Nelson Mandela’s legacy: Theater that can inspire social change

Playwright/director/McCarter Theatre Artistic Director Emily Mann in the L.A. Times, 12/5/13
Many people know that Nelson Mandela’s life inspired novels, poems, plays and films, but few people know how powerful his effect on the theater was and how powerful the theater’s effect was on him. The theater served as a mirror to Mandela, each side influencing and reflecting the other, placing them both in time. At the height of the apartheid era, the Market Theater in Johannesburg and the Space Theatre in Cape Town, both defiantly nonracial venues in a racially divided country, produced shattering plays about black life under the apartheid regime. These plays premiered in South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s and then flooded onto the world stages. The plays triggered global outrage at the South African government and support for the struggle for freedom Mandela represented. Read more…

What Bill Gates is Blind to

Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal, 11/21/13
Bill Gates, in a recent interview, [quoted] an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer. Gates questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. Gates would do well to find a better guru than Singer, whose greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number approach has led him to advocate, among other horrific things, what he politely calls “permissible infanticide.” More to the point, though, it seems clear to me that Gates thinks it immoral for rich people to give money to museums instead of medical projects. It almost embarrasses me to restate for Gates’s benefit what most civilized human beings already take to be self-evident, which is that art museums, like symphony orchestras and drama companies and dance troupes, make the world more beautiful, thereby making it a better place in which to live.

The big news in the art world last week was the record-busting auction at Christie’s in which $142.4 million—a world-wide auction record for any work of art—was spent on “Three Studies of Lucian Freud, ” a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon. You don’t have to be a Marxist or an advocate of sumptuary laws to be made queasy by such numbers, much less to wonder whether something has gone wrong with the values of the world of art.

That said, it’s one thing to bristle at big-bucks art auctions and another altogether to go along with Bill Gates, who said in a recent interview with the Financial Times that … well, I’ll cite the story verbatim, since his remarks won’t win any prizes for clarity:

“Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ he says. ‘Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.'”

Read more…

Staying Clean: Starting the Conversation with GRACE, the movie

GRACE: elegance; kindness; blessing; adorn; dignify.
Women in the Arts & Entertainment GEM Magazine 2013 Fall Issue.

Marisa Vitali and Chris Odal on set

Marisa Vitali and Chris Odal

Alysia Reiner on set at Tim's Shipwreck Diner

Alysia Reiner on set at Tim’s Shipwreck Diner

Photographs by Scott Kowalchyk.

After celebrating ten years of being clean from heroin addiction, Marisa Vitali, actor/screenwriter/producer created GRACE, a movie that centers on one woman’s first year of recovery, Janice, who finds herself back at home, poor, waitressing at the local diner and in a custody battle for her daughter. Faced with the truth of the wreckage of her past, she must cope with a series of events that transpire without going back to using drugs.

Drug use and addiction continue to plague our civilization, particularly the lives of our youth. The scope of Marisa’s vision is to use the film as a teaching tool to inspire hope because “art is healing and what’s the best conversation starter other than an amazing piece of art or whatever forms that may be to get people to feel comfortable; to start talking.” With its emphasis on recovery, GRACE “starts the conversation between addicts and addicts; non-addicts and non-addicts.”

The evolution of the making of the movie GRACE began with a talented team: Chris Ordal, an award-winning director and screenwriter who crafted the screenplay into a visual form to translate it seamlessly to screen; cinematographer Lyn Moncrief brought visual cues to get inside Janice’s head; producer Claudine Marotte who brought it all together with a crew, actress Alysia Reiner who assisted in introducing Grace to the world, creative consultant Karen Giordano and a cast of actors who brought their ideas and open hearts to the work including Zach Grenier, an award-winning actor who plays attorney David Lee in the television series The Good Wife, and Alysia Reiner, award-winning stage, screen and television actress currently shooting the role of Fig on Orange is the New Black. The initial workshops of the script took place at the Indies Lab in NYC founded by actor George Katt.

To get an inside peek at that collaborative process Marisa and Alysia sat down with me to share some of their behind-the-scenes stories:

How did your paths cross and why did each of you commit to working with each other?

