Nicholas Viselli is the Artistic Director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, New York City’s only Off-Broadway theater company dedicated to advancing the work of professional artists with disabilities. He joined TBTB in 1997 and has performed in over 30 TBTB productions, as well as directed and helped out every way he could for the past 23 years. He has attended nine International Theater Festivals for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Zagreb, Croatia as an actor, producer, director and key coordinator for the company during their festival appearances in 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2019. He orchestrated, developed, produced and directed three special performances by TBTB, commissioned for the United Nations to commemorate the International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction and The International Day of People With Disabilities. In 2019, he organized and coordinated TBTB’s appearance at the United Nations’ Department of Disaster Risk Reduction’s Global Platform in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2014, he produced and coordinated TBTB’s 1st visit to Japan, when the company was invited to attend both the BIRD International Theatre Festival and Japan’s National Festival for People With Disabilities. In 2017 and 2018, Nick orchestrated two subsequent tours to Japan, performing in several major Japanese cities during each visit. He is currently coordinating TBTB’s 2021 International tours to Croatia, Uganda and Japan (during the rescheduled 2021 summer Olympic/Paralympic games).
Nick studied at the Royal National Theater in London with Richard Eyre, Patsy Rodenberg, Stephen Daldry, Simon McBurney, Stephen Warbeck and Sir Ian McKellan and is a graduate of Hofstra University.
Ann Marie Morelli has been a core company member of Theater Breaking Through Barriers since 1997. She has been part of many TBTB productions contributing in various roles. She has served as an Actor, Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, support staff and House Manager. She currently serves as TBTB’s Apprenticeship Program Director, overseeing operations of TBTB’s new program to train disabled arts professionals skills in theater management. She has represented TBTB at the International Blind In Theatre Festival in Zagreb, Croatia 5 times, where she has performed for international audiences. She has also toured to Japan and has performed multiple times for the United Nations both here in New York and in Geneva, Switzerland. She studied abroad at the Royal National Theatre of London, and is married to Nicholas Viselli.
T2C: How did you first hear about Manhattan Plaza and when did you move in?
Nick Viselli: I actually heard about Manhattan Plaza before I even moved to New York City in 1988 from an actor friend. He urged me to try to get on their waiting list. Once I arrived, I discovered that the waiting list was closed and I had to wait until it opened again before I could even apply. Ann Marie moved to New York in 1992 and we lived together in a 2nd floor walk-up studio apartment on 10th Avenue between 34th and 35th Street. It wasn’t until 2003 that we were able to get on Manhattan Plaza’s waiting list. Fortunately, we drew a low number in the waiting list lottery and were able to move in three years later in 2006.
Ann Marie: Actually, Manhattan Plaza saved our lives. I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1995. I was still walking at the time, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me. By 2003, I was having a great deal of difficulty climbing the stairs to our apartment and it became clear that we needed to move. We couldn’t find an affordable apartment with elevator access in Manhattan. If we were forced to move outside of the city, the commute would have made it virtually impossible for me. We were at the tipping point where we needed to decide whether or not to abandon our careers and leave New York, when the Manhattan Plaza waiting list opened and we were able to apply. The three years between when we applied and actually moved in were challenging, but it was worth the wait! If it wasn’t for Manhattan Plaza, we probably would have left New York years ago.
T2C: You are both people who have broken barriers and dealt with disabilities. How has Manhattan Plaza addressed those issues and what has it helped you to accomplish?
