Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2013

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The play's the thing

The play's the thing
Jessica Ammirati '94 on location at the Secret Theater in Long Island City. Photo by Geordie Wood.

Jessica Ammirati '94 follows her passion
for theater

By Jordana Gustafson '01


Jessica Ammirati has a favorite line from the 1995 movie “Apollo 13.” Just after the first manned spacecraft lands on the moon, Tom Hanks, playing astronaut James Lovell Jr., says, “It's not a miracle. We just decided to go.”

That line could also describe Ammirati's decision to establish her own theater company, Going to Tahiti Productions (GTTP), in 2007. Until then, she had been cobbling together production gigs and part-time jobs while trying to make a career in theater, but the death of a beloved uncle — a painter and bookstore owner —prompted her to reevaluate.

“I started thinking, 'How can I make this matter? How can I do something that makes a mark?'” she says. “Life is short, and you never know how short it's going to be.”

She borrowed the company's name from a childhood game she and her two sisters played with their uncle. GTTP launched its first show, “In the Ebb,” at Sage Theater in Times Square in 2008. The show, a collection of short plays written by her sister Camilla, was reprised in 2012 at the New York International Fringe Festival. One critic called it “extremely funny even as it peers into the abyss” and lauded Ammirati's direction for “creating a series of haunting tableaus that mirror the dark lyricism of the text.”

Today the GTTP ensemble includes 28 actors, designers and theater technicians, and the company has staged a total of eight productions, including a well-received adaptation of Jane Austen's “Persuasion.” In a male-dominated industry, Ammirati is particularly proud that all the productions to date have been written by women and that the production teams have been at least 50 percent female.

The company's ninth production, “Bella's Dream,” a play with dance, is based on the true story of a newlywed couple in 1939 Poland, who, heeding the advice of a dream, fled the Nazis; it's scheduled to run June 18-30 at New York's Flamboyán Theater in the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. For tickets, visit http://goingtotahitiproductions.com.

“I marvel at her seemingly endless energy,” says Ann Napolitano '94, whose first novel, “Within Arms Reach,” is next on GTTP's production list.

Ammirati found her calling in high school when she directed an adaptation of a Hemingway short story. As a theater major at Connecticut College, she developed her craft and took on an ambitious senior project — a production of the Broadway musical “Pippin.” To get it done, she had to call on all her resources and relationships, including family. Camilla operated the spotlight, and their other sister, Jennifer Ammirati Doyle '91, played the flute.

Today, it still takes a village to put on a theater production. With production budgets between $12,000 and $20,000, Ammirati's biggest challenges are financial. Each show is funded through individual donations, ticket sales, fundraising events and online fundraising campaigns; the goal is simply to break even. “I am not exaggerating when I say it is a daily juggling act,” she says.

Helping Ammirati keep the balls in the air is a supporting cast of family and friends, led by husband John Mark, her sisters and her parents. (She's the daughter of Dean of Studies Theresa Ammirati and retired Professor of Physics Thomas Ammirati.)

While she has learned to love all aspects of production, Ammirati's passion is still directing. When she talks about it, she could be describing her philosophy of life.

“You come in and have a picture of what you want it to be,” she says. “But what it really turns out to be is thinking on your feet, figuring it out as you go and figuring it out in a way that works.”


From director to doula

Jessica Ammirati's just-do-it attitude extends beyond the theater.

In 2003, tired of paying the bills with nine-to-five administrative jobs, she went back to school to become a massage therapist. When money is tight, she supplements her income with a shift at a local spa. She also teaches an occasional Lamaze class for expectant mothers.

In 2010, she added another credential to her eclectic resume — certification as a doula, a childbirth assistant who helps the new mother before, during and after the birth. “Basically, I've always been fascinated with the human body in general and birth in particular,” she says.

Under the business name Birth Angels, she has attended more than 40 births, including the 2011 birth of a daughter to Rhonda Harrington, an actor and member of the GTTP ensemble.

Both as a director and a doula, Harrington says, Ammirati has a talent for listening, watching and taking cues from those around her. She's particularly good at allowing people to discover things about themselves, in their own way.

“She would never say, 'Say the line this way,' or 'You shouldn't have that much pain right now,'” Harrington says. “It makes you feel good about your journey.”

Ammirati sees a common thread in her diverse occupations. “I like being needed,” she says. “I like being able to help. I like taking care of people. I do the same thing as a director. I try to take care of my actors and my crew.”


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