Educate ~ Enlighten ~ Entertain: Echoes of the Past

Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate

A First Online With Fran Interview with Mari Lyn Henry

Photo by Paul Fox Performance at Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center, December 12, 2013 Karen Eterovich as Fanny Kemble, Mari Lyn Henry as Clara Morris, Meghan Duffy as Minnie Maddern Fiske, Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova, Paula Ewin as Katharine Hepburn

Photos by Paul Fox
Performance at Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center, December 12, 2013
Karen Eterovich as Fanny Kemble, Mari Lyn Henry as Clara Morris, Meghan Duffy as Minnie Maddern
Fiske, Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova, Paula Ewin as Katharine Hepburn

What does the perseverance of Fanny Kemble, a British born actress who comes to America, survives a scandalous divorce to become a renowned author have to do with a plucky sixteen-year-old actress Clara Morris with the playful personality of Kate Hepburn? Mari Lyn Henry, chair of The Heritage Committee for The League of Professional Theatre Women has collaborated with a team of 5 women to create Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate, a 90-minute performance piece that aims to provide an authentic presentation of voices from the 19th and 20th centuries to remind us of the challenges that women faced during this time period: “It’s women telling their stories. . . real stories [of ] real women who lived and what they went through for their principle, their integrity.”

Melody Brooks, who serves as the director and dramaturg of the project, threads the narrative journeys of five actresses from the 19th and 20th centuries to provide audiences of all ages with a glimpse into the obstacles and triumphs that these women faced. As President of The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry is committed to showing how “the echoes of the past are being echoed again today.” Despite the accessibility of historical information through Wikipedia and other internet resources, Mari Lyn’s goal is to insure that the lessons of the past are preserved so that we can continue to appreciate and acknowledge the sacrifices that these women made through an historical lens at a time when actresses were considered to be fallen women: “No respectable church-going women,” noted Mari Lyn, “would be seen on a stage.”

Towards that end, the objective of the project has 3 goals: to educate, to enlighten and illuminate, and to entertain. Since much of theatrical history has been reduced to a chapter, at best, in today’s educational curricula, Mari Lyn feels the urgency to lay a foundation to connect our past with our present: “I like seed planting. We’re planting seeds, out of which we want to encourage people to start looking into the past, reading the books….”

Frances “Fanny” Anne Kemble (1809-1893) made her stage debut just shy of her 20th birthday in October 1829. Fanny did not care for the stage and felt that it was forced upon her because of the pressing debts of the family, which included maintaining a stake in Covent Garden. In 1834, Fanny married Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, one of the richest plantation owners in the United States. The marriage was contentious almost from the beginning; they bickered over her Journal of America, published in 1835, and then they argued over her “aberrant” idea that women and men should be equal in a marriage when, at the time, a married woman was “owned” by her husband with the rest of his property. Kemble went on to divorce her husband to become an avid abolitionist. In 1863 she published her Journal of Residence on A Georgian Plantation (1838-1839) which became an immediate sensation in England and then America. A comprehensive Study Guide that includes details such as these is provided as a supplementary resource. “Our goal,” states Mari Lyn, “is to reach out to educators, acting programs, conservatories, etc. to present this information to them so that they understand the legacy and the rich heritage of the past.”

Listening to these women, audiences benefit firsthand from their wisdom through their personal storytelling. Clara Morris (1847-1925) grew up in the shadow of poverty. Her mother’s sewing, cooking and housekeeping skills kept her employed in a number of boarding houses. Clara’s love of reading and telling stories to the boarders caught the attention of teenaged Blanche Bradshaw who felt that Clara could gain work in the ensemble at John Ellsler’s Academy of Music in Cleveland. At sixteen years of age already an accomplished actress comparable to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, she found herself acting opposite the formidable talent Edwin Booth. He paid her a compliment about her performance and “when Edwin Booth gave you a compliment you felt like a goddess floating on a pink cloud.” Personal anecdotes such as these encourage audience members to empathize with each of the women’s struggles to succeed thereby engaging them to relate to and realize their valor. Historical sources leap from the pages of a textbook and make it come alive on the stage.