Nick Viselli: Moving into Manhattan Plaza was a game-changer for us and it truly saved our lives. For the first time since moving to Manhattan, we were living in a safe, centrally located and fully accessible building. But the best part was the fact that we were now living among an incredible community of friends, colleagues and fellow artists. We already knew a lot of friends and colleagues who were living at Manhattan Plaza, but now they were our neighbors! There’s truly nothing better than living in a community, where there are common interests and everyone cares and supports each other. I feel that living in this incredible community inspires us and feeds our creativity. Pursuing a career in the arts is tricky proposition. While the pursuit drives us, we usually need to make many sacrifices and are forced to take side jobs to stay afloat. When you live in a great place surrounded by an incredible community of people who are all doing what you are doing, it fuels you and keeps you from falling into a trap of despair. Living at Manhattan Plaza, I knew that Ann Marie was safe and could get around by herself. We are close to everything. Most auditions and performances are within walking distance and everything we need — banks, grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies — are all less than one block away! Living here has given us an incredible peace-of-mind and has enabled us to pursue our careers with confidence and without fear. If it wasn’t for MP, our lives would be radically different today.
Ann Marie: From the first day we moved here, Manhattan Plaza went out of its way to make our apartment fully accessible for me. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the West tower. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t ideal for a wheelchair user. They encouraged us to apply for a larger one-bedroom, but they modified the apartment, adding grab bars, adjusting the saddle in the doorway, etc. Less than two years later, they offered us larger apartment in the East tower, which made a huge difference. The kitchen was now fully accessible and I could navigate the apartment in a wheelchair without a lot of sharp corners.
Once again they modified the apartment, even adding a wooden deck onto our terrace so it would be level with our apartment floor and I could roll out without any difficulty. The building itself is fully accessible and I can navigate pretty much anywhere without assistance. I am so lucky to call Manhattan Plaza my home!
T2C: Who have you make friends with in the building and have those relationships lasted?
Nick Viselli: We were fortunate to have formed many great friendships with Manhattan Plaza residents long before moving here. Some of our earliest friends were actors. Jerry Lee, Adam Michener, Stage Manager, Michael Biondi, we met through our work with Theater Breaking Through Barriers. In 1989-1990, I had worked on a Yiddish Musical Revue with actors, Bruce Adler and Joanne Borts, years before moving here. I met Sal Biagini while working one season for Mattel during the New York City Toy Fair and I booked that job through Casting Director, Lesley Collis, another MP resident. I had studied in London with actor, Paul Hamilton long before I actually met and became friends with his wife, Anita Hollander, and I had met choreographer, Heidi Latsky, years before becoming her neighbor. Once we became residents, our circle of friendships truly flourished. I think a lot of this community spirit is truly generated by the staff. When we first moved in, we became friends with former MP Director, Richard Hunnings, former Application Coordinator, Susan Bernstein, Paulette Woodside, and former Rodney Kirk Center Coordinator, Jim Kelly. Their warmth set the tone, made us feel welcome and helped us to settle in.
Ann Marie: The community at MP is truly unique. It’s very warm and welcoming and it’s very easy to become enmeshed here. Everyone is so friendly. There are many residents that we don’t know by name, but because we see each other in passing, we’ve become friendly and often stop to chat. The best part is that the community continues to grow. Several of our friends who were on the MP waiting list have now become residents and are currently living here, including Actor/Musical Director, Ben Rauch, Dancer/Choreographer, Satoshi Haga and his wife, Rie Fukuzawa and Actor/Director, Tonya Pinkins. The performing arts community in New York City is actually quite connected and the longer you work in it, the more you discover how close we all are. This becomes magnified at MP, since so many of its residents work in the arts. Last season, TBTB presented the world premiere Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, Public Servant. We cast actor, Chris Henry Coffey, as the male lead and it was only after he started working with us when we realized that he was our neighbor and lived one floor above us with his wife, Jennifer Mudge.
T2C: What shows did you do while living in the building.
Nick Viselli: Since becoming a resident, I have performed in over 18 TBTB productions, including: Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Cocktail Hour, The Rules of Charity, A Nervous Smile, Bass For Picasso, Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest and The Fourth Wall. I’ve also directed several productions for TBTB and coordinated several international tours to Europe and Asia. In 2015, following the passing of TBTB’s founding Artistic Director, Ike Schambelan, I became TBTB’s Artistic Director and have been working to build on our company’s success ever since.
