern Comfort is the winner of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award. This folk and bluegrass-inspired musical is a celebration of redefining family and choosing love over every obstacle.
Cianciotto, who has been performing in community theater since the age of 3, attended Sabino High School in Tucson. He then enrolled in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy’s accelerated conservatory program in New York City.
“When I was nine years old, my father told me I should watch a show called ‘Into the Woods’ on PBS,” he said. “At first, I almost didn’t because ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ was on at the same time. Yet, as soon as I turned on ‘Into the Woods,’ I couldn’t turn it off. It was like something clicked in me while watching. I remember thinking, ‘That. I want to do that.’ “
In Tucson, Cianciotto worked with Desert Players, Wilde Playhouse, Millennium Theater, Bloody Unicorn Productions and the Old Tucson Studios. He created Tucson’s longest running comedy improv troupe, Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.
In Phoenix, he was a cast member of two improv troupes, The Originals and Light Rail Pirates, and is the artistic director of Insurrection Theater Company. In 2011, he created Musical Mayhem Cabaret, Arizona’s under rehearsed and over dramatic musical comedy troupe which later moved to Tucson where it is still in performance. He also performed as a drag king under the name Anson Reign and won several state and regional titles.
Echo recently caught up with Cianciotto to discuss his upcoming role in Southern Comfort.
Echo: How were you cast in Southern Comfort?
Cianciotto: A friend posted the information from The Public Theater regarding an open call for transgender actors on my Facebook page. They were accepting video submissions. I contacted them and was sent three sides to learn: a monologue, a scene and a song from the show. I sent the video and was asked the next day if I could fly to NYC for a callback the following week. In New York, I performed the same pieces from the show and “Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt. As I flew back to Tucson, I received a call offering me the part. It was shockingly quick, but I didn’t have to wait in angst to find out if I got it.
Echo: What is your role and how did you prepare for it?
Cianciotto: I play Sam, a transgender man who is married to, and very much in love with, his cisgender female wife, Melanie. He is quiet and introverted, but very gentle and loving. Sometimes there is an aura of sadness around him, but he is quick to laugh when he is around the people he cares about. He has had top surgery that was somewhat botched, and now lives with pretty bad scars on his chest that trouble him a great deal. He does not have the support of his parents or family regarding his transition. I watched the documentary several times to prepare for the role, which is based on Cas. Some names were changed for the musical. Although I’m not impersonating him or specifically trying to “play” him, I do emulate him in many ways.
Echo: What is the greatest challenge in the role?
Cianciotto: This may sound odd, but my greatest challenge is allowing Sam to be transgender. I’ve been performing for over 30 years, but this is the first full show since my transition and starting hormones three and a half years ago. I am still learning to be comfortable in my own skin. I went into the rehearsal process determined to make Sam very manly – to “pass” as a cisgender man, which I try to do every day. When I speak to people, I lower the pitch of my voice, be less flamboyant with my hands and basically “butch it up.” It took at least half of the rehearsal process to sink into my head that this character didn’t need those things. I was distracting myself from the reality of him due to my own concerns and issues arising from being a transgender man. To play Sam authentically, I embraced his transgender status and identity, and stopped worrying about “passing.” As soon as I did that, I finally got to know Sam by honoring him as he is.
Echo: What is your favorite scene or song in the show?
Cianciotto: A scene in Act Two where my wife, played by the force of nature Robin Skye, gives my character a necktie with Christmas trees. It’s her way of inviting me to her company Christmas party; something she hadn’t previously done out of fear of how we would be received by her nosey and ignorant co-workers. It’s a very touching moment that goes into a fantastic upbeat song called “I’m With You.” It’s an enormous crowd pleaser. It’s the most fun moment for me because it’s so fun and very human.
Echo: How’s life New York City?
Cianciotto: It’s fantastic! Being back in my favorite city and with my favorite person, Rebecca, my fiancée, and doing the thing I’ve always dreamed of is just amazing!
Filmmaker Ania Augustowska is releasing a documentary titled “Donnie” on Vimeo (vimeo.com/156875654), which will screen in NYC in June. For more information on Donnie, visit donniecianciotto.weebly.com or facebook.com/donniecianciottoactor.
Through March 27
The Public Theatre
Astor Place at 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Tickets: $60 and up; 212-967-7555