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All the World’s a Stage

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Austin Shakespeare Director Ann Ciccolella speaks about her life in the limelight.

By Lydia Gregovic, Photo courtesy of Ann Ciccolella

Ann Ciccolella’s passion for directing can only be described as a divine calling.

“I was a sophomore at a Catholic high school when a nun asked me to direct Julius Caesar,” Ciccolella recounts.

Despite having never directed any play before, much less one of the bard’s plays, prior to her teacher’s somewhat intimidating request, Ciccolella remembers the nun saw something special in her.

“[The nun] said I was the kind of person who would get things done,” she says with a laugh.

Now, with successful directing credits spanning from New York City to Austin, and her current position as artistic director of Austin Shakespeare, Ciccolella has more than lived up to the nun’s prediction.

Growing up in Hoboken, N.J., less than an hour away from the Big Apple, Ciccolella frequently made the trip across the river to take in the bright lights of Broadway. Shortly after her aforementioned high-school show, the young director and a friend attended a production of Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an experience that inspired her to pursue theater as a career.

“I thought, ‘I need to figure out how I can be sitting in this seat and make theater a part of my life,’ ” Ciccolella says.

Raised in an era when women directors were few and far between, Ciccolella drew much of her inspiration from her own home and the many strong women present in her large Italian family. Grounding herself in family values, along with her own determination, this go-getter set out to take New York by storm, one way or another.   

“It may be true that people have prejudice out there, but if you dwell on that, you just go down a negative rabbit hole,” she advises. “If you really want to direct, and people aren’t hiring you, find another way.”

And that’s exactly what she did. From working as a director’s assistant at New York City’s Roundabout Theatre to getting in on the behind-the-scenes action through ushering, Ciccolella pursued her passion for directing throughout the city. Although she’s worked on plays of every style and era, it’s always been the classics that have called to her most.

“You’re dealing with something that has been around for sometimes hundreds of years that has stood the test of time,” Ciccolella explains.

From ancient Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex to the works of mid-20th century playwrights like Arthur Miller, Ciccolella is committed to seeking out plays that exhibit this timeless quality.

The Crucible doesn’t just speak of the struggles of 1952; it speaks of what we deal with in 2017,” she says.

Her desire to direct meaningful works, works that would touch the hearts of audience members, regardless of age or life experience, eventually led to her current role as Austin Shakespeare’s artistic director. Since taking on the position in 2007, Ciccolella has been dedicated to crafting a company worthy of the iconic writer’s name.

“Shakespeare asks us to raise the bar, to do our best,” she says.

And to Ciccolella, that means looking beyond the stage lights and into the broader Austin community. Once on board, one of her first motions at Austin Shakespeare was to found the Artist’s Way group, a creative community based on the books of Julia Cameron. The group, which meets once a week, is dedicated to encouraging members of the Austin community to take creative action, whether that be in the form of writing, acting or anything in between.

“We want to encourage people to get in touch with the creative side of themselves, not just be a spectator,” Ciccolella explains.

More than simply being content with a full house or an attentive audience, the director dreams of impacting Austinites even after the curtains have closed. This community-centric approach to creativity is part of what earned Ciccolella a Distinguished Service Award from the City of Austin in 2007 for her work helping to grow Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre. But if you ask her, the effort was far from a solo one.

“To me, it’s all about collaboration…banding together on actions that will solve both your problems and others’ problems together,” Ciccolella says.

In regards to Austin Shakespeare, Ciccolella’s collaborative spirit is seen in the numerous partnerships the company has established with other artistic groups, including Tapestry Dance Company and the Austin Chamber Music Center. Rather than seeing these organizations as competition, Ciccolella chooses to imagine the ways in which they can help one another, resulting in beautiful joint productions like a rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream backed by a full orchestra.

With such a strong repertoire of shows behind her, it’s hard to imagine how Ciccolella can top herself, but that’s exactly what she intends to do this season. Having just finished a successful run of The Crucible, Austin Shakespeare is already on to its next project, a production of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, which will run from Nov. 15 to Dec. 3 at The Long Center. But no matter the show, Ciccolella’s mission remains the same: to make Austin a more creative, more artistically rich place, one audience member at a time.

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