CCM’s Joseph Vitale pursues productions of play

BY KELBY CLARK
Features Editor

Dressed in a plain dark suit, donned with a matching tie, the actor approached center stage, gazing out at the 65 audience members crowded into The Frederick Loewe Room, a tiny theater located inside Manhattan, N.Y.’s The Dramatists Guild of America building. The spectators patiently waited on the man’s opening line, some sitting, many standing, but all directing their eyes toward the brightly lit stage where the actor’s only company were small, inanimate objects: two chairs, a music stand, a small table and a prop representative of a house. The actor tightly gripped the script in his hand, cleared his throat and read from the first page with the lack of inflection, projection and authoritative tone of an experienced television broadcaster: 

“There are some men who can point to a railroad, to a skyscraper, to a billion-dollar corporation and say, ‘That’s mine. I made that. That’s my life’s work.’ I never made anything. I never built anything. Sometimes I wonder if I ever really changed anything. I simply saw things, and heard things, and felt things. Then I put down words about what I saw and heard and felt and sent those words into the darkness. I don’t know if they changed the world. I can’t really say if they changed the heart of one man.”

The opening line of “Murrow,” a two-act one-man show that focuses on the life of famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, is only one of several lines that Joseph Vitale, president of the County College of Morris Foundation and executive director for College Advancement and Planning, has written throughout his career as a playwright. 

Over the course of more than 20 years, Vitale has authored 10 plays, many of which have been finalists or semi-finalists in festivals held throughout New York and New Jersey from 2011 to 2013.

Although Vitale completed “Murrow” in 1985, the play only recently premiered in a live theater Jan. 24, 2014 at The Dramatists Guild of America in New York, N.Y. Moreover, plans have already been arranged for another dramatic reading of “Murrow” to be held at CCM for students majoring in journalism or broadcasting May 1.

“The play basically sat in my drawer for many years,” Vitale said. “I decided to revive it now because I believe it is timely, not only because of the explosion of new media but because in so many cases, the media has become the story. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to separate the coverage from the story and that’s one of the things Murrow [agonized over]. He [Murrow] believed in the integrity of news. He was a purist. I just feel that there is a whole generation that doesn’t know about him.”

Vitale was born in New York City and raised in Newark, N.J. where he attended Essex Catholic High School. He describes his younger self as “more of a daydreamer than a diligent student.” He was an avid drawer, and he loved to write. In high school, under the guidance of an influential English instructor, Vitale began to gravitate more toward the theater as both a creative outlet and source of fun.

“The thing that’s so exciting about theater is that you’re working as part of a team,” Vitale said. “It’s collaborative. You and the director sketch out how you want it to flow, then you’re auditioning actors, you’re bringing them in and getting their creative take on it. I love the energy of many people coming together to do a play.” 

Upon graduating secondary school, Vitale attended Rutgers University-Newark and while in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in English literature, he continued to explore his interest in theater by enrolling in several theater courses and frequently attended university-sponsored theater workshops. In 1974 he won the Alpha Psi Omega Award for best play in the Rutgers Theatre Workshop, and following his graduation from the university he studied playwriting from 1974 to 1975 at New York’s HB Studio, an organization that boasts several notable alumni including: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Lange, Jon Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg. 

Vitale later attended Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism during the latter half of the 1970s, and it was there that he was first inspired to write a play that revolved around the life of famed television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

At Columbia University, Vitale enrolled in a course titled, Media Law and Society, taught by a Fred W. Friendly, a friend of Murrow and co-creator of the CBS documentary broadcast series, “See It Now.” Throughout the course, Friendly would share stories with the class that involved Murrow and Friendly’s time at CBS.

“I found them [the stories] fascinating,” Vitale said. “I thought this should be a play. This should be a one-man show.”

Upon graduating from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1982, Vitale began writing “Murrow” with the hope of completing the play by 1985, the year that marked the 20th anniversary of Murrow’s death.

