Kirsten Kelly on Film and Theater Directing: Nice Work If You Can Get It

April 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Careers, Movies, Profiles, Theater

Kirsten-Kelly-1Kirsten Kelly. (Photo by Andrew Skinner)


The Venue: The Hub Theatre, Fairfax, Virginia

The Play: Big Love, by Charles L. Mee

The Plot (as laid out on the Hub’s website):

“Fifty brides flee their 50 grooms and seek refuge in a villa on the coast of Italy in this modern re-making of one of the western world’s oldest plays, The Danaids by Aeschylus. The 50 grooms catch up with the brides, and mayhem ensues: the grooms arriving by helicopter in their flight suits, women throwing themselves over and over again to the ground, pop songs and romantic dances, and finally, unable to escape their forced marriages, 49 of the brides murder 49 of the grooms, and one bride falls in love—about the same odds as today.”

The Director: Kirsten Kelly. Her challenge: Mount a play involving 50 brides and 50 flight-suited, helicopter-dangling grooms on the stage of a 60-seat theater.

How could she do it? I know little about how a director pulls a play or film together. (I have a mental vision of a camp chair and a microphone.) So I was glad for the chance to find out—especially when the play at hand was as audaciously quirky, as epically wacky, as Big Love. I asked Kirsten Kelly how she found a way to get all these actors onstage.

Kelly, who just turned 40, has a husband, a toddler son, and a long string of credits for theater and film projects. There is, for instance, The Girl with a Rivet Gun, a new-media animated documentary project based on a unique collection of oral histories from real-life Riveter Rosies. Kelly is producing the film with Elizabeth Hemmerdinger and Anne de Mare for the Real Rosie the Riveter Project, which is housed in the NYU libraries. And there’s  The Homestretch, a documentary on homeless teens in Chicago that Kelly and her longtime film partner, de Mare, have been working on for three and a half years. And Big Love. And many other plays, films, and educational projects.

Nice work—and Kelly got it, even though she grew up in a small farming town and attended “schooling that seemed to provide no clear path to making a living in the arts. It was seen as a hobby.”

Kelly is a member of that small but talented tribe, Female Directors. And, happily, tribal legend has it that, since she has toughed this precarious career out for so long, her career is bound to leap upward. “‘Just keep going until you’re 40,’ I keep hearing from female directors I admire,” Kelly says. ‘Keep slugging and don’t give up. Once you turn 40, things shift in this field.’ I don’t know why this was the magic number, but it’s true—there has definitely been a professional shift this year.”

Two signs: This year, Kelly won a coveted Sundance Institute fellowship ­for The Homestretch. And in January came her nomination, in the Outstanding Director category (for Big Love) for a Helen Hayes Award, which recognizes excellence in the professional theatre in the Washington, D.C., area.

Kelly was honored, but “somewhat taken aback” at being the only woman among eight nominees. Especially since The New York Times had just run an article noting the rise of female directors in New York. “I felt the irony greatly,” she says.

She had, however, the backing of another member of the Female Director tribe, Helen Pafumi, artistic director of the Hub, which produced Big Love last summer. Kelly had just had her first baby; Pafumi went to the Hub’s board of directors and persuaded them to do something unconventional: offer Kelly a contract with daycare covered.

An early look at Big Love in rehearsal.

How to mount this play, with its daunting stage directions? She and Pafumi did research and brainstormed; then the lighting and set designers came in and “jumped off those ideas.” Then the costume and sound designers came in plying their imaginations. “Preparation time and brainstorming time with the designers is a really key even before a rehearsal starts,” Kelly says. “They’re bringing in things you haven’t thought of, or taking your ideas 10 times farther. This helps deepen the director’s vision.”

And how would they represent the script’s challenge of 50 men and 50 women onstage? Kelly can’t say who got the wedding-cake-figure idea—the process was so collaborative, and ideas were floating around from everyone. “We ended up using these huge, beautiful silver trays full of bride-and-groom cake toppers. They end up being little lit-up statuettes on the scene while the main characters are having the wedding.”

And the 49 murders? “There was a bride who came out with a big tray of cake-topper grooms, and she started punching all the grooms and throwing them down and stepping on them; she went through and methodically murdered all of those cake statues, while the 10 live actors around her were having a raucous brawl.”

