Friday, March 16, 2012

Better Know an Actor: Dan Stevens and Michael Amendola

Welcome to the first installment of “Better Know an Actor,” a series of interviews with various American Shakespeare Center cast members. Today we talk to Michael Amendola and Dan Stevens, currently on a little break from their lives on the road with the ASC Touring Troupe.

What are your names, how long have you been with the company, and what roles are you playing this season?

Michael: My name is Michael Amendola [or Dola]. This is my first year with the company. I play Puck and Starveling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I play Antigonus, the 3rd Lord and a shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and I play Grimaldi and Banditti in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Dan: My name is Dan Stevens. This is my first year with the company. I play Theseus and Mustardseed in Midsummer, Florizel and Cleomenes and one of the messengers in The Winter's Tale, and in 'Tis Pity I play Florio and an officer.

How did you end up here at the American Shakespeare Center?

DS: Denice Mahler. She and I have known each other since she was a graduate student and I was an undergrad at West Virginia University. When I found out she was here, this company sounded like, "Oh, well, I'll come and see what she's doing and see if this is a company in which I could be interested" and I came and I saw her residence here wherein she was in a production of I Henry IV [in the 2009 Fall Season]. I got to see her do really lovely work as Lady Percy; I got to see James Keegan's really very excellent John Falstaff; and just the whole production was great. And I was really very taken with the style that I'd never seen, a style I didn't really get to experience while I was at school. So I auditioned a couple of times, and the second time around I got to come play here.

MA: I grew up in Texas and I was there for 24 years. I graduated with a BFA in theater and I was hanging around Austin. I was absolutely in love with the city, but I quickly realized that there's sort of a ceiling as far as how far you can really take your career doing theater in Austin. It was hard because I really loved the town, but my goal was to not wait tables the next year (I'd done it for a number of years). So I basically talked to my friends, who had gone to the United Professional Theatre Auditions in previous years, and one of my friends a few years prior had gotten a callback to the ASC. He didn't get the gig, but he was telling me how excited he was about this company. So I made this big list of companies across the country that weren't in Texas, about 22 of them, and the first one was the American Shakespeare Center. I sent out my stuff to them, and for, like, four or five months, I didn't hear anything from them. Then, they gave me an audition slot a week before the audition, and I was in Texas. So I literally emptied my entire bank account to take planes, trains, and automobiles to get there, and then I drove my car back to Austin. I'd never seen anything by the ASC, I knew virtually nothing about it – but I knew that it was a Shakespeare company. I was really pleasantly surprised when I got to see that this actually is a style that I really love.

DS: And are good at!

MA: It really was a fluke, and I kind of got really lucky. It was my first out of state audition and I sacrificed a lot to get here, but I got here.

Eugene Douglas and Michael Amendola in
A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo credit: Tommy Thompson.
Shakespeare: great playwright or greatest playwright?

DS: Great.

Not greatest?

DS: Just because I think the superlative is subjective.

But I'm asking for your subjective opinion.

DS: You know frankly, I'm not familiar enough with Shakespeare's body of work. I haven't read all his plays; I can't say definitively if he's the best. I mean obviously he is arguably the greatest playwright, because of how long he's been around and all the work that he's done and how many people he's touched, but no, I can't say that.

MA: Yeah, I don't know if I can say that. Personally, artistically, I can say he is the greatest playwright for me. He may be the most successful playwright ever.

Such PC answers.

DS: We're pussyfooting around it. Short form, he's not my favorite playwright. I love his work, obviously, but he's not my favorite.

Well then, what was your favorite role to play, by any playwright, ever?

MA: Senior year I played Artie Shaughnessey, from House of Blue Leaves by John Guare. It's sort of like a more contemporary version of a Tennessee Williams play because there's sort of surreal side to it - the monologues taken out to the audience, the sixth wall being broken. It's a story of a middle aged man who's trying to become famous in Hollywood by writing these commercial ditties on the piano that were probably popular 40 years before. He's deluded by this sense of grandeur. You see that in really young people, but seeing it in this man who's middle-aged, who has a whole family… and his family is falling apart in him pursuing this dream, and then him coming to a realization in the end. It just gets more and more absurd throughout, but starts with a guy who follows his dream and doesn't get it – at the sacrifice of his family.