Who could deny being horrified when Alla Nazimova’s (1879-1945) father forbade her to use the family name, fearing that she would embarrass him? Despite making her debut playing the violin to enthusiastic applause, he took her home and caned her so severely that he broke her arm and said, “Just because a few provincial fools applaud you, don’t imagine you’re Paganini.” Romy Nordlinger’s performance as the Russian born Nazimova in her dressing room at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre before she appears as Madame Ravenskaya in The Cherry Orchard, keeps the audience spellbound with an authentic story about this “soul harassed woman.” Each of the actresses researched, wrote, and devised a richly detailed perspective of the five personas: Frances “Fanny” Kemble (Karen Eterovich); Clara Morris (Mari Lyn Henry); Minnie Maddern Fiske (Meghan Duffy); Alla Nazimova (Romy Nordlinger); Katherine Hepburn (Paula Ewin). The inter-locking dialogues moderated by its director, Melody Brooks, set the tone of the performance and allow its audience to settle in for a series of stories about real women, making real history so that “people who have never had any knowledge of theater history at least get a capsulized view of what was going on.”

Ultimately, Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate raises awareness of how these brave women forged a footprint to set the stage for all talents — both men and women and that “attention is made” to their remarkable accomplishments.

The program was presented on Thursday, December 12, 2013 from 7:30 PM to 9:30PM with post program discussion at The Anne L. Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center to rave reviews. . .

“I enjoyed the program and the Study Guide was very nicely done.” Sherry Engle, Associate Professor, Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts Department, Borough of Manhattan Community College. Author, “New Women Dramatists in America 1890-1920″

“What an immense amount of information I’ve learned after tonight’s performance! I love how each actor’s story was personalized! And the Study Guide–wow! What an incredible gift that is! Congratulations and thank you for taking the time to create such a thorough and thoughtful tribute! Emily Moulton, Executive Director, Tom Todoroff Studio and Conservatory

“Really fine work ladies putting together a very illuminating and fascinating presentation.” Shellen Lubin, co-secretary League of Professional Theatre Women, co-president, Coalition of Women in the Arts and Media

“Lovely education in theatrical women’s history and the cast was quite awesome to hold the stage like they did solo.” Denise Pence Boockvor Public Relations Director, History Alive! Vice Chair, Rehearsal Club

“Congrats to those amazingly talented women: Meghan Duffy, Karen Eterovich, Romy Nordlinger, Paula Ewin, Melody Brooks and Mari Lyn Henry. Stage Struck From Kemble to Kate was fabulous!” Joan Kane, Director

“It was a terrific evening.” Joan Kendall, actor

Marisa Vitali: Life Imitating Art: This is NOT an Act

Marisa Vitali
“It’s been a long road . . . but there is actually a moment when you choose to say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life.’”
A successful actress, voiceover artist, and producer in New York City, Marisa Vitali’s Long Island roots established the foundation to be where she is today. The arts were always a large part of her growing up; frequent trips to the city were a staple of family outings including visits to museums, attending the theater, coupled with fond memories as a nine-year-old staying up late on school nights to attend the opera with her dad at the Met (even though she would fall asleep before the end of the opera). And Christmas was not officially launched without seeing The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet. In addition to these family forays, her k-12 education in the Northport School District included an abundance of music and art programs having had access to choirs, orchestras, bands, musicals, and a theater program experience that was both a curriculum track and an after-school musical club: “I couldn’t even imagine what public school would be like without an arts program. For me, it’s like – our human spirit is the spirit of creativity and so to not have an outlet for that – to not have a place to cultivate that – I just don’t know what that human experience would be like and I can’t say it’s one that I would want to live.”

In fact, she credits the arts for saving her life. Despite her acceptance to the prestigious New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Marisa’s life spiraled into the world of drug addiction. Stemming from childhood bullying and feelings of inadequacy Marisa’s drinking and drugging became the means to self-medicate that pain: “For me, having that first drink [became] the first time . . . I didn’t feel that pain. I don’t need to feel inferior, I’m not good enough. I don’t belong.” Going to clubs consumed her seven days a week. Despite this lifestyle, she excelled in all of her studies. Scheduling classes early in the day would accommodate her party existence to maintain her Dean’s list status. But when heroin became the drug of choice, Marisa’s existence became a vicious cycle of finding the next high. After years of denial, Marisa hit bottom and decided to get clean. At the time, the only promising venture she could imagine for herself was to sell perfume at a department store and “not that there’s anything wrong with working at Bloomie’s, but to think that a University graduate with a BFA was as big as I could comprehend at that time when I first got clean.” This was when her mentor, Lawrence Sacharow, a Broadway director, suggested she get back into acting: “It was the most healing experience I’ve ever had. . . and in that moment I realized that, for me, that was what I had to live for. At that point in time, that was the reason for me to stay clean and not go back to using.”