Vitale researched and wrote nonstop for three consecutive years, spending many hours day after day in The Paley Center for Media in New York, N.Y., formerly known as The Museum of Television & Radio and The Museum of Broadcasting.

When he finally completed the play in 1985, Vitale was eager to have it performed and so he sent it to many colleagues, directors and producers.

Eventually, he received a call from David Susskind, famed television producer and talk show host, who had an immediate “wow” upon reading the script.

“He [Susskind] called and said, ‘I love it, I want to produce it,’” Vitale said.

The play continued to be passed around to various professionals in the field and was soon shared with Murrow’s widow, Janet Huntington Brewster who noted seeing a lot of Ed Murrow, in the play. Meanwhile, Susskind was attempting to obtain funding for a performance or reading of the play to be broadcast on PBS. Despite his efforts, Susskind never succeeded, and the play was put to bed until 2013.

In December 2013, Vitale partnered with his cousin Bob Angelini, the artistic director of the ReVision Theater in Asbury Park, N.J. and both an actor and director with more than 30 years of experience acting and directing in the theater. The decision was made to have the play premiere at the Guild as a part of the organization’s NYC Friday Night Footlights, a weekly event that sponsors readings of work written by members of The Dramatists Guild of America annually, from September to May, and auditions were held for the part of Edward R. Murrow.

“Bob Angelini and I have collaborated on a number of projects over the past few years so it was natural for us to work together on this,” Vitale said. “Bob is a very experienced and accomplished director so he brought a lot to the table.”

Ten actors auditioned, but the part of Edward R. Murrow was ultimately given to Stephen Gleason, an actor who has performed in several other stage productions including “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Picking Palin” and “No Diamonds in the Crabgrass.” Gleason has also appeared in USA Network’s “White Collar,” CBS’s “The Good Wife” and the 2014 Oscar-nominated film, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

“He [Gleason] was great,” Vitale said. “As a playwright you write on paper, but until you have an actor really speaking those words you really don’t get a feel for your work.”

Bev Sheehan, a friend of Vitale and an actress who has appeared in a number of his plays, including “Clear Air Turbulence,” attended the reading of “Murrow” and enjoyed it thoroughly.

“I haven’t read all of Joe’s plays, but I recently saw ‘Murrow’ and thought it was great,” Sheehan said. “Fabulous subject, and even though it was written years ago, it is so perfect in today’s media climate. It was prescient, what Murrow said in the play, and Joe used it to great effect in his story. It’s a great play for discussion.”

Dramatic readings differ from an average play performance, which involves interaction between characters and a more conscious effort to move about stage. In the case of “Murrow,” Gleason was on stage reading from the script and making only slight movements about the platform.

Angelini, director, noted that directing a reading is always a different experience and not easily comparable to directing an average play.

“As a director, you get to drive the ship and lead everyone on the journey,” Angelini said. “Directing one actor has its own challenges, but directing a reading is difficult in itself as there are generally no props, costumes or sets. It’s quite a challenge.”

However, he added that it was the collaborative efforts of the writer, Vitale, the actor, Gleason and others that made the play a success.

“I love Joe’s work,” Angelini said. “His writing is very thought-provoking and he pays great attention to historical information. He researches his subject matter thoroughly and brings out many facets of a character’s personality and relationships

He is definitely the smart one in the family. I am so proud to be able to work with him and to help bring his art to the stage. You will definitely see Joe’s work produced for large audiences in the future.”

In addition to being a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Vitale is also affiliated with The Theater Project Playwrights Group. When he is not honing his craft, he enjoys being active and engaging in outdoor activities including skiing and golf. He also intends to take up sailing some time in 2014. 

Vitale enjoys writing in all various disciplines and has even written a novel titled, “Image,”and is currently working on a second publication. However, the theater is where his true passion lies.

“I love the energy,” Vitale said. “I’m just hooked on theater.”

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