domingo, março 08, 2009

Start of a Special Series for Women's History Month

Start of a Special Series for Women's History Month
Saturday, March 7, 2009; Posted: 09:03 PM - by Adrienne Onofri
First in a series of profiles of women artistic directors.
It may sound like an ethnic stereotype to say Angelina Fiordellisi runs the Cherry Lane Theatre like an Italian mama, but it’s hard to resist as you listen to her talk about making a home for artists and tending to their needs. Fiordellisi, the daughter of Neapolitan immigrants who spoke Italian before she spoke English and was recently honored by the National Organization of Italian American Women, probably wouldn’t even object to the characterization.
Ethnicity aside, all that talk about nurturing and valuing the process over the product also sounds distinctly—well, to invoke another stereotype—female. On this point, Fiordellisi definitely does not demur. “Oh, my God, absolutely!” she responds when asked if her priorities as artistic director reflect a feminine way of running a business.
“It’s so male to be competitive and all about who gets the money and who gets in the paper and ba-ba-ba. I’m trying to be an island, in the middle of the island, where it’s not about pressure and competition,” she says, explaining about Cherry Lane’s play-development program: “We are bringing artists through a process, getting them to a certain point. Sometimes it’s not going to be a finished product, and sometimes it is. This is also very feminine—that we adapt the program to the specific writer’s needs.”
Fiordellisi does sense something of a boys club within the off-Broadway theater community—a club she’s been left out of because of responsibilities at home that her male counterparts either don’t have or tend to fob off on their wives. “I didn’t go to all the parties because I was raising my kids; when I wasn’t here, I’d go home to my kids,” says Fiordellisi, who suspects her lack of schmoozing may hurt when the schmoozees are ready to hand out money. “I feel that there is a bias in favor of men who run a theater. In the fall there were several announcements about these big grants, and all those who benefited were male-run theaters.”
She came up with an even more recent example of how things might transpire differently at the Cherry Lane if she were a man. The night before our interview, the theater had hosted a reading of a new Theresa Rebeck play and Rebeck had asked Fiordellisi if she could address the audience beforehand. “I let her do her thing, then we started the reading,” says Fiordellisi. “If this was a male theater, the male head of the theater would be at the front giving his spiel and then introducing Theresa, because it’s a power thing.
“I don’t have to be in front of everybody all the time,” says the former actress. “The work is what’s important to me: nurturing these artists, getting the tools that they need to develop their work. I’m running a community here. This is an artists colony—because that’s what the history is, that’s what’s inspiring here, that’s what these four walls have done throughout the last century.”
Fiordellisi purchased the Cherry Lane—NYC’s oldest continuously operating off-Broadway theater—in 1996 and has resurrected it as an incubator of talent. The original Cherry Lane Playhouse, founded in 1924 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and friends, was at the vanguard of the downtown theater movement, home to the original production of Godspell and helped popularize the theater of the absurd and foster the careers of many distinguished playwrights and actors. Today it has a Mentor Project, which pairs young writers with established playwrights for a season-long, one-on-one “apprenticeship” leading to a showcase production of the mentee’s play. Christopher Shinn, Julia Cho and Rajiv Joseph are all alums of the Mentor Project. The company received an Obie Award in recognition of its play development efforts last year.
A play developed in the program in 2007, The Secret Agenda of Trees by Colin McKenna (who was mentored by Lynn Nottage), is getting another showcase production this month at a different theater, the Wild Project on E. 3rd. And from March 19–April 25, Cherry Lane is giving Jailbait by Deirdre O’Connor (mentored by Michael Weller) an off-Broadway production at the former Bank Street Theatre, which the company has leased and renamed the Cherry Pit.
While the Cherry Lane Mentor Project is now in its second decade, several larger, bigger-budget (and male-run) companies have only recently put playwright development on their agenda. Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout and the Public all launched emerging writers programs in the past two years. But most of them don’t give the writers the in-depth, long-term coaching that the Mentor Project does, according to Fiordellisi. “They don’t take an entire year and develop the writer and the material,” she says, acknowledging that her approach is more typical of women. “I wanted to take the time and not push plays through a process where you have to have an end product. Some men want to do a new play factory: When it left here, it got done everywhere. I was like, ‘Whoa! We are about a process.’”
Fiordellisi first got involved in play development—with the Indiana-based New Harmony Project and Carnegie Mellon University’s workshop—while she was living in L.A. in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Watching a play grow was more exciting to me than performing,” says Fiordellisi, who prior to her 1987 marriage had toured with Zorba and Annie. But her husband, TV writer/producer Matt Williams (Home Improvement, Roseanne, The Cosby Show), needed to be in L.A. “Being the traditional Italian woman that I am, I started having children and stayed home,” says the Detroit native.