Utilizing the skills she learned from her years of study at NYU and taking acting classes at Michael Howard Studio, Marisa found it to be “the most therapeutic way to process my emotions.” After years of feeling disillusioned, she was determined to use this skill set in a positive way. “It’s kind of like when the head and the heart come together at one point; acting, for me, isn’t about performing, a performance. For me, it’s about the journey; for me, it’s about having an experience in that moment in time. As an actor I want to tell stories, and I think that the more life experience you can bring to your story the more full that story can be told.”

Having been through so much Marisa used that life experience to culminate in the creation of the film Grace, a screenplay by Chris Ordal, an award-winning director and screenwriter. The story is inspired by Marisa’s first year clean where the main character, Janice, 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. What is of upmost importance to Marisa is that the film “starts the conversation of recovery between addicts and addicts; non-addicts and non-addicts.” Her desire is to use it as a teaching tool because “art is healing and what’s the best conversation starter other than the amazing piece of art or whatever forms that may be to get people to feel comfortable; to start talking.”

As for the vital importance of an arts education, Marisa argues that who among us hasn’t had to speak in front of an audience be it a committee or interview? Who doesn’t give a toast at a wedding which requires that poise and confidence to deliver? “The Arts,” Marisa asserts,” allows you to be who you are and accepts you regardless.” Moreso, the arts, “whether it be an art class, a play, or music — is an outlet for that emotion, for that feeling.” And like life imitating art: this is NOT an act.

Marisa Vitali

Check out the Sizzlin’ Fireworks Issue of the 2013 Summer Issue of GEM Magazine

GEM Magazine Spring 2013

Women In The Arts Long Island: Theresa Statz-Smith, Executive Director Long Island Arts Alliance

For the past two years as its Executive Director for Long Island Arts Alliance (LIAA), Theresa Statz-Smith has made it her goal to shine a spotlight on the cultural arts events that are happening right here on Long Island. Living in the shadow of a metropolitan city, Long Island arts and culture organizations constantly struggle to promote their own world-class programs. Read more

Spotlight on: Theresa Statz-Smith

You never really know what’s in your own backyard until…

For the past two years as its Executive Director for Long Island Arts Alliance (LIAA), Theresa Statz-Smith has made it her goal to shine a spotlight on the cultural arts events that are happening right here on Long Island.  Living in the shadow of a metropolitan city, Long Island arts and culture organizations constantly struggle to promote their own world-class programs.  After commissioning two studies in 2010, one by Dr. Pearl Kamer, Chief Economist for the Long Island Association (LIA) and the other by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, “Arts On The Edge,” LIAA, a collegial network of the region’s not-for-profit arts and arts education organizations, renewed its commitment to promoting arts, culture and arts education on Long Island.

LIAA’s Arts Alive LI speaks to the heart of LIAA’s mission to showcase Long Island’s word-class arts.  As stated in its October 2012 Business Plan:  “Our quintessential island community is the setting for this multi-venue celebration where all involved share a single vision:  to showcase the many high-quality experiences Long Island has to offer during a month-long celebration of the region’s arts, culture, food and wine.”  Arts Alive LI showcases the superb talent and cultural resources Long Island has to offer while also fostering economic development through the arts and enhancing the quality of life for all local residents. Instead of spending the costly amount of money to take the family to the city to see a play, go to a museum, or attend a concert, locals are now discovering the wealth of cultural arts events that exists right in their own community by simply going to ArtsAliveLI.org.  Theresa offered a sampling of recent events:  Blue Oyster Cult played their first acoustic concert at Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington and the whole community came together.  The village designated an official Blue Oyster Cult Weekend.  Different restaurants created Blue Oyster Cult dishes, Blue Oyster Cult martinis and even a paper company sold special blue stationary.  The whole village of Port Washington came together to celebrate.  Another local Northport Long Islander, Patti LuPone advocated for Arts Alive LI with her personal testimonial attesting the rich offerings right here on Long Island; she and Mandy Patinkin performed at the TillesCenter for the Performing Arts at LIU Post this past October. “Almost all of our Signature Series Events are collaborative,” notes Theresa, “in order to receive the level of promotion as a Signature Series Event we require artists and organizations to create an event that encourages a collection of activities.”  For example, The Islip Arts Council and the Patchogue Arts Council came together and created the South Shore Walking Arts Tour where all these communities had artists’ work hanging in their windows, and scheduled special Festival happenings on different weekends.  “They were taking some events that were already loosely happening and brought it all together as a single event.”

