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

Waiting

Sky fleeting

opens eyes to sweep

tilling fields of the planting season.

The spring might tease the mind.

Waiting

watching the snows unwind.

Bicycles wish melt rubber on the asphalt,

smells of pollen, fresh release

puddles and rain tapped sills

the songs return,

we advocate

a challenging season.

Waiting,

watching tree limbs come to life again

buds waiting for a mist, a shower,

the nitrogen of a lightning storm,

long hard winter behind.

Imagine a hot horizon ahead

where skin will choose a bronze

beyond the pale shadows of a chilly memory.

Waiting

while we wander in grand scheme our mind.


© Thom Amundsen 3/2022

Could I share with you

How it really feels

Not knowing

Always slowing

My mind in the midst of the eye

Always ready

Wanting only to know,

To understand a frame of mind

Is still not constantly on rewind

Only let the ribbon twirl away

The Rain

Water dripped and tapped a window pane

the opaque look of a morning blue.

Sitting now in front of a fire crackle,

imagining just how short a life we lead.

I drew myself closer to the glass

that sheltered me from the damp.

I wondered about those that might

spend their night chilled, and wet and sad.

The rain would continue through evening,

and I would watch the night envelop my dawn.

There is a crystal ball lays inside a lull,

a rainstorm lets us breathe and feel,

so in the rains one day when we wake,

we find some quiet solace in its wake.


© Thom Amundsen 3/2022

To All

I have been writing here for many years. Always I’ve been grateful for an audience of good critique. Tonight, this will be my last post on this blog. I’ll be starting a new one in the near future that addresses my needs as a writer. For now I move on but I will remember the many people that touched my life through their writing and their giving me confidence with my own. Take care everyone.

To Sir With Love

Sidney Poitier

Oh, if I might dream the scenes of Sidney Poitier in moments as a child. His, a beautiful grace, a magical sojourn for the eyes anyone a witness. I was actually on my couch having a nap when the news came across my phone. I closed my eyes for a moment and recognized that beautiful smile, his clever poise. To Sir With Love came to mind in a tender moment, and I thought about my mom. I thought of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and afterwards …

So much memory is attached to that which we love. Where we were, how we might have been feeling, what is really on our mind? And yet, in this moment years later we recall the generation and his wisdom to deliver sure and sharp dialogue, inflection in his every turn on the stage. Oh my what a beautiful hand delivered smile.

So tonight I thought I would watch To Sir With Love and it resonated with me to the point of tears. I certainly did remember the times, those first walks into a new classroom, the indecision, learning steps. And yet, that was my now, when the then was Sidney Poitier in the early 60’s making waves. I remember watching the movie with my mom and being fascinated with how debonair and charming his character was all the time.

Tonight I watched the movie with a range of emotions. I couldn’t get over the spirit of being a teacher and working with students wanting only their ability to move forward with their lives. What the movie does is show us decades ago how important relationships can be in the education of our students. They need to believe in someone, or if they at least can, that comfort might allow them to think out of the box, to look more at life the way it will appear in their future beyond high school. It lets the students in the classroom feel like adults rather than pawns in the process.

I think one of the more glowing moments is when Mr. Thackeray turns to his students after discovering a leg of his desk set up to collapse. He picks up the broken leg, pats it in his hand a few minutes, gives the room a knowing look, then goes back to the business of teaching. I think the students were ready for a confrontation, but he didn’t do that. He chose to look past a negative moment, and build upon the next positive one he could. I think that is a piece of teaching we could all take lessons from in every aspect of our lives, not simply the classroom.

As an actor, the movie propelled Sidney Poitier’s career as he would go on to perform countless films that would accentuate his talents and more importantly his need to be on stage and recognize the human contributions of a man drawn with courage and compassion. It takes that individual to be a mentor in the classroom and life, and Poitier was a pleasure to watch play out each of his characters.

To Sir With Love is a film about education and love, and the need for students to feel strength in their own identity. Even when the students test Mr. Thackeray to no end, he still is resilient, he expresses in timely fashion his responsibility as a teacher. He knows the mission of the school, yet he knows more clearly his need to bolster the confidence of the students in his classroom. He does so with panache and elegance.

I could watch more of Sidney Poitier’s movies, and will do so over the weekend. I would suggest we all take a moment and enjoy the dramatic prowess of such is this iconic star of the silver screen.


© Thom Amundsen 1/8/2021

Early Morning

In the gaze of candles

illuminating the room,

my children’s faces,

held in time to behold.

I was wondering about the day,

the new year,

watching flickering lights

waiting for me to decide.

I looked up from my coffee

slow immediate steam swirls

reminding me of beauty,

the little things that turn our lives

to where we land,

and then I thought of

that time before.


© Thom Amundsen 1/2022