This Q & A is with Angelina Fiordellisi, the Founding Artistic Director at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Angelina is innovating her field of work by launching new works by 53 emerging dramatist, nurturing and producing the work of over 3500 artists and engaging young women and minority writers and directors (uncommon in the entertainment industry).
1) What was a pivotal momentum of reinvention for you?
In July of 1995, I packed up our home in Santa Monica and we moved back to New York. I created a home in an apartment in Manhattan, renovated a cottage on a piece of property in Garrison, NY and broke ground for my husband’s dream house. I found schools for our children who were 5 and 7 and spent the first year focused on them, as well as working with the architect, general contractor, mason and other craftsmen and women who were building our home in Garrison, while my husband was working in Los Angeles creating a new television show and commuting to New York once a month.
After a year of adjustment for the kids, I decided to get back to work. One of my oldest and dearest friends called me and told me that the historic Cherry Lane Theatre was for sale and would I like to go take a look at it. When I first walked in I saw an abandoned space that smelled and looked like a dark, damp basement. The first four rows flooded every time there was rain. The basement flooded. The ceiling above the stage was damaged by two fires. The dressing rooms and storage rooms were trashed and filled with junk, and there was an anteroom off of the lobby that had old restaurant equipment and sawdust and no lighting. Then in the midst of this mess I got a vision of what it would be in 6 months, a year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years…it was quite a moment for me. remarkable. I knew that I had to be there, I was meant to be there, that this was my destiny.
2) Who has been a valuable mentor or sponsor?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several mentors in my life. First and foremost, Jose Quintero, with whom I studied acting for many years who thought I was smart enough and brave enough to acquire and run a theater. I was mentored by Alfred Uhry whom I worked with in a new play program for emerging playwrights, Cherry Lane Mentor Project, for which I won the Obie Award. And most influential, nearest and dearest to me, Billie Allen, a brilliant artist, wise and funny woman that inspired me most. And I’m very sad to say that we lost her last winter. I’m also quite fortunate to have a circle of women friends who support me and inspire me. Joyce Friedman who helped me form the LLC to buy the theater and helped me create the non-profit Cherry Lane Alternative to run the theater, Susann Brinkley, my dear friend with whom I started the theater company, Julie Crosby who serves on my advisory committee with whom I’ve produced and developed new work, Carolyn Copeland, Pamela Perrell, a number of playwrights including David Henry Hwang, Charles Fuller, Marsha Norman, Lisa Ramirez, Kristina Poe, and my brilliant dancing sisters Joanne Edgar, Caroline Kohles, Mary Pat Ryan, Eve Coulson, Wendy Saxe, Deborah Stern.
3) What is your biggest goal right now?
My biggest goal right now is to develop the next generation of leadership to take over the administration of the theater so that I can get back to being an artist myself. That and sustainability for the theater are my current goals.
I created a program, the Founder’s Project to work with seasoned artists: playwrights, directors and actors once a year in a play of my chosing. This was the inaugural season and I commissioned a play Out of the Mouths of Babes, by Israel Horovitz for Estelle Parsons and Judith Ivey. As a great gift, Israel wrote a role for me as well, and another actress, Francesca Choy-Kee. We ran for four weeks to sold out performances with standing ovations. It was one of the best and most challenging experiences of my life.
4) How did you get your first job? How did you jump to your second job?
My first job in New York came by a casting director, Alan Coleridge, the only person that I knew in New York when I first arrived in April of 1982. I invited him to lasagna dinner on Easter weekend. The next day, he told me that he’d heard from another casting director, Peter Cerreghetti, that they just fired someone on the third national tour of Annie, and they were holding auditions. I went to the audition, and from there was called back to meet Martin Charnin, Charles Strauss, and Peter Gennaro. At the end of the audition Martin Charnin asked me how long I’d been in New York. I told him two weeks. He then asked me, “You just got here, are you ready to go out on the road?”and I replied, “Absolutely! So they hired me on the spot.
That Annie tour ended in Boston after a Sunday Matinee, and I drove down to New York to audition the next morning, in an open “cattle” call, for Zorba with Anthony Quinn and Lela Kedrova. I had never attended a cattle call, and thought that everyone would be very dark haired and ethnic looking and wearing black. So I decided to dye my hair red and wear white. I came prepared to sing a Greek song that I’d learned working in a Greek nightclub act. A woman sitting next to me asked me what I was singing and I told her Ola Se Thimizoun, and she asked me where my music was, I told her that I was going to sing acapella. She told me that I should NEVER sing acapella. So when they asked twenty of us to step into the audition room, I carried all my belongings with me. The director, Michael Cacoyannis, who had directed the film, yelled at me that he couldn’t see me behind all those things in my arms, so I threw my coat and bags to the floor, put my hands on my hip and yelled back to him, “Can you see me now?” and he smiled and said, “You stay.” He was so taken with me that he invited me to the callback for principal roles, auditions. We were auditioning on the set for NINE at the time. I was so nervous and frightened that I was there competing with the best of Broadway. Well I didn’t get one of the principal roles, but I got the understudy and began a three year relationship with the musical and went on to play every major role for women my age, and returned in a contract on Broadway to play the Leader/Woman and was contracted to play the Widow on tour. It was a great education for me, an experience that led to many great things in my life for which I am ever grateful.
5) What time do you typically wake up? What do you do every morning?
I typically wake up about 6:30 or 7:00am. I go to my garden or my deck plants and prune and water them if they need it, then I’ll go downstairs and make coffee. If my husband is still sleeping, I’ll pray and meditate or do some laundry or just sit on the deck and give thanks for my wonderful life, my wonderful husband, my healthy and beautiful and brilliant son and daughter, for my extended family and friends and for my wonderful staff that are like my children.
6) What challenge / achievement are you most proud of?
Professionally, I’m most proud of keeping the theater going for 20 years. That is quite the accomplishment after 9/11, after the recession in 2008, after making some bad choices in partners. I’m very fortunate to have the staff and board and friends in the American theater that supported my through all the challenges.
As a woman I’m most proud of two things. My wonderful 30 year marriage to my husband. We are great partners in life and we’ve built a substantial, interesting, meaningful, blessed life together. And I’m also most proud of my children. I have a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive and brilliantly original-thinking daughter and a handsome, intelligent, sensitive, startlingly incisive and intuitive humanitarian and artist in my son.
7) What was the last business book you read?
The Ask, by Laura Fredricks.
8) What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Believe none of what you hear, and half of what you see.” Anonymous
9) What is your “keep me going” quote?
“Be impeccable with your word.
Do not assume anything.
Do not take anything personally.
Always do your best.” A Toltec Wisdom
10) What is your secret indulgence?
Salted Caramel, Goat milk ice cream
Check out Angelina Fiordellisi full profile here!