Category: Commentary

Why Shakespeare?

Because acting is life. With every good playwright we find the realities we endure being played out on stage to help us understand. Without knowing the consequence, the moment needs to find reason, and if done properly, can teach all of us something. That is the beauty of theater. That is the marvel of Shakespeare.

I often in my classroom, whether it be English or theater would reference Romeo & Juliet. There is a scene where the star-crossed lovers cannot be with each other yet have each other in their hearts to a point of obsession. I will ask my class, or perhaps my cast, have they ever experienced waiting for someone? Have they known the anxiety of not knowing? When Romeo shutters himself in his bedroom, is that like putting on a headset and tuning out the world? Would both fathers reach out to friends to find out the state of mind of their children? All of these questions relate directly to our lives today. They speak to the anxiety that our children go through on a daily basis – much like the same for adults. So why is it so important we see that played out in the script and inflections created by actors on stage? It tells a story.

Our lives are stories, each and every one of us has experience. If not, then the likes of Neil Simon, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates could not be embraced in the manner their words are heard. If not, then William Shakespeare would be just another hack. The truth is though every one of these names speaks to the human condition. Only a few have been mentioned, so many more exist and continue to evolve. The beauty of Shakespeare is his words and moments lifted our emotional bearing in a way that is hard to argue allows us to relate to situations that are as real now as they were centuries ago. Sophocles wrote of the demise of power with great reliance upon human interactions to suggest the deceit that can bury a society or at least mar their credibility.

Today is Shakespeare’s apparent birth date, so it provides reason to be grateful for his words and how they have become statements of who we are in today’s world. Who we are in his eyes of culture a long time ago in an English language often misconstrued. Shakespeare belongs on stage, and it is the mannerism, the expression, response of the actor on stage that lets the audience know there is evidence to the nature of life. We talk of existential crises in our lives, and look to find Shakespeare has played out the catharsis in some scene or soliloquy witnessed in its raw form. The actor is alive on stage..

When we think back to that moment with Romeo & Juliet experiencing teenage lives, imagine how students today go through the same. What better knowledge gained than playing out these lives on stage, with all the emotion and intellect of a simple analogy of the human spirit? The genius of a playwright deserves a lauding on their birthday.

The irony is the next scene in his day.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

She Belonged On Stage

At least those were her words when Becky returned to an audition after years of being away. I’ve changed her name and productions to protect her anonymity. I was first introduced to Becky in a production of Mary Poppins when she played a significant role. She was someone who came out of nowhere, they usually do and found herself with a significant role, one that she would present with a fierceness a director may only wish a student would bring to a program.

I remember her having an edge with the cast immediately. People looked upon Becky and knew she was serious about her purpose in a show. She had her lines down early and was even helping the younger children find comfort with their roles and acting abilities. I remember being able to give her any direction and she always took it a step further. She one time told me she didn’t really get along with anyone else and she was just here to do her job. Though I wanted to disagree with her I could see in her dynamic she did stay close to the chest and it was significant to see her become close to anyone in the production. That wasn’t a bad thing I decided, she was actually so talented I let her do whatever she wanted. Off stage she may not have been everyone’s best friend but when acting and working on her role, there was no question of her commitment.

And then she disappeared. The production ran its course and suddenly Becky didn’t return for the one acts or later the spring play. In fact she vanished from the halls of the school. The next year came and went and no Becky still. I was puzzled because she was so good I was actually mildly planning my season around her (a taboo admission by a director). As I did find out she transferred to an ALC, an alternative learning center. I wouldn’t know the reason for a couple of years but once I did discover her there she did invite me to a couple of poetry readings, so I knew it was evident she wanted to perform. Turns out her angst toward other members of the stage was more likely anxiety, and she just couldn’t maintain a comfort level working with the school productions. I always encouraged her and she would give me a maybe look and be on her way.

Senior year came along and Little Shop of Horrors was our fare for the fall musical. Suddenly on the list of auditions I saw Becky’s name. I was beyond delighted. Here comes a monologue story. Students were mandated to have a prepared monologue for the audition. When Becky got up to do her piece it was one of the most heartfelt pieces I had ever heard – a story of a young woman that knew she belonged on stage but was afraid. She finally decided in the caveat of the reading she needed to take a chance and would go for it. I loved it. It fit her swimmingly. I asked her where she found the piece I would like to see it myself and maybe use it in my classroom. She looked at me with a pensive glance and said, “I wrote it.” In that moment I cast her in the show.