DS: The Kentucky Cycle. It's this enormous 7-short-play epic, about this plot of land and the two families who develop a feud on and about this land. It starts with an Irish indentured servant cutting a deal and deliberately cheating the Native people into giving him this land. He's a villain. He starts the play as a plain-dealing villain, and I loved it. I like playing the villain; one of my favorite kind of characters in any kind of fiction is the charming bad guy. Richard III is a great part, Iago… the person who really draws you in. The opportunity to play this sort of rough, frontiersman bad guy… he's very smart, he's got some incredible monologues. I enjoy the challenge of being an evil, evil man. So I'd say Michael Rowan in The Kentucky Cycle to date has been my favorite part.

What's your dream role, your I-aspire-to-this part, your after-I-play-this-I-could-die-happy part?

DS: I don't know. You always try to think about what's the thing I aspire to, what do I want to teach myself to be better at so that I can eventually do this very well? I like the villain; I'd love to play the villain again. I feel like I played the villain more in college and now that I'm actually introduced into the workforce where your actual chronological age makes a difference (as opposed to in school where they'll just cast you as anything because you're all that's available)… I don't know. Everyone says Hamlet, so of course Hamlet is way up there. I would love to be one or the other in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That might be my favorite play. Tom Stoppard for that play alone might be my favorite playwright. And that's actually coming from the fact that I've only ever seen the movie and I've only ever read the play. I just love the writing. I love the writing and I love the characters and I love the relationships. As much as he does script out the staging of it, he's very simple and he wants you – the actors – to find things to play with. And it's just so much fun to read.

MA: I'd say Iago is definitely one of mine. It's kind of a cool role because a lot of Shakespeare characters you can play at the age of 22 and you can also play at the age of 80. A lot of the really weird characters are flexible like that. So I'd say Iago is definitely one of mine.

What's your favorite part of performing using Shakespeare’s original staging conditions, and what about it do you find most challenging?

Michael Amendola in The Winter's Tale.
Photo credit: Michael Bailey
MA: I definitely like the communal sense of it, and I like how at every school we've gone to, people made comments on how we're bringing the Shakespeare to them. By making them a part of this communal experience, like they did back when it was performed originally, the audience really does feel invested in the world, and they can get into the play in a way that they may not have ever previously. What's challenging for me is the absence of lights. A lot of times when you're in a proscenium setting and there is a real fourth wall and there is a distance from the audience, you can find yourself really feeling like you're in a completely different world. A lot of times you can get more into a character. So the upside is that you feel that you're with the people, and the downside is that you're with the people, you know what I mean? You are conscious of the people in the room all the time. The difference is probably so minuscule to anyone watching but to an actor it's a gigantic thing: I need to get in my zone or whatever. Some people can just show up to the theater and do the same thing, but for me, that's the biggest difference.

DS: I think the same, really. When you go to school you're not only going to school to be an actor – your classmates are lighting designers and set designers, so you've got all these people trying to start their own stuff, who are trying to challenge themselves and are being challenged by their teachers. So you're being put in these really interesting,really provocative environments. We had a three-quarter thrust in a black box, so it was a very intimate space, so the intimacy of the space to the audience doesn't bother me. But because I was always in the intimate space, I wanted to interact with the audience. I wanted them to be a part of my world because they're right there. And now that I get to do that it's great, but in allowing me to do so, there’s the pressure of finding the time to bring them in. When you go to school they're always talking about specificity to the nth degree. Every moment, everything, you either have practiced or you've got it clarified. Now, I sometimes find it hard to stay clear and specific. The communal element is what I love, but it's staying an actor that becomes a real challenge when there is this random element. It’s trying to find the balance between methodical actor and in-the-moment showman. That's a real challenge for me because I work much better in absolutes.

MA: Maybe somebody that's not a Shakespeare buff might say, "Why would I want to go see this production of Macbeth at this community theater when I could just watch Ian McKellan or somebody do Macbeth on a movie and supposedly that might be the greatest performance of it ever done?" But the major difference is that Ian McKellan can't reach out and touch you. We definitely take advantage of that.

