Leveraging Theatre for Social Good

Before it was fashionable to be an advocate or activist, my acquaintance Jessie Fahay invited me to join her very new theatre group. She had a vision to pair advocacy with theatrical productions, taking on socially relevant topics.

Jessica Jennings, Development Director of Ripple Effect Artists proudly talks about how they have stayed attuned to the most relevant issues pulling on the collective social conscience of all Americans:

That was in 2010. Seven years later, I could not be more proud of our endeavors and accomplishments at Ripple Effect Artists. Aside from the administrative feats, like becoming a 501(c)3 and earning grant funds, I mean that I am proud that we have stayed tuned to the most relevant issues pulling on the collective social conscience of all Americans. For example, we presented Tea & Sympathy, a play from the 50s about the bullying of homosexuals, and raised funds for the Trevor Project’s suicide prevention call center.

With each of our productions we both raise awareness with our audience, and make a financial donation toward an advocacy organization. We have worked with 11 different organizations on issues of heath care, suicide prevention, hospice, marriage equality, women’s rights, technology unemployment, sex trafficking, and now we will be looking at racism.

Our productions are paired with audience engagements such as talk-backs. While our dramas are wonderful for getting people curious about issues, real-world information and solutions from experts leave the audience empowered, informed, and pointed in a direction of taking action. Our audiences have reported taking these actions after our events: volunteering, signing petitions, conversing about these challenging issues in their own communities, and ending their participation in buying sex.

I am honored to have my work with Ripple Effect Artists as part of my artistic legacy. I like to say, in the spirit of Martha Graham, that there is no higher calling than to be fully used by our art.

Please get to know us better! We have a FREE event on May 11th, and a fundraiser on May 30th. Details and links are below.

Guarding the Bridge

May 11th @7pm

250 Park Ave., People’s United Bank.

FREE reading of Chuck Gorden’s GUARDING THE BRIDGE

Click here to RSVP

The Edge of Everyday

May 30th @ 8pm

Elektra Theatre, 300 W. 43rd St.

$45-$60 Tickets 

Rippleeffect.Jennings@gmail.com

 

Continuing the Conversation with. . . Marisa Vitali: Part II

 Marisa Vitali returns home to Northport, LI to show the premier screening of her movie, GRACE at the John W. Engeman Theater.  To raise awareness of the plight of recovering addicts Marisa shares her film and her courageous story of recovery in order to donate funds for the Northport-East Northport Drug & Alcohol Task Force. Listen to  interviews about the debut of GRACE:  Marisa Vitali (Actor, Producer, Writer GRACE),, Kevin O’Neill(Managing Director John W. Engeman Theater), Scott Norcott (Public Relations Coordinator, Npt.-E Npt Drug & Alcohol Task Force), Gabriel Manzueta (Sra NY Natl. Guard Counterdrug Civil Operations), Carissa A Cantone (SSG, NY Natl. Guard, Counterdrug Civil Operations), Irene McLaughlin(Asst. Supt. Human Resource Npt-ENpt School Dist), Darryl St. George(HS History Teacher Npt.-ENpt School Dist) and Anthony Ferrandino(Chariperson, Npt-ENpt Community Drug & Alcohol Task Force).

 

 

Take it Away! GRACE, the movie at the John W. Engeman Theater

 

The premier of the movie GRACE at the John W. Engemann Theater was held on June 7, 2016 to raise funds for the Northport-East Northport Drug & Alcohol Task Force.  Here are some of the reactions audience members”Took Away” with them after seeing the movie.

 Max Fulton-Peluffo, Video Editor

Georgia Stitt: Her Need to Tell. . . through Music

Georgia Picture

Her love of literature coupled with a flair for creating her own melodies as a child pianist coalesced into becoming the career choice for composer/lyricist Georgia Stitt.  “I have always been a musician.  When I was seven years-old, I remember trying to play Bach and then [wanting to] improve it.”  Her innate talent to invent variations on a theme became the natural course for Georgia’s professional pursuit as a musician; nevertheless, she did not even realize that it was something you could actually DO for a career. “It was ‘extra-curricular’.” And it wasn’t until college that music would be something she considered undertaking as a livelihood.  Her passion for all types of music and a fervent love of reading convinced Georgia musical theater was “all the things that I loved [coming] together. It was really a light bulb going off when I realized that you could tell stories with music, and the more you knew about musical structure and narrative structure the more they fed each other.”

