May 16, 2017

Angelina FiordellisiAngelina Fiordellisi ’81 is a seasoned actress, theatre producer and play director who has won many awards — including a Tony Award — and worked with some of the top producers, directors and actors on and off Broadway.

Yet one of her favorite memories comes from the small, 60-seat studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City.

Fiordellisi was producing “The Refreshment of the Spirit” on the small stage of Cherry Lane. Ten female actresses involved in the production had to crossover behind stage to make an entrance from the other side.

“The space they had to squeeze through was maybe three feet and they had these giant hoop skirts. They would take their hoops and put one end down by their feet and the other end up by their heads,” said Fiordellisi, laughing almost as hard as the first time she saw it. “It was one of the funniest solutions to a challenge I’ve encountered.”

This and many of Fiordellisi’s favorite theatre memories were made at Cherry Lane, which she purchased and began refurbishing in 1996. It is home to the Cherry Lane Alternative whose signature program, the Mentor Project, provides an opportunity for playwrights to be mentored, show their work and launch their careers.

“This is where I found my niche,” said Fiordellisi. “I wanted to provide an environment where young playwrights could work with mentor playwrights. I wanted them to have someone who could guide them, support them and listen to their concerns, help them get an agent and bring in people to view their work. I’ve done that here.”

Cherry Lane is New York’s longest continuously running Off-Broadway theatre and the winner of several awards, including an Obie Award for the Mentor Project.

Starting out in Detroit

The acting bug officially bit when Fiordellisi was in high school and it bit at Detroit Mercy.

“I went to see a production by the University of Detroit Theatre Company at Marygrove. It was ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” said Fiordellisi. “I was so blown away. They were so good. It was one of the best things I’d seen in my life and it inspired me. Right there, I said ‘I’m going into performing arts.’ ”

After auditing a class at University of Detroit Mercy, Fiordellisi was offered a full-ride scholarship to become a full-time student in the Theatre program.

“We were a scrappy theatre company,” Fiordellisi remembered. “The professors treated us like professionals. When we were auditioning for plays, we had to audition with professional actors. We made the costumes, we did the lights, we built the sets, we stage managed. We handled every aspect of the theatre company and that was a great experience for me, especially when I started Cherry Lane Theatre.”

“Everything I learned at University of Detroit Mercy I was able to apply to this company. I learned to love, respect and experience every aspect of putting together a production. Every element is important, from actors to directors to producers to lighting and set design.”

After graduation, Fiordellisi became a professional actress working on and off Broadway and touring the country with hit productions, including “Annie” and “Zorba.” She worked on television and acted in movies. Then she got married, had children and took on her favorite role: Mother.

“I stayed home with my children for eight years when they were first born. I did the traditional Italian mother thing,” she said. “I wanted to stay home with my children and I moved to Los Angeles to be with my husband, who was a playwright that found enormous success in television.”

While she was raising her children, she got involved in new play development.

“To me, it was more gratifying than being on stage and performing. I think it goes hand-in-hand with raising children and developing the hearts and souls and minds of my own children. I loved watching how, over just two weeks, a play could grow with the input of the actors and dramaturges. I loved seeing the playwrights find their voice and say what they wanted to say in a way the audience would understand,” Fiordellisi said.

Raising the next generation

In 1996, she purchased the Cherry Lane Theatre and established the Cherry Lane Alternative as a way to serve the theatre community.

“When playwrights are in college, there are a lot of resources, and then there is a big black hole between that and a playwright’s first professional production,” she said. “I thought I could fill that gap. I could find the best emerging playwrights and launch their careers with a workshop production in New York City.”

When she bought the building, she thought a storage room in it would make a great black box studio theatre. Her business model was unique: Rent out the mainstage to larger plays and keep the mentor program in the studio. The rentals helped fund the Cherry Lane Alternative. This plan allowed her to grow the business and helped her through difficult economic times to focus on what she loved—helping emerging artists.

She said many of the playwrights she brought into the Cherry Lane Alternative had never worked with a designer or director. She helped them build professional relationships that would last beyond the last bow on the studio stage.

Now in its 21st season, the Cherry Lane Theatre is running without Fiordellisi this year as she is on sabbatical to act in several productions. At the

same time, she is prepping Cherry Lane Alternative to be turned over to the next generation. She said she plans to maintain control of the rentals and the main theatre and work there often.

“Theatre is always a labor of love and it’s always a risk,” said Fiordellisi. “It’s all about the artists you believe in. It’s the artists you want to work with. If you find a good play, you can always attract good talent.”

While Fiordellisi’s role in theatre is changing once again, she wants to make sure the good talent in the field continues to grow.

“When I started Cherry Lane Alternative in 1996, there were 350 not-for-profit organizations. In 2016, there were 3,500. Everyone is fighting for the same funding and the same audiences. We want to continue the work,” she said. “Theatre is a reflection of our time and our humanity and it’s important to keep it going.”

— By Rebecca Thomas. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.