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An Interview With...
Jerome Vivona

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STARTING OUT

How did you get started in theatre?
Interesting question. Here's the short version: During elementary school I toured Long Island in a theatrical company founded by my third grade teacher, Mrs. Zeller. We would perform at other schools and senior centers. It was my first taste of the stage. During that same time, I spent many hours in the school auditorium with a group of friends writing and producing our own original works, for the student body. I don't think we ever actually performed any of them-but I did get to spend a great deal of time in the theater learning valuable lessons. In High School, I started doing commercials and would travel to NYC regularly and I became active in the school musicals. During summer of my senior year, I dated my choreographer.  She had recently graduated from Boston College and had returned to LI to assist her sister with our production of West Side Story. I played Riff. She told me I should study dance-- I loved dancing but was reticent at first. I didn't follow through at the time. I performed with ASCIA that year as well--Tony Grover and his wife Penny took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. I am very thankful for all of their tutelage. I then went to college to play soccer-I was disillusioned and returned home and then began dancing. I trained on LI privately for six months at Charmian Surface's studio in Sea Cliff and was then accepted to the Joffrey School of Ballet. That led to a scholarship at the Indiana University School of Music's Ballet Department. While there, I got a job dancing with the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group. Then jobs at four other Ballet companies quickly followed. Eventually, I ended up back in NY. I landed my first summer stock Job in PA in A Chorus Line as Paul and Anything Goes as Moonface Martin. While I was doing the show in Bucks County I auditioned for and got Jerome Robbins' Broadway--the rest is on my resume. That really is the shortened version.

What hooked you? School play, Broadway show, etc.
Definitely my school shows. I did Guys and Dolls and West Side Story in High School--I later did both of them professionally on Broadway and on Tour. The satisfaction of working with a group of individuals towards a common goal and then the warm reception from the audience when we had succeeded, it changed me.

What was the first show you ever worked on?
I wish I could remember the name of the show we did in Kindergarten. Seriously, The first one I remember was Androcles and the Lion. I played Androcles.

What was first show you ever saw?
I remember seeing The Magic Show on Broadway with my family in 1974.


WHAT I DO

What is your position on a production?
I am a Director/Choreographer and I sometimes produce as well.

Describe what your job entails. What are the duties of a Director/Choreographer?
My sole purpose is to first determine my overall vision for a production. Then I must determine the strongest path the production will take to achieve that vision. That decided, I guide all of my collaborators in achieving that vision. Specifically, with the actors my role is that of coach, confidante, therapist and at times partner. With the dancers my role is that of coach and benevolent taskmaster. I endeavor to enable talented performers to do what they do well - better. With the designers, my task is to describe the world I see the show happening in. Then I give them a sound idea of what I feel things need to look and feel like and finally, I give them the tools to do their jobs. In the end - I am the arbiter of taste-good and bad. When it works, it is the actor's fault, when it doesn't, it is mine alone.

Did you go to school to learn what you do?
Work was my education. Experience drills into you all you need to know. Luckily, I've worked with some of Broadway's top Directors and Choreographers. I made a point of watching and listening to them while they created. I have also assisted and supervised productions for some of those same people. Thankfully, I was never afraid to ask questions. I have learned that admitting you don't know something in the theater is considered a point of honor.


MY THEATER EXPERIENCE

What has been your favorite show to work on?
As an actor, that is tough. I would say Jerome Robbins' Broadway because of working with Jerry, Guys and Dolls for the sheer fun of it and Kiss Me, Kate because I learned the correct way to treat a company of actors and to Direct by watching Michael Blakemore work. As a Director -- easily -- West Side Story. There isn't another show like it.

What motivates you to keep doing what you're doing?
I have a real need to give something back to the community that has supported me all along. Our community survives by passing along what we have learned, I don't want to be accused of dropping the ball.

How do you feel about pre-casting?
I'm mixed on it. I don't believe in pre-casting as a rule. Sometimes, it serves a purpose. When time is of the essence and you trust someone-you go with them. Honestly though, I truly strive to give every person that auditions for me a fair shot. I try to judge each individual based upon what they do in front of me that day. I don't put much stock in resumes. But, when I have had success with someone previously and I like the way they work and I trust them, it should not preclude me from casting them in a new project. If they are right for it. I have cast actors new to me in roles because I was excited by what they brought to the table at the audition. Pre-casting eliminates the chance and the excitement of finding the next new talent.

What was your worst theater experience?
I was hired to Direct and Choreograph the final show of a summer stock season. It was the first time I was not fully responsible for the casting of my show. I inherited four actors that were already tired and truly cranky. They refused to learn their music or their choreography --they wanted to hold their scripts on stage and they fought me day in and day out. They were unbelievably unprofessional and difficult. I came in and worked with them on their day off, I tried to assure them I was on their side and believed they could succeed. I had started out hoping to help them soar and wound up just praying they wouldn't embarrass themselves, the theater or me. I cut over thirty-five minutes out of the show to help them learn their music on time and still they complained. It was a real shame. The show was successful, but a real disappointment for me.

What was your best theater experience?
The most recent production of West Side Story I directed at the North Carolina Theater. I had a dream cast made up of seasoned professionals, talented locals and hard working Arts College students. And, I was blessed with a thirty-piece symphony to play that magnificent score. I was in heaven. The cast worked very hard, they really pushed themselves and they excelled. I will never forget their hard work or professionalism.

If you could give one message to ALL of the actors out there, what would it be?
Be passionate, have a point of view, lose any sense of entitlement, never mark when dancing, collaborate with everyone and above all be professional.

If you could give one message to ALL the producers out there, what would it be?
Hire the best people you can for their respective jobs, and then let them do them.

If you could give one message to ALL the directors out there, what would it be?
Never forget that you are telling a story. And, yelling never makes the product better. (I wish I had learned that last one sooner. I'm Sorry to those who suffered prior to my epiphany. It was only two jobs, but I'm still disappointed for allowing myself the indulgence of losing my temper at all. Even once. You never get it back.)

If you could give one message to ALL the other techies out there, what would it be?
Thank you for your tireless efforts to bring good work to fruition.

Why do you work at the theatres that you do?
Because they respect the work and support my point of view.


FUN

Do you think Long Island Theater will continue to grow?
It had better. There is an abundance of talent here. I think actors tend to get lazy though. If the local talent base endeavored to work out of their respective comfort zones - truly exciting and wonderful things would begin to happen throughout the community.

What brings you greatest joy?
Helping someone achieve a memorable performance.

What irks you?
Watching talent being squandered and having people waste my time with their histrionics.

If you won lotto tomorrow you would...
Open a theater of my own. Buy my dad a jaguar and retire my wife.

Is it true you would rather be rich than good looking?
Money certainly makes being ugly easier to handle.

What's your favorite word?
Grace.

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
You've made a difference, thank you.

THE FUTURE

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like the readers to know about?
My partners, Lisa Dawn Cave, Jack Hayes and I are working to bring the Northport Theater back on line shortly as a Performing Arts Center. We are looking to run it year round. We will present Musicals, Plays, New Works, Concerts, Children's shows and outreach programs. We are also going to launch the Northport Film Festival, as well. We are really counting on the support of the community to make it a long-term success. We will offer a Theater Arts Conservatory program for serious performers, students and professionals alike.

What is your dream theatrical project?
I think I just described it. Otherwise, winning the respect of my peers for directing a successful Broadway Play.