And storyteller she is!  Her focus is not so much on what stories she likes to tell through music, but “what kind of story can I tell?”  The two current projects she’s working on illustrate the range of her fascination for interesting tales to tell; one, Snow Child, commissioned by Arena Stage to be directed by Molly Smith, is set in 1920s Alaska. The score is Bluegrass because “that is what the music of Alaska is and was – that’s what they would have had – banjos and mandolins, fiddles.” While her other piece is a WW II swing band and “there is no way that music for one of them could fit into the score of the other because that’s not who those people are; that’s not the world we’re creating.  The sound of the show is very specific to the world that you’re creating, the people you’re creating and that’s interesting to me.  That calls on all the skills I have as a classical musician and as a pop musician, as a listener of all kinds of music- understanding musically what the differences are in those worlds, but also character-wise.”

Like a playwright, Georgia begins with crafting a character.  “Who are these characters and what are they involved in, what are they trying to do?  And then, what do they sound like? What music do they sound like?” Snow Child has a husband and a wife from Pennsylvania who move to Alaska during the 1920s to homestead the land.  “They’re new to Alaska and they’re trying to find their way.  And then, their neighbors are people who have been in Alaska for a long time and so they have a much more laid-back vocabulary.  They don’t speak in such big wordy sentences.  It’s like when you write New Yorker characters and they talk more quickly than non-New Yorkers. There’s less space in their language and that sort of thing.  So we have a little more folk music for the characters from Alaska as opposed to these people who are finding their way into Alaska.  And part of the synthesis of the sound is, musically, you watch these characters find their way.  Whether you are aware of it as an audience member or not I can’t say, but I think you feel it – you feel the ‘otherness’ in the music just as much as you do in the language, the costumes, in the way that characters behave and all those things.  The music is telling as much of the story as all the other elements.”

When working with students, Georgia credits her experience as a Musical Director to process a breakdown of a song.  “I think a lot of what I know about writing is because I had to sit in a rehearsal room and explain something to an actor. ‘But why do I come in on beat 4? I want to come in on the downbeat?’ And I want to explain not just that you do, but why you do.  Why has the composer anticipated—is your character anticipating something? Is your character in a hurry?”  Those are conscious, literal decisions composers make.  “Are you back-phrasing because you are reluctant to get where you’re going? Is it because we’ve got 4 bar phrase-4 bar phrase-4 bar phrase and then we’ve got a 6 bar phrase? What are those 2 bars about? Why are they there?” And so as a Music Director I’m dissecting those things, and that made me start thinking about what a composer has to do to put those clues in there for actors to dissect.  A good actor– a good singing actor– knows to look for them.”

Oftentimes, Georgia will take away the music and have students translate the lyrics into a story, “put it in [their] own language.  Explain the journey of the song in [their] own words that don’t rhyme and don’t have meter so we can be clear what we want.”  Part of the job of a songwriter is to craft a song so that an actor can identify the highest climactic moment of the song.  “Songs are structured and the bridge is the middle point and that is usually where the meat of the song is.” A character must have a Need to Tell; she refers to this as “I Want” songs where early on in the show especially a lead character will say ‘I want this and I can’t have it.’ And then the whole show is about how do I get that thing?  And it’s really that basic.  You can look at almost any successful musical where there is a character who wants something and the whole show is about how they get it.”

Wanting to be the best in her field is no easy task, especially for women.  Jeanine Tesori said at the Tony Awards, “You have to see it to be it.”  Despite Georgia not having many female archetypes, she credits the support of teachers and parents for her success. “Nobody told me I couldn’t do it.”  Her advice is straightforward in terms of making it happen:  “I have learned you can’t wait for someone to call you and say, ‘I have a job for you.’  You have to look around for whatever opportunity and say, “I should be doing that job. Who do I call to get that job? How do I MAKE that job? What do I do to make sure they think of me in that context?”

Georgia raises awareness of the plight of parity for women composer/lyricists as a Board member of the Lilly Awards.   Six years ago, as a way to recognize female playwrights who were being overlooked, Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, and Theresa Rebeck started this not-for-profit organization to honor their work.  It’s not just an Award Ceremony, but it has “grown to [represent] the statistical analysis of what the numbers really are all around the country.  How many women are being produced? How many directors are being hired? How many female composers are being hired? And how many female lyricists/playwrights/etc.? How many female protagonists are in the show? What are the stories being told? And the number hovers around 22% female, which is unbelievable when you think about how many women are in the audiences and how many female playwrights there are.”

