Cultural experiences with Hershey Felder’s Italy

Cultural experiences with Hershey Felder’s Italy

See the places that inspire the Canadian creative and support theatres in Florence.

Tue 28 May 2024 4:11 PM

Florence is world class. Whether known and visited for its fine arts, culinary magic, performances by internationally renowned musicians and stage performers, or for its history, it is a place where so many “firsts” appeared, from banking to the very first piano as well as things before, after and in between. Let us not forget the gifts that nature has bestowed upon it: the gentle rolling hills and the fairytale setting. Florence is a jewel in an already excessively gifted crown. Go a short way in any direction and one is bound to find priceless treasures. Venture just a little further and one finds Rome, Venice, Verona, Siena, Milan, Naples, Bologna, Pisa, Lucca, Modena, and so much more: the magic is endless. Not to be partial (but as a resident and lover, how can I not be?), Italy seems to be so naturally and culturally rich that multiple lifetimes would be necessary to explore such beauty.

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On set with Hershey Felder for his musical film, La Verdi Traviata, in Venice. Ph. @marcobadiani

To that end, the recurring chorus of oohs and aahs that I get on stage in America when asked where my home is and I answer “Italy” underline what this part of the world means to so many. The way people’s eyes light up when they ask questions about my life in Italy or talk about their own previous Italian excursions or visits they have always dreamt of making is heartening. Many talk about the films I produce all over Italy that they experience in the US and then add, “I have always wanted to go, it’s the one thing I really want to do.” Some want to return again and again. Some say they are going and ask for advice: what to visit, where to eat, how to access lesser-known places. I am always keen to share. At one point in a post-show talkback with an audience in San Francisco, I casually mentioned (to a room of 1,000 people…) “If you ever come my way, look me up, I’d be happy to say hello.” And so began people dropping lines on social media asking advice, wanting to meet and greet. Audiences in various theatres heard about this. Theatre administrators started asking, “How do we get some of our patrons to come and see you? Are you doing shows? Can we auction off a walk-on in a film as a fundraiser? So many people are asking about some way of facilitating a trip there. Is there anything we can do?”

And so was born Hershey Felder’s Italy.

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During filming of Hershey Felder’s latest musical film, La Verdi Traviata, at Palazzo Borghese, Florence. Ph. @marcobadiani

Granted, that’s pretty possessive, but ask anyone who lives in these parts: we do what we can to make ourselves part of the fabric. I have always believed that being part of such fabric requires not just taking from the riches, but also figuring out ways to give back. To that end, I have made an artistic home in Italy, will be directing two theatres in Florence, make films in cities that enhance the financial statuses of local artists and artisans, donate funds to various artistic organizations, and have created musical and artistic alliances bringing world-famous American artists to perform in Italy, figuring out and committing to ways of enhancing the cities in which I live, Florence and Venice, and in general finding ways to “give back” in both broad and small ways. Realizing that patrons of my work in the US were interested in visits to Italy, theatres were interested in fundraising possibilities for their American projects, artists and guides, and restaurateurs, and wineries and historic and artistic venues were interested in sharing their wares and expanding their audiences, I began to craft a way to make all of this happen and have it be a win-win situation for all involved. 

Filming Dante and Beatrice in Florence on the Ponte Vecchio. Ph. @marcobadiani

Following some 30 years of stage work throughout the United States, some two million patrons have seen my work in over 60 theatres. Many took part during the Covid years in my fundraising efforts to support American theatres and American artists by making films in Italy and donating proceeds to said institutions. Now being back on tour in the US, patrons have been asking about many of the locations and how they can visit and have magical experiences firsthand. Theatre managers have been asking how we can enhance theatrical experiences and broaden the scope of what “theatre” means. So I began to put together resources, artists, friends, locations and experiences that we could share with patrons who were interested, while also raising funds for particular theatres. The first program begins with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in November. It’s a trip that includes Rome, Florence and Venice, excursions and experiences that are not usually open to the general public, private concerts by world-renowned artists, private experiences in my theatres in Florence, curated food and wine experiences, five-star hotel experiences, with 50 per cent of the event cost going directly to the theatre for their use in their season programming. This required engaging friends and Italian institutions that were interested in being part of this network. More than a dozen theatres are in the organizing stages with the first program already launched.

It is so exciting to be able to share these kinds of experiences. What is going to be a surprise for the patrons are the world-renowned performing artists that will appear at various events, be it a dinner gala at Europe’s biggest private gallery and palace in Rome, Palazzo Doria Pamphilij, or at a newly restored theatre in Florence, or the soiree in a 600-year-old palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. Just the idea of having a theatre-minded group visit Palazzo Pitti in Florence hosting the costume exhibit, 400 years worth of costumes, will be a thrilling experience. Or experiencing the history of a 2,000-year old-Roman amphitheater in Florence as well as even seeing the archives of a winery where Thomas Jefferson ordered his wine and from where he took vines to build his vineyard at Monticello. 

And then there is the magic of being in the cradle of such beauty and thousands of years worth of art, which has influenced so much of the artistic advancement in America. Being able to share this all with patrons, support local artists and artisans and houses of culture, as well as making contributions to the American theatre scene in the form of proceeds, makes it a win-win event. As for me, I get to share a place, life and art that I truly love and drives so much of my artistic effort. While making movies and appearing on stage continues to be my life’s work, this new chapter born of being a veteran in the field and wanting to share what I love while supporting others is really a dream come true. 

For a first look at what the programming looks like, check the Teatro della Signoria website. Soon enough, one of the theatres and programs near you might be one you wish to support and enjoy.

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