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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Deep into the classics and more with Amanda Petersen of Neenah, Part 1

Critic At Large

Fox Valley director and actor

Amanda Petersen in the role of Marmee in Hysterical Productions’ “Little Women The Musical,” which she directed. (Catherine McKenzie/McKenzie Images)

NEENAH, Wis. (WFRV) – Cutting to the chase with Amanda A. Petersen: Why theater?

“I got my start writing and producing plays for my sister and cousins to perform in our living rooms or our basements or our backyards for our parents and friends and families to watch. Really exciting projects, like ‘Gone with the Wind, Part 2’ and ‘1995 Dracula Drive.’ Very cheesy stuff, but our parents and our families always really encouraged us to be creative.

“I actually started out mostly by singing. I was singing at a very young age, and I remember doing the Christmas pageant at St. Gabe’s (Gabriel) in Neenah as a first grader, and I was that actor whispering forgotten lines to the rest of the cast to the director’s consternation. That’s kind of where that started.

“We just watched a lot of musicals and Shakespeare growing up. It was my parents. We always used to listen to the JCS (‘Jesus Christ Superstar’) album, the brown album, and we watched ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the Franco Zeffirelli version. We used to wear those out until the VCR was practically smoking.

“We didn’t have a lot of organized theater like a drama club until I was in high school. I went to St. Mary’s Central. From then on, all through high school I was doing three or four shows at a time – the school show and then a bunch of community theater – pretty much whatever I could get involved in. That’s really where it cinched it for me.”

In a sense, Amanda Petersen is part of a new breed of theater person in Northeastern Wisconsin.

She acts, sings and directs.

Those are the very basics.

Amanda Petersen also helped start two theatrical entities.

She has a taste for the works of William Shakespeare.

She is university trained – UWFox and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point – and she chose to stay in Wisconsin.

Whether acting or directing, Amanda Petersen goes around to different theaters up and down the Fox Valley.

Watching the region’s theater scene, I don’t remember seeing that until lately.

“It’s something that Kyle Brauer (a fellow traveler) and I talk a lot about. He went to Lawrence University and then also stayed in the area. It’s something that we value.

With Kyle Brauer and Rachel Sandlin in “Into the Woods” of Hysterical Productions. (Max Hermans/Thompson Photo Imagery)

“A lot of the folks that we work with regularly are that way. They trained in acting, or they trained in music or whatever and then ended up staying here. I don’t know the cause behind it.

“I do know that when I was in school, obviously the expectation was you’re going to finish your BFA (bachelor of fine arts) and you’re going to go to Chicago or New York and you’re going to work professionally. I entertained the idea for a while, but I really wanted to stay here and start family, which ended up not working out.

“I knew that we had a really vibrant theater community in the area. I knew I’d be able to keep my hand in it. I didn’t feel obligated, I guess, to hit the pavement in the same way.

“I feel like we have so many outlets here for creativity, and I think we’re really fortunate that way. And I think it’s a draw for a lot of people. I mean, even people who go away and then come back, like Justun and Julie Hart and other performers. James Fairchild also toured in a bunch of national tours and moved back here to get married.

I think that because we have such a lively arts community in the area, it’s a nice compromise I guess, though that kind of has negative connotations. But it’s got a nice balance between you can have a family life or a career and also still be involved in this thing that you’re so passionate about. That’s really been the draw for me.

“I do think it is kind of interesting. It still doesn’t happen a ton, but I think it happens more now. I think that there’s a sense of kind of finding a balance between that kind of professional life and personal passion.”

Because of the coronavirus COVID-19, the interview with Amanda Petersen was by telephone, she speaking from her home in Neenah.

As with so many people, the coronavirus has whacked Amanda Petersen’s calendar.

“Oh boy. It’s basically completely annihilated it. Obviously, theater relies on large groups of people, whether it’s rehearsal or audience, and so pretty much all of 2020 is all but wiped out for me right now. There are a few projects that are still waiting for official word of either postponement or cancellation.

“It’s been really challenging because theater and singing being my primary hobbies, the coronavirus has pretty much wiped out my calendar overall. I haven’t flipped open my planner in weeks. There’s nothing to update there, you know. We’re kind of starting to tentatively plan on some fall stuff. I direct at Appleton East High School, so we started talking about the fall musical just in case we’re able to proceed with that, but it’s basically a clean slate at the moment, which is very unusual for me.”

An important production has been canceled: “Jesus Christ Superstar” presented by Riverside Players of Neenah. The show was supposed to run July 23-26 and July 29-Aug. 2 in Riverside Park Pavilion. Amanda Petersen was to direct, and a cast of 35 had been selected. The show would have been seen by hundreds of people. The coronavirus has a very large ripple effect.

Amanda Petersen uses the word “hobbies” because she has a day job with Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company in Neenah.

“It’s fortunate it’s the kind of job that allows me to use that free time in whatever way I want,” notably directing at Appleton East and allowing schedule flexibility to get to the school for rehearsals. “They’re very supportive of that sort of volunteering.”

Also, “My parents are both in IT, and so I definitely grew up with a little bit of that aspect.”

