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Ithaca Times-Feb '13: Actors Workshop Stages Love Loss and What I Wore For Women's Opportunity Center

By Bill Chaisson 

Dammi Herath, the executive director of the Women's Opportunity Center (WOC) these last 20 years, is over the moon about the Actors Workshop of Ithaca's (AWI) decision to stage Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss, and What I Wore as a benefit for the financially beleaguered not-for-profit.

“We will receive 100 percent of whatever they raise,” said Herath. “They actually approached us.” The show is scheduled for Saturday, February 16 at 8 p.m. in the Hangar Theatre. Scott and Teresa Miller, the owners of Madeline's restaurant, have rented the theatre for the night of the show, and Teresa, a pastry chef, will provide the cake for the reception that night. Agava restaurant is catering the event as a donation to the cause and also running a cash bar before and after the show.

When Eliza VanCort, the founder and director of AWI, saw the Off Broadway production of the Ephron play she was “blown away” and knew she had to stage it in Ithaca. “The show screams ‘benefit for women,’” said VanCort. “I called Katie [Spallone, assistant director of AWI]. Spallone suggested they raise money for the Women's Opportunity Center. Here was a play by women, about women and about “what I wore,” Spallone reasoned, and the Women's Opportunity Center actually gives out clothes.

The Mary Durham Boutique is a WOC project. For 35 years the non-profit has been coaching women on what to wear to interviews and to work, and also provided the clothes, but seven years ago they opened the shop on West Court Street. “It gives women hands-on experience to train in retail,” said Herath. “It is there that they can practice what we teach them and get confidence in these skills.” Clothes are a proverbial thread that runs through the entire mission of the WOC, and they are emphatically the organizing principle of the stories that make up the Ephrons’ play.

Like many human services organizations in Ithaca and around the country, the WOC has seen its funding cut drastically in recent years. Herath said that state funding has been reduced by 85 percent over the past three years and is now down to $26,000 per year. Last year they were cut from the legislature's budget entirely and then received funding from the governor's discretionary fund, a source that no longer exists. Herath went to Albany last week to confer with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and state Senator James L. Seward about funding for the coming year, but the budget will not be approved until April. “Managing until April is a problem,” said Herath. “Whatever the community can do is critical.”

The WOC director was at pains to point out that her organization helps not only women, but serves children as well; one of the important components of their mission is breaking the poverty cycle. Herath said that most of the women who come to the center are unemployed, have minimal work experience, or have never held a job at all. In addition to teaching women interview and job skills and supplying them with suitable clothes, the WOC also provides childcare and sometimes must help women with the bare necessities, including basic feminine products.

After opening at the Bridgehampton Community House on eastern Long Island in August 2008, the Ephrons' play was staged for a series of benefits, including one for an organization called Dress For Success, which like the Women's Opportunity Center, provides women with work clothes and teaches them job skills.

In September 2009 Love, Loss, and What I Wore began an Off Broadway run at the Westside Theatre that is still going strong. Recently Ithaca College graduate and AWI alumna Amanda Setton landed a role in the New York production and VanCort went down to the city to see the play.

“I saw her [Setton] and met the cast,” said VanCort. “It was everything I had imagined and better.”

The minimalist set consists of five women seated on stools doing staged readings. The play requires four of them to assume multiple roles and tell 28 different stories. “Most plays are built for movement,” said VanCort. “Not this one. It supports a staged reading and the stories are riveting.”

In part because of the subject matter, but also because the actresses do not have to entirely memorize their lines, the production has attracted a series of high wattage performers, who have taken their places on a stool for four-week runs, including Rosie O'Donnell, Tyne Daly, Kristin Chenoweth, Rhea Perlman, Janeane Garofalo, Fran Drescher, Carol Kane, and Loretta Swit.

The challenge for an actor, according to VanCort, is to be able to morph from role to role seamlessly. “If they fail, they fail,” she said. “It's pretty scary for actors.”

But the actors are working with very strong material. The Ephrons' script is based on a 1995 book by Ilene Beckerman, which they augmented with stories from 100 friends. Rosie O'Donnell contributed a story about a blue bathrobe. When her mother died, her father got rid of all of her clothes and made it a rule to never mention his first wife again. One day her stepmother appeared for breakfast wearing an a robe exactly like the one O'Donnell's mother had owned. After she mentioned this fact to her new stepmother – breaking her father's rule – she never wore the robe again.

