Francesca Rizzo is an award-winning actress/playwright/filmmaker whose films and plays deal with provocative ideas in funny ways. She’s been cited in MovieMaker Magazine as an "Artist to Watch," awarded the NJSCA Distinguished Artist Fellowship and been an invited speaker at the Harvard Film Archives.
Rizzo wrote and starred in Nick at Nite's How To Be Donna Reed as well as the indie film, Sullivan's Last Call and directed The Poet Englestrom and Five Valid Reasons, all garnering numerous festival awards.
As a member of NY’s downtown theatre scene, Francesca co-founded The Perfectly Frank Writers Theatre, producing 32 new works and has developed/directed over 20 original plays and solo shows as well as her own plays - Good in Bed at Dixon Place, April Showers at CityTheatre and The Cherry Sisters at CenterStageNY, UCPAC and Cape May Stage.
A long-time advocate for women’s issues, Francesca co-founded the social media rape activist group, Believe Women, served as president of CineWomen NY, led the Brooklyn Film Festival symposium Beyond The Babe: Writing Women Who Rock, curated The World According to Girls film event and the Cinema-Femina short film series.
THE DAMES ORIGIN & FUTURE
Rizzo originally performed the work as the solo play Dames Like Her in 2011 at the Cornelia Street Cafe and at Stage Left Studios but had always planned for it to be an ensemble play once the kinks were worked out.
“I love writing and acting but this was my second solo play and I finally had to admit to myself … I found the genre quite lonely,” says Rizzo. “So I set about developing this version to give mature actresses everywhere some hilarious, juicy women to inhabit.”
The new version of the play, now titled Dames Like Us, emerged in 2016 with an abundance of characters, too many for one show, so Rizzo has developed an innovative structure of rotating monologues as well as an alternating cast so the show is always fresh.
Dames Like Us is in it's current workshop-mode to build a following and attract producing partners with the ability and financing to take the show as far as it can go. She plans to add new monologues to the show and to welcome more actors to the troupe, eventually launching a West Coast production and a touring company.
CHARACTERS MORE THAN WELCOME
How does one know when a dame is a “great dame”? According to the playwright, there are three kinds of dames: the Royal Dame, the Grande Dame and the "there is nothing like a" Great Dame. Rizzo, however, focuses this play on the last kind. A Great Dame tends to have smarts, a story and an opinions. A whole lot of them, most likely. She’s not so easily shocked and can take a joke, but more importantly, she can tell one. A Great Dame may not be as confident as she looks but she’ll fake it whenever necessary.”
“You know one when you meet one, and we’ve all met some great dames in our lives,” says the playwright, “Hell, we might already BE one.
When asked how she comes up with such unique, outrageous characters, Rizzo swears she doesn’t have that wild an imagination. “Quite frankly, I couldn’t make this stuff up,” she says. “I hate to break it to you, but these are actual people. Real human beings are usually more hilarious and shocking than anything I can invent. We’re so used to the stock archetypes that Hollywood churns out we’re shocked to learn that THIS can be what real women are like.”
The monologues in Dames Like Us are written in a style that invites the viewer in and has spawned a little good-natured audience interaction. Which the playwright encourages.
“I got the idea for it while getting a bikini wax at my favorite little salon,” says Rizzo. “The rooms are minuscule and the walls don't go all the way up, so all the women just join into this “conversation soup.” And when women talk to each other, even if they’re total strangers, they will say ANYTHING.”
THE POWER OF TRANSFORMATION
While Dames Like Us deals with some women affecting second and, even, third acts in their lives, the real transformation is what the actors are doing up there on the stage. Wigs and accessories play an important part in the presentation of each character as each actor takes on three completely different personas during the course of the show.
“Using the wigs is integral to the concept of the show for me,” says Rizzo. “I’ve always been a chameleon-type actor because, to me, the way a person appears is the sum of a lifetime of choices. And yet, that appearance can be a decoy. I’m interested in what’s hiding beneath.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of the production is in the fact that on alternating performances, audiences are treated to the same character as interpreted by two different actors. Take Connie, the nouveau riche suburban housewife, she is interpreted by both performers wearing the same long, ombre wig and pink sunglasses - one approaching her as Long Island “bourgeois” and the other as African American “bougie”.
“I’ve loved working with these extremely talented actors, helping them draw out their own takes on my characters,” says Rizzo. “It’s fascinating to see the same words coming out of such entirely disparate women and yet somehow being humanly true at the end of the day.”
RISE OF THE SMART, FUNNY FEMALE
The last few years we have seen a gathering of female comic forces that have begun to take over our screens and airwaves like a storm. The rise of funny comedians, comic actors, filmmakers and television producers like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler has begun to change the landscape what has been a male-dominated media and they’re doing it by using their razor wit to exploring the truth about being female.
“I’m thrilled with all of these great, funny, ballsy women breaking down doors. I love that they’re all friends and have each other’s back,” she admits. “It’s been hell going it alone - they’re lucky to have a powerful posse who believes in them and their vision. Being underestimated is just so damned insulting.“
While she applauds their progress, her own road was a lot rockier. Rizzo has to laugh at some of the indignities she’s had to shoulder along the way; She recalls the story of a friendly male playwright acquaintance who saw an early workshop of Dames and was incredulous. ‘Wow,” she recalls he said, “you wrote that play ALL BY YOURSELF?”
