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By Linda Buchwald
“What attracted me to the role was that I couldn’t get an audition.” So says Alysia Reiner about playing photographer/actress/political activist Tina Modotti in the new off-Broadway play, Modotti.
Of course, to see her in the show, now playing at Theatre Row through July 3, you’d think she was a natural fit to play the passionate Italian. But it almost didn’t happen.
Reiner had previously worked with Wendy Beckett, the play’s writer/director, on Anais Nin: One of Her Lives, and when she heard about Beckett’s new project, she asked if her agent could get her an audition. Neither the casting director nor Beckett thought she was right for the role, but Reiner herself believed she’d be perfect. She was extended a courtesy audition because she knew them both. “I walked in, and I changed their minds,” she says.
The play chronicles Tina Modotti’s journey in the 20s and 30s from the United States to Mexico, where she went from seamstress to actress to photographer to communist. “I knew nothing about Tina Modotti,” Reiner says. “I found her to be such a powerhouse—of humanity and politics and art and as a woman—that I wanted to do the play simply so that people know who the heck she is.”
In researching her role, Reiner had trouble finding impartial biographies on Modotti. “My job is to try and get as close to her as I can—not someone’s opinion of her,” she says. “I didn’t want to put her in a box, and I didn’t want her to fit into any sort of stereotypes.” Ultimately, the actress went directly to source material—Modotti’s own photographs and letters—to gain a richer understanding of how she viewed the world.
Translating that worldview to the stage is no simple task, however, and Reiner says that during rehearsal, the entire creative team was asking, “How do you balance the history and the politics and the emotion and the relationship?” It was a challenge to include all the essential exposition and historical background while still presenting a human story.
Reiner sees Modotti as someone who dedicated her life to art and revolution, which she relates to on a personal level.“I am a happily married woman, so I don’t believe in free love in the way that she did [Modotti was known for her many lovers], but I really connect to her belief in trying to make the world a better place through art.” Recently, for instance, Reiner produced and starred in a film called Speed Grieving, about a daughter grappling with the loss of her father. “That’s sort of my little way of doing what [Modotti] was doing,” she says.
Ultimately, the actress hopes that audiences will be as inspired by Modotti as she has been. “I’m madly in love with her and feel honored to play her,” she says.
Linda Buchwald is an assistant editor at Scholastic. She blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.