The playwright, Charles L. Mee, gives directors the freedom to innovate. Kelly got the idea of having the actors break into song now and then (though Big Love is not a musical). So, in auditions, she asked the actors to sing a portion of their favorite love song. Any love song. Then she found places in the script where the actors could break into “a fragment of the perfect song that explains exactly what they were feeling.” Those melodies ranged wildly—from love songs of the forties to modern rock.

 HubTheatre(BigLove)_MelissaBlackall_-178Wedding mayhem at Big Love. Murders also taking place. (Photo: Melissa Blackall)

Seventy-five percent of directing, Kelly believes, is casting the right actors. “It’s not just that they come in to an audition and read, and then they leave. If you’re interested in someone, you start that work right at the audition, and kind of test how the two of you would work together. If the people are right for the role, directing becomes a conversation, not an authoritarian interaction. You hope the actors are so involved in the character they’re playing that they bring huge amounts of reserve and connection. You want each actor to own that character and own that journey in a way that’s very personal to them.”

Kelly did not receive the Helen Hayes Outstanding Director Award. At the April ceremony, that award went to Christopher McElroen for Invisible Man at the Studio Theatre in D.C.  But she’ll return next season to direct in D.C. and at the Hub.

She’s had a rich and satisfying life in the arts—already. “I do feel really grateful and lucky to have this career,” she says. “So much of this work involves passion projects that can’t support you; you’ll be working one job while you’re trying to fit in the creative work to do the project you want to do. There’s no straight road.

“But I feel that shift has started to happen, because all the previous work has prepared me to have opportunities that are bigger and bigger. I have done all the training—in storefront theaters, then a master’s in directing at Juilliard, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, at Lincoln Center, at many towns as a filmmaker—that will actually allow me to make a living at what I love to do.”

Read more . . .

. . . on how Kelly shaped Big Love

. . . and about the relative abundance of female directors at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival; 10 interviews with 10 female directors.


Women’s History Month: At NYU, Rosie the Riveter Speaks

March 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Profiles


In 1942, with the United States at war and many young men overseas, an acute labor shortage was threatening both the continued output of American manufacturing and the very
war effort itself. Industries historically averse to hiring women now threw open their doors, challenging traditionally sexist views and forever altering the composition of the workforce.

During the World War II years, an estimated  8 to 16 million women were employed in critical trades, including automobiles, shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing, electrical equipment manufacture, and transportation. For many women this was an opportunity for independence, money of their own, and seeing the country. At the peak of wartime employment, women constituted between one-third and one-half of the workers in many basic industries, jobs hitherto considered “men’s work.”

Now, nearly 70 years later, the stories of 48 of these women are being told in their own voices. And on April 3, a number of Rosies will be at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to present a new collection of filmed oral histories at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives: “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project.”  The real Rosies, now in their 80s and 90s, will join with filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly of Spargel Productions (NYC), who have been interviewing and filming ‘Rosies’ over the past two years, along with executive producer, writer, and playwright Elizabeth Hemmerdinger. (Hemmerdinger is a founding board member of, and frequent contributor to, WVFC.)

“They don’t talk just about walking into the factory,” Hemmerdinger has said. “We get their whole lives. We get stories of the Depression; of racial, class and gender divides—a story of America.”

The interviews, now publicly available online, bring a lifetime of experience and perspective to a transformational time in the lives of these pioneering industrial workers when they gave the United States a new icon of strength, determination, and reliability on their way to changing the perception of working women. Each story is longer and more detailed than the promo below—and each is riveting.

“This intimate look at the lives of women who joined the war effort is an invaluable cultural and historical document,” said Michael Nash, head of the Tamiment Library. “Real-life ‘Rosies’ describe their experience in what had been traditional men’s jobs in the war industries—most notably airplane and shipbuilding and electronics—but despite these breakthroughs, the Rosies still worked in gender-segregated workplaces. Sadly, after the war most of them lost their well-paying jobs.”

Some highlights of the riches contained in the archive:

• Angeline Fleming was born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1919. Raised in a two-room house with a dirt floor, Angeline picked cotton before receiving her teaching certificate, and taught for a year in the segregated schools of rural Mississippi. During the war, she moved to Detroit with her brothers, where she got work as a riveter on the B-29 bomber for the Ford Motor Company. In the factory, Angeline noticed that most people would self-segregate into working groups. She later married and followed her husband to California. He worked  in the shipyards, but she was unable to get a high-paying factory job there because of prejudice toward black people at that time. She and her husband returned to Detroit in 1943. On her 90th birthday, the city of Detroit honored Angeline for her work as a “Detroit Rosie the Riveter.”




