Elizabeth D’Onofrio is the kind of person you can talk to for hours. Her warm manner and great sense of expression draw you in, and then she becomes so passionate and intense when she talks about her craft that she keeps you hanging on every word. Small wonder, then, that she is both an accomplished actress and acting teacher, and she has come to our Island with the desire to help our arts community evolve, by bringing her Method acting workshops to Ft. Myers Beach and becoming involved with our local theater.
Elizabeth and her brother, Vincent (who plays Detective Robert Goren on Law & Order – Criminal Intent) grew up in Hialeah, Florida. Their father, Gene, designed sets and directed community theater in Coconut Grove. “That’s how I got into acting,” Elizabeth told me. “Dad always had places where he was involved in set designing and acting. He started the Barn Theater in Miami Lakes.”
D’Onofrio’s first foray into acting came in elementary school, where she “blew away the popular kids” when she got the lead in the school play. “I remember auditioning and all the ‘in girls’ thought one of them would get the lead,” she remembered, laughing, “But then the director liked what I did, so I got it.” Elizabeth said that it was acting that “got her through middle and high school.”
When she turned 17, Elizabeth followed her father and brother to Colorado, where Gene started several theater companies. One day, she overheard them talking to some of the other girls in the company about how they were going to move to New York City to become actresses. “I said, ‘what about me? I want to go, too’,” Elizabeth told me. “Turns out my brother also wanted to go, so Dad set us up with Sonia Moore at the American Stanislavsky Theater.” This would mark a major beginning in Elizabeth’s life – one that would influence her acting from that point on. Sonia Moore was one of the most sought-after instructors in New York as she had studied under Constantin Stanislavski at The Moscow Art Theater in Russia. From that moment on, D’Onofrio would be both a student and later a teacher of Lee Strasburg’s Method.
Method acting is when an actor will try to replicate real life emotional conditions under which the character operates, in an effort to create a life-like, realistic performance. The actor or actress recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed.
“It’s kind of like when you hear an old song, if that song ever meant anything to you, it will take you back to when you first heard it, who you were with and your feelings about the situation you were in,” Elizabeth explained.
In New York, she and Vincent lived first with relatives in Brooklyn before moving to a loft downtown near the South Street Seaport. “My brother built dividers, and we lived that way for years – working, going to school, and going to auditions. It was the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s then, what a wonderful time to be in New York.” Elizabeth moved on to study with Sharon Chatten of the Actor’s Studio before following Chatten and her brother to Los Angeles. “I moved to LA when I was 31. By then I had had my son, and my brother was making films. I studied alongside Marg Helgenberger, Matthew Modine, Ben Stiller, and others. Some of us were working by then and some of us weren’t.”
Elizabeth told me that one of her old roommates from New York, a writer, was living in L.A. at the time and that she had written a play with a character based on how Elizabeth was in New York. “So I acted in her play, as myself – but myself at an earlier time,” she told me.
D’Onofrio continued to study with Sharon Chatten, who had also moved to California, until her son was 11 years old. “Then, since I really wasn’t getting any work, I decided to move to a smaller town and devote the next 6 or 7 years to raising my son in a good place.”
The move took them to Brevard, North Carolina, just southeast of Asheville, where Elizabeth would become a teacher. “I first started teaching back in Colorado. My boyfriend at the time – and my son’s father – was a musician, and there were these college kids that would come over and jam with him. When I told them I was an actress, they said ‘Teach us’, so I did.”
In Brevard, Elizabeth taught classes and began her workshops, the first of which she gave – with her brother Vincent – at a film festival they started called the River Run International Film Festival. “It was great, my brother and I talked about what we learned and how we applied it to our work.”
The following year she gave another workshop at the Asheville Film Festival and got some of her students to come and do scenes. This was followed by workshops in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, Women In Film in Dallas, Myrtle Beach and Miami International University.
Elizabeth’s film credits include, “Household Saints”, “The Whole Wide World”, “Ace Ventura II”, “The Velocity of Gary”, “Slice”, “Lunch Box” and “Dear Angry”. She has worked in numerous Off Broadway and produced three short films, “Waiting for Jilly”, “The Chocolate Fetish”, and “Awaken the Dawn” – the latter of which she wrote, produced and starred in.
D’Onofrio moved to the Lee County area two years ago this month. “Dad moved to Raleigh, and my mom lives in Cape Coral. When my sister passed away four years ago, Mom got custody of her daughter and the family ‘voted’ that I would move down to help her,” she says of the reason she relocated. She has since been trying to set up her workshops here and find an outlet for her life’s work.
“I read about the Orpheus Players in the Sand Paper, so I went down there one night and saw them perform ‘Johnny Mangano and His Astonishing Dogs’ at the Orpheus Cafe,” she said. “I really enjoyed it – especially the fact that were performing plays that were different – not the usual community theater type stuff. I got to talking with Mark List, and he said that he had heard about Method and wanted to know what it was all about.” She told me how she met Island Arts Foundation President Carl Conley at a get together a couple of weeks later at Mark’s home, and that she is excited about the possibility of offering her workshop at the new Purple Heart Theater.
“I would love to start teaching at a place like the Purple Heart,” she told me. “I would like to be part of the initial program there.”
Even though Elizabeth has worked with some famous names , she is still the most down to earth person you could ever meet. “I’ve been on both sides,” she told me. “When you’ve been on both sides, you’re used to dealing with people on different levels. The most important thing is learning from your experiences. Take from it and build your own. I’ve built my own technique from what I’ve learned, and I’m always observing people, always learning.”
Keri Hendry ~ originally published in The Island Sand Paper, Issue 386, July 4th, 2008