Writer Rosanna Staffa was a 20-something Italian immigrant staying in a friend's New York City apartment when, early one morning, she heard a knock at the door.
"Who's it?" she remembers asking. "This male voice said, 'The exterminator.' I thought, 'Oh, God.' "
Staffa panicked. She told him to go away. After the man finally left, she grabbed a few belongings and fled the apartment.
It wasn't until months later, while working on a play with a young director named Peter Brosius — the future artistic director of Minnesota's Children's Threatre Company — that Staffa heard the word "exterminator" again. This time, though, she also learned the meaning: an expert in clearing homes of bugs and other pests — not, as she originally feared, "someone meant for my death."
Ever since she moved to the U.S. decades ago, more than a few words were lost in translation for Staffa. But these linguistic mix-ups have an upside: They give her an opportunity to learn new things — they give her fresh eyes and ears again.
"When you come to a new country, you're like a child again," Staffa said by phone last week. "America for me has always been a unicorn — a place of dreamy discovery."
That helps explain why this perceptive, highly educated writer — she has both a doctorate and a master of fine arts degree — revels in creating works for the youngest of minds. Opening Friday, "The Biggest Little House in the Forest" is her second show for the Children's Theatre; she previously adapted "Hansel and Gretel" for the Minneapolis company. Staffa writes for adults, as well. Her play "The Interview," about an Italian journalist kidnapped in Iraq, was a big part of a recent Tokyo festival.
Based on Djemma Bider's 1986 picturebook, "Biggest Little House" was first staged at the Children's Theatre in 2010. Pitched to preschoolers, with plenty of interactive puppets and bubbles, the play centers on a community of animals forced to confront a problem: Their old abode simply can't accommodate their growing population. How will they solve the problem of inadequate housing?
Twin Cities actor Autumn Ness has been with the show since its inception, working with puppets while playing a half-dozen animals. "It's a special piece that speaks to children in language they understand and in different circumstances," Ness said.
The one-woman show has toured not only to theaters, Ness added, but also to nontraditional venues such as hospitals and short-term shelters. "The testament to [Staffa's] genius is that this show means something different to children in different situations," Ness said. "At the hospital, the repetition in the play calms the kids down and helps them prepare for what's coming next. At the crisis nursery, it really resonates that we're talking about home, about building a place where [the characters] can come for shelter."
It was at the crisis nursery, Ness recalled, where one young audience member volunteered the facility to house the show's displaced animals.
Power of the unspoken
The eldest of three children, Staffa grew up in Naples, Italy. Her interest in theater developed early. "I thought it was magical to watch these people move onstage in the light," Staffa remembered.
It was also around this time, age 5 or 6, that she came to understand something about language. "In Italy, we all speak dialect," she said. "Italian was only spoken on TV."
Theater and language came to define her life. She studied both Russian and English in college, earning a doctorate in modern languages and an MFA in fiction. She taught at NYU and UCLA. Her plays have lit up stages in New York and Los Angeles.
The fateful post-college trip to the U. S.? It came courtesy of her language skills.
"I had made some money through a translation," Staffa remembered. She figured she could use the cash to fund either "a third-hand car" or a trip to America, a destination holding mythological heft in her imagination. "Everybody could describe it but nobody had seen this pretty magical and strange place," she remembered thinking.
In the U.S., she worked on translating the plays of Dario Fo, the Italian Nobel laureate. It was through Fo's work that she met and fell in love with Brosius. He was completing his thesis at NYU, where Staffa later taught. She moved to Minnesota with Brosius when he took over as head of the Children's Theatre more than 20 years ago. The couple have two children, both adults now.
Staffa is at home in the theater, but she thinks of herself as a writer with many tools, something akin to a multi-instrumentalist. "Sometimes a musician chooses a different instrument, depending on the song," she said.
She recently completed a novel called "The War Ends at Four," the title referring to a childhood game she played in postwar Italy. The book is an attempt to address what she considers her homeland's untreated PTSD, due to its complicated history with fascism. "People didn't talk about what happened but I would sense these things," Staffa said. "I discovered much later in life that one of my uncles had been in mass housing, a concentration camp."
Staffa relates the unspoken — in her family, in her homeland — to her craft as a playwright and translator.
"There's always something that is unsaid in one language when you translate." And in the theater, she added, "sometimes you say more with what is unsaid."
Which takes us back to "Biggest Little House." The play introduces each character with a tap at the door, echoing the playwright's experience in that New York apartment many decades ago. As Ness sees it, the knocking positions kids to make tough decisions.
"When the bear knocks, should we let him in?" Ness said. "It's a creature that's bigger than the children, and scary.
"On the other hand, maybe the bear and all the other animals could become friends."