Intensely thoughtful, creative, collaborative, community-minded — those words just begin to describe Camilla Ross and Lisa Giordano — founding members of the Emerson Theater Collaborative (ETC).
Established in 2008 as a professional nonprofit Southeastern Connecticut-based theater company, ETC's objectives are to serve young people, under-represented communities and artists by producing innovative theater — original works and classics — with an emphasis on diversity. ETC doesn't shy away from controversial productions, and is focused on educating, opening minds and offering new ways of looking at old problems, Ross and Giordano said. Giving back to those in need is a priority, and ETC donates a portion of proceeds of every show to an area charity.
Ross and Giordano are multi-talented women who wear many hats in their daily lives.
Ross, president, lives in Colchester and grew up in Massachusetts. She studied theater at Emerson College in Boston. She joined the military after college, and after moving to Connecticut, formed ETC, which collaborates with the college's network of alumni and students. Ross has produced all of the theater company's productions and performs in many of them.
"ETC is very much a part of my heart and soul as an artist, activist, and educator," she said. "For the first time in my life I feel like my purpose is where it should be, and I love that."
Ross also teaches personal finance and accounting courses at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich.
She is married to local photographer Jack Ross and has "five amazing children," including her two pets.
Giordano is a New London native. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a master's in chemistry. But her playwriting career didn't begin until 12 years ago while she was bedridden with a lengthy illness.
"All I could do was write," she explained. "I picked up a pencil and piece of paper and started to write, and that's how I wrote my first play. I fell in love with writing and theater — and then studied theater."
The friends met in 2006 at New London's Writer's Block Ink youth arts program, at which Giordano now serves as faculty representative.
"I had taught high school sciences and had experiences with kids, so it was a natural progression (to work with youth)," Giordano said.
Ross was recruited to teach acting at the Writer's Block and develop a summer program, she explained.
"Lisa came to the table with ability to tell a story through writing that just moved me as a person," she said.
Ross asked Giordano to help establish ETC along with Emma Palzere-Rae, who now serves as director of development & communications for Safe Futures (formerly the Women's Center of SECT).
Giordano is ETC's publicity director and resident playwright. She has written several of the plays performed by the theater company, including "Harriet Tubman's Dream."
"She is extremely gifted," Ross said. "I for one have had the privilege of seeing the beauty of her worked performed for many audiences."
Raising Hope, awareness
ETC's biggest endeavor to date is the I AM WORTHY PROJECT, an awareness campaign created to shine a spotlight on the epidemic of suicide, its effects and its prevention through arts education and by fostering conversations in local communities.
Both Ross and Giordano say they have recently been touched by the suicide of someone close to them, and cite that suicide is the number-one killer of young people between 15 and 24 years of age.
"For three years this has been in my mind — what can I do related to our mission (at ETC) that brings more awareness to the subject?" Ross says. "I don't want it to be that suicide is the only answer for anyone. Our problems are temporary. Suicide is forever."
ETC has teamed up with New York playwright, producer, and actor Josh Rivedal and on April 5-7 will present "The Gospel According to Josh," an autobiographical show written by and starring Rivedal. The production, which, over the past two years has been performed at venues throughout the country, is billed as "A 30-character, 12-song, one-man show about a boy's journey through religion, reality TV and his father's suicide."
After seeing Rivedal's show, Ross said, "His work struck me because his father and grandfather killed themselves. He knew he'd be next if he didn't get help. It's a powerful piece to let people know there's help and resources."
Ross noted that despite the subject matter, the show isn't all grim and dark, and that it's ultimately hopeful.
"Josh takes us through his life and how he started in theater," she said. "His father didn't approve of his life in comedy. There are many funny moments."
The show will be performed at the United Baptist Church of Mystic. Ross, who is a member of the church, says it was the first venue she approached about hosting the I AM WORTHY event.
"They're so community-connected, so thankful, so willing to say yes," she says.
The weekend-long forum will include discussions about suicide prevention with local business leaders, elected officials, educators, and artists. Funds raised will go toward producing the show, educating patrons and communities about the devastating effects of suicide, and providing QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) training for adults and teens who want to help save lives.
Giordano, who has researched and written about young adult suicide, decribed the project as "an essential program."
"There's a taboo about talking about suicide. This gives people permission to talk about it and address it," she said.
"We need to remove the stigma associated with suicide," Ross agreed, "especially with men, who are supposed to be macho and strong. They need to express themselves."
"This is an ongoing initiative," she added. "We need an ongoing conversation in homes and in the community, letting people know it's OK to talk about it, and how to get help."
And theater, both women agree, is a powerful tool for change — and in the case of suicide, for saving lives.
"The arts really allow children to express themselves," Giordano says. "It gives them a voice, they feel empowered, transform themselves, and help create positive change in their communities."
"We need the community to come out and support what we do," Ross says. "Social change — that's what theater is all about."
“The Gospel According to Josh” by Joshua Rivedal, directed by Josh Gaboian will be performed April 5-7 at Union Baptist Church, 119 High Street, Mystic. Facilitated panel discussions will follow each performance. The show is appropriate for teens and adults. Tickets are $10 general admission, $8 students and seniors. For tickets, to donate to the I AM WORTHY PROJECT or to purchase I AM WORTHY tee-shirts ($15); posters ($5); and stickers ($2); visit emersontheatercollaborative.org. or call (860) 705-9711.