Marion Yagoda (right) began making wing tips for B-29s when she was only 16; her father did not believe that young women needed a high school diploma. Yagoda earned one in her eighties.







Cleveland-born Idilia Johnston rebelled against her “controlling” Scottish parents by leaving home for a defense job with the Ohio Crankshaft Company. From there, she joined the Navy and worked on the B-26 Marauder airplane.






The project started out as background research to enhance Hemmerdinger’s play We Can Do It!,  written as part of her film MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She started her research at Tamiment’s oral history archive, but was surprised at how little primary source material on real-life Rosies there was in archival audio or video footage.

“There were between 8 and 16 million women who stepped into jobs traditionally identified as men’s work. I wanted to bring these very real stories to life,” said Hemmerdinger. “I felt we had a moral imperative to break down the long-existing icon of ‘Rosie’ and give these stories to the world.”

This inspiration led to the idea of collecting as many interviews as possible and donating them to the Tamiment archive.

“We made these stories of our forgotten WW II Rosie heroes available to the public in the hope that people will utilize this archive to teach,” Hemmerdinger said. Most of the 33 interviews are full histories describing early family life, education, employment experiences before the war, wartime work, and life after World War II. As one would expect, a complex picture emerges.

In order to find the living “Rosies” to interview, Hemmerdinger and the filmmakers began by reaching out to friends, colleagues, and the American Rosie the Riveter Association.

“We found our first Rosies through close personal connections,” said Hemmerdinger. “One is Bonnie Gifford, Kirsten Kelly’s grandmother; one was a close artistic colleague; and we found one through an elder outreach program nearby.”

The filmmakers were surprised by the response to a simple ad they placed in the newsletter of the Michigan Library Association. Hundreds of women contacted them to share their stories.

Through trips made in the spring of 2010 to areas of high industrial production during WW II, the team found a concentrated number of amazing Rosies in Detroit and Baltimore.  Additionally, the team was invited to film at the 2010 American Rosie the Riveter Conference, held in Nashville. There they were able to meet and film Rosies from across the nation.

The project producers were so inspired by these collected Rosie stories that they have embarked on producing a feature-length documentary based on the “Real Rosie the Riveter Project,” which will go beyond the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster girl and put a human face on the Rosie experience. The film is currently in development and will be released in 2013.

Looking back, the Rosie narrators found their wartime work experience transformative. It changed the way they viewed themselves and the world around them, instilling confidence while leading them to a new understanding of what women were capable of and providing a sense of pride and accomplishment that has remained with them throughout their lives.

When the war ended, many Rosies were asked to return to the home, but many continued working and some went on to college and graduate school. Class, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation also defined the wartime and postwar experiences of many of the Rosies.

“I hope young people will look at these real-life Rosie interviews and gain insight and inspiration for their own lives,” Hemmerdinger said.

On Nooks, Crannies and “The Necessary:” The Baroness Blogs Part 5

February 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Quests

The Baroness, Don Mauro, Kirsten and Anne at the Abbey Morimundo.

Here, the final day of shooting and the final dispatch from the road from WVFC’s Elizabeth Hemmerdinger. Jet lag and the demands of life notwithstanding, a back-in-New-York post-script may appear in the coming days or weeks. Meanwhile, a good flight home to the Baroness and her film crew!

We began the morning yesterday with breakfast at 7, then piled into the SUV with David, our line producer here in Milan. We had turned to David—an American actor and friend of Anne’s now living in Milan—to secure all the permits and appointments, and to translate for us as we went along. He also became “Sound” when Anne handed him the boom (a big microphone on the end of a long stick). This involves skill and muscle, as the mike has to be kept out of the frame (that is, the picture in the camera) but close to the subject and quick-moving, as the camera (mostly operated by Kirsten) keeps up with the moving subject. Even little tilts of the head make a huge difference, and the dark tip of the boom mike can ruin a spontaneous and important moment.

Stefan drove us to the outskirts of Milan. His exquisite technique was hampered by the herky-jerky traffic, which left us inching along for more than an hour as we headed to Moromundi Abbey. David had made it clear that we might be given a less than fulsome welcome at the church, because the priest in charge had been rather uninterested in accommodating us. So we hoped at best for a short shoot outside a simple country church and a long shot of the woods, both of which play a part in Mariuccia’s story.