“Clothes play an important role in our lives,” said VanCort. “A play about clothes makes it sound frivolous, but – obviously from the story of the robe – this is not about fashion.”

After seeing the New York production VanCort began making a list of women in Ithaca. She started making phone calls in September. “Normally I would stay within the Actors Workshop,” she said, “but this time it's a community event, so I didn't want to stay isolated. Instead I wanted to pull in women from all over the community.” She went about her recruitment tactically. Once she got her first 'yes' from AWI alumna Kristin Sad she let subsequent candidates know who was already involved and in the end she filled the cast with her “A list.” Sad will be 'the narrator,' the woman who knits together all the other stories and is the only character who plays just one role. Michelle Courtney Berry, Erica Steinhagen, Holly Adams, and Becky Lane will occupy the other four stools. None of them are accepting any payment for their work and, VanCort said, some of them took the role before they had even seen the script.

VanCort and her cast went through the play together for the first time in November. “At the first 'table read' I was pretty nervous because I hadn’t worked with some of them before,” she said, “but they were all so wonderful.”

The director made a spreadsheet of all the roles in order to parse them out equitably and make sure they were a good fit for each of the actors. “Kristen is the anchor of the show,” said VanCort. “She's rock solid, and I couldn't do this without her. She doesn't have multiple characters to play, so there can't be any risk of [the narrator] being boring.” Sad, needless to say, was not boring in the role, and all the other actors ended up keeping the parts to which they had originally been assigned.

Katie Spallone is the assistant director of the production and also of AWI. In addition to helping VanCort direct the show, she described her role as “providing moral support” and filling in for the stage manager when he can't be there. Spallone is a graduate of the AWI program and has been teaching technique workshops for the program since 2005. She looked forward to watching the non-AWI alumnae. “They all have their own tricks,” she said, “for finding something in their own lives that can relate to what is in the monologues. They can be uproariously funny or very sad. Eliza and I have been both laughing and sobbing, which doesn't usually happen in a rehearsal.”

The AWI teaches the Sanford Meisner technique. Unlike the more famous Method (invented by Lee Strasberg), Meisner actors do not rely on “sense memory.” “It's all about imagination,” said Spallone. “It was nice to see them [Sad and Lane] use their training.”

She has also been impressed by VanCort's direction of both Meisner and non-Meisner trained actors. “She has a gift for communication with each actor,” said Spallone, “and she is very insightful.”

“When you have great actors,” she said, “you let them run with what they are doing. You can see that they've worked on [the role] before they came in. Erica Steinhagen is a consummate professional; she was just nailing every thing she did. You don't say anything until you see what they've brought to the table, then you just plug in any holes.”

Kristin Sad majored in theater at the University of Cinncinati and then sang professionally for 20 years. She has been an active member of the Ithaca theater community for the past five years. VanCort did not have to twist Sad’s arm to get her involved. “First of all, I will do any role that Eliza and Katie ask of me,” said the AWI alumna, “as they are geniuses with a profoundly insightful way of casting a play. Just look who I get to share the stage with! The role of Gingy [the narrator] is also a gift to me in that it has so many echoes of my own life and experience, and I just love the way she embraces life!”

Although Becky Lane studied acting with AWI, she had gone on to producing shorts and features through her own Nice Girl Films. “Honestly, when I was asked to do it, I was a little nervous,” said Lane. “For the last few years I've concentrated on writing and directing, even though I had trained as an actor both here and in New York City.  But the opportunity to experience the performance side of the actor/director relationship was very appealing, and when I learned it was a benefit for the Women's Opportunity Center, and that I would be working alongside of some of Ithaca's finest actors, I dived in.”

Like both VanCort and Spallone, Lane was immediately attracted to the quality of the play and the perfection of the thematic connection with the Women’s Opportunity Center. “I've always admired Ephron's work,” she said, “especially her early film Silkwood.  She's great at creating multifaceted female characters. Love, Loss, and What I Wore reflects this.  It's not just about white women of a certain age.” The 1983 film Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell, recounted the true story of Karen Silkwood, who was contaminated with radioactive material by her employers when she threatened to the blow the whistle on safety violations at the nuclear processing plant where she worked.

