By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Alexandra Burt (Prescription Strength) and Rick Berube (The Power of Birds)
After spending five years litigating at one of New York's premiere law firms, Chelsea Silverman decided that "all the world's a stage" seemed a lot closer to her heart than "kill all the lawyers". She left the practice of law and started performing Off-Off Broadway. In 2004, she along with Elizabeth Bunnell, Annie McGovern and Kelli Lynn Harrision launched 3Graces Theater Co. Chelsea has served as the Executive Director of 3Graces Theater Co. since its inception. She has produced among others, the New York premiere of Nickel & Dimed based on the book by Barbara Ehrenreich, the world premiere of a Good Farmer by Sharyn Rothstein, and is currently producing the world premiere of The Power of Birds by Robin Rice Lichtig. She has also appeared in a Good Farmer, Flyer, Nickel & Dimed and is currently performing in Prescription Strength Theater -- the world premiere of two commissioned one acts on the subject of Healthcare. By day, Chelsea is the Director of National Staffing for Strategic Legal Solutions.
You have a rather unique resume. Which came first, an interest in theatre or in law? How did you come to both careers?
Theater. I was always interested in theater -- performing, watching and learning about the performing arts was a constant during my childhood. I grew up in New York City -- and to my parents' credit they fostered a love and appreciation for the arts in me. My mother took us to see everything -- not just Broadway plays (when you could afford to take your kids to see Broadway plays), but performances at temples, churches, downtown theaters. That became part of my fabric at an early age. That being said, my father was a lawyer -- and so family discussions became debates and were also a constant during my childhood. If I wanted something -- I needed to be able to construct a persuasive argument to get it... sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But the approach always kept me and my sister on our toes!
After I graduated from Vassar, I knew that I wanted to get another degree. I was torn between the creative and the analytical. While I loved the theater -- I also wanted to sharpen my analytical and persuasion skill set. I remember sitting down in my parent's living room with a collection of applications and brochures from law schools and MFA programs and trying to decide between the two. My parents -- very wisely in my instance said "Why don't you go to law school -- and then act?" A light bulb went on -- and I thought -- that actually makes a lot of sense. I think the biggest surprise to anyone was that I actually did practice as a big firm litigator for 5 years. I really enjoyed it for a while, learned a ton and saved some money. When I decided to leave -- it was because I no longer had the time to do anything else -- everything was way out of balance. I was lucky to be able to find a way to use my law degree and experience to financially support my career in the arts. Now I work as the Director of National staffing for a temporary legal staffing company 3-4 days a week and spend the rest of my time working on 3Graces. Balance is hard to achieve -- and it has taken me a while... but I think I've almost got it!
What is your theatrical background?
Though I did do a lot of theater in college, when I graduated and started taking classes -- it became clear to me instantly that I preferred theater in the academic as opposed to the professional arena. I wasn't really interested in just auditioning for plays that came my way -- I wasn't sure exactly what was missing from the experience, but I was determined to find out. After I stopped practicing law - I started studying with Tim Phillips (who is now based in LA). His class was professional, his approach made sense to me, and the other members of the class were actors I respected and could learn from. One of the things that became clear to several women in the class was that there are more actors than opportunities to act in production -- so we decided to create opportunities for ourselves and we started our own theater company. It was the collaboration I had been missing -- and once we started producing plays that meant something to us -- all the pieces fell into place.
How did you become involved with 3Graces Theater?
3Graces was an off-shoot of the original company we started back in 1997. In 2004, a group of us realized that we were very interested in defining a process and producing plays that told universal stories from a woman's perspective. After much careful deliberation, we formed 3Graces. 3Graces mission is to tell these women's stories on stage -- and to immerse the cast crew and audience in the world of the play outside the script to provide a more comprehensive experience to the performers and audience. I have been the Executive Director since its inception and we have been evolving organically and continue to grow.
The latest 3Graces production, The Power of Birds, opened a week ago. Could you tell me a little bit about the play?
This play, by Robin Rice Lichtig, is a highly theatrical and sometimes magical family drama. It's the story of three generations of women all on the cusp of -- adolescence, middle age and old age -- and how they struggle to find their way during these critical life changes. At its heart is Zoe, a willful prepubescent 12-year-old girl dealing with her parents' recent separation and the uprooting of her family home. She's on a mission to bring her ornithologist father back to the family, while her mother Loretta tries to start anew, and her grandmother Lily longs to commune with her dead husband at sunset. It's a quirky, heartfelt play with a lot to say, and Lichtig's world is full of magic realism and metaphor. 3Graces wanted to take on a production where we could tell a meaningful story in a uniquely theatrical way and I think we've done just that.
Do you have any words of advice for people who are thinking of starting a second career in theatre?
I would tell them that they can do both -- it does not have to be all or nothing. Before quitting your non-theater job, take classes, get involved in productions, find out what area really speaks to your soul -- and do it. Not everyone gets their financial salary and emotional salary from the same place. I have found that I get so much more enjoyment out of my life in the theater because I don't have the added pressure to earn my living at it.
What else do you and 3Graces Theater have planned for 2010?
Well, in addition to The Power of Birds we are also producing two one-acts we commissioned on the subject of healthcare. It's called Prescription Strength Theater and runs Tues. and Wed. at 8 PM and Sat. at 3 PM until March 13 at the Milagro at CSV on the Lower East Side. I am actually performing in one of the pieces (see photo). We then have our Sips&Scripts reading series starting in April and we are continuing to develop BeautyQueen, a musical we commissioned based on the story of Queen Esther and addressing the teen obsession with celebrity.
To find out more about Chelsea and 3Graces Theater company, visit the 3Graces website. To purchase tickets to The Power of Birds, click here.