M: So grateful to have been introduced to Alysia, who has been in my life the past few years…She is a woman of talent, strength, inspiration and fabulousness! I spent about a year honing my script and workshopping it here in NYC at The Indies Lab. I felt I was at a place where I had done all the rewrites I could possibly do. I asked Alysia if she would have a read and let me know any thoughts or additional notes she might have. I have always valued Alysia’s professional opinion and her shared experience immensely. Her generosity of spirit responded with an emphatic, “YES!” and off my script went to Alysia’s inbox, while I patiently waited for her response. If I’m not mistaken her response, was something to the extent of: “Luv it! Count me in! When are we shooting it?” At that moment, my heart skipped a beat. OMG! WOW! I guess I’m making a movie and Alysia Reiner has just been cast. I was TRULY beside myself that she believed in the heart of this story and that she wanted to be a part of this journey with me. So GRATEFUL! She instilled the courage in me to move forward and make this film. Thank You Alysia! And then the meetings began…

A: I was so happy to collaborate with Marisa on this project because my film SPEED GRIEVING was made for similar reasons – to help people heal and not feel so alone. It is now used as a grief counseling tool at hospices, hospitals and all the clubhouses world wide.

Why here? Why now?

M: The film was shot at Tim’s Shipwreck Diner in Northport, Long Island where I worked my first year clean. At the time having just celebrated 10 years clean, Alysia gave me that little nudge to jump off the cliff. Ten years was symbolic for me… I felt that it was a coming of full circle to do it at that time.

A: I am so fricking proud of Marisa, her recovery and courage and so thrilled to have helped this dream come true! I know, it, in turn will help so many others.

What were some of the obstacles you had to face during the course of this project?

M: As my friend and mentor, actress Karen Giordano always says: “There’s no such thing as an obstacle, only potential inspiration.” Filmmaking is a process and a journey. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen, which is not necessarily the way you had expected it to. I had a director for the film, a female, come on board who I was super excited to work with and then due to personal conflicts she was unable to move forward with the film. Who was I going to hire now to direct my film? That was a decision I had to sit with…at the time I was set on a female director. My ultimate decision shifted and came down to: Who is the PERSON to tell this story? That’s when Alysia introduced me to Director Chris Ordal, who then came on board to direct GRACE. The rest is history…

A: I will say as an actress I had a blast. Brigitte is a classic foil; [she’s] such a fun, fun character to play – the classic narcissistic bitch, but as an actress you always want to make it unique and relatable and human.

Share some moments during the shoot that made the message particularly personal and/or moving for you as an artist?
M: I shared a scene with my father…As Director Chris Ordal prompted him with thoughts and moments about me, his daughter, I was able to see his humanity come through and experience his love, without any attachments or stories…just a pure love…it was a shared moment that is difficult to put into words…but it was shared. To me, that moment was the most moving as an artist, as Marisa Vitali, as a human spirit.

A: I love supporting other women, cheerleading them and their dreams. I feel like I was always looking for a mentor and never really had one until recently and I therefore want to go out of my way to support other women in any way I can.

Any amusing incidents to highlight during the course of this project?

M: We were actually slated to shoot June 2012 and 2 days before shooting I was faced with a decision. Postpone shooting in order to shoot the film I envisioned or go ahead and shoot anyway? Despite the decision being an emotional one, I knew it was the right decision and that production would happen when it was meant to happen as opposed to when “I” wanted it to. It’s AMAZING what can transpire when your ego is taken out of the equation. Alysia introduced me to Producer Claudine Marotte, who then came on board and everything fell right into place.

Who is the audience you are targeting?

M: People who love movies…I had the opportunity to work with so many talented professionals on this film that there’s really something for everyone. And what better way to conclude the film but with a conversation about recovery?

How does the film meet that goal without becoming didactic or a documentary?

M: It’s a movie, it’s entertaining with an AMAZINGLY TALENTED cast …the audience is able to feel and experience what the main character Janice is thinking and feeling. In this way, when she’s faced with her decision of what to do, so is the audience. They are posed with the question of what would they do…and so the conversation begins.

