Category: the stage

A Curious Outcome

I found him crouched in a corner laying in a fetal position.

The kids told me that is the way he is. Let him go, you don’t want to have him blow up on you. He does that when he gets angry, no one can talk him down. It’s just the way he is.

I remember the day I first experienced a young man’s trials amongst his peers. He had needs that weren’t addressed easily, and had developed a reputation as someone who lost it with a huge temper that exploded when things didn’t go his way. Everyone just left him alone. I had seen him perform in a school play in junior high school and I knew I wanted this young man on stage. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but the story turned into one of the most positive experiences in my career.

One day in the middle of a scene, Sam disappeared and didn’t return to the stage. I asked my student director about him and she said that’s normal for him, he just has to blow off some steam. I said I wanted to go talk to him, and she gave me a look like we’ve done that before, good luck. I found him lying in the choir room. He was crouched in a corner laying in a fetal position. I stepped in closer and said his name out loud a couple of times and he didn’t respond. I knew this guy was going to play a lot of roles in the future. He was in 9th grade at the time. I asked him if I could talk to him and without looking at me, he adjusted himself to a sitting position. I told him we were going to have a lot of conversations like this in the coming years and I saw a smile come across his face. At the moment I didn’t know if it was a sarcastic grin, or an honest appraisal of his moment. After a few minutes of conversation I realized it was the latter and he probably heard me breathe a sigh of relief. We made it through that moment and he returned to the stage and we finished his scene. The night ended and he grabbed his book bag and left without saying a word. I thought to myself it was a start.

Over the next three years I watched Sam come to life on stage. With each role he would hit me with a barrage of questions, the common one being he didn’t think he deserved to be on stage. He deserved every moment. He was good. I got to know his parents well and knew them to be supportive of his son’s efforts on stage. In his junior year we traveled to New York, he was part of a group of students that went on a theatre crawl together. At one point during a production of, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at intermission, Sam got up and shouted, “This play is about me!” We knew each other well and he turned to me with another smile. This time I knew what was on his mind. I was happy watching Sam grow over his four years on the stage, and graduate school with high marks in every class.

We are given the opportunity as theater directors to work with students from every walk of life. In this circumstance, the degree of autism Sam was experiencing helped him dive into the characters he played on stage. Not only did he find himself on stage, that also carried over into his experiences in life. In all my years directing it was hard to know anyone else as passionate as he was with his craft. So many times he walked off stage with a quit attitude in his mind and then returned shortly after and rocked the room. He just needed to trust the outlets around him. I was honored to work with such commitment.

© Thom Amundsen 5/2022

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