***

Amanda A. Petersen, a sampler

Roles

+ “A Christmas Carol,” Christmas Present – Timber Mill Theatre, Fox Cities, director Wally Calderon.

+ “Twelfth Night,” Antonio – The Furies, a Theatre Collective, Appleton, director Ericka Wade.

+ “Little Women,” Marmee, Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh, director Amanda A. Petersen.

+ “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Mrs. Lovett, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre, director Merlaine Angwall.

+ “Footloose,” Vi Moore, Riverside Players, Neenah, director Christopher Pazdernik.

+ “The Spitfire Grill,” Effy Krayneck, Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ “Into the Woods,” The Baker’s Wife,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Rona Lisa Peretti, Riverside Players, Neenah.

+ “Bye Bye Birdie,” Mae Paterson, Kaukauna Community Players.

+ “Legally Blonde,” Paulette, Kaukauna Community Players.

+ “Les Miserablés,” Mme. Thénardier, Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ “Lend Me a Tenor,” Diana, Oshkosh Community Players.

+ “The Full Monty,” Georgie, Attic Theatre, Menasha.

+ “Into the Woods,” The Witch, Oshkosh Community Players.

+ “RENT,” Joanne, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, director Susan Rabideau.

+ “Children of Eden,” Eve, JuBriCoSa, Neenah, director Justun Hart.

+ “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Narrator, University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.

+ “Julius Caesar,” Decius Brutus, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, director Stephen Trovillion Smith.

+ “Urinetown,” Pennywise, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, director Tim Howard.

+ “Songs for a New World,” Woman 2, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, director Stephen Sheftz.

 + “Crazy for You,” Patricia Fodor, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Director

+ 2020: “Jesus Christ Superstar” (was pending), Riverside Players, Neenah.

+ 2019: “The Pajama Game,” Appleton East High School.

+ 2019: “Twelfth Night, co-director, The Furies, a Theatre Collective, Appleton.

+ 2019: “Little Women,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2019: “Hamlet,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2018: “Legally Blonde,” assistant director, Riverside Players, Neenah.

+ 2017: “Footloose,” Riverside Players, Neenah.

+ 2017: “Romeo and Juliet,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2016: “The Spitfire Grill,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2015: “Godspell,” Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2014: “The Crucible,” assistant director, Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2014: “Les Miserablés,” assistant director, Hysterical Productions, Oshkosh.

+ 2013: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” Oshkosh Community Players.

+ 2012: “The Art of Murder,” Attic Theatre, Menasha.

+ 2010: “California Suite,” Perfect Presentations, Neenah.

+ 2009: “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” Perfect Presentations, Neenah.  

Dramaturgical presentations

+ 2018: “Little Women” – “Louisa May Alcott and Her Big ‘Little’ Impact.”

+ 2018: “Antigone” – “Origins of Theatre + Women in Ancient Greece.”

+ 2017: “Romeo and Juliet” – “Playing Shakespeare + What is Scansion.”

+ 2016: “A Christmas Carol” – “The Rebirth of Christmas + Poverty in Victorian England.”

+ 2016: “The Spitfire Grill” – “The Impact of War in Small Town America.”

+ 2016: “Into the Woods” – “Don’t Trust the Prince: Women in Fairytales.”

+ 2014: “The Crucible” – “WITCH!: Silencing Women in Puritan America.”

+ 2014: “Les Miserablés” – “Not THAT French Revolution.”

***

Amanda Petersen first came to my attention in 2014 through Hysterical Productions when the Oshkosh troupe presented “Les Miserablés” as its first mainstage production in The Grand Oshkosh. For a new company, that was a jump into the DEEP end of the pool.

“No joke, yeah. We had done some dinner theater type stuff, like murder mysteries and interactive events before. But, yeah, our first mainstage production was ‘Les Miz,’ so we jumped in head first in really kind of a sink-or-swim situation. And ‘Les Miz’ went really well, and we had a lot of really successful productions after that.”

As Mme. Thenardier with Patrick O’Donnell in “Les Miserablés” of Hysterical Productions. (Thompson Photo Imagery)

While Amanda Petersen no longer is a member, she provides a perspective on where Hysterical Productions stands in the spectrum of theaters.

“It’s kind of a hybrid situation. We called it semi-professional because when we had events that were not licensed productions, we would certainly pay our actors, we always attempted to pay our technicians and our musicians at a higher level because I think that’s very important. A lot of times those areas don’t get compensated as well as they ought to, and those people work their butts off. So we really tried to walk that line.

“But we also had community access in that we had open auditions for almost all of our productions, and we certainly had a high involvement in the community.

“So semi-professional is what we dubbed it. I wouldn’t say professional because we weren’t at a level where we were paying actors for licensed productions. That would take you to a different level of licensing with the companies that own the rights to the musicals or play. But we were definitely interested in leaning in that direction, and we really wanted people to be compensated for their time in some fashion.”

Some Hysterical Productions presentations have been done for daytime audiences, which is not common for local companies in this area.