What are some of the outcomes and goals of this movie?

M: The short film GRACE, of course, will do the festival circuit. And then, I want to pair the film GRACE with a recovery organization to raise awareness and start the conversation of recovery, between addicts and non-addicts. I want to be able to bridge this conversation gap. Similar to what Alysia did with her film SPEED GRIEVING.

A: I am so thrilled I was able to help in any way to make it happen, show her the way, the steps to production – having done it with SPEED GRIEVING – and introduce Marisa to Chris and Claudine and I’m so excited to cheer her at the premiere!!!

Once the film is “in the can” what happens next?

M: Director Chris Ordal will be heading up the postproduction, editing, color correction and sound out in LA. GRACE will be ready for our FIRST festival submission: Sundance.

Robert J. Lindsey, President/CEO National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) will be utilizing the movie GRACE as a resource to “start the conversation” and raise awareness about recovery programs.
> NCADD’s Hope, Help and Healing: Personal Stories of Recovery is a public education campaign designed to increase public understanding and support for recovery from alcoholism and drug dependence, for the individual and for the family.
Long-term recovery from alcoholism and addiction is a reality for millions of individuals and family members. In fact, NCADD estimates that almost 20 million individuals and family members are living life in long-term recovery!
But you don’t just check into rehab and get better by the time your stay is over. You don’t just go to a few twelve-step meetings and get sober. Recovery is about learning to live your life in a new way, without alcohol or drugs. It’s about developing a network of sober friends and families, people who you can talk with and relate to. It’s about creating a new life. Most important, recovery is a remarkable gift.

Alysia Reiner is an award-winning stage, screen & television actress. She is currently shooting the role of FIG on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, the new series by Jenji Kohan who created WEEDS, and this month shooting the film REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONand GIRL IN THE BOOK, as well as having recently wrapped ARE WE OFFICIALLY DATING with Zac Effron. Go to, follow her @alysiareiner
Marisa Vitali is an actress/audio book narrator/producer. She is currently in post-production for her film GRACE. Recently wrapped NOVEMBER LIES and her most recent narration THE RISE AND FALL OF ROCKY LOVE can be heard on Go to,, and follow her @marisavofficial

National Arts in Education Week


Over the past year, arts education has been the subject of news stories across the nation featuring both the opportunities and the obstacles to ensuring the arts are an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students. Arts Education Partnerships asked leaders in arts and education to share their thoughts on “What story about the arts in education still needs to be told?” These are their responses: Read more…

Art for Art’s Sake: The Impact of Arts Education Report

New Image[1]The Arts are Extra-Curricular and Disposable
July 23, 2013
by Guest author

