Category: theater

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

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

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