Continuing the Conversation with. . . Marisa Vitali, actor/screenwriter/producer

SOHO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WINNER
SOHO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WINNER

In 2013, Marisa Vitali, Alysia Reiner and I sat down to talk about GRACE, the movie:  its message, its momentum and its moving evolutionary progress.  To bring you all up to date on GRACE, the movie, now with a SOHO International Film Festival premiere, Marisa and I talked about the inspirational arc of this project.

Here are some clips from our conversation:

Fran:  Oh my goodness.  It’s been quite a while since our last interview.  And it looks like you’re on fast forward here and I’m so excited about GRACE being at the Soho International Film Festival. So, how did it get there? What happened?

Marisa:  I’m really excited, too; actually, it’s like a week away, at this point. Just through the festival submission process.  Soho was on my list of festivals that I wanted to submit to right here in NYC and just patiently waited to hear back.

Fran:  When did you hear?

 M:  I think it was probably about the second week in March which is awesome because most festivals you hear back from like 3 weeks before the festival.  So, I feel that I’ve had enough time to prepare for the festival and the festival run.  So I’m really excited about that.

F:  And this is the first time you’re doing

 M:  Yes, this is the first time GRACE is coming out into the world.  Yes. It’s her premier; we’ll be screening here in New York and really I’m just kind of over the moon about it.  I can’t believe it’s happening.  It’s surreal.

F:  And it is happening!  And now that it’s happening, how about some updates? How has this process given you clarity in terms of your objective?

 M:  I realize more and more that this film is not my film in the fact that I realize it’s so much bigger than me.  And, yes, I’ve taken all the actions I could possibly take in having her come out into the world, to tell this story, and show up for her.  But at the end of the day, it’s totally in God’s hands, you know, and I really, really truly believe that.  And I feel that as I’ve gone on this journey since we last spoke I see that and believe that, and have trust in that more and more.

F:  And in terms of your original intent of this movie, about this movie being about a movie about hope and about celebration.  Could you talk a little bit about that?

 M:  I really feel that there is a billion dollar industry built around the problem of addiction and I really want to be part of the solution.  And in talking with a lot of people it’s always kind of brought up about addiction and the problem and I really want to change that and talk about the solution.  I feel that in being in the hope and being GRACE, a story of recovery, it kind of allows us to settle into that conversation.

F:  What is it about film, as a genre, that can affect change and achieve that objective?

 M:  I think there is something to be said about sitting in a dark room filled with people you know and people you don’t know, and it being comforting in a way.  But, at the same time having your own experience watching a story unfold and that it’s safe to be able to kind of go on this journey and to find identification with these characters and kind of see how you really feel about addiction, and recovery, and like what you question, and what you think about it. And the fact that you are in this dark room with all of these people, it’s safe to explore your own feelings about that.

F:  How is GRACE  your way to measure success by taking positive action?

 M:  It’s so interesting that you say that because going into the last week before the festival is really what I’ve been sitting with is this idea of celebration.  I have really truly come to understand that every tear, every joy, every defeat, every victory in my life has been leading me to this one point.  Of GRACE.  And so, with that thought that I’ve been sitting with is just kind of being open to that kind of experience.  And really celebrating that life which has led me to this point.

F:  People have watched your film.  How do you know GRACE has already been a success by taking positive action?

M:  Well, I can share one story in the fact that there was a young man that had seen the film and it was in a business situation so he had seen the film and I was speaking with someone else, and there was no comment, no feedback given about the film and then when the other person was no longer present this person began to share with me his own journey of sobriety and how only his family knows about it and how professionally he hasn’t come out and shared it with anyone.  I just thought that was so beautiful that here is this stranger that I’m somewhat working with who felt comfortable enough to share his own experience and his own journey and how he was moved by GRACE and that in itself touched me so much.  I felt that by sharing GRACE with him that he had an opportunity to kind of come out and share his experience.  Intellectually, you know that will happen that’s what you desire to happen when you’re creating something, but not until you’re actually in that moment with that person and just sharing that unspoken bond does it really have a whole effect kind of thing.  And it was just so beautiful.  We kind of just stood in silence and we both shared a tear and a hug and it was like I didn’t even need to know all the details of his story.  We just both knew.  I think that is the beauty of recovery and being on the other side of all of this and what I shared with this young man is that bringing compassion to this disease and allowing ourselves to feel that much more comfortable talking about it, expressing our feelings about it.  I think that’s really beautiful.

F:  And you’re really beautiful.  See you on the red carpet!

http://www.grace-the-movie.com/

http://www.grace-the-movie.com/trailer

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Here Come The Tempest Ladies!

