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Manyi Li hosting an event at Emma Willard

In the Spring edition of Signature magazine, we highlighted the partnership of Manyi L. ’23 and Viviana Leo ’98, who connected over their shared passion for film.

Manyi Li '23

“Americans are so positive in encouraging students. No matter what, they don’t say you’re bad at something.” For Manyi L. ’23, that observation turned into a Signature project highlighting cultural differences between her native China and her experiences as a student in the United States. “I play basketball. No matter how bad you’re doing, and even if the encouragement is fake, it’s like the whole environment helps you gain confidence. In China, I didn’t feel confident. But I do now.” 

Manyi, who is from Beijing, came to the US at age 14 and spent eighth grade at Albany Academy before transferring to Emma the next year, at the recommendation of a family friend.

“My favorite part of being at Emma is that the school is so liberal in its approach to students. The teachers actually listen to our opinions—they don’t ask us something and disregard what we say,” Manyi explains. “The school also provides a lot of great opportunities, like the Signature project. I don’t think other schools have programs like this that allow students to work on something in the present. We have a lot of freedom to say what we want to focus on. Our voice can be heard.”

She points out that Emma demonstrates a lot of love for international students, helping them share their cultural traditions with others through clubs, celebrations of holidays such as Lunar New Year, and more. That atmosphere inspired Manyi to create a three-part video project to help students and teachers recognize and appreciate cultural diversity in education.

“The first part is really an introduction to my experiences,” she says. “The second one includes two or three funny examples of cultural differences. It uses interviews with my international student friends, and some video clips from a stand-up show I did as part of a comedy acting program at the University of Southern California (USC) last summer. In the third part, I talk a little bit about how people should understand international students, because it can be difficult—as a student—to understand the differences here.”

Meeting Her Match

Viviana Leo '98

For Viviana Leo ’98, who is mentoring Manyi through her Signature work, culture, acting, and film have been passions for years—although she took a much different path than Manyi finds open today. Viviana always wanted to be an actress, but she didn’t enjoy the classes available to her at Columbia University, where she ultimately earned a bachelor’s in English with a focus in dramatic literature. In New York City, though, theatre and acting are everywhere. 

“I found an off-campus acting class on the Upper West Side and started studying that way,” Viviana says. “Back then, we’d pick up the Backstage audition newspaper, or buy the listings that were only supposed to go to agents, and we’d send our resumes and headshots to casting directors. I’m Viviana Rodriguez, raised in America, Dad’s a doctor, and Mom’s a teacher. I’m from a Puerto Rican family, but nothing calls that out—so I submitted for lead roles, girl-next-door roles, and things like that. And I got decent auditions.”

Everything changed when casting calls went online: “That cut out a lot of potential for actors to have control over their own careers. We had to go through a manager or agent—and they only sent me for stereotypical Hispanic things that I just didn’t have. People thought I’d studied voice to get rid of an urban accent.”

Then, Viviana faced a complete stop to any auditions that seemed like her. “And that’s when I started the ‘Chiquita Banana’ time period, when I was only asked to play maids, which I wasn’t good at,” she says. “One of my acting mentors told me, ‘If you’re Italian and only cast for the gumba role, do as many as you can to make a name for yourself. Then, they can’t turn down the name for the roles you want.’” 

She decided to expand her efforts, first writing a scene for fun, then writing a feature film called White Alligator based on her own experiences as a light-skinned Puerto Rican actress. “I didn’t know what to do with it,” Viviana explains. 

“In New York, my friends and I can rent a theater, block on stage, and do everything—but I didn’t know about film.”

Over a 10-year time frame, and after countless hours researching film production at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she shot and made her feature film. Viviana has been writing, producing, and acting in her own work ever since. And, she says, she’s been seeing a lot of different roles and colors in recent years. 

Still, she says, “I had visions of starting a program at Emma so women could move faster than the six to eight years it took me to figure out the business. If we get these women early, then by the time they are 22, they can compete—and they can make studio head by 30.”

Passing the Baton

When Manyi and Viviana met, neither was quite sure how their mentorship would look. As Viviana describes her approach, “The world is anyone’s oyster. The days of saying, ‘This is the only way,’ are over. I have a group of women in film in New York that’s branched out and is now bicoastal. Everyone is in a hybrid role—we ask their name and their hyphenates. There are lots of actress-producer-writer, actor-writer-director, etc.… Creativity saves us and gets it done.”

“[Viviana] is a wonderful person,” Manyi says. “She gives me advice, but she’s not pushing me or forcing me to do anything. We met weekly and I got a lot of ideas. The most enjoyable part is that she’s a chill person and if I have my own ideas, even if she gave me some ideas, she doesn’t pressure me to take hers. She listens to mine.” 

“I really believe that the person telling the story is part of that history,” Viviana says. She recalls introducing scriptwriting to Manyi, who instead set out the story as a video. “That was amazing. She’s really using her strengths and gifts.”

Together, the two met to storyboard the video and write an initial script. Manyi describes how her understanding of the medium improved. “[Viviana] helped me organize my ideas. She’s given me articles about how to film in a small room, and how to make the flow clearer for the audience. She’s helped me look at the script and made suggestions.” 

“Manyi has an insane amount of talent. I’ve been really surprised by her. She had a bad cut from this editor she hired in China, and over break, she gave the editor notes on her own. They had a very professional discussion and Manyi got what she wanted,” Viviana says. “She has a great personality and knows how to ask questions…I think if she studied journalism, it could really help her in the future.”

What Comes Next

Although Manyi started her project last spring, she’s faced illness, college applications, and a recent ACL repair surgery.

“When we started, they said most girls don’t finish their projects,” Viviana adds. “I thought, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to make it.’ So I have to laugh at everything that’s happened! But it’s never a straight trajectory. There are all these amazing creatures working behind the scenes, who have to do this with children, deaths in the family, illnesses. Manyi is learning to do her best. She will decide what she wants to do and that will be her own discovery journey.”

Manyi says her path is likely to take her to USC or Boston University to study some combination of international relations and acting. “They are both very diverse communities, and I want to make friends from different parts of the world—not just Asian or American cultures, but European cultures I don’t know about.”

And Viviana? She’s in the late stages of making a feature film about groundbreaking Emma alumna Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1832).

This piece was written by JoAnn Gometz for the Spring 2023 issue of Signature Magazine. 


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