But that’s exactly what Rizzo has done. All by herself, she has been building a body of work, in film on the stage, in which women are complicated and richly layered. When you add in some history, those colorful details start to seem outrageous to some yet oddly familiar to many more.
Human is human, and while the show may seem geared to the baby-boomer generation, try telling that to the millennials and gen-Xers who’ve been following Rizzo’s work and swear it also speaks directly to their experience of life in the 21st Century.
“Lena Dunham created "Girls". Francesca Rizzo created “Dames”,” says Mary Elaine Monti, a member of the Dames Like Us acting troupe. “The only difference is that the girls in "Dames" have had more birthdays.”
What Hollywood is discovering with films like “Bridesmaids” and “Train Wreck" is that women don’t care if an actress is f**kable, it turns out that women LIKE women with flaws. Surprise. They like women who may not be traditionally gorgeous, may not be a size 0 and are definitely not concerned with appearing perfect.
“Broad City’s one of my favorite shows. Creator/actors, Abbi Jacobson and Iliana Glazer are perfect examples of the imperfection we crave in our leading funny ladies. “ says Rizzo. “We like messy - women that may be strong, smart and adventurous, and but are also vulnerable, confused and, frankly, a little goofy.”
SHOCK AND AWE
Many of her characters may actually be grandmothers, but this show is no “granny” show. While the play exudes a great deal of heart and poignancy, the language is often more than salty and many situations are less than PC. To those who say her writing is shocking and, at times, somewhat vulgar, Rizzo defends her artistic choices.
“I see nothing wrong with it. Some people curse, some don’t. I try to capture authenticity. Swearing can be very expressive and, I recently discovered, healthier,” she says. “Hey, I grew up with a mother who swore like a truck-driver and was defiantly proud of it. She felt that the only truly immoral curse was in calling another human being ‘stupid’, and we were strictly forbidden to do that.”
Rizzo even uses humor to tackle the Cosby conflict head-on, and she knows what she’s talking about. Always a women’s issue champion, in early 2015 she co-founded Believe Women, the social media rape activism group that has provided support and healing for the disgraced comedian’s growing cadre of accusers.
“As soon as I heard that 13 women, as old as 70, had come forward as Jane Does to back up Andrea Constand’s accusation in 2006 - I knew it was true. None of them knew each other, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose. They just did what honorable women do.”
THE DAMES LIKE US TROUPE
The Dames Like Us Troupe is a collection of talented mature female actors who are enthusiastic about helping the playwright bring this debut production to life.
April 2, 16, 30 [Saturday 2 pm]
CAST: Francesca Rizzo, Deirdre Brennan, Mary Elaine Monti, Ardes Quinn, Andrea Weston
April 9, 23 [Saturday 2 pm]
CAST: Francesca Rizzo, Ivy Austin, Susanna Dalton, Maureen Shannon, Andrea Weston
Ivy Austin appeared on Broadway in Raggedy Ann and Blame it On the Movies as well as Candide, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, Naughty Marietta, and The Music Man at New York City Opera. She was the comedienne/girl singer on “A Prairie Home Companion” and the voice of Muppets Cereal Girl, Hammy Swinette, and Oinker Sister Sooey on Sesame Street.
Deirdre Brennan is an actor, writer and dancer with roles in the award-winning indies Dead Men Working, 23 Blast, Brooklyn Breach, Forgetting Aphrodite, Between Love and Goodbye and A Four Letter Word. She’ll soon be seen as Billy Baldwin's detective partner Kelly Smith in “Blowtorch" and Peggy Upton in the PBS drama, "FS Key: After The Song”.
Susanna Dalton made her TV debut costarring with Michelle Pfeiffer on Delta House then had roles on "All My Children” and “BJ and the Bear” and in the films, A Little Sex, Paternity and Stunts Unlimited. She starred in the award-winning indie, Five Valid Reasons and has been the voice of HGTV as well as hundreds of radio and TV commercials.
Mary Elaine Monti has built a diverse acting career from performing at Lincoln Center and The Public Theater to selling Lysol on TV. From voicing a host of commercials, audio books and animation to recent appearances on Law & Order, L&O:SVU, The Mysteries of Laura and indie films Aunt Louisa, Wolves of Wall Street and the upcoming 306 Hollywood.
Ardes Quinn has a varied background in theatre, film, modern dance and puppet theater working extensively with Erick Hawkins, 13th St Rep and The Producers Club. Media-wise, she’s appeared on the web series, The Louisa Log and had film roles Still Alice, Tango Volta, View Over River Avenue and the mockumentary, Ron and Laura Take Back America.
Francesca Rizzo is an award-winning actor working in multiple mediums. Early theater includes 18Ks with Chris Noth, Steel on Steel with John Turturro and White Gloves with Allison Janney. She’s had guest roles on Law & Order, L&O:SVU, FEDS, starred in Nick At Nite ‘s How to Be Donna Reed and voiced over a thousand radio and TV commercials.