“A lot of the shows that had an educational aspect like ‘The Crucible’ and the Shakespeare productions and some of the ones that were more family friendly like ‘Seussical The Musical’ we would perform a daytime performance whether for school kids or other students in the area. We had some college students attend from time to time.

“That educational outreach was a big part of our drive. We would put together programming so that they were prepared coming in. We would do surveys for their feedback after the show.

“We had a couple of different folks in as educational liaisons through the years. Joe Nowinski, who did some stage acting with us as well over the last couple of years, really spearheaded that program for us so that we had material for the students who were attending our daytime performances so that teachers could incorporate it in their curriculum.”

How did Hysterical Productions come to be?

“Three of us started Hysterical Productions – Angela Ferlo, Patrick O’Donnell and I. We were at (University of Wisconsin-Stevens) Point together. After graduation, we literally happened to end up at an audition together for ‘Into the Woods’ for Oshkosh Community Players. I didn’t realize that we were all in the same area together.

“So we did a bunch of shows together with Oshkosh Community Players. We were always dreaming about more of a focus on actor development and educational material and shows that don’t get produced as often because they’re seen either as maybe not having audience base. I know a lot of people are daunted by Shakespeare, so that was something that all three of us were really passionate about – and just really working on developing the process behind the scenes.

“A lot of people do theater because it’s escapism. It’s a hobby, and that’s absolutely wonderful. I think we have such a great, vibrant theater community in the area. I love that there’s so many opportunities for people. But the three of us having a training background, we wanted to really try to use that to further develop actors and technicians who wanted to really hone skills maybe that they hadn’t gotten us use or maybe didn’t necessarily have access to a training program for. So that was a big passion for all three of us, that developing education for performers and technicians.”

But first…

“I actually started at UW-Fox (today University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus). I spent three years at UW-Fox, mostly so that I could study with (director) Susan Rabideau. And then I transferred to Point really because I had friends and mentors who said that it was the best theater program in the UW System. I really still stand by that.

“I was there during a pretty transitional time. There were a lot of staff changes, and we had interim professors, which was kind of challenging sometimes. But it also meant that we got to work and train with a really wide variety of educators with different backgrounds, and that was really cool.

“I had friends and actors that I directed go there over the years since I graduated, and I wouldn’t hesitate even today to recommend it, especially for the BFA (bachelor of fine arts) program. It’s just a really strong program.

“The thing that’s most important to me is that the network of Pointers is really strong, and all of our professors are still really accessible if I have questions. If I’m directing something and I don’t know how to deal with like a particular accent or a stage combat question or whatever, I never feel uncomfortable reaching out to one of my professors from that time, even 12 year later. So I really value that.

“I definitely built a relationship with them, and that’s really important. I’ve always valued learning, and I think that that was evident in my time there. I think it’s easy to dismiss a theater program as being bunch of performing and drama in the negative sense of it, but it’s a really good educational program, and that’s what I really love.”

How does directing happen – by search, by request, by …?

“It’s a combination. When I was working with Oshkosh Community Players and Hysterical Productions, it kind of was more out of necessity. We kind of rotated between who directed what or who was going to be on stage for what and therefore couldn’t direct.

“As far as other community organizations, it has been just a matter of opportunity. I do love the space at Riverside Players despite its challenges. So I often lean in that direction just because there’s something about doing theater outside that really resonates with me, so that tends to be my first go-to. But I applied to direct with Kaukauna Community Players this past summer and have been in talks with Attic Chamber Theatre as well. So I’m not especially picky there, either. I just want to make art with people.

“I’m working with this newer company, The Furies, in Appleton, and we did ‘Twelfth Night’ at the patio next to Mondo! Wine Bar on College Avenue. It’s just an open space between two of the buildings downtown with a stage the size of a postage stamp meant for Mile of Music performances. We just kind of used what space we had and ran around the audience. It was pretty immersive for them, I think, and people really enjoyed it.

“I feel like you can kind of do theater anywhere if what’s important to you is the material and communication between the humans. Obviously, if you want to do something a little flashier like ‘Mamma Mia!’ or whatever, you need a little bit more room for technical equipment and stuff like that. But, I don’t know, I think you can do theater anywhere.”

In “Twelfth Night” of The Furies. (Abbigail Dusing Photography)

How did The Furies come to be?

“Ericka Wade and Rachel Sandlin (fellow travelers) and I basically were sitting at Mondo! talking about how we wanted to do storefront theater, how we wanted to do Shakespeare in found spaces. We were like, ‘Okay, why not just do it then?’ And David and Jane Oliver, who own Mondo!, were also into the idea and wanted to be using that patio space for something other than just sitting there. And so we chatted with them and decided to dive into doing that.

“We really want to do shows that aren’t done so much in the area and some more contemporary stuff as well – incorporate some lesser-known works and works by women and more diverse groups.

“Shakespeare was a great place to start. You can do so much with it. You can gender bend so many roles, you can cast pretty much anyone in all of it, and that was a big thing for us. We wanted to be very open to a wide range of people. Unfortunately, our 2020 season went the way of COVID-19.”

Tomorrow, Amanda Petersen details her favorite roles on stage and as a director and tells of the importance of singing and Shakespeare.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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