It was at this abbey that Mariuccia hid with her parents when the bombing was too heavy in and around their Milan neighborhood. The church looks small from the outside, and we grew cold as we waited for the priest, who emerged rather dramatically through the front doors, his shiny black cassock swaying as he came down the stairs. Within moments, Mariuccia had charmed Don Mauro and he welcomed us into his church, and into what has become his life’s work.

Morimundo is a beautiful structure built of handmade red bricks—even rounded ones for the columns—on top of which sit stone capitals from the year 0 (yes, zero) B.C. At first, Mariuccia didn’t recognize the church, where she had attended mass daily. But then, it had been 70 years since she had left. She had remembered a white interior.

Don Mauro told us the beautiful masonry had been plastered over early in the twentieth century to stabilize the shifting bricks and cracks in the walls. The removal of that plaster began the reconstruction that Don Mauro has supervised for the decades. Over the centuries, one church had been built upon another smaller church, several times over, until the space we were standing in was quite a way up the hill.

Connected to the church is a building that had been a dormitory for monks in earlier times, but when Mariuccia hid here, was a vacant building. Coincidentally, it was this apartment that Don Mauro was having renovated as a library for the abbey, a place for study and contemplation for future generations. He had not known that the little apartment had been a sanctuary once before, and he had certainly never expected to meet Mariuccia. And yet, with a matter-of-fact grace, he led us all up a stone staircase, round a corner and into the rooms that overlook farmland and . . . the very woods we were seeking. Here, Mariuccia’s family had felt safe—until English planes would strafe the countryside. Then the family would return to Milan, coming back to the abbey when things got too dangerous in the city.

Don Mauro told us that when the English Air Force attacked the neighborhood, the Germans would fight ferociously.  It’s all rather complicated, but when Mussolini surrendered early in the war and abandoned Germany, Hitler essentially occupied Italy. Once (only once??) the Germans shot down a plane with three English fliers in the woods that began across the field. They hid in the woods and an Italian man brought them food and water until they could evade the Germans. That man was Mariuccia’s father! We had heard the same story from her.

Don Mauro toured the entire church with us, down to the earliest levels of building, with a staircase built in 600 A.D. and a small nave built shortly after 1100. Stone floors and fine workmanship, and intimate, warm spaces made us, too, feel safe in the foggy chill.  On the third floor, we saw the frescoed rooms of the prior who governed the place in the 18th century. And there, in the floor, an excavated amenity called “the necessary:” a hole with, presumably, a pipe to carry the sorts of things that a person–even a man of God–creates as a byproduct of eating. I had always wondered…

We were all rather done in as we took our leave. Mariuccia was again confronted with images and impressions she thought long gone, about most of which she was interested but rather dispassionate. We walked the square of the ancient cloister. Off the walkway was one small room that had perfect acoustics, and here she and our David sang “Ave Maria.” Gorgeous. As we were leaving, we came upon a plaster medallion in the cloister wall. It commemorated Cardinal Schuster, whom Mariuccia recognized instantly—with tears of joy and the shock of recognition—as the man who had given her first communion.

We walked around the surrounding grounds, and then Don Mauro gifted us with wonderful books, including one called “In Verita, Il Paradiso e ai Piedi Delle Madri, Ricordi di una mamma.”  It’s a rare mamma whose son publishes a 327-page encomium to her, with photos of her whole life—that is, as it began when she married, as her four sons grew, as three became priests, and, yes, as she lay dying in her bed, and then in a coffin borne by nuns.

As I sign off, I think of dear Kirsten, shoulders tense, eyes glued to the tiny camera screen, focused on the scene, intent on capturing the story that Anne had been so kindly encouraging Mariuccia to remember. I’ll remember the day always, as our small, disparate group had grown into a team: a woman midway through her ninth decade, loving friends whose ages spanned fifty years, working comrades, and  Kirsten’s baby-boy bump. Soon he will love her as much as we do.

From Monaco to Milan, Two Operas Later: The Baroness Blogs, Part 4

February 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Quests

Anne at the camera and Kirsten on the floor, assembling the microphone boom, in the foyer of La Scala this morning

Playwright, screenwriter, and WVFC board member Elizabeth Hemmerdinger continues her ongoing adventures in filming the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo about her long and accomplished life, particularly her experiences as an adolescent in World War II Milan.

