December 11, 2023

Is a name destiny?

It certainly seems so when you consider the work of The Anthropologists, a New York City-based theater company founded by UMass Theater alum Melissa (Fendell) Moschitto ‘03 in 2008.

She chose the name to indicate her interest in investigative devised theater, which builds original works through rigorous research into real people’s stories and historical events, movement practices, and improvisation. In the company’s latest play, axes, herbs, and satchels, the history of Black birth workers is examined and celebrated. 

Moschitto isn’t a trained anthropologist, but the company’s methodology has evolved into such a powerful tool that the American Anthropological Association offered them a fellowship to bring Dr. Haile Eshe Cole on board as their anthropologist-in-residence for the first developmental workshop of axes, herbs, and satchels.

Furthermore, a few weeks ago, Moschitto, Cole and Creative Partner Jalissa Fulton from axes, herbs and satchels headed to Toronto to lead a workshop on investigative theater at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting.

“That is a piece of the journey of the company that I never dreamed of. But it's been incredibly gratifying and exciting to see not only how we've evolved our devising methodology and codified it over the years, but now, where and how it can be applied in other settings,” Moschitto said.

Melissa Moschitto '00 leads a workshop at the American Athrolopogical Association this fall in Toronto
Melissa Moschitto '00 leads a workshop at the American Athrolopogical Association this fall in Toronto. Photo by Sarah Lappano

Assembling the pieces

When asked what advice she had for current UMass Theater students, Moschitto said, “Put yourself in it with a with a whole heart, even if you think it's not really what you want to focus on, because 9 times out of 10, you're going to draw on that experience at some point later.”

She would know; it’s how she grew into her current position.

“Like most theater people I started out performing, even as a little kid. When I was at UMass, I had intentions of pursuing acting,” Moschitto said, notably in Romeo and Juliet directed by then-graduate student James Vesce. “It was a very meaningful and exciting experience for me as a young performer to be in that show,” she said, adding that Vesce introduced her to Viewpoints, the movement-based acting practice she still uses today.

While participating in a domestic exchange program to study for a year at New Mexico State University, she found that folks there were unfamiliar with The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, so she co-directed and produced the piece and discovered she loved being able to shape a whole story.

Through an internship with the late, great New WORLD Theater at UMass, which presented artists of color and works with a global perspective, Moschitto learned devising within a social justice construct. “Their youth program, Project 2050, is where I was introduced to the concept of ensemble-created work and research-informed work,” she said.

A semester abroad in Spain to satisfy the UMass foreign language requirement led her to Compañía Atalaya, a physical theater company with whom she later apprenticed and whose movement practices influenced her.

After graduation, she pursued acting roles and internships, and moved to New York City to sustain herself with “a little bit of everything, which is thanks to UMass. My first year in the city, my personal mandate was ‘Don't say no to anything’. I was a production manager for a new musical; I was a stage manager; I was an assistant director.”

Eventually, dismayed at the lack of meaty parts for women, Moschitto decided to start a company. “It was me and about 7 other women, who decided we could just make a show for us, which at the time seemed like a radical thing.”

Setting a creative template

Their first play was Give Us Bread. “It set the tone and the template for the kind of work we would continue doing,” Moschitto said.

“It was inspired by the stories of immigrant women on the Lower East Side in 1917, who, faced with rising food prices, took to the streets to protest,” she said, and was inspired by a radio report featuring author Raj Patel, who talked about Jewish women organizing.

Moschitto and her compatriots looked at everything from a cookbook written by a family matriarch to newspaper articles. They interviewed each other about what she called their “American origin stories.”

She stressed that though there are parallels, her company doesn’t do verbatim theater or interview theater — the real stories are jumping-off points for the work.

“All of the characters in that play were compilations or amalgamations of different women that we learned about in our research, with the exception of one historical figure who is featured as herself, Marie Gantz,” Moschitto said.

The company made its first forays into activism. “After every performance … we had local government or NGOs, historians, people in the Food justice movement coming in to be in conversation with us and the audience.”

The company doesn’t have its own space (a fact which helped them survive COVID, as they could funnel their resources into supporting artists rather than holding onto a physical space). They’ve done short tours, including a Turners Falls stopover for Artemesia’s Intent, which is about the painter Artemesia Gentileschi, the brilliant 17th century painter who was raped, tortured, and harassed, even as her artistic talent was dismissed.

“That’s another one of our pieces that's about strong, dynamic, complicated women's voices, women's lives, and using historical archives to uplift a voice that hasn't been part of the canon. We might think, oh, this is a very personal story, a very individual voice, which in many ways it is. But then, you know, thanks to the lens of time, we see how these are stories that keep replicating themselves over hundreds of years.”

During the pandemic lockdown the company presented online work, including a short voter-advocacy video No Pants in Tucson. “It's about women dressing as men in order to vote,” Moschitto said, and it was a digital off-shoot of their analog play No Pants In Tucson, which eventually premiered in 2021. The company rehearsed and presented online, paying its artists for the work. “And then we said, Okay, well, there's all these historical figures that we can't fit into our play, but we want to honor them. So we started commissioning artists to create digital or analog work.” 

axes, herbs, and satchels cast members during a recent performance of The Anthropologists's newest work
axes, herbs, and satchels cast members during a recent performance of The Anthropologists's newest work. Photo by Isha Patel.

The stories of Black birth workers

“The seed for one show was planted in the previous show,” said Moschitto, explaining that investigating gender-related laws in the 1850s for No Pants led them inevitably to one of the biggest ways in which child-bearing bodies are regulated: abortion. That led to a discussion about the knowledge held by Black birth workers, and how pregnancy is exceptionally fraught for Black women.

“If you're doing any kind of work in that area around birth and maternal mortality, you can't help but see the incredible disparity (in mortality and health risks for Black women), so it just became very clear that that's where the story needed to be situated,” Moschitto explained. “We’ve been fortunate to have a really tremendous group of artists who are willing to engage in that subject material.”

The company’s first-ever anthropologist in residence played a huge role in shaping the work, leading book discussions and sharing her expertise. “(Dr. Cole’s) field work has been in black birthing spaces and maternal mortality, just this incredible wealth of knowledge that she already had, work that she's done, and her lived experiences that she was generous enough to share with us.”

In response to Black Lives Matter and the protests of 2020, The Anthropologists doubled down on a commitment to anti-racist practices in ways that are evident in this production. Moschitto and producer Mariah Freda strived to be “explicit about our anti-oppression work and how we are making our creative process a safe and inclusive space, so that we can truly invite in the artists who need to be telling these stories.” Accordingly, most of the team working on this production consists of Black women.

“I really viewed my role here as like a facilitator of space, and doing my best to create a rehearsal space and a process that allows all of the artists enough time and space to be processing the work… and giving ourselves permission to find joy and humor in the space. It's been a real gift, how much of those two elements have been in the devising process so far,” said Moschitto.

To learn more about The Anthropologists and their upcoming work, visit their page:

Melissa Moschitto at work with her company, The Anthropologists
Melissa Moschitto at work with her company, The Anthropologists