Tag: stage

A Theatre Life

Theatre is a life. We all reach different levels. Some would reference a stage and characters and roles. Then step away and find the same in our own quiet lives. We walk across a stage every day, in any action we choose. It only seems right then that we all want to play out our best interpretation of ourselves. A long time ago, I fell in love with theatre and everything about performance, showcasing, recognizing a fascination with people developing lives and playing them out on stage. As all of that was happening, my own life was a shambles, always trying to stay above water in whatever circumstance I was a part of, whether it be my job, my interactions with my family, my relationships.

I found the theatre to be a safe place because where else could we play a life outside of our own. And how fascinating is that? People practicing just how to look someone in the eye and make that moment as believable as they wish they might in a real hour. I remember practicing lines and being on the stage with other people. The one thing that always got in my way was my comfort zone with stepping into a character. I don’t think I ever achieved that, and similarly how many of us have been confronted with our own measure of who we are and what we have become and made for ourselves over time.

Who are we to suggest we are anyone but ourselves? That is the life of an actor in theatre. They play personalities outside themselves their entire career. For me, I chose to figure out a way to teach students how to find themselves on stage. Even in suggesting such, I am forgetting the central focus of an actor to understand the energy of that person, that role they are playing. So, in other words, there are so many fundamentals necessary to portray someone outside of ourselves.

And that’s what I love more than anything else about the theatre.

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

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

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

Stable Motive

Ceal Floyer
Ceal Floyer

What, tell me, what!

What does it mean to find separation

to compartmentalize,

to be able to suggest

to yourself

its your forte and nothing else

no excuses

no redos

no you cannot feel bad

there are no allowances

for human error.

Life suggests we disconnect

when our needs are met,

the task at hand has been satisfied.

Forget about the tears, the confusion, the lacking

empathy that drifts away with stability.

The time is long enough for me to question

how fitting,

what aspect of my life,

where does it belong,

such a lengthy attribution,

oh, damn, another,

here we go –

because words are easy to release,

its the later ons,

its the oh, maybes,

the ‘if’

When might I understand my ‘if’ moments?

… and then Carole King Stepped onto the Stage …

broadway

I am truly moved to weep

watching Broadway’s talent

dance across the stage

in that venue of endearment

where everything they work for

becomes showcased in a showcase.

I don’t have tears of sadness

they really are filled with joy

Seeing such delightful real lives emote

beauty, grace & elegance

at the highest level

of public entertainment.

… and then Carole King stepped onto the stage …

Do you remember when

all of them were elementary students

star-crossed eyes hoping to

be in the, perform as the, sing with a

passion in the school play,

the fall musical,

that one talent show,

the Christmas pageant,

the dance recital,

their senior project,

in a garage band,

just short of the karaoke bar

before they were swiftly drawn

to that element shadowing Times Square.

Dance across the stage,

sing with all of your heart,

shine in front of everyone,

for deep inside

when you question your ability

because after all

we do know that as humans

we are always wondering;

know you have reached that showcase

and the human condition

no matter the obstacles …

brought your enigma, no anomaly,

to the hearts and soul

of all those real people, all those faces,

all those masses that make our lives real,

emulate our lives on the stage.

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

There is Dance

We are blessed with a physical purity
The stretching of limbs
Arching the back to reach a moment
Legs that will move impossible heights
Shoulders that cave and blossom
And grace shadowy figures
Allowing each one’s presence
A further driving desire to reach …
Drawing designs across the stage
~
An empty stage
Instrumental echoes
The human form takes a walk
Turns to writhing, reaching, surrounding
Twirls, twines, twists – head thrown back
Legs responding to each sound wrapped
Together
Arms realize a motion that blends
Filling the empty room, enveloping
The eyes of an audience meant to see
~
If I were alone
In quiet solitude
With an empty stage
Might my physicality reach a level
Outside the eyes of an observer
For within my dance
I do wish to find an answer
Until that time evolves
I might continue to recognize
Movement and grace with elegant stride
~
For whenever I might wonder about life
I know as in a walk on boards, there is dance