DS: I love this place for the relationship it has with its audience. We were doing A Christmas Carol with Rene [Thornton, Jr.], and sometimes he would just walkout on stage and people would start clapping just 'cause he's Rene.

What's your zombie contingency plan for Staunton? There are a lot of wide-open spaces and not a lot of places to barricade oneself. What would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?

DS: That's a good question. Dola, do you have an answer?

MA: Please take this one.

DS: Okay, so a zombie contingency plan is just a fantastical version of any emergency contingency plan. A problem I think a lot of people have is that they try to stockpile. They think "Oh, the zombies are coming; I need to barricade myself somewhere.” Sure, sure you do. But barricade yourself to a point and then you need to get moving. So, in my car I've got the emergency kit you're supposed to have – you keep some basic provisions in your trunk,you make sure you have a hatchet or two (in my case, two), a baseball bat (a joke on the emergency security system everyone talks about having in their car)and always make sure to wear clothes you know you could start your life on the road in. I-81 is just right out there. That's a straight shot. Even if you're walking I-81 – my family lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which is right off of I-81. I trust that all my peers and contemporaries can handle their own stuff,but my mom and dad… I’ve got to be there for my parents.

That's the sort of sentimentality that will get you killed in the zombie apocalypse.

DS: No, no, no listen. It's the kind of sentimentality that will get me there… just to find out they're already dead.

MA: If that comes, I'm not kidding myself. I mean there's a reason I'm not in the army. 'Cause I'll be the first one to die. I will dance the Thriller to try and convince them I'm already a zombie.

Okay, back to Shakespeare. Either on film or onstage, what was the most superlative production of a Shakespeare play that you've seen?

Dan Stevens in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Photo credit: Tommy Thompson.
MA: Most recently the most astonishing piece of theater I've seen was Sleep No More, in New York City.There's this British theater company called Punchdrunk who came up with this concept that's sort of a mix of dance, theater and art installation. It's like a haunted house mixed with a play. They rented out three warehouses in Chelsea and built this fictional hotel that has this whole history to it, and they do an adaptation of Macbeth without really any dialogue. There are12 actors, and they play characters and you can follow the characters along.They each have their paths and they have things that they're doing. All the audience members wear masks so you can tell who the actors are. The actors may reach out and touch you. Basically you're like ghosts in the hotel who get to witness what's going on. They do the events of the play twice over about three hours. I witnessed a rave orgy with the witches; I witnessed Lady Macbeth going mad in a bathtub. There were dance/sex scenes and lots of dance fighting. You could pullout any aspect of the set. So if you wanted to follow the bellhop around you could go to his desk, open his drawers, go through his papers and every single piece of paper is completely specifically created to live in that world. It was an amazing experience on all forms, because it integrated so many different kinds of art into the experience. It's so much fun and it's interactive. People who don't go to see plays because they don't want to just sit down and listen for so long really got to experience something. It's a big step towards where theater might be going.

It's sort of modernizing the community aspect we have at the ASC while taking it much further.

MA: Much further. But also a lot more expensive. One thing I really respect about the ASC is how they can create that with much less cost.

DS: Recently the production that I saw here of Hamlet [with John Harrell in the titular role, part of the 2011 Summer and Fall Seasons] was probably one of my favorite productions of that. It was just so much fun to watch Hamlet the production and Hamlet the character, both with such a delightful sense of humor and sense of intellect. I feel like everyone in that play… they are just consummate performers, a really incredible ensemble of people putting together the play. I enjoyed that it was a production that was aware that was Hamlet.There were a couple of jokes in there that only really worked because it was Hamlet. It worked because it is a play that has been done and done and done and done and will continue to be done and done and done and done. So a production that can joke on that… I'm the type that likes to see a thing torn apart and deconstructed and made fun of. I like self-referential theater. So that show was a lot of fun. It also changed my perspective on what Hamlet can be, both the production and the character.

Take me through a typical day on the tour.

MA: No.

DS: You think there's a typical day?

Okay, well, a performance day.

