Judy Calabrese’s upbringing would make for a riveting memoir. There’s a cheating father and a mother who disowned her, fundamentalist Catholicism and the wherewithal as an 18-year-old to pay for and put herself into therapy.
But beyond her own journals, Calabrese found the notion of making art from her own history foreign and terrifying. She went to college to become an actress.
“I wanted to be a fiction writer, and I was terrified when people said my writing was dramatic,” she said. “People would say ‘Is this based on your life?’ and I’d say ‘Absolutely not—these are characters.’ I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on with me.”
But as her creative impulses pulled her onto the stage, they also, inevitably, pulled her back to her own story. After premiering an autobiographical play in January through the Asheville Fringe Festival, Calabrese has revised and expanded upon that work for a new show. “It Didn’t Happen” has four performances Oct. 18 through 26 at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.
“When I got to the end of the process that was developing a show for the Fringe Festival, I realized by the last performance that we had just begun,” Calabrese said. “I thought ‘There’s so much more I didn’t even know was here.’"
Calabrese grew up in Queens, N.Y., in a household she recalls as grueling, repressive and regressive. She lived at home until she was 24.
“My mother disowning me when I was 16—disowning me, meaning the words ‘ You are not my daughter, do not consider yourself my daughter,’ and my father’s emotional and physical neglect, caused me to sort of have to thrust myself out into the world when I wasn’t raised to be self-sufficient. I was raised to be completely dependent,” she recalled. “I was expected to get married. We didn’t even speak about college in my house.”
Calabrese pursued creative writing and a master’s degree at Temple University. She thought she would write fiction and eventually teach writing at a college.
“I reached the point where I took responsibility for the fact that I wanted to write about myself. That seemed to be against everything I was ever taught, whether by my mother, in writing school, you certainly didn’t write about yourself,” she said. “From that point on, I was ashamed of how much, looking back now, I wanted to write about myself and how my experience was valid.”
At her partner’s urging, Calabrese began recording her stories to video, not long before they, along with Calabrese’s two young children, moved to Asheville in 2011. Calabrese’s ex-husband and children’s father also moved to Asheville, so the children could be near both parents.
At the 2013 Asheville Fringe Festival, Calabrese debuted a piece of her own story, portraying 17 characters herself over 22 scenes.
“What makes me a good storyteller on stage is how I perform all the voices and the roles, and I started to want more,” she said. “We build all these beautiful containers for ourselves as artists and then we want to burst out of that container and make a new container.”
That new container included a small cast for the 2019 Fringe Festival. In “It Didn’t Happen,” Calabrese unfolded her introduction to sex with other women, along with the fluidity of consensual nonmonogamy, in a funny and riveting arc. She says her revised version reveals new layers of self-awareness.
“It goes all the way from dispelling shame around something as simple as sexual desire all the way along the spectrum of coming out, not just to other people, but coming out to myself,” she said. “I do see myself continuing doing this kind of work. And even as I say that, I still hear that old Catholic voice of guilt and shame going ‘How dare you write about yourself?’ So I work with that voice and say ‘I hear you. I’m just gonna go do this now.’”