Ann Marie: Like Nick, I had been a core company member of TBTB since 1997, so we were very lucky to have established roots with a company that had been around almost as long as Manhattan Plaza (TBTB was founded as Theater By The Blind in 1979). Our first production with TBTB was in 1999: Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova, which performed at the old Becket Theatre on Theatre Row. As my disability progressed and I became a full time wheelchair user, I started doing more stage management work for the company. In 2007, I was cast to play Hermia/Titania in TBTB’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was the first time an actor in a wheelchair had appeared on an Off-Broadway stage. The significance of this was underscored by the fact that, at the time, TBTB was known for working primarily with blind/low vision artists. In 2008, TBTB decided to expand its mission to include artists with all forms of disability and the company changed its name from Theater By The Blind to Theater Breaking Through Barriers (maintaining the TBTB acronym, by which we are still known today).
T2C: What has been the biggest changes to the neighborhood and your business?
Nick Viselli: I remember when I first moved to New York in 1988, Ninth Avenue was still pretty dicey, though not nearly as rough as it was in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s. There were a lot of small restaurants and family owned businesses when we moved here, but the neighborhood really started to transition in the 90’s and by the time we moved to MP in 2006 the neighborhood was at the peak of its renaissance. Ninth Avenue was a haven for small, affordable restaurants featuring all types of cuisine. A lot of small boutiques and coffee shops started popping up and the neighborhood truly flourished. Today, the west side of Manhattan is experiencing a tremendous development explosion with real estate prices skyrocketing. Many of the smaller shops and restaurants that made our neighborhood so special could no longer afford the price gouging that landlords were inflicting upon them. As a result, the neighborhood has taken on a more generic feel as chain businesses (that can afford the higher rents) move in. Through all of the neighborhoods changes, Manhattan Plaza remains a pivotal cornerstone in this community. What makes this place so special is our desire to preserve a tight community atmosphere. Hopefully, this will never change.
Ann Marie: When I first moved to New York City, I got a job working in guest services for The Sheraton New York on 7th Avenue. I remember telling our guests (in the early 90’s) not to wander past 8th Avenue after dark. At the time, we lived on 10th Avenue and 34th St. and while I didn’t mind the neighborhood during the day, it became very different at night. By the mid-90’s we started to see the neighborhood change and it suddenly became a much warmer, friendlier place. We were really lucky to move into MP when the neighborhood was at its best. When we first moved here, TBTB performed on Theatre Row, but when Theatre Row closed for renovations, we performed at other venues around town. It wasn’t until 2008 when we returned to Theatre Row and we haven’t looked back since. Like Manhattan Plaza, TBTB is an integral part of our community. It’s important for us to be centrally located because we must be accessible for all audiences. Theatre Row is a fully accessible space and happens to be right across the street from MP, so it’s truly ideal for us. We have also started producing at the new A.R.T./New York Theatres on 10th Avenue and 53rd st., so whether our shows perform on Theatre Row or at A.R.T./New York, we will always be a part of this community.
T2C: How has Manhattan Plaza addressed the needs to people who are disabled?
Nick Viselli: Manhattan Plaza has truly been a godsend and is a federally subsidized facility, they must comply with all state and federal standards. That said, the staff and management go out of their way to ensure that all disabled tenants needs are met to the best of their ability.
Ann Marie: New York City is probably one of the more accessible cities in our country, but that isn’t really saying much from my perspective. So many public buildings are older and cannot be retrofitted to accommodate ramps, lifts or elevators. In terms of theaters and rehearsal spaces, there are very few fully accessible venues in the city. Many theaters are accessible for audiences, but if you are a performer or Stage Manager, you cannot access backstage areas without climbing stairs or traversing narrow corridors. Manhattan Plaza was the answer to our prayers. Last year, they installed a new lift on the 2nd floor of the East tower, which allows wheelchair users to access the plaza and playground areas between the buildings. They also installed an automatic door to the Ellington Community Room so disabled residents can access it without assistance.