Silkwood, a working class woman with little formal education, could have benefited from an organization like WOC. “The Women's Opportunity Center does amazing work,” said Lane, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Iowa. “They recognize that most people want to be a contributing member of society and to achieve their full potential, and they offer a safe supportive and encouraging environment to do so.”

VanCort’s tactical approach worked like a charm on Berry, who listed “the talents of the women and directors involved” as a reason she decided to be part of the production. Berry’s own relationship with the theater has the makings of a good play in and of itself. She was taking acting classes in college until her father advised against majoring in theatre. She graduated from Binghamton University and went on to a masters in communication at Cornell. She didn’t return to the stage until after her father passed away. She has appeared in productions at the Hangar and the Kitchen (two one-woman shows) and in the Renaissance Theatre Company’s For Colored Girls … In the spring of 2012 Ross Haarstad’s Theatre Incognita staged Berry’s Breathe.

"I get to work with a dream cast with amazing directors,” said Berry,  “a group of women I've always wanted to work with, with proceeds going to an amazing women's organization in our community, and  the show is the day before my birthday. So what's there not to love all about this, actually?”

Erica Steinhagen, a regular in front of Ithaca audiences, was originally trained as an opera singer, but has been working at the Kitchen and Hangar theatres and as a voice teacher for the past 13 years. Steinhagen was one of the actors who didn’t even need to read the script before getting involved. “When Eliza approached me about doing a benefit for The Women's Opportunity Center,” she said, “I immediately said yes, before I even knew what roles I'd be doing. After our first meeting, I was very pleased to be assigned the roles I was – I can easily connect to each of these women as women in my own life that I easily recognize.”

As VanCort made clear, although the stories in the play all feature clothes, this is not a puff piece about fashion. Steinhagen was especially moved by one of her stories in her role. “One of my monologues is a young breast cancer survivor talking about her treatment and how she dealt with the diagnosis, and her subsequent experiences,” she said. “My young, healthy, fit cousin – with whom I am very close – is a survivor, and I think of her strength and resilience every time I speak those words. It's always very intense for me, and feels like a tribute to her and all survivors – my aunt as well.”

Like Steinhagen, Holly Adams has worked regularly as an actor at both the Kitchen and Hangar theatres over the last 15 years, and will appearing in George Sapio’s Fault Lines for the Wolf’s Mouth theater company and a production of Ruth Kahn’s My Father’s Dragon later this year. She is a full-time performer, playwright and teaching artist who has been performing since she was a child, went through performance training in college, and eventually went through a conservatory program. She has a feature film set for a Montréal premiere in the spring.

“When Eliza invited me to be a part of the cast,” Adams said, “she had not yet decided on which part I – or most of us – would be playing, but I loved the idea of doing Nora Ephron's play as a benefit for the Women's Opportunity Center, and the opportunity to work with such an amazing cast was too fabulous to pass up!”

Like Steinhagen, she was particular moved by the story of the breast cancer survivor, but found much to like in her own role. “My own character arc is really about identity, and the sorting out who you are in the face of being who you thought you were supposed to be/what you were supposed to do, and my final scene is so very beautiful – it's my favorite.”

Like all the other women involved, Adams, who is the mother of two children, got on board in part because of her feeling about the Women’s Opportunity Center. “We are fortunate as a community to have this incredible and invaluable organization,” she said. “Women, especially moms, too often have the proverbial rug ripped out from beneath their feet, and having an organization to break that fall, help with the transition, and facilitate the creation of a viable new path … well, it's hope in it's most concrete form, grace in a time of chaos and despair. The Women’s Opportunity Center is amazing.”

Love, Loss and What I Wore will have only one performance on Saturday, February 16 at 8 p.m. at the Hangar Theatre. There is a reception both before (7:15 p.m.) and after the show. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors and students) and available on line through the Hangar website or call 273.4497, or buy in person at Ticket Center Ithaca on the Downtown Commons, 171 East State Street.)


Eliza VanCort