Programs range from providing writing retreats to a mentorship program, led by Susan Stroman.  A Fall Fundraiser is scheduled every year. Georgia is the co-producer and music director for the November 9th event, The Lilly Awards Broadway Cabaret, which features Broadway stars performing the works of women writers. You can learn more about this event at http://www.thelillyawards.org/thelillyawards/.

What Georgia loves most about being a composer/lyricist is communicating.  “I love using music to communicate an idea and then having someone say afterwards, ‘I really get what you were trying to say.’” We DO get it. Thank you, Georgia for making us all feel something special through your music!

Georgia Stitt is Composer/Lyricist and a Music Director. Her musicals currently in development include Snow Child (commissioned by Arena Stage); A.Jax (written for Waterwell with Kevin Townley and Hanna Cheek); Tempest Rock (written with Hunter Foster); The Danger Year (a revue of original songs, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle); Big Red Sun (NAMT Festival winner in 2010, Harold Arlen Award in 2005 and written with John Jiler); The Water (winner of the 2008 ANMT Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre and written with Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko); and Mosaic (commissioned for Off-Broadway in 2010 and written with Cheri Steinkellner). She has released three albums of her music: This Ordinary Thursday: The Songs Of Georgia Stitt, Alphabet City Cycle and My Lifelong Love. Her songs and arrangements are represented on the solo albums of Susan Egan, Lauren Kennedy, Kate Baldwin, Robert Creighton, Stuart Matthew Price, Caroline Sheen, Daniel Boys, Kevin Odekirk and composer Sam Davis. Her choral piece with hope and virtue (using text from President Obama‘s 2009 inauguration speech) was featured on NPR as part of Judith Clurman‘s Dear Mister President cycle, and her most recent orchestral piece, Waiting for Wings, co-written with husband Jason Robert Brown, was commissioned by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and premiered there with conductor John Morris Russell. Georgia has degrees from Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. She is on the theater faculty at Pace University the Board of Directors for The Lilly Awards. Other fun credits include being the music supervisor of the Anna Kendrick/Jeremy Jordan film The Last Five Years, conducting Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway, writing arrangements for Tony Bennett‘s 80th birthday party and playing a nun in The Sound Of Music Live! on NBC with Carrie Underwood and Audra McDonald. www.georgiastitt.com

An interview with…Cheryl Navo, Playwright LIE OF OMISSION, World Premiere Play

“As a female playwright I believe strongly that I need to concentrate on writing good, strong roles for women.  For each play I write, I’ve made a personal commitment to myself to never allow the male roles to outnumber or outshine the female roles.  I hope that inspires other women to advance the roles of women in all aspects of theatre.”

APCherylNavo

It just does not get any better for an actor than to not only have the opportunity to be cast in the world premiere of a play, Lie of Omission, but also get to meet its playwright.  As arts advocate/host of First Online With Fran featuring ordinary people who do extraordinary things in The Arts and proponent of advancing the work of women through my membership at The League of Professional Theatre Women I felt compelled to share with you the arc of this fascinating woman’s journey from soldier to storyteller.

Here are some clips of our conversation…

How did your career in the military evolve from soldier to playwright?  

Navo Uniform2

The military and military life has been a huge influence on me.  My husband works for the Department of Defense and Germany is where we are stationed.  I’ve actually lived in Germany more than half my life as I came here as an active duty soldier in the early 80s.  After spending three years as a soldier, I worked for the Department of the Army as a civilian until I took an early retirement from government service almost a year ago.  I now spend my time in creative pursuits.

I first became involved in community theatre in 2009, playing Sister Margaretta in a KMC (Kaiserslautern Military Community) Onstage production of  The Sound of Music–which was my first show since I was a child, playing one of the children, in The King and I.  Theatre, on the second go-round, proved addictive.  I have spent the last six years experimenting with being an actor, costume designer, set designer, scenic painter, director, and finally, playwright.