Culture makes places distinctive, engendering pride in the local community.  It also makes a practical contribution in terms of sustainability, providing employment, encouraging learning and inspiring people to adopt creative and active lifestyles.  Through culture, communities are better able to engage young people in constructive activity and attract the people and businesses essential for a prosperous local economy. Theresa talked about how “we’re finding ways to bring us all together.”  She mentioned an early Festival launch event in the East End and invited people from the North and South Forks to share their communal art resources:  “An event like that alone brings people together; it gives people the opportunity to collaborate, to meet, to brainstorm.” Pat Snyder, Executive Director of the East Ends Arts Council at Riverhead created a Maritime Heritage Festival.  She brought her community together and created the Maritime Heritage Festival from Riverhead to Orient Point.  “So, it’s all these communities, all these venues, coming together to create one big Festival happening all month in October with targeted [events] here and there. The Long Island Railroad also came to the table to provide transportation and hang Festival Posters in stations from Penn to the East End; and Media Partner WNET New York Public Television aired Patti LuPone’s promos on both WNET Thirteen and WLIW 21.  LIAA, through Arts Alive LI, helps foster all these regional alliances of people who understand that there is strength when we all join forces. Of course we could not do any of this without the support of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, Long Island Community Foundation, Rauch Foundation and other foundations and individuals who believe in regional collaboration and economic development through the arts.”

Theresa’s passion for the arts is palpable: “What we’re trying to do, looking forward, is that we are highlighting not just the ‘classic’ arts, but we want to bring in a lot of what we’re talking about with our festivals:  the culture, the history, food, and wine – that is what makes Long Island an incredible cultural experience.  And that’s what grows new audiences, and engages young families and children.” Despite these dire economic times, Theresa justifies funding for the arts because it “feeds” our children in so many ways:  How do we inspire and engage that child to stay in school? And to create a life worth living?  What keeps that at-risk child in school:  it’s when they learn to love to sing a song, or play an instrument, or kick a ball.  That keeps an at-risk child at school.”

Theresa talked about one of LIAA’s flagship programs:  Scholar-Artist Awards.  “It’s based on the same idea as the Scholar-Athlete Programs in our high schools where we honor the artist in the school and bring that artist to the level of the athlete.”  In partnership with Newsday, New York Community Bank Foundation, and school districts, high school faculty nominate their top artists for the honor. They must also maintain excellent academics.  “Ultimately, twenty are designated as Scholar-Artists and an additional twenty receive the Award of Merit.  Area universities offer scholarships and there is a big Newsday photo shoot to launch the program and a Gala at TillesCenter closes the program in May.”

What is so transformative about the arts is that it “helps you to think . . . to think in creative ways and look in unexpected places for answers.  It’s critical.”  Case in point on how the arts inform all subject areas, Theresa cited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  “You have some of the best scientists in the world there and some of the best art there too.  You will see a Chihuly glass piece hanging in the middle of an incredible lab, and stunning sculptures all over the grounds.  Beautiful artwork!  There are concerts held in Grace Auditorium on the CSHL Campus, and lectures. Smart people know that the arts inspire creativity and creativity is our hope for the future.”

First Online With Fran Pilot Episode

The pilot episode of First Online With Fran with featured guest, Angelina Fiordellisi is posted on The Cherry Lane Theatre’s website. Take a look and learn more about The 15th Anniversary of The Mentor Project…