There is something about anxiety and students finding themselves on stage. They may walk the halls of school in a meek manner not wanting to upset the cart, their insides churning with fear the entire walk. Put them on a stage and that persona can change, I have seen it occur time and time again. In Becky’s case she belongs on stage, and to confirm this feeling I had, she continued to excel on stage in her post-secondary studies. I am delighted to reference such a wonderful human being and actor in my theater classrooms.

There is an illusion we all try to reach when performing our realities in the scheme of a stage. When we can lives may also become more complete and validating. For Becky, she did find a zone and embraced her opportunities.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Directing Controversy

When I first chose to direct A Raisin in the Sun I wanted to put the show on because I had the right students to make it happen. The demographics of the school supported an all black cast of actors, and I thought it a wonderful opportunity to put on a timely show. Lorraine Hansberry’s script turns out to be timeless as its content is still conceivable in our society today. I remember colleagues asking me if I was going to cast the show ‘color-blind’ a term I have grown to dislike. I said I would cast the best person in each role and for this audition I had students come out of the woodwork. Everyone was excited about the show including me.

The auditions proved to be very competitive. I had many students I had never seen in the program before show up as it became an exciting word of mouth opportunity. I posted my cast list and an adventure in theater I hadn’t experienced before slowly began to evolve. In the process of rehearsal I found myself asking students to do something a white director couldn’t really conceptualize from the acknowledgment of hoping to get out of poverty to dealing with a white consultant for a neighborhood this black family could afford to live in based upon an inheritance. They never dreamed of being shunned by a white neighborhood that thought their lives would tumble into hell because of an influx of black families moving in, theirs being the first.

I remember asking my students to play out roles that I had to realize went against everything they believed. They were taking on characters that represented all of the discrimination and systemic injustice the majority of their families and community lived with every day. I was asking my students to act out their worst fears on stage. As a white director I went home many nights wondering if I was doing the right thing, holding rehearsals where the majority of the players would go home frustrated and angry every night. I hadn’t really thought about why. One day I brought one of my students home, he missed his ride and he told me how difficult it was to play a Nigerian student with a significant role in the play. He said it is hard enough to be black in the show now I have to be one from a native country? We talked about it for some time outside his home in a tough part of the neighborhood. He smiled and said good night and I waited for him to enter his house before I departed.

From that point on I began to tell the students this is their show and I was only going to advise them. They took ownership, including the sole white character who withstood the scrutiny of the family the entire performance. I remember thinking back to my colleagues who didn’t think I had enough students to cast the show and hoping they would attend. The majority did not go to the show.

What I did learn from directing this show is that when we put something on stage we have to ready ourselves for the questions that evolve. We had many sit down round table discussions about the characters and their roles in setting the tone. The students took the lead and defined their characters. I basically provided them a set. It was the most fascinating show I ever directed because I learned more than I might ever imagine. The students educated themselves and many expressed a sense of empowerment.

This show taught me that I’m not always right and being a good listener is invaluable to staging a play.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Why Do I Need A Monologue?

Years ago, when I was pursuing the stage, I was told by my mentor to always have a couple of monologues ready to go – preferably one comic and another tragic, perhaps contemporary or classical, even better always carry one of each in your back pocket and have them all memorized. Have a resource of around four or five memorized monologues. An actor really hasn’t any idea when this prep will come into play outside of the called for monologue in an audition.

As a high school theater director I always instilled this upon my students. I often held auditions that required memorized monologues, if not at least holding it in their hand. This was still high school so I was reasonable, but the emphasis remained. Unless it was a cold reading from the script I wanted students to take the audition seriously. The effort alone to present something outside of themselves was valuable.

My students would shirk and moan and dismiss the idea often just reading off a script found minutes before their scheduled slot. Like I said, I would give them a break but then afterwards cast or not try to explain to them how important it is to represent a character outside of themselves. If they walk into the room beaming with confidence can they express the sensitive nature of vulnerability or emulate the complete opposite.