T2C: What was your greatest accomplishment thanks to living in the building?
Nick Viselli: For me, our greatest accomplishment is the fact that we were able to remain here in New York to continue pursuing our careers as artists. Manhattan Plaza was always the dream for us and we are SO LUCKY to be living here. Everything we have accomplished here in New York since 2006 is directly related to our residence and community at MP.
Anne Marie: Manhattan Plaza has made my life so much easier. I am able to live autonomously here. Because I live here, I am independent and can move about freely. I don’t think we could have accomplished this lifestyle anywhere else!
T2C: What would you change from your time living in Manhattan Plaza?
Nick Viselli: There were many friends who lived here who are no longer with us, some of whom I mentioned above I wish I could have spent more time with them and truly miss their friendship. Several of them were role models and had a huge impact on my life. I wish there was a way to speed up the waiting list process. It is a long journey, but it was definitely worth the wait!
Ann Marie: I can’t think of anything I would change about living here. It’s incredibly difficult to have a professional career as an actor. It’s virtually impossible if you are disabled. Having a disability does not diminish the quality or integrity of the art or the artist. Because we live here we are able to grow Theater Breaking Through Barriers’ incredible legacy and continue moving it forward.
T2C: What is your fondest memory of New York?
Nick Viselli: There are so many memories — some fond and some, not so much — but all memorable nonetheless. I think the strongest and most significant memories I have involve some of our city’s greatest struggles and how we have banded together as a community to endure. I’m remembering our spirit following 9/11 and how this big city hung together and everyone supported each other with one enormous heart. I remember the blackout in 2003 when everything stopped. Ann Marie and I spent the blackout with our friends, Jerry Lee and Adam Michenner at Manhattan Plaza’s solitude garden on the 2nd floor of the East tower. The Covid-19 pandemic shows how the true heart and spirit of our community is helping us to endure our most difficult trial to date. Although we are forced to isolate ourselves, remain physically distant and avoid contact, it is the pulse of our community at Manhattan Plaza that will get us through this crisis. Manhattan Plaza is not just a building or a physical location. Manhattan Plaza is a living, breathing entity and I am so honored to be a part of it.
Ann Marie: I will never forget our many friends who are no longer with us — Michael Biondi, Jerry Lee, Adam Michenner, Bruce Adler, Susan Bernstein and Jim Kelly. But I think one of my fondest memories was the day we officially became residents at Manhattan Plaza. Every time I look at the photo on my ID card, which was taken the day we moved in, I’m reminded of how happy I was to move here. This is truly a special place and living here has shaped our futures and brought us to this moment.
T2C: What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you?
Nick Viselli: I would like to invite everyone to visit our theater company’s website, www.tbtb.org to find out more about us and to see our work. I was asked by the Theater Communications Group (TCG) to represent the United States by drafting the address for this year’s World Theatre Day (on March 27). The address was released and published on TCG’s website. I’m attaching a link to the address here: https://www.tcg.org/International/InternationalActivities/WorldTheatreDay/Message.aspx
Ann Marie: TBTB was forced to cancel the remainder of our season, but it’s important for us to remain visible and to continue working. We are the only theater working on an Off-Broadway contract that is dedicated to advancing the work of disabled artists, our work is so vital to our community. In May, we will be presenting an online workshop production of new short plays, written expressly to be performed online. TBTB’s 1st Virtual Playmakers’ Intensive, will be presented from May 18 – 23 and will be streamed live on FACEBOOK, YOUTUBE and INSTAGRAM. If you wish to learn more about this or if you want to make a donation to TBTB, Please visit to our website (www.tbtb.org). To donate, click the yellow DONATE button at the top of the page.
The documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, is available on Amazon and will soon be available to stream.