Yesterday we traveled from Monte Carlo to Milan by SUV on the autoroute. In the rain. At about a thousand miles an hour. It was a heart-stopping experience, one that I’m glad I didn’t miss, but don’t yearn to repeat. All the while, and I mean for more than three hours, Mariuccia told us the history of the regions we were whizzed thru. Anne, somewhat prone to car-tummy, was trying desperately to stay in the moment, pressing Mariuccia with questions. Kirsten sat in the front, torqued and trying desperately to hold the camera steady and keep Mariuccia in the frame as her driver, Stefan, dodged and wove in the driving rain. I felt like a fly in a bottle.

The Italian countryside, stepped hills and ravines all along the coast, is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Even in the February doldrums. We passed Genoa and glimpsed the huge port at warp speed, then turned north to Milan. Mariccia said today that Milan “was never hysterical,” by which she meant it has a rather austere mien, much influenced by the Austrians who occupied the area for so long centuries ago.

We could have kissed the earth when we arrived at our hotel, so relieved were we to be on solid ground again. And of course, we had to thank Stefan for getting us to Milan intact and in time for the opera. We checked in, changed our clothes, and tried to keep up with Mariuccia, who ran off to find our restaurant. We had a lovely lunch and then ran around the corner to La Scala to hear Tosca. We had marvelous seats and heard wonderful singers. Anne and Mariuccia are officionados, Kirsten and I not so much. I like a good opera. This, however, was our second in less than twenty-four hours. The night before, in Monte Carlo, we had attended the opening of Salome at the Monte Carlo Opera House—a confection of a hall.

Mariuccia and her husband had been instrumental in the rebuilding of La Scala after World War II, and we planned to use this story as the centerpiece of our documentary about her life.  And so, attending Tosca—and in fact, contrasting it with another presentation at another opera house—was an important part of our work. Alas, for Kirsten and me it was indeed work. For the other two, pure pleasure, even though they could (and did) critique the two productions and performances.

But every venue has the potential for an enduring dinner-party story, and here’s ours. As we got to the front of the line to the ladies’ room, the attendant said to us, “Where are you from?  Germany?”

“No, America.”

“Ah,” she said, “What do you think of your new president?”

Anne launched into a sincere and measured answer.

The matron interrupted,  “Just a minute.  Will you trade?  We give you Berlusconi; you give us Obama?”

Lots of laughter, of course, but the deeper gesture toward sisterhood was the most satisfying. I don’t know if you’re seeing it in the States, but here grandmas have taken to the streets in protest. Indefensible social behavior may seem a small transgression compared to the treatment meted out to the average citizens in certain countries in Middle East, but in Italy mature women are taking to the streets and talking in hallways to total strangers.

Part 2

We arrived at the stage door of Teatro alla Scala at 10 a.m. Mariuccia had arranged an extraordinary filming opportunity for us. We interviewed her inside La Scala. It is impossible to have access to the “house,” the main auditorium. And yet, after we did some filming in the foyer of the level of the best boxes, we were allowed inside the President’s box—yes, for the moment, it is Mr. Berlusconi’s—and from there, we interviewed Mariuccia describing her first visit to La Scala with her father when she was just a little girl, her feelings when it was bombed, and what the building and the opera mean to her and to Italy. And then… and then… we were taken to the scene shop to film.  And so we came away with truly rare footage.

Then lunch and a brief rest for Mariuccia while we reviewed the footage. Then Stefan drove us to the charming neighborhood where Mariuccia lived as a child.  She hadn’t returned for 70 years.  It was very meaningful for her. And for me, a time travel trip, too.

As she talked about her friend Bruno, a Jewish boy whose family disappeared, I traveled back to my old neighborhood on West 86 Street in New York City.  I saw my old friends, and the staircase in the apartment house where I lived.  As she talked about the iron railings that had disappeared, along with all the women’s jewelry for la patria during the war, I remembered playing cowboys and Indians with my friend Rose on the iron railings next door to our building.

As she showed us her school and reminisced about her friends and teachers and schoolwork, so did I. Seeing the knock-kneed, shy child I was – and she’s sitting beside me now – is rather an odd feeling. I’m actually almost as disoriented as I was during the mad drive into Milan. I wanted to lie down. Kirsten and Anne wearily climbed down from the SUV.

Mariuccia marched off with me to do shopping. First, to order flowers for the lovely woman who organized our visit to La Scala. Then, to the best shopping street in Milan.  She and I traded back and forth, carrying stuff she bought, til I cried “Uncle,” to return to my room and write this. She dropped me and her parcels off, and charged off into the night for another round.  I’m about done and about ready for traction, but must primp and join the others for dinner. Buona notte!