An Interview with Stella Berg & Katherine Elliot

By Frances McGarry

In 2008, six Syracuse University Acting students imagined a novel approach to presenting Shakespeare.  Inspired by a semester abroad program at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, Stella Berg,  a co-founder/producer/actor of the company, experienced Shakespeare in an entirely different light. “I saw what it was like to really witness a Shakespeare performance done the way that he would have done it; full of music, dancing, humor, life — and it was electric.” Growing up in Istanbul, Stella was taught to dissect and analyze Shakespeare’s plays line-by-line: “I hated Shakespeare in school; it was so boring and I couldn’t understand anything.” Everything changed the moment she saw her first Globe production.  For their final assignment, their class performed a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Globe stage. The founding members were all paired in the same group and since there were no men in their troupe, the women assumed all the roles.  Having a mutual affinity towards the Bard and playing roles they never would ordinarily be cast in, the ladies decided to continue working together as an ensemble.  Being a group of only six, they developed a unique way to cast their shows.  “We switch roles constantly throughout the play.  So no one is cast in any given part, but rather we share the roles and switch often throughout each play.”  The switches happen at very deliberate points – whenever there is a change in the status quo of a character.  Because of this, each actress is given the opportunity to play a wide variety of characters, both male and female.  Thus, became the creation of The Tempest Ladies.

Stella envisions a three-fold approach to achieve this undertaking:  first, to strip away gender stereotypes; second, to embolden young people to access Shakespeare’s plays in real and practical ways, and finally have these aspirations coalesce to be a source of entertainment for their audiences.  Katherine Elliot who recently joined the ensemble this past year was surprised at how audiences embraced this gender-friendly presentation of Shakespeare.  As Producer for The Taming of The Shrew, Katherine was concerned that a 3-hour performance would have audiences streaming out during intermission; in fact, “People were blown away!  The audience was entertained and very active the whole time. They wanted to come again.  They were upset that there wasn’t a longer run.”  As performers, both Stella and Katherine spoke of the dynamic nature of switching roles as well as gender onstage.  “Every actress brings her own idiosyncrasies to that character,” says Katherine, “it’s also fun to have the opportunity to play male roles and to get into their heads.  You learn that men and women are very similar in a lot of ways.”  “These stereotypical elements that we attribute to the male versus the female actually become irrelevant,” Stella explains, “because at the end of the day we’re all human beings [thereby bringing a transparency to] human sexuality. . . It doesn’t matter if it’s a female character or male character; they have the same wheel of emotions. For instance, there’ so much strength and so much murderous and treacherous energy in Lady Macbeth – qualities typically attributed to men. Simultaneously there are moments of intense vulnerability and childlike behavior, of dread and fear from Macbeth – emotions usually attributed to women.  When I play Lysander and play opposite of another who’s playing Hermia, we’re two people in love, regardless of their gender of who’s playing what.  You feel the same jitter and excitement for someone you adore – an element of fear.”  Katherine interjects, “Kate [The Taming of the Shrew] is written as a very masculine character, she’s tough and won’t submit, so she’s seen as this “shrew”. . . and watching actresses in our company play her is interesting.  She is psychologically masculine and biologically feminine, and since we are an all-female ensemble, she tends to be played as a male character would be.  It was a lot of fun for me to watch every night.”  No matter which female is playing which role—audiences suspend their belief and their perceptions are altered by this artistic invention.

The arts can transform people’s lives and this is why The Tempest Ladies are intent on making this accessible to students.  “It can be a bit intimidating to play Shakespeare in English for Turkish students attending a French school in Istanbul,” reported Teaching Artist Laura Borgwardt in her testimonial:

The idea of a language barrier begins to creep into your subconscious. The key is remembering that movement is a universal language. It can convey feeling, story; meaning. Using our bodies to express is innately human. We ‘jump for joy,’ we ‘tremble with fear’. There is a shared understanding of the way we use physicality to communicate. It no longer matters if the audience comprehends every single word that we were saying – they follow the meaning through the movement.

Our workshops in Istanbul focused on ensemble-building and using movement to help tell a story. As a companion to seeing the play performed, they allowed different access points to the material and to the experience. To delve into the themes and physical vocabulary beforehand left the students more prepared for what they were going to see. It gave them ownership over their own experience and allowed them to take part in the process.

I was impressed by how willingly the students jumped into exercises, trusting us and trusting their peers – their fellow ensemble members – and in doing so, creating something so beautiful together. The joy of self-expression, and of working together to accomplish a task, permeated the classroom. It is the same joy we have as an ensemble when we rehearse together and create. It was incredible to be able to share that passion with future storytellers.

After raising $10,000, The Tempest Ladies are readying for their Off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this April.  Looking to the future, they would like to take A Midsummer’s Night Dream back to Turkey, but for now, The Tempest Ladies will set the NYC theater world afire with their talent, their passion, and their tempestuous tale of comedy and gender subterfuge.

For more information about The Tempest Ladies visit: http://www.tempestladies.com, http://www.facebook.com/TempestLadies

To purchase tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream visit: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1382019

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