December 07, 2011
When Melissa Ortiz (Class of 2003) graduated from Rollins College seven years ago, becoming a starving artist wasn’t part of her career plans. But after a 9-month stint living in the New York City (NYC) produced nothing but bills and disappointment, she put the city in her rearview and decided to further her education in the MFA Acting program at the National Theatre Conservatory (NTC) in Denver.
Armed with two degrees and a boatload of tenacity, the music major moved back to the Big Apple three years later. This time she was determined to find her place in the city. When auditions and offers didn’t roll in, she and her husband, Christian Haines, founded their own theatre company called aMios. It’s a move that not only gave Ortiz the chance to act and create but it’s a venture that’s reinvigorated the spirit of theatre art for many down-and-out actors in NYC. “aMios has created a safe and supportive community of artists. We don't judge each other’s work. We take what we're given and try to turn it into something awesome,” said Ortiz.
What was the inspiration behind your theatre company and why did you start it?
When we graduated from the NTC in 2009, our showcase wasn't as successful as it could have been. Most agents were dropping clients like crazy because of the economy. Abrams signed me commercially, but I didn't get any legitimate (theatrical and TV) representation. As always, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. As a fundraiser in grad school, we would produce evenings of six, 5-minute plays. It was a huge hit in Denver, so we decided to bring it to New York. We called it SHOTZ. It started in a bar and then moved to someone's apartment (a huge loft space). Then we got sponsored by a theater space. The once-a-month evenings were hugely successful, mostly because they were so much fun. The theatre was immediate, inspirational and very funny. Most of our actors were graduates from the NTC so even if the play wasn't very strong, the acting always elevated it. There's a lot of love and support in the room along with applause for risk taking. We discovered a real need for this type of theatre in New York, especially since no one was working. It brought the fun back. Art for art’s' sake. The time commitment was minimal and the payoff was amazing. So, we went with the vitality we found, built a mission statement around it and started thinking of bigger ideas. We encourage everyone to steal this idea.
Why is it called aMios?
(Pronounced: AH-me-ohs.) It's an acronym for Art and Music In Our Souls. The inspiration for the name loosely came from a line in "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" by Moises Kaufman. It's one of Christian's favorite plays. The full line reads: "The object of art is to stir the most divine and remote chords which make music in our soul."
What was involved in starting aMios? Has it been more or less work than you thought?
It takes a village. aMios was my husband’s brain child, so I supported him and encouraged him to reach out to our NTC alumni community and ask for their support. We invited everyone to a meeting and he explained his vision for the first season of plays, the inspiration behind the name, how much money we needed, and the positions he would need help with (a.k.a. a group to help him run the company). We got a fiscal sponsor The Field, so we could start receiving tax deductible donations. Then we started asking for money. Once we got enough cash we started scouting New York for theatre spaces available for the time slots we needed, weighed our options and booked the space.
None of this could have happened if people didn't trust our ideas. A lot of new theatre companies over-promise, fall short and then completely implode. I think a lot of actors have been burned by companies that had big ideas and no follow-through. Having a long-term goal and a monthly project proves that the company is going to stick around. It's a lot of work. Delegating makes it a lot easier.
What have been some of your proudest moments since starting aMios?
The impact it has had on the community around us has really blown me away. The people in this company are involved because they love to play. None of us are in it for the money as most of them donate their stipend back to the company. And if we have actors that are too difficult to work with, or in it for their own personal gain, we just don't ask them to play again. After each show is over, it doesn't matter if it's our 5-minute play series or the longer shows, we all go to a bar around the corner and celebrate. We celebrate our successes and our failures. We start thinking about the next productions. We dance and laugh and thank each other. I am friends with the most beautiful people on the planet all because of this little theatre company that could.
What sort of productions do you do?
The non pretentious kind. We do all new plays around a distinct process. The first Monday of every month is SHOTZ, an evening of six, 5-minute plays, $10 at the door with a free drink ticket. Each writer gets a list of actors and a director, three themes, and a week and a half to write a 5-minute play. This is followed by a week and a half of rehearsal and one night of two performances.
LongSHOTZ is our half-hour play series. Same writing process with the time line lengthened for 30-minute plays. This year we're doing six plays: two productions of three half-hour plays on alternating nights.
We’ll also have two full-length productions in May which will run at the same time, alternating nights. For now we're calling it The Rep, but that name is subject to change.
Where would you like to see your life in five years?
Not in New York. We're actually moving to San Francisco on later this month. aMios will continue in NYC, and, once we see how the theatre scene is doing in San Francisco, we'll probably start aMios west coast. Christian will still be the artistic director per our steering committee's request. We're moving for a lot of reasons, one of the most pressing reasons is for family. Christian's parents live in Arizona and his father was just diagnosed with ALS. It will be much easier to see family more often from San Francisco than NYC. Also, we don't want to raise a family in New York, no offense to anyone who was raised here.
I would love, however, to be a working and thriving actress in the Bay Area. To start aMios West Coast and make a major difference in a community. To spread love, respect and creativity through art. And to be able to support a family, even if it's with a modest income, from the art we create. That to me is the real dream. And I really want a dog.
By Kristen Manieri