By Jamie Swinnerton
Eliza VanCort couldn’t figure out where all of her time was going. All the typical things that made up her day – work, family, friends – shouldn’t be leaving her with no time for herself. And yet.
Finally, she figured out what the problem was. VanCort is the person you go to when you need help getting a point across and effectively communicating not only through speech but through attitude and body language. When she really examined how she was spending her time VanCort found that she was giving this talent away for free and it was sucking up her time. So, she took that talent and she started a business: VanCort Consulting, working both locally and nationally. She was back in control of her own time.
These talents have taken VanCort all the way to one of the most well-known stages that a presenter can get on: TEDx, an international series of presentations given by experts, shared with the public at no charge.
Late last year VanCort was offered a chance to apply for a TEDx spot in Rochester and spent months of honing her presentation on “Women, Power, and Revolutionizing Speech” after she was awarded a spot. While the entire presentation is a powerful conversation about the tools of speech women can use to make their message more powerful, it’s the very last part that most people will remember.
“I was born to a woman who, by all accounts, was an exceptional and loving mother, but I lost her very quickly to mental illness,” VanCort told her audience. Her mother, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, illegally took VanCort from her father three times, traveling across the country hitching rides from strangers.
“My most vivid memory of that time was sitting in the front of one of those big trucks while my mother was raped by the driver in the sleeping area behind me,” VanCort described publicly for the first time. “The little girl who is in that truck learned very quickly, on those trips, how important it was to stay silent. To make yourself small. To go unnoticed.”
For years she chose to stay small and be invisible, thinking it was the only way to survive. But staying invisible wasn’t who she really was. She felt like she was losing a little bit of her soul every time she gave up her power by staying silent. Slowly she began to reclaim her space, and now through both her consulting business and through the Actors Workshop of Ithaca, which she founded, she helps others reclaim their space too. But it took time and it took work. The Eliza VanCort that stood on the TEDx stage in May was a product of years of challenges, mistakes, and triumphs.
VanCort was a political science major in college and found herself gravitating toward communication and what it takes to get a message across. She started her higher education career at SUNY Potsdam where she created the first women’s rights group on campus, and publicly confronted the school’s new president about creating a Women’s Studies program. When the local papers covered that moment, she began to understand the power of communicating a message. When she interned for the DCCC she learned that even if candidates have the best ideas, if they can’t present those ideas in an engaging way they will lose.
After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she transferred after a year at SUNY Potsdam, she took a year off to work at the Ithaca Youth Bureau in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program mentoring the mentors. The skills she learned here would benefit her in many of her future endeavors.
“That first year with the Big Sister, Big Brother program I actually learned a lot about mentoring because that was the whole focus of the program, which has served me quite well because one of my most popular talks is a talk on mentoring,” VanCort said. “I’ve had all these experiences that have sort of led up to this moment.”
After a year with the program, she ended up going to NYU Law School for a year before realizing she couldn’t live in the binary world of being either right or wrong that she felt being a lawyer necessitated. She took a semester off and never went back.
VanCort has always been a lover of the theater and performing so it’s no surprise that she gravitated toward acting in NYC. While working as an actress VanCort auditioned under a different name because agents told her that she was too “ethnic looking to play the standard ‘American,’” and her name didn’t match her look. When her grandfather fled to America to avoid the Nazis he changed the family name from Franco to VanCort in case Adolf Hitler ever made it to the United States. While auditioning, VanCort took her original family name.
“I started getting more work because I ‘made sense,’” VanCort said. “So, I started playing a lot of Italians, Greeks.”
When her then-husband got into a residency program at Harvard they moved to Boston where VanCort started looking for work after having finished a Meisner program (the Meisner technique is an approach to acting that focuses on letting an actor behave instinctively to their environment, developed by Sanford Meisner). The first place she called in Boston happened to be looking for a new Meisner instructor.
After several years teaching in Boston VanCort came back to the Ithaca area to be closer to family to raise her three kids. Nobody believed that an actor’s workshop in Ithaca would work, the idea wasn’t sustainable. She borrowed money from her brother to make posters that she put all over town. She went to the Ithaca Journal to share her story and made it clear that she was happy to wait in the lobby until someone would speak to her. She spoke to a reporter that day. Her first call came from Katie Spallone, VanCort’s co-director at the now very successful Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. The business she created is still thriving from the studio she built in her own home.
Now, she has both VanCort Consulting and the AWI, and a TEDx talk under her belt.
“I think one of the reasons why things have been going well for me is that I want to make sure everyone I’m working with is learning, not just one demographic,” she said of her teaching style, which considers differences of race, gender, sexuality, economic class, etc. “For me, this has been a wonderful combination of my background in politics and my performing arts background.”
Originally, she was going to use her presentation to talk about the constraints put on women when it comes to speech. It morphed into something more constructive by presenting tools women can use to be more powerful communicators and claim their space. Content that isn’t widely available to the public outside of VanCort’s clients. Three days before the presentation she rewrote the last third of the talk to include her own story.
VanCort said that before that moment on stage even her closest friends had no idea what she had been through. But, she said she feels like her mother would be 100 percent behind her decision to tell it. Her mother, Mary Louise Marini, has been missing for 15 years. According to VanCort, her mother was a feminist before her time, a beloved teacher, and an exceptional woman. She believes her mother never really got the chance to be heard because of her mental illness and the stigma society holds against it.
“I don’t want her memory to quietly fade away,” VanCort said. “She was a fierce woman. She wouldn’t want that.”
Now, even for a little while, her story, intertwined with her daughter’s, is being shared. VanCort hopes that by talking about this part of her history so publicly, a larger audience will remember that people with mental illness are still people with families, friends, and needs. VanCort said she was nervous about the reaction from her mother’s family after sharing her story in the TEDx, but the reaction has so far been supportive.
“My sister was an incredible person. I’m glad Eliza is keeping her memory alive,” VanCort’s aunt, Nancy Beck, wrote in an email. “Even in her illness she still cared about others. But society stops caring about women in a situation like that. People want to pretend you don’t exist. She got swallowed up.”
Her story, like so many others, has not been forgotten.
“Empowering women to tell their stories is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and that’s why I decided to tell my story in my TED, because I realized that in my TED I was asking women to be brave, and yet I was running from the heart of the story,” she said. “I realized, if I wanted other people to be brave I had to be brave myself.”
Since the video her TEDx went public a few weeks ago, VanCort has been hearing from other women who feel empowered to share their stories, Me Too and otherwise, because she shared hers. It’s not the result she expected, but it’s a result she’s elated by.
“I think we’re in an incredible moment where women are working together to give voice to the voiceless. It gives me such hope.”
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