The couple moved back to New York with their son and daughter—now college students—after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and planned to establish a workshop on property they’d purchased upstate in Putnam County: Fiordellisi would oversee development of plays, Williams would run a program for film scripts. But their neighbors fought the plan, claiming a “sitcom factory” didn’t belong in the town. She later heard the Cherry Lane was available. “When I walked in here, I had this vision of what it could look like. I just got such a beautiful spiritual rush,” remembers Fiordellisi.
Before she bought the theater, it had been allowed to deteriorate by the then manager, who figured he could buy it cheap the worse condition it was in. She spent a quick $30,000 to clean it up, then started renting out the space. From the first show she booked in, 1996’s The New Bozena (directed by a pre-Office Rainn Wilson), rentals helped meet expenses. With that income flow, Fiordellisi could realize her dream: “Now I can found a nonprofit and do new play development.”
A full renovation of the Cherry Lane, which occupies a three-story building on Commerce St. in Greenwich Village, wasn’t completed until 2006. Once the work began, Fiordellisi discovered how many things in the 1836 building—bricks in the walls, part of the floor beneath the theater aisle, the second-floor bathroom, to name a few—were on the brink of collapse. The $3 million rehab was funded in part by the City of New York.
Ah, funding...the bane of every artistic director, male or female, in expensive NYC. And a mightier struggle than ever in the present economy. This season, due to the economic crunch, Cherry Lane will not produce anything of its own on the mainstage, filling the 179-seat house instead with other companies’ work. Foundry Theatre’s widely praised Telephone played there in February, and the American Actors Company has just opened the NYC premiere of Craig Wright’s The Unseen. Cherry Lane has also rented out its 60-seat black box: INTAR is wrapping up its double bill of In Paradise and She Plundered Him this weekend. That studio theater is usually reserved for Mentor Project plays; Housebreaking, by Jakob Holder (mentored by Charles Mee), begins performances there March 24.
For the 2009-10 season, Fiordellisi may rely on coproductions to ease her company’s financial obligations. Later this year she hopes to coproduce Sheila Callaghan’s Lascivious Something (developed in the 2006 Mentor Project) with the Women’s Project, then bring in The Lady With All the Answers, a solo biographical show featuring Judith Ivey as Ann Landers, in a coproduction with Northlight Theatre, which premiered it last year in the Chicago area. Next year, Cherry Lane plans to stage Rebeck’s as-yet-untitled new play—which it commissioned—and Fiordellisi is looking to Naked Angels and possibly New York Stage and Film as coproducers (they co-presented Fault Lines at Cherry Lane last fall). “We love working together, and economically this makes sense,” she says.
Box office is usually healthy when the Cherry Lane revives one of the contemporary classics that it premiered decades ago. “When we go back into the Cherry Lane history and we pull out those gems, it sells itself,” says Fiordellisi, who is looking forward to directing Desire Caught by the Tail, written by Pablo Picasso and first presented at the Cherry Lane in 1952, next year. Since 2005, the company has revived Edward Albee’s The American Dream and The Sandbox, Dutchman by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Beckett’s Happy Days—all of which world-premiered at the Cherry Lane in the early ’60s. “This theater stands for so much, and I just gotta keep it going!” Fiordellisi exclaims.
Her company’s acclaimed mainstage productions include Fugue; Bhutan, for which playwright Daisy Foote was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award; and Women on Fire, which earned Drama League and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for Judith Ivey’s solo performance. They all came out of Cherry Lane’s Celebrating Women Playwrights initiative, which involves forums, master classes and play development. Fiordellisi says she created Celebrating Women “when I saw that such a small percentage of the submissions for Mentor Project were women. I also saw there weren’t that many black writers being submitted and created Celebrating Black Playwrights,” which focuses on established and emerging writers and also serves to diversify the theater’s audiences.
“I’ve had a number of male playwrights come through Mentor Project, and I’ve worked with a number of male playwrights that I adore,” says Fiordellisi. “I just care more about women’s subjects, for obvious reasons. I’m tired of all the rehashing of male themes; I don’t want to know about another man having an affair.”
Her programming is not dictated just by her personal preferences, though. It’s also responsive to the marketplace—which happens to echo her personal preferences. “I feel that New York is more of a feminine audience,” says Fiordellisi. “Telecharge did a study four or five years ago: The largest number of ticket buyers are women between 48 and 55. I’m a part of that group.”
FONTE: Broadway World - New York,NY,USA
Photo include Angelina Fiordellisi during our interview in the Cherry Lane Theatre

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