It’s hard to say when budding actress Ella Dershowitz picked up the acting bug. It may be something she inherited, but it first became apparent on Martha’s Vineyard, a special place in her life.
She started honing her acting skills with the Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) summer program when she was five. Since graduating last May from Yale University with a degree in theater studies, the young, blue-eyed, red-haired Ms. Dershowitz has had a part in the HBO movie “Phil Spector” with Helen Mirren and Al Pacino, and has been in several plays and a movie.
She lives in New York and recently returned from three months in Los Angeles while reprising her role in the play “The Screenwriter’s Daughter” at the Blank Theater. It is a play she premiered on the Vineyard with The Vineyard Playhouse last summer. She also took on a starring role in an indie film called “Two Bit Waltz,” written and directed by Clara Mamet, an actress in the TV show “Neighbors,” whose father, playwright David Mamet, wrote the screenplay for and directed “Phil Spector.”
She spent her last summer with the ITW program when she was about 12. It was then that her parents, Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer, author, and Harvard law professor, and Carolyn Cohen, now professor emeritus of biology at Brandeis University, sent her to off-Island theater camps: Stagedoor in upstate New York, Walnut Hill in Massachusetts, and Cherubs at Northwestern University in Chicago.
She acted her way through high school at Milton Academy, where she had parts in several plays, including the role of Agnes in “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Her college years were sprinkled with theater roles at Yale as well in off-campus theater. Summers, when not on the Vineyard, were spent in New York working on short films and TV. She was Ophelia in “Hamlet,” Sasa in “Sad Girl’s Guide,” and Hester Salomon in “Equus” at Yale.
Her skills are varied. She studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and worked with the Actors Shakespeare Project at the Huntington Theater. Among the skills listed on her resumé are kickboxing, rock climbing, walking on hands, making strange faces, dialects, and singing.
She isn’t afraid of being typecast, even though it occurred to her during an interview with The Times that she has played a lot of characters named Jenny. “I realized that in literally every project I’ve done on camera, except for the Phil Spector movie, I’m wearing a school girl outfit,” she said. Something she never had to do in real life.
Inspired by her movie-making friend Clara, she is writing a movie script and trying her hand at songwriting since returning from L.A. “This is the first time in two years I have not known what my next project is going to be,” she said. “It’s kind of scary but kind of fun. I really want to do a summer show. I would love to do another show on the Vineyard.
“I grew up doing theater on the Vineyard. I did my first play at five or six. I still have some of the songs I learned there stuck in my head. I remember my friends and I would go on the paratroopers ride at The Fair and sing our ITW songs really loudly while riding,” she recalled.
Last summer, when she acted in “The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” it was the first full summer she had spent on the Vineyard since she was 12. She also played an Emily Dickinson robot last summer at the Hebrew Center in a play produced by The Playhouse about a family who adopts a deluxe replica robot to spice up their marriage.
“It was so nice to have a full audience of friends, family, and fans,” she said. “Working on the Vineyard reminds me that theater is not this isolating thing. It’s not like work. It’s supposed to be a communal activity that everyone enjoys and your audience is suppose to be part of it, and on the Vineyard it really is.”
Her ITW experiences continually resurface. “I walk into audition rooms and I see people from ITW,” she said. She ran into an ITW alum, actress and play producer Abigail Rose Solomon, one of her ITW teachers, who produced a show she did in New York a couple of years ago. She said she would consider volunteering for ITW.
Her future plans are not to be a star but to continue acting. “I’ve always had the same goal. I want to be on a television show. TV is probably my biggest addiction. I’m a ridiculous TV junkie. I would prefer a gritty TV drama,” she said. “I would like to guest star on different programs, explore different worlds, independent film, regional theater, and off-Broadway Theater.”
She said she does not have big Broadway or blockbuster movie aspirations. “Obviously I’m not going to turn down roles in anything. I am interested in developing a character over a period of time in different situations. I can’t imagine not doing theater, at least a couple of times a year,” she added.
“Theater is so freeing. When you are on stage your entire body is yours, the entire stage is yours, those few hours are yours to play with and to play with your partner. In theater you can just lose yourself. It’s awesome.”
Her parents have always been supportive, she said. “They insisted that I go to college and now that I’m out they couldn’t be happier about my work. My dad literally hands out flyers to strangers in New York when I am in a show. It is so embarrassing. He gets so excited. I swear he gave one to President Obama. I told him, Obama is not going to come to New York to see me in an off-Broadway play, sorry.
“On the Vineyard it feels like you have a family of 500 people, word travels fast and everyone’s proud. It’s adorable and wonderful. I always feel at home when I come back,” she said.
Ms. Dershowitz said she will be wherever someone will pay her to be, but she expects to be on the Vineyard for at least a couple of weeks this summer, maybe even sooner.
“Some friends and I are trying to plan a writing/acting retreat there this month,” she concluded. “It’s such a good place to go in order to forget about the world and ‘real life’ for a few days and just live inside of stories.”