Following the publication of Art for Art’s Sake by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development, OECD’s Education Directorate, we asked Frances McGarry, PhD, host, producer, and blogger at First Online With Fran to describe her personal experience as a teacher.
The Arts continue to be cut from school curriculums across the nation. Despite arts advocacy groups’ efforts to prevent the decline of arts inclusion, the arts are perceived as extra-curricular and disposable when budgets are decided. Nothing is farther from the truth: the Arts challenge us to not only dare, but also explore the myriad of possibilities of “What if…”.
As a k-12 (primary and secondary school) English and Theater classroom teacher for over 30 years, Educational Theater scholar, and Director of Instruction for Arts Education organizations, I have witnessed firsthand the efficacy of an arts integrated curriculum.
Among the various experiences I’ve had as a theater education practitioner, perhaps the best illustration of how an arts-integrated curriculum works is the nationally acclaimed Theaterworks & Theaterworks Troupe program. Under the aegis of the Northport-East Northport High School English department, a team of innovative teachers created the Theatreworks program, a collaboration of 4 disciplines whose objective was to teach the intersecting terms: line, color, and texture through play production for grades 9-12 (ages 14-17). As the English staff member I introduced them as dramatic literary analysis terms; Home Economics translated them as costume design applications; Visual Arts scenic/lighting applications, and Music/Dance offered interpretations of vocal technique.
Through a hands-on approach students learned not only the skills associated with play production: casting, directing, rehearsing, designing, fabricating, sewing, producing, but also a practical work ethic: being on time, meeting deadlines, balancing responsibilities, working as an ensemble. Did I mention, that as an English teacher it was the best tool to get students to read and study and memorize lines from a piece of literature more than the typical cursory glance? I’ll never forget when Theatreworks students could cite verbatim lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for the New York State English Regents Exam.
But, perhaps, the most valuable skill was to have the freedom to fail: to understand that risk makes us learn how to be all that we can be. There are endless stories I can share as can so many of my capable colleagues: Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Edie Falco insists on crediting me for her career path. Hardly.
For me, it was those “closet-kids” like the perky blonde ninth-grade cheerleader Erica who we discovered could not read! She was able to hide behind her beauty until we rotated her into the acting cycle and she refused to read for a part. That was quickly remedied and she was immediately placed in a special program. Or the lone Hispanic student in a 90% white population who found his place as a Stage Manager? I’ll never forget the deaf student J.J who danced in the after-school musical Brigadoon. Or my son, who credits Theatreworks as the source to pursue an engineering career: it was the only high school course where he was given a job (one that he was unfamiliar with like lighting), had to research the topic, get a team together to get the job done, by a deadline, under budget (or suffer the wrath of his director/mom).
Incorporating drama strategies across the curriculum also enhances learning. For example, to introduce To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee to my tenth grade English students, I lined up shoes that characters from the story might have worn. Using creative drama techniques students stepped into those shoes, shared, interacted with others thereby allowing them to create a foundation for their journey of understanding. I teamed up with the American History law class program to provide an historical framework.
Selected writing exercises from Young Playwrights Inc.’s Write a Play! curriculum were used with writing classes for high school students who would not even hold a pen, never mind write a one-act play. The popular “match” exercise where students talk for as long as the flame burns was the introductory lesson with Composition classes at Nassau Community College, a requisite entry level writing course. It’s about finding your voice: the Arts encourage students to think for themselves. These are all marketable skills vital for 21st Century employment.
Fast forward twenty years, adjunct stints, student teachers, training teaching artists, working with young playwrights, conducting professional development workshops across the nation, I continue to marvel at the lack of connect to what seems to me the most valuable global treasure we have.
The Arts have impacted the lives of so many people young and old and yet budget cuts continue to be the spiraling trend. Utilizing testimonials, interviews, and videos First Online With Fran, a talk show/blog was created to serve as the sounding board to give sustainable national attention to the Arts by inviting people from all walks of life – ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make our world a richer, deeper, better place to live.
Upset over the slashing of arts programs in schools I decided to do something about it. So, I got a bunch of kids from Brooklyn Theatre High School and asked them to respond to the statement: “The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable”.
Please take 6 minutes and listen to what they have to say…

Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School Students Speak Out

My goal for episode 2 is to receive as many views as possible to pitch to a network TV station; ultimately, to air it as a public service announcement (PSA) commercial. The message is clear, accurate, and it’s straight from the horse’s mouth: kids! Who better to express the transformative powers of the Arts?
I am asking for any of the following means of support (none of them require money!): your endorsement as a website comment, the click of your finger on the episode link, social media sharing, any kind of professional networking that you feel would benefit from viewing this episode. Or not. This is where my passion lies and this is my way of raising awareness and advocating for an arts inclusion education.
As a dedicated arts advocate I am committed to raising awareness of how the Arts rejuvenate. The arts restore. The Arts are our supernatural gift, the force that unites us as a single, breathing, living entity that connects every human being to be all that is good and pure.
Share your stories of how the Arts transformed lives and why we have a responsibility to ensure the Arts will continue to be a staple of our humanity. Bring it on!!
Useful links
Arts education in innovation-driven societies by Art for Art’s Sake co-authors Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin and Ellen Winner on the educationtoday blog
The Impact of Arts Education report examines the state of empirical knowledge about the impact of arts education.