I always tried to remind them of a funny story of an actor who once auditioned for a Hollywood cop show and after reading a piece for the director as he was dismissed the actor jumped up on the table and delivered a barrage of indignant banter to the director. He was cast in the show as an undercover cop with a personality that expressed a barrage of indignant banter. Now, that wasn’t the practiced theory of a monologue but this fellow knew what he was doing and he got the director’s attention.

I’m not suggesting students jump up on my desk and go crazy but the point was made. This actor knew what he was doing and presented that in their audition. I once had a student do that to me with the monologue “You can’t handle the truth” in true Jack Nicholson form. He scared the hell out of me and I gave him an A because not only did his stance work, he also knew the piece, word for word.

I would share the story of my own experience of an audition with the creative director of a well known theater company in the city. The audition called for cold readings, monologues preferred but unnecessary. So I went with the latter and didn’t tune up my library of monologues not expecting anything from the audition. I was in the last group of about eight people for the session and at the end of our cold readings he asked me to hang back. I was alone in the room with the artistic director. I was quite excited. He then asked me that dreaded question. “Do you have a couple of monologues you can show me?”

Silence.

I told him I had a couple but didn’t have them with me and I probably wouldn’t do them any justice.

“Well, that’s too bad, thanks for coming in,” he emoted and I walked out quite embarrassed. This man wanted results and preparation and I failed on both accounts. This is a message I did tried to implore to my students whenever delivering the ‘monologue’ lecture in class.

Are you earnest about getting a part, or just showing up to check things out? The former will be imperative.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Playing Illusions

One of the treasures of putting a script to stage is the opportunity to play reality and leave the audience in wonder. Many playwrights spend a lifetime writing scenes that will depict society in its true and sometimes disturbing form. Arthur Miller did just that with the majority of his scripts, my favorite being The Crucible. I remember the first time putting it on stage, using real moments to bring students to the next level, and finding takeaways that might sometimes change their own outlook on life.

I think The Crucible held a grasp on our society as it stood in Arthur Miller’s eyes in the 1950s when the production was first written. Miller wanted to speak to the idiocy of the McCarthy trials, a time that turned the entertainment industry upside down with unfounded or overzealous attempts to blacklist artists under the guise of communism. The idea that entertainment focused on the desecration of America’s freedom of expression destroyed many careers based upon rumor and speculation, and Miller used a common truth to express his indifference with an errant decision making process.

The Salem Witch Trials were a black mark on our history as a free society. In the 1600s dozens of residents of Salem were executed for unfounded involvement with witchcraft. In a similar scope the trials were Miller’s focal point when exposing the atrocity of the McCarthy hearings. The witch trials became a public exhibition of innocent lives and hangings; the careers of writers and entertainers had an eerily similar impact on human beings in a figurative sense. Miller used his genius to draw parallels between the two tragedies.

In order to stage Miller’s depiction of the trials, his script needed to be followed closely. What began as confusion from illness in the town of Salem erupted in a widespread speculation of children of the community practicing witchcraft in the surrounding forest. Imagine if our children were found playing kick the can in the dusk of their neighborhood suddenly becoming the victim of an elder accusation. The world of our children would be turned upside down. Much like the progress of or lack there of history of our political process, our society is easily drawn into discredit and shame as regards our desire to live in a free and safe society.

I think one of the pleasures I found with directing such a difficult piece as is The Crucible is our ability to look at the world through the eyes of a conscientious playwright. Arthur Miller told stories in his plays that emulated our society, our world. His ability to take real situations and act them out on stage would give any director a sense of giving society a value to imagine. My goal with all productions is to leave the audience conversing the symbolic nature and themes played out on stage. Imagine the education our students can receive acting out ‘real’ moments on stage with events that mirrored our society.

The masses need credible information that exposes speculation rather than limit freedom.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

A Seriously Bad Audition ☺️

I spoke of the moments when an audition can make or break a student’s opportunity to secure a role on stage. I suggested that students will need to be focused and do their best to perform at a high level in the audition that can characterize their effort on stage. That rule holds true for 99% of the students that auditioned for me.