I never considered writing a play until a chance conversation at the theatre snack bar where I was volunteering during a KMC Onstage production (I’ve truly dabbled in every possible onstage and backstage job).  Over a drink order, an actress friend mentioned that someone she knew had written several plays.  I (naively) said that I thought it would be fun, after all “how hard can it be?”  I still remember her pitying look as she explained that writing a play that someone will actually produce is exceedingly difficult.  We moved on to another conversational topic, but I filed the idea of writing a play away in my head, thinking “I bet I could do it.”  Several months later, the artistic director for the theatre offered their first-ever playwriting class and I signed up.  I discovered very quickly just how difficult writing a play can be, but I love it.

I have written four plays to date.  My first one-act play, Parade of Queens, was produced by the Baumholder Hilltop Theater for the IMCOM-Europe AACT 2012 One Act Play Festival.  My second one-act play, Hotline, was produced by Thoreau, NM—A Production Company for the 2013 Pittsburgh New Works Festival and by the Baumholder Hilltop Theater for the 2013 IMCOM-Europe AACT One Act Play Festival.  Hotline was subsequently published by Dramatic Publishing Company in 2014 and is available in their current catalog.  My 10-Minute play At What Price was produced by the Boiling Point Players in Houston, Texas; by the Towne Street Theatre in Hollywood, California; for the Equity Library/Piney Fork Theater Summer Festival in New York; and will be part of the Minnesota Shorts: A Festival of Short Plays in Mankato, Minnesota this month.

Lie of Omission is my first full-length play.  I wrote it specifically for AACT (American Association of Community Theatre) New Play Fest 2015, where it was selected as a top fourteen finalist.  Then, Studio Theatre of Long Island offered a production contract, so I withdrew it from the AACT competition, signed a contract, and here we are.

 Share with us how the germ of the play came to fruition and how it translated to the page.

Lie of Omission began as a one-act play, but the story quickly expanded beyond the one-act format.  The idea began with a newspaper article about an American doctor who was kidnapped in the Middle East.  During his rescue, a soldier was killed.  I tried to put myself in the doctor’s place.  How would that feel–to know that a stranger lost his life saving mine?  I wondered what kind of psychological impact there would be.  After reading the initial article, I purposely departed from the details of the true-life case and started throwing in complications of my own.

I have a real heart for soldiers.  Deployments are a daily reality for military families and that’s the community where I have spent more than half my life.  My husband is a retired Medical Logistics Army officer and a current Department of the Army civilian working in medical logistics.  I also worked for the Army Medical Department in medical logistics, and although I personally never deployed, my brother spent several years driving trucks for the military in Iraq.

What is your vision for the play?  What will be your next play?  What other plans do you have for your future? 

Lie of Omission is scheduled for its next production in September 2016 at the Baumholder Hilltop, a military community theatre in Baumholder, Germany.  Naturally, I’d like to see the play produced in as many theatres as possible.  As a playwright, one of the hardest things for me to do is let go and allow actors and directors to bring their individual points of view to my story.  And, that is also one of the most rewarding parts of playwriting.  Different people bring different perspectives to the work and often teach me things I didn’t know about my own play.

I’ve begun work on a new full-length play about a psychic, but it’s early in the process.  I’m also working on a young adult novel.  Also, in early 2016, I’ll be directing Death of a Salesman for KMC Onstage.

Who and/or what do you hope to inspire with this work?  

As a female playwright I believe strongly that I need to concentrate on writing good, strong roles for women.  For each play I write, I’ve made a personal commitment to myself to never allow the male roles to outnumber or outshine the female roles.  I hope that inspires other women to advance the roles of women in all aspects of theatre.

AND a First Online With Fran question:  The Arts are so vitally important to our society; yet, it remains to be perceived as an amenity.  What would you say to challenge that perception?

I’d challenge anyone who sees The Arts as an amenity to spend some quality time in the theatre.  Seriously.  My theatre involvement during the last few years has taught me so much.  I’ve developed a huge amount of confidence in myself and I’ve gained skills in almost every area.  If theatre can do this much for me, just Imagine the effect on a child.  I see kids who participate in theatre develop physical skills and talents beyond that of their peers.  More importantly, they develop invaluable social skills such as how to take direction, work as a team, and get along with others.  What other area of education encompasses so much?

Don’t miss your chance to experience this dynamic dramatic performance of Lie of Omission at Studio Theatre of Long Island.  September 4 – 20.  For performance schedule, tickets, and directions click HERE

 

On the Red Carpet at SOHO International Film Festival

First Online With Fran got to ask the official participants and attendees of the 2015 SOHO International Film Festival how the arts play a vital role in our society. Listen to what they had to say…