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…

Pilot Episode: First Online With Fran with Angelina Fiordellisi

“I think that one of our greatest responsibilities as theater providers,” asserts Angelina Fiordellisi, “is to sensitize the tribe . . . deepening our primal connections, our primal needs, our primal impulses and what Shakespeare calls ‘holding the mirror up to society’.” This poignant insight is particularly significant since the tragic course of events this past week in Newtown, Connecticut.

On November 19th, 2012 First Online With Fran featured Artistic Director and founder of the Cherry Lane Theatre, Angelina Fiordellisi. Listen to her reflect on the work at the Cherry Lane Theatre, most notably the 2013 Mentor Project, among others, and how they contribute to cultivating an urban artist colony, honor its ground-breaking heritage, create theater that illuminates contemporary issues and transforms the human spirit.

First Online With Fran was shot and edited by The New York Film Shop, Andrea Bertola, Artistic Director.

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