That 1% is a wonderful individual whom I had placed in roles since he was a 9th grader. Each production he would audition badly, but I would always find a role for him because his work ethic set a tone for all of his peers. He contributed a positive and wonderful attitude through every production. His finest, terrible moment would be his final audition his senior year. This last read would secure him the role of Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.” Truth is all he had to do is walk in the door.

Elwood is a quirky guy that steals the show with his companion, an invisible 6 foot rabbit. Think about that persona and you find yourself looking for an individual who could be strange, eccentric, lovable and hilarious all in one charming character. All those features described my student, and I had watched him for four years develop instincts on stage that emphasized timing and a love for the stage.

When I posted the cast list, he was shocked. He came to me frightened and thought I had made a mistake. I assured him I would be with him the entire way and this was certainly his role to lose. His trepidation spoke volumes of his own humility. That night I think he spent his first evening in shock having his parents to console him and begin the long process of balancing his confidence. Again, he won out over people that felt they deserved the role. A director’s prerogative gave him the role, and I would not have had it any other way. Though I knew the risk, I really believed he would be Elwood by the time performances arrived.

So, how did he make it past the bad audition? He walked in the room. That statement alone describes how a person might fit a character in the eyes of the director. He was already quirky, odd, lovable and didn’t have a clue what he was going after. His monologue was on a piece of paper he had probably looked at an hour before his time slot. But that was just it. I needed someone with a genuine naïveté and he provided that without fail.

Cut to opening night, and this young man now took on the persona of Elwood throughout the entire school day. He made cards of Elwood P. Dowd and handed them to students in all of his classes and throughout the halls all day long. On the card were listed the performance dates and his name. But the beauty part is he didn’t fall in and out of his character – he remained Elwood all day.

He came up to me as he entered the green room, and politely said, “A pleasure sir, I’m Elwood P. Dowd and please have one of my cards,” and stepped into the dressing room with his beautiful wry smile.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

The Audition Process – One View

An audition might well land a student on stage. Too often when looking for a part in a play, a student might focus far too much on the role and not the director’s prerogative. Any director would be willing to say their goal is always to cast someone. In fact, there is a truth that a director would like to give every individual an opportunity, but cannot always achieve that ideal. The student needs to understand the final cut is most often not about them personally, it is about casting the right person for the role. There are many variables that play into that decision.

I remember one of my first year’s as a director a young woman came in to audition and presented herself as a serious candidate long before she read a monologue or any cold lines. Instead, it was her approach to the process that was far more appealing. That student came into the room and with her paperwork found a quiet space to await her opportunity. During the afternoon, I observed her remaining alone just working on her piece, ignoring those around her. It is not that she was anti-social, she was there for a purpose. She wanted to knock her audition out of the park and when she got up for her moment, did exactly that.

Another student came running into the audition late, having just gotten out of soccer practice in uniform and catching her breath. She took a lead role from many people that expected a far different outcome. She was a 9th grader going up against many upperclass peers, but she had the look and attitude I was hoping for with the role.

I think it is very valuable for students to understand the audition process is as important as playing the role on stage. One aspect that can bend the rule is knowing a student’s talent and history from previous productions. That can certainly be an advantage for deciding roles. What the student as a whole needs to understand and accept is that at the end of the day, it is the director or the production team’s final opinion that generally determines received roles. So in that light, sometimes a person’s past performance may not guarantee the role. I have had students with great talent come in to the audition process with a casual flair that clearly indicated their work on their monologue or sixteen bars of music was not well thought out, and presented an air of expectation without effort. That mindset will carry over into the rehearsal process. Only once in my career did a student present a bad audition and receive a lead. That’s a story for another time.

A director is watching all aspects of a student’s approach. Whether they are there to work on their piece as was the case for my first student, or they are simply talented enough to fit or take a chance on the role have big impacts on the process. In the case of the student with the lousy audition, they had prior experience and commitment that indicated their ability to play a role. So if that is the case, then might you ask how do you distinguish from one past history to another? It is simple really.

What I looked for in an audition was often a student’s approach to the visible process. If a student sat in a corner and created a ruckus with their fellow peers then I might question their commitment. I would much rather have a student show up with a focused agenda. That attitude will show the director, the student knows exactly why they are in the room in the first place.

