Pasta, salami, and a guy named Pasquale

March 2022

An icon of the Thunder Bay theatre scene, Jo-Ann Waytowich is back and bolder than ever, bursting from stage to screen with her beloved character, Ivanka. In a remarkable partnership that blends old school with new tech, four of the city’s most talented artists are pooling their skills to turn a successful stage comedy into a series for web or TV.

“This was not my idea,” laughs Waytowich. “Local film maker, Kelly Saxberg of Shebafilms, approached Mario Crudo and I about this idea right after we first premiered the show at Magnus. Initially, I wasn’t interested, but as time went by, the idea began to sound more appealing. So, we charged ahead, the four of us set out to bring our stage play Ivanka: Pasta, Salami and a Guy Named Pasquale to the screen!”

With more credits than you can shake a pierogi at, the team of Waytowich, Crudo, Saxberg and local filmmaker, Dianne Brothers, has spent the last few years working on this ambitious project, and while Ivanka: Pasta, Salami and a Guy Named Pasquale has a long, hilarious name, it has also had a long, hilarious road from concept to execution. But it all started with a simple phone call.

“Early in 2018, Jo-Ann called me and said she wanted to discuss the possibility of the two of us writing a new Ivanka show,” says Crudo, former Artistic Director of Magnus Theatre. “I’ve directed Jo-Ann in numerous projects, and most, if not all, of the Ivanka plays. I was very familiar with her work both as a writer and performer, so I agreed to help co-write the play. However, she also said that she wanted me to take part in it as an actor. I told her that there was no way I would act in it. No way! Well, Jo-Ann can be very persuasive...”

Ivanka always gets her way.

“We would meet at my house and work at the kitchen table,” says Waytowich. “One thing was a constant at our meetings – laughter. We would kill ourselves laughing at the interplay between Ivanka and Pasquale, two over-the-top characters, both with big personalities, both with thick accents, both characters stubborn and bull headed. And EVERYTHING was funnier with the accent. We always knew that if we laughed, the audience would laugh.”

Despite his initial reservations, Crudo was soon hooked, and the play had a trial run at the Slovak Legion in 2018 with only the actors and pages of dialogue.

“It wasn’t a full production of the show,” says Crudo. “We simply read from scripts placed on music stands, but within the first few minutes, it was apparent that the audience loved it! They reacted to the show much as we did when we were writing it. They were loud and boisterous in their reactions, so much so that there were times we had to wait for their laughter and reactions to subside before carrying on. The two shows (on Thursday and Friday) were sold out and due to the tremendous audience reaction, we added a third show on the Sunday. It too sold out.”

Ivanka: Pasta, Salami and a Guy Named Pasquale went on to resounding success as a full-scale stage production under the direction of Thom Currie at Magnus Theatre, and it ran from July 11 – 27, 2019 with many sold out performances. It was then that producer Kelly Saxberg saw the production and immediately, her mind began to spin.

“I had worked with Jo-Ann on a pilot for a series we called Perogy Nation,” she says. “And was just waiting for the right opportunity to work with her again. Mario Crudo, we discovered, is a wonderful actor and a great writing partner for her. The Ivanka/Pasquale play was just hilarious, and when I saw it, I immediately thought how great it would be as a television series.”

Turning a play into a TV production was a very different process for everyone involved. Waytowich and Crudo worked on adapting the project during the last few years when Covid made performing impossible, and Saxberg brought in the expertise of filmmaker, Dianne Brothers (Where the Poppies Grow, Silent Invaders, The Long Walk Home.) Together, the four began the long road of turning the
2-person play into an 8-episode series.

“Dianne and I have been working together on projects for a decade,” says Saxberg. “We’ve been involved with Flash Frame Film and Video Network, which has been around for 20 years. Flash Frame started the Bay Street Film Festival, hosted many workshops, produced more than a dozen films, and gave many opportunities for emerging filmmakers. Jo-Ann was an actress in Dianne’s short film, Silent Invaders, so they have a working relationship.”

“The character of ‘Ivanka’ is legendary in Northwestern Ontario,” says Brothers, “And the chance to bring her to a new medium is exciting. The addition of Pasquale - and their squabbles - to the mix made this project a natural for adaptation.”

“One thing is clear,” says Waytowich, “The four of us (Kelly, Dianne, Mario and I) have a vast body of work and experience in all aspects of theatre and film. Looking at our resumes, (pages and pages of valuable expertise), it is evident that we have a lot to offer and learn from each other.”

They applied to Canada Council of the Arts for a Digital Now grant, which was available for not-for-profit organizations, and with the many, many credentials of all four partners, their application was successful. With funding in place, Ivanka: Pasta, Salami and a Guy Named Pasquale had been greenlit for production!

“We hope to shoot in Thunder Bay this summer,” says Saxberg. “The series will be produced using local actors and local crew and will provide many great opportunities for Thunder Bay filmmakers and the theatre community.”

“One of the challenges will be finding the perfect locations to help bring it all to life,” says Brothers. “We are still working through our options with respect to where to shoot: location, sets, animation, etc. Another challenge is keeping Ivanka’s and Pasquale’s unique view of the world as we move it from stage to digital screen. In that respect, Jo-Ann and Mario have done a great job in adapting their script.”

I asked Waytowich what she thought was one of the differences in bringing a stage production to an episodic format.

“In a stage play, the audience has to imagine scenarios, whereas in a film, actions can be shown,” she says. “In the play, the characters recount a story about Pasquale falling into a hole in the sidewalk, but in the filmed version, we will see Pasquale fall into the hole. We will see Ivanka attempt to help him and, also, plummet headfirst into the hole, on top of Pasquale! We will see them as they writhe around the bottom of the hole, pushing each other out of the way in an attempt to get out. We will watch as all the neighbours come running from their homes to help. And we will witness the chaos that can only be talked about in the stage play. We’ll be able to experience the people in the colourful neighbourhood as they come together to help Ivanka and Pasquale.”

With the successes of many recent Canadian series about colourful, quirky small towns, (aka Corner Gas, Schitt’s Creek, etc), it’s possible that Ivanka, Pasquale and crew will connect with a larger audience.

“I think what makes the characters of Ivanka and Pasquale so relatable is their childlike innocence, along with their ability to surprise the audience at every turn,” says Crudo, “The energy and pace of the show is high. Jo-Ann and I enjoyed performing so much that I believe that our enjoyment of performing, of having a great time, was obvious to the audience, which contributed to their enjoyment even more.”

“Translating theatre to the small screen has not been easy,” says Saxberg. “But we certainly have the talent and resources here to make a fantastic and hilarious comedy series based in our hometown.”

“The audience now becomes world-wide,” says Waytowich. “And people will be able to see our show in their living rooms. There are exciting times ahead!”

Get your pasta and pierogi ready for cross-cultural shenanigans when Ivanka and crew barrel into town this summer!

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

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