Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Creativity = Success

Imagination Stage has long known that the arts work with the body, voice, mind and imagination in such a way that students benefit at home, in school, or on the stage. In fact, students find success long term no matter what career choices they make.

Whether you're reading Richard Florida's RISE OF THE CREATIVE CLASS or Daniel Pink's A WHOLE NEW MIND, the writing is on the wall -- creativity will drive the future of our economy, society, and personal lives.

For example, this morning I was reading an article about a Washington DC-based researcher working across the country to explore how creativity will affect the economy. "Forty percent of new jobs in the next 15 years will require skills that our current work force does not have . . . We need workers with basic skills and the ability to be creative . . ." (read full article at:

Those of us who have worked for years in arts management know that creative thinking solves problems much faster than old, industrial age models. And, creative thinking is fueled through arts training and exposure from an early age (more articles and data support this, available through Champions of Change published by the Department of Education or Americans for the Arts -

Change may be hard, but at least the change to the 'conceptual age' promises to be creative and fun.


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Monday, August 18, 2008

Casting and our 2008-2009 Season

I am often asked where the actors come from who perform at Imagination Stage. Many people assume that because we are a theatre for young audiences that our company is made up of children. And while we do have a thriving education program that teaches acting, dance, singing and film to more than 3,000 children (ages 1-18) each year, our professional theatre is just that—a regional theatre that hires university trained, professional actors who are based in the Washington, DC area. Each year an organization called The League of Washington Theatres (LOWT) sponsors five full days of auditions for union and non-union actors. Artistic leaders and casting directors from more than 80 local theatres and agencies gather at the Round House Theatre to watch hundreds of actors perform for 2 minutes each. We sit there in the dark making notes on each resume, grading each performer, and making a special pile of the people who seem right for the shows in our upcoming season. LOWT tries to keep all the auditors in a good mood by providing delicious snacks throughout the day!

Casting for each new season then starts in early spring. We create a list of actors we know who seem right for a particular show and then add in anyone we found from the LOWT auditions. If the show is a musical, we ask each candidate to prepare “16 bars” for the Musical Director. This is the first cut. If an actor cannot sing the part for a musical role, it would not matter how well they read for the role. Singing is a talent and a skill that cannot be taught during a short 3-week rehearsal period! Once the capable singers are identified, the director calls this group in to read “sides.” These are short scenes from the play. The actors perform them in a variety of combinations. Sometimes an actor is asked to read for more than one role or to read the same scene with many different partners. How do the directors make the decision about whom to cast? That’s the million dollar question and not easy to answer. Washington is blessed with a wealth of talent. After each audition, I talk with my colleague Kate Bryer about which of the people we’ve seen could play a role. We are keen to make our casts inclusive and diverse but at the same time want to cast the best person for each role. Me, I never make any offers until I sleep on it. When I wake up in the morning I have generally made a decision. This is my dream cast! Or, wait a minute, I still haven’t seen the right person for a particular role. And we go back to the files, talk to people in the office about what we’re looking for and get a new list to audition.

At this point I’m happy to say that the first 5 shows for the 08-09 season are cast. Veteran local actress Helen Hedman (Olney Theatre Center) will be playing Miss Nelson in Miss Nelson is Missing, during the holiday season; Tara Giordano and Terrence Currier (Arena Stage) will star as Heidi and Alp in our new adaptation of Heidi in spring 09; Paige and Nick Hernandez will both participate in our hip hop show Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth—Paige as an actress/dancer and her brother as the DJ/Composer. We’re also proud to welcome Tami Lee Santimyer, a graduate of Gallaudet and most recently seen at the Kennedy Center in Marlee Matlin’s Nobody’s Perfect, for Playing from the Heart in November.

We’re are excited about bringing these artists and many others to our stage and audience. And we extend a loving embrace to all the extraordinary talent in the Washington, DC area. There are never enough roles to go around for all the actors who deserve them.


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Friday, August 8, 2008

Andrew Sonntag's Experience Playing Atreyu in THE NEVERENDING STORY


After reading the novel, I approached this work first as a storyteller. What makes this adventure special is that it is really about every adventure, and the conflict becomes not one of "life and death" as is quoted so often in the script, but really one of being and nonbeing. It is about the future of stories and the nature of reality. So in the weeks before rehearsals began I went back to the mono-myth, studied again "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell, and became determined to find out why the play needed a hero at all, and why the play needed to be created and produced in the first place. It's a book every storyteller, in any aspect, should read. Here's a bit from the beginning that deserves to be quoted at length:

"There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about similarities; and once they are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed. My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite disparate causes of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding"

Atreyu is, as heroes so often are, incredibly naïve and overconfident at the start. Even after failing again and again, it isn't until he loses Artax (who acts as not just a companion or friend, but as Atreyu's superego) that he is forced to come into being. In the book he considers letting himself die, but carries on. It is this decision that truly is his "manhood test," which he waited for his whole life before being called to the Great Quest.

He is called to this adventure to find a cure for the Childlike Empress. In the book she is said to be "the beginning of all things," and if she dies, the boundless universe in which Atreyu exists ('imagination' if you like), will cease to exist. And still, with this burden, Atreyu, as the archetypal hero, deals with his own great quest, as we all do: one of purpose. In the play, this comes to a peak at the Sphinx Gate, whose riddle is manifest in the question, "What is the Great Quest when I look out at all those stars?" This is a test of will and perspective, and boils down to "why do I exist?" He doesn't find an answer, but rather a state of mind, which serves as a solution. Like Sisyphus (as understood by Camus), it isn't that he finds a purpose, but a will. He thumbs his nose at the gods and keeps pushing, in spite of everything telling him that his existence is worthless, and hinting that he may not even exist at all.

So that's a very small bit of background about how I approach things (I also recommend doing your etymology work, but I will pass to try and keep this short).

THE PROCESS: "It is fun to play a hero."

As for the actual acting process, Janet helped me find a way to let all of the above serve me in a real way. I had done so much work figuring out who Atreyu is that I had lost something in translating it to the stage. Janet's best piece of advice was this, "Ultimately, Atreyu is stuck with you. Not the other way around." I stopped worrying about every last detail and let myself grow into the role (or let the role grow into me I guess).

It is fun to play a hero. I didn't get to create fantastic voices and creatures like my fellow actors, but I learned a lot from them. Eventually I found a solution to my own Sphinx Gate within the process. We're coming up on 60 shows—ten just this week, but it doesn't get old (I hear Carl laughing at me somewhere in the back of my head). We do get tired, but we keep it fresh, and even better, the audience keeps it fresh (gasps, screams, laughs, and even one time a young boy declaring "AAFFRIICCAA!" at the top of the show). You never know what to expect.

I want to express thanks to my fellow actors. I learned from them every day, on and off the stage, and I still am. They are all phenomenal people in some very surprising and beautiful ways. The show will close this week, but we won't start saying goodbye until the story is told one final time.

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