So then, what happens with a last minute audition? The student fit the role. It was a no-brainer to cast a person in a role that seemed fitting to their persona. I once picked a show – a musical – specifically around a person who had tremendous acting skills. She was funny and tragic at the same time. The problem? She could not hold a note musically, and therefore I couldn’t take a chance when the voice took precedent over acting skills in a musical. Ideally, a student auditioning for a musical has acting, singing and dancing skills that all measure at the same level.

The difference sometimes between the student who auditions well and the one that does not contains other variables. The question is how will this student match up with their peers as a focus in the role and production. We have all seen the student who auditions well and then unfortunately can become the “rotten apple in the cart.” As a director that poses us with often difficult decisions.

The ideal of the audition is not only finding the right character or person for a role, but is also measured by the ability the student may show as being a team player. Much like the precedent of a lead character’s ability to rally the team around them, it is the audition that also tells the tale of a student’s commitment and passion for what they wish to bring to a rehearsal process.

Walk into the audition space and be the character, no matter the role. This is a student’s first challenge.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Why a Lead Role Matters

In the stage, being the lead is a position of honor, a caveat many students might pursue in a make it or break it fashion. If they don’t get the lead their lives are shattered. If they do, their persona suddenly takes a confident turn and they look at life with fascination and confusion at the same time. It is important to recognize that confusion might be the greatest feeling they have coming into a role. There is so much more to the concept of the lead than simply getting a favored role amongst their peers.

One of the coolest examples I experienced with this concept is a person who received a lead when they least expected the opportunity. They went about things in the right manner, getting their lines down early, asking the right questions, and working tirelessly on their role. The one aspect they forgot was recognizing their role with their own peers and everyone involved in the program.

It took me years to understand the impact of a lead beyond the role they played on stage. Being a lead contained a lot more responsibility. I remember as this actor worked on their role, an expressed frustration evolved as they tried to figure out their character. A cathartic moment for me was to find them in tears in the middle of the house, quietly weeping in fear. I asked them what was the matter, and the response was an inability to carry out their role because of the pressure not only in their acting ability but indeed the focus of their peers. Continually the response I received in the conversation was “I don’t deserve this” or “no one believes I can play the role.” I believed in their ability and expressed that directly saying the responsibility for meeting that goal belonged in my hands, and just play the role.

I discovered there was a need to take that philosophy a step further. I gave that role to people that deserved a lead for a two fold reason. The first is they deserved the role, and I believed they would give their effort completely to meet expectations. But the second rule had as great an impact. Playing a lead meant being able to represent the whole of a production, in that others were actually relying on the lead actor’s ability to represent the production on many levels.

A lead is meant to show everyone they are able to be there to help push the show forward, that by their own actions everyone would find their purpose in the production by example. I remember this young person crying their eyes out for days, and then suddenly coming back one day and showing the reason they got the role through impeccable effort. By doing so everyone tried to raise themselves to that same level, and suddenly rehearsals became productive, and each participant became excited about what lay ahead leading to performance. The lead had set a tone, an important one.

Being a lead can not only inspire one’s confidence, but it also lets the actor lead peers to fruition.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Planting Seeds in a Theater

As a theatre teacher I have always been fortunate to work with such talent that would often leave me humbled by the opportunities I experienced. I am of the school of finding yourself on stage. On countless occasion I would hear myself tell my students it matters little the set you have behind you, it is going to be what you the actor present in character. I believed a student who knew why they were working on the stage would find more satisfying takeaways than being told where to stand, how to emote.

I always believed that a student finding their way on stage could be much like planting a seed. If given the opportunity to sow their own character the world could become their own interpretation, and from there they could do anything and make anything possible. My favorite saying was you find yourself and you will experience an internal fruition like never before.

I had two students of similar stature. They both wanted to be on stage. They were both extremely talented. They were two years apart and both played leads in their senior year respectively.

I remember the first taking her role and doing with it more than I might have ever imagined. She was such a top level actor everything she did was beyond expectation, and she did it on her own. When asked to stand stage left and look out to the audience, she would make that part of the stage seem designed around her movements, when often times it has to be the set piece that provides the actor motivation. If a picture hanging on the wall was off balance, she would naturally straighten it and incorporate the gesture in her character, never mind that a door being shut caused the shift of the frame. I became spoiled and believed earnestly that give a student a script and they will figure out what to do onstage. But it wasn’t always that easy.

