Tag: actor

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

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

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

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

An Actor Suggests

actor
Lake Placid Film Forum

Walk on stage

Speak a couple of lines

Audience is alerted

Walk off stage

~

Audience waits

Music begins

Heads turn to empty regions of the

Bare stage

Audience listens

~

A prop

Walk on stage with a wooden stool

Audience focus

Left hand grips a rung

Places it down left center

A prop

~

Actor begins a monologue

Music fades while audience

Pays attention

To what they paid for earlier

A pause, and the actor waves

A character begins to move

The audience a new direction

Actor begins a monologue

~

Music begins

Lights rise

People listen

Chatter ensues

A blank stage

Lights fade again

Music begins

~

Walk on stage

We know that person now

They return the same way

Similar gait, posture, voice

A monologue, a prop, an audience

Walk on stage

A Writer’s Lives

Lives,

That’s what the actor said

When asked

What profession he chose to play

You see he said

In an eloquent tone

Writing is how I release my energy

So walking across a stage

Allows my muse to step forward

Play a role

Satisfy a need

Imagine a scenario

Create a new identity

In a world of

Striking out

Chance encounter

Social media driven up the

Figurative posterior

We need good writers

To record the pretense

Scribe our mediocre world

So that in another world

We might appear somehow

A tad more creative

Than we do in our normal, everyday, static

Lives