DS: Well, the easiest days to sort of think of as typical are the ones when we're in any sort of a residency. There are variations within the venues, but if we're in a residence for more than a couple days, you develop sort of a rhythm there. Murray, KY was a great example for me, because we were living on campus, and we were given a meal plan and access to the gym. Pretty much my day was just get up, enjoy my breakfast, go the gym, chill out, and then do a show or teach a workshop or hang out with the people that we met. We had the opportunity to meet a lot of lovely people on the road, so we try to make friends and socialize that way. But if we're just there for a day, then we usually just get up, chill out at the hotel, try to get up early enough to enjoy the range and quality of the continental breakfast, then find a way to occupy your time. Some people go to the movies; some just hang out and watch TV.

MA: Towards the beginning of the tour, a lot of us made more of an effort to go out and see the town and everything. After about a month of that, a lot of times just sitting in the hotel with Netflix for a day is what you need. In any week, most days break down to either a travel day,a loading day, or a performance day. Like, "today we're spending 8 hours in a van and then we'll all be sick of each other and want to go to sleep." On a loading day, load-in takes half an hour to 45 minutes, load-out takes about an hour. Dan is one of our loading captains, along with Jake Mahler.

DS: Jake's in charge, I just pick things up.

MA: Yeah. Load-in the van, load-out the van, like Tetris. If we didn't have them, I don't know if it would take another hour.

DS: Somebody else would just serve the same function.

MA: I suppose. I mean, it's pretty much the same kind of deal. Sometimes you go to places like Baltimore where there's a lot of stuff you want to see, you have to go eat crab, or you go to Maine and you have to eat lobster.

DS: Or you go to Schenectady and you have to go to New York City on your day off. We had an opportunity to do that when we were in Schenectady and it was great.

MA: You have to choose where you can afford to go do things. There are days when you know you just need to rest.

What's been your favorite stop on the tour so far this year?

MA: Bar Harbor, Maine was definitely a favorite among the troupe, just because it was such a beautiful town and the food was amazing. You can have lobster! As far as performing, Austin, TX was really great. I mean, that is one of my hometowns, so getting to go back there after eight months was pretty amazing. We’ve all gotten to know people on this tour, so getting the opportunity to show people where I came from was kind of special for me. Austin's also interesting, because they have the Shakespeare at Winedale program, so a lot of the people who came to see our plays were already familiar with the ASC and the plays we were doing, so a lot of them caught on to a lot of the things that audiences who aren't as familiar maybe wouldn't. Where was that place we played that really big theater?

DS: Oh, that was Williamsport, PA. REO Speedwagon?

MA: Oh! Yes, yes, yes, yes.

DS: We credited ourselves as being the opening gig for REO Speedwagon, because they played the night after we did.

How long do you think you could survive chained to a bunk-bed with a Velociraptor? No weapons.

DS: Are we chained to the Velociraptor?

Dan Stevens and Denice Mahler in The Winter's Tale.
Photo credit: Michael Bailey.
No, you're chained to the bed. You're chained by one arm, so you have the range of mobility of your arm-length and, say, afoot-long chain.

DS: And it's, like, right next to me?

It's in the room.

DS: Dude, I'm dead.


DS: Well, okay, it also depends on how well constructed the bed is. If I can tear off the headboard and use it as some sort of bludgeoning/deflecting instrument, then maybe… But I don't credit myself with being a survival expert.

Which of you do you think would win in a bare-knuckled fight?

MA: Probably Dan. I'm not a very strong person.

DS: But I'm also a bit of a sissy.

MA: And I have a lot of rage.

Let's say there's something worth fighting for. Like a sandwich. The last sandwich ever.

DS: Dola and I both come from groups of friends where we are the black-hole eaters of the group. So when we're all eating, somebody will say, "I'm done, who wants it?" and what he or she means is, “Who's going to get to it first, Dan or Dola?”

MA: Yeah, we shoot each other this look like, "Where you at in your day?" Dan often wins that. But I'd say it's like 60/40. I'm more of a selfish person than he is.

DS: I'm just hungry, man. I'm really hungry.

--Lia Razak

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