The second student in their senior year had similar talents, but certainly needed more direction. I discovered a need to walk them through their role, often times to a point of frustration on their part, because I believed they couldn’t grasp their character without taking responsibility for finding it within themselves. I learned that is not always the case, and giving this actor lots of direction helped them eventually find their purpose on stage.

In watching actors play out their roles it is easy for the keen eye to see whether they can actually emulate their character, become that character or simply play out the lines on stage. It is easy to see a person struggle to take ownership of themselves on stage. It can be as simple as an inflection in their narrative, the way they deliver a line, versus being simply a character on stage.

These two individuals taught me so much as a director I could never thank them enough. I often refer to my experience with them as being cathartic in how to ready every student for their role. Students have the capability to play roles outside of themselves or simply play the character as it is scripted.

In the case of my students I had one that I might give a seed and ask them to plant it and she would create a garden naturally. In the case of the other I might give them a garden seed and their first question would be where it might best be planted.

Everyone has a different approach to finding themselves on stage.


© Thom Amundsen 4/2022

Why I Teach Theatre – first installment

When I began teaching theatre I inherited a program that walked on water. My predecessor had much success and I was filling big shoes. I remember when meeting him, he laid out the program and then followed with the students I ‘should map the program around.’ He introduced me to his top leads in name and told me to watch for them, said their talents will make the program explode.

I picked a show called ‘Antigone’ and cast the lead role with a young woman that looked like a Nicaraguan rebel walking down the hallway of the school. She hadn’t been on stage before. Another student read a monologue particularly well in my 9th grade English – Shakespeare unit and I suggested he try out. I gave him his first role. My lead male in the production had been skipping class all semester but I couldn’t deny his talents. I remember the leads I had been referred to being quite upset with the roles they received and this began a journey for me that mapped out my next 25 years as a theatre coach.

I remember first getting the job and being rather stunned I was given a theater right out of the gates. I was an English teacher with a desire to teach theatre to students and I was fresh meat. Both the former and present students would test me to my limits and it was there I cut my teeth in my first few years.

I had a central goal that was always in the forefront of my mind. That was, to give any student the opportunity to be on stage, no matter the history or background each student brought to the program. I became a teacher to do the very same, to grab those students out of the hallways that had no place to stand among their peers and create a family of actors and drama kids. When I was in high school I was neglected and felt discounted and I believed every student I saw in the same position deserved peace in their lives. Theatre would be a vehicle to help achieve that goal.

That first show had many thrills and demons by the time we reached a performance level. That young woman in the hallway, the student with the class monologue, the skipper all performed at their top level and everyone contributed to a satisfying experience on stage. I found students in the wood work to come in and build the set, students to run the technical aspects and even those students that wanted to design and post the billings to gain an audience for the shows.

I remember posting my cast list at 7:30 in the morning with so much excitement in my mind that I forgot completely about the reaction I would endure the entire school day. That was the last time I posted a cast list before the end of the school day. I had to put out fires all morning and throughout the school day with students either excited or ready to take me out in the parking lot after school. I realized they often would need the weekend to soften the blow of not receiving the role they wanted or come down from the clouds with the exciting role they received.

That rebel was beside herself pumped and terrified at the same time. That student with the Shakespeare monologue had to rearrange his football practice schedule so that he could participate. That lead male skipped school the next day. The former leads glared at me the rest of the production. I remember after the first performance the football player giving me a big hug, telling me this was the greatest moment of his life. I had coffee with him twenty years later and he recited that very poem from Shakespeare without flaw. Blew me away.

I think what is true about being an advisor is that whether we believe it or not we influence the lives of our student participant. Eventually my absent student began attending class regularly, and managed to graduate with all of his credits by the end of the school year. He and all of his teachers thanked me at graduation, me who just wanted to run a theater program.

The beauty of theatre is that students play a role whether it is behind the scenes or on stage with a new found commitment to being part of the whole. I think theatre brings out the best in students and I have always been blessed with the opportunity to be impacted and influence the lives of high school students.

The stage really can be a place where a teenager can begin to find themselves if they are lost.


© Thom Amundsen 3/2022