In Monte Carlo, Overlooking the Sea: The Baroness Blogs, Part 3

February 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Quests

Playwright, screenwriter, and WVFC board member Elizabeth Hemmerdinger continues her ongoing adventures in filming the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo about her long and accomplished life, particularly her experiences as an adolescent in World War II Milan.

We’ve just returned from a long shoot with the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo at her apartment overlooking the sea in Monte Carlo.

First, we looked with her at the few photos she has of her childhood and teenage years in Milan, during World War II.  These were years of deprivation, fear, and the hard work of surviving in a war-torn nation.

Then we looked at four oversized, leather- bound photo albums of the estate she shared with her husband: more than 100 acres, twenty minutes outside Rome, near Castel Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. The property was a working farm, with cows, at least one bull (at a time), vegetable beds, a beautiful swimming pool, and 5,000 olive trees (so they made their own oil). And a zoo. On the top of a hill sat a wonderful home, a guest house, separate library building, gardens, stone stairs, and manicured gardens.   They married in 1949, and within ten years of hard work that she shared, doing whatever he needed, their company became a multinational business. When he died, after 31 years of marriage, she was devastated. Next month will be the 30th anniversary of his death, and she is still very affected by his loss.

That said, several years after her husband’s death, Mariuccia sold the estate, moved from Rome, and started a new life. Among the things she did was to get a Ph.D. in history in Lausanne, become a member of the Vatican Delegation to the United Nations and join the board of New York University. She bought and renovated a building for NYU and founded Casa Italiana, now an important focal point for the research and promotion of Italian culture in New York.

There’s more to tell, but Anne, Kirsten and I are going for a short walk near our hotel.  None of us has been here before, and we’ve had no time to absorb the feel of Monte Carlo—though is it, without a doubt, a most elegant city. My room is small but beautiful, the walls covered in pale yellow damask. From the window I see the sea and the Casino . . .

Just back from our walk. We have discovered we had different thoughts about the movie we’re making. The wonderful thing about our working relationships—Anne and I have worked on things for more than twenty years, and Kirsten and Anne have worked together for about ten years—is that when we find we are of different minds, we are delighted with the surprise. Sometimes we’re a little wobbly, but confident that this is energy, not tension, that will take us to a more creative solution.

Must shower and primp and meet the others to grab an early dinner. When I made the reservation, the concierge was shocked. Apparently 6:30 is no time to eat in Monaco. It must be nap-time for the locals. But tonight Mariuccia is taking us to the opera, for the opening of Salome. The only way to arrive at the main doors of the opera house is by going through the casino. Marvelous!

Somewhere Above Nice: The Baroness Blogs, Part 2

February 18, 2011 by  
Filed under Quests

In her first installment of The Baroness Blogs, posted yesterday, playwright, screenwriter, and WVFC board member Elizabeth Hemmerdinger talked about the film project that was bringing her to Europe: An excursion to Milan with the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli- Marimo, re-tracing the Baroness’s experiences as an adolescent in World War II.  Here, en route, Hemmerdinger muses on the array of technological devices required, in the 21st century,  for a venture like this.

My colleagues Kirsten Kelly, Anne de Mare and I are on board an Air France flight to Nice, after an overnight flight from New York to Paris. I am traveling with more electronic gear than I could have imagined two years ago. Blackberry, iPod, Mac Airbook—just how sweet can a new necessity be?—digital camera, flip camera (with which I’ll film the others filming Baroness Mariuccia), and a new hotspot-thingy, which will give all of us wi-fi connection wherever we are. Each device has something to plug into something else, and wires, and buttons, and instructions.

I am nostalgic for the simple yesteryear when the operation of the dishwasher was a mystic experience. We got our first dishwasher in a move across town when I was 16—that’s 49 years ago. My mother, a high-heeled glamourpuss, had no interest in turning the thing on. A dishwasher was, for her, simply a dish rack that she had to bend over to empty. Which reminds me of the day we got our first television, when I was six. I was all excited, and she told me to calm down before I broke one of her knickknacks.

Now, all these new devices I  carry around would fit in one corner of that first TV cabinet.

But here we are, soaring comfortably over the famous Côte d’Azur, the sweeping coast of the south of France, while a fancy little cup holder hovers over this laptop. Dr. Pat would have me drinking V8, but I’ve had to settle for jus de tomate. In a few moments, we’ll land in Nice and drive along the coast to Monaco, where the Baroness awaits.

More soon.

Adventures in Filmmaking: The Baroness Blogs, Part 1

February 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Quests

For playwright, screenwriter, and Women’s Voices for Change board member Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, a new chapter in the story of post-menopausal reinvention is now unfolding: her transformation into the executive producer of a documentary film about a remarkable woman and her life experiences, starting with World War II. Here, Elizabeth brings us up to speed on the story to date, setting the stage for the blog posts she’ll be sending over the coming week, as she and her colleagues set off on the trail of the indefatigable Baroness Mariuccia.  – Eds.

Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo in 2007. (Photo: Patrick

Tonight, Anne de Mare, Kirsten Kelly and I fly off to film the extraordinary Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo in Monte Carlo and Milan. Born in Milan, the Baroness was a young teenager when Mussolini joined Hitler’s war. Now 85, she transformed herself from a survivor of the terrors of World War II into a true heroine: a philosopher, a humanitarian, a fierce patron of the arts, a proud Italian, a great friend to America and the Holy See, a determined impresario, and an ambassador who continues to set a remarkable example as she graciously campaigns for peace and understanding.

In May 2010, we sat down in New York City with the Baroness Zerilli-Marimo to film an interview about her childhood experiences during the war in Italy. What emerged from that hour and a half were stories that she herself had not spoken in over fifty years. They are stories of a shy, sheltered adolescent suddenly responsible for her pregnant mother as they fled Milan under bombardment, unaware that her father’s extended absences were due to his participation in the Resistenza. They are stories of hiding in the countryside, of a baby brother cared for in bomb shelters and caves, of the harsh realities of war, and the hard-won redemption of peace.

Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, home of the Department of Italian Studies at New York University.

The Baroness’s perspective on survival, art, peace and humanity are truly inspiring. She is the founder of New York University’s Casa Italiana and was recently named one of New York City’s Living Landmarks.

And so Anne, Kirsten, and I will visit Mariuccia at her home in Monte Carlo, and then travel to Milan to film her. We will be walking with her through the streets of Milan, traveling to the abbey where she hid, and filming the Baroness as she re-encounters the physical and emotional experiences of her unique journey through a wartime adolescence and married life at the center of the rebirth her country.

As primary documents, the original interview and the Baroness’s filmed return to Milan will provide an invaluable historical record of an aspect of World War II which is often overlooked: that of civilian Italy. It is our hope that they will also spark a more in-depth examination of the themes and issues of innocent people struggling in a country mired in war and politics, providing the raw material for a documentary film.

It’s new territory for each of us. Kirsten Kelly, in her mid-30s, is six months pregnant—for the first time. Anne de Mare, a squosh closer to my age, has never been to Europe. And as for me—well, sporting a new senior citizens’ MTA pass—Anne gave me quite a talking-to some months back. In the kindest, most respectful way, she said that if I wanted to work with them on this particular project, I’d have to own my own abilities, hone my skills, and really become the Executive Producer—which meant I had to raise the money. And two more stipulations: I had to raise enough to pay myself a salary. Anne said if I didn’t (as has been my wont), I would continue to devalue myself and therefore my collaborators. If they were to earn a living, then so must I. And, Anne said, I must see all the money needed for this trip into the bank before we set off.

Interestingly, I’ve hit a snag. Some weeks ago, two women I’ve known for some time promised to top off the budget for this trip. Four days ago, I got an email saying the deal was off, and that their husbands wanted a different sort of deal. That deal was offered yesterday, in an hour-and-a-half, complicated meeting with one of the husbands and his lawyer. But you know what? That’s a story for another day, because I have to make some calls to raise quite a bit of money.

At this point, packing comes first—tricky, since we’ll be outdoors a good deal, and Mariuccia is taking us to the opera twice, the ballet once, and lord knows where else. For a moment, we were going to a Lemon Festival in the hills of Monaco, but then she said that program wouldn’t be interesting enough. So at the moment, all sorts of tops, a little black dress, shoes, a hill of meds and hair products, the round brush and the hairdryer, almonds and Zone Bars and the delicious little Kindle carpet the room. How to stay light enough  to hoist our things off the airport carousels and still have the right accessories… that’s a story for the whole week. Because I just realized I forgot my undies.