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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Deep into the classics and more with Amanda Petersen of Neenah, Part 2

Critic At Large

Fox Valley director and actor

Scene from “Shrek The Musical” by UW-Fox Theatre with Amanda Petersen as the Dragon. (Aaron Geller)

NEENAH, Wis. (WFRV) – Amanda A. Petersen on the world of William Shakespeare:

“I just love it. And I know that part of it is that I grew up watching it, and so I have a familiarity with it than a lot of folks.

“It’s so universal. I think that’s what really attracts me to it. The themes, the messages, whatever you want to call them, have persisted for so long, and they are so ingrained in our culture. I mean, Taylor Swift’s singing about Romeo and Juliet. She’s got it wrong, but she’s singing about them, you know.

“You’ve got all these movies that are based on the plots, and it’s constantly present in pop culture. It survives so thoroughly.

“I think that it is still really relatable, and you can do almost anything with it. You can set ‘Julius Caesar’ in space if you really want to. You can do ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at a high school reunion. You can do so much with it to make it more relatable to people, and that’s the thing that I really love.

“‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first Shakespeare that I directed for Hysterical Productions. I was terrified. I knew I loved Shakespeare, but I was like, ‘This is hard stuff. This is hard for the actors, hard for the audiences. How do we make it accessible?’ Thank God, the cast was amazing. They were so open to working on making the language accessible for the audience and making changes to help it be understandable and using their physicality to help that. And the feedback, especially from the school kids, that we got about it being understandable and accessible was just so important to me, and that’s something that I think will stick with me forever because I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if we could do it, and I felt like it ended up being very successful from that point of view. It has a special place in my heart.

“I would love to ultimately be able to say that I directed every Shakespeare play just because I think that’s a big challenge in and of itself. And some of them are like clunkers, let’s be honest. But I think that it would be fun to try to tackle each of them. I’m not so sure about the histories. I feel like those would be a little bit more difficult and a little bit less palatable, but I would love to get through the tragedies and comedies. I think that’s doable.”

Scene from Hysterical Productions’ “Romeo and Juliet.” (Max Hermans/Thompson Photo Imagery)

Amanda Petersen is part of a new breed of theater person I see in Northeastern Wisconsin – university trained and remaining on home turf and enriching the foundation of that turf. Much about her background is in the first part of this column at this link:

Amanda Petersen directs, acts and sings. The singing is part of musical theater performances and solo appearances and as part of one of the region’s elite choruses.

“I auditioned for newVoices (of Appleton) when it was the White Heron Chorale right after I got back here from college. I did half a season with them, and it didn’t click for me. And so I left the organization. And I also was doing three and four shows at a time at the time, so clearly my schedule was far too packed anyway.

“But then when they started doing their collaboration with the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, they were looking for more voices for their ‘Sea Symphony.’ That is when I joined. And I had a lot of friends in the organization.

“I felt like it would be a good opportunity to work on my musicianship. I originally studied music when I started at UW-Fox. I was going to be a music teacher, and that really did not turn out for the best. But I always wanted to get back into more regular practices of really reading music – to sight read better and also using my voice more correctly.

“As you get older, your voice changes, and I definitely was starting to feel more easily vocally exhausted, like I had less stamina and my breath support was suffering from not singing as often. So joining newVoices was a big part of trying to course correct on that. And it has been a huge help on all fronts.

“Phillip (A. Swan) is an amazing director, and I feel like I learn so much. I’m in the alto section, and I get to sit by some incredible musicians, and I feel like I learn a ton from them. My sight singing has improved, and my musicianship has improved. My vocal quality has started to bounce back, so I really value getting to sing with them.

“And it’s also – I don’t know that I’m in a better social place than I was when I first tried to join. I was really intimidated by it when I tried to do it right out of college. But I love a lot of the people in the organization. There are so many passionate musicians and vocalists in that group that it’s really cool to get to sing with them.”

Singing in Way Off Broadway: Everybody Rise fundraiser. (Tim O’Brien)

The choral singing also keeps her vocal muscles limber for when she takes on musical theater roles.

“I don’t feel I’m especially picky. I guess over the past years haven’t been in some. (Commitment to) Hysterical Productions sort of limited my ability to do other work with other companies. But I always, even during that, still would go and audition for Kaukauna Community Players during the summer and Riverside Players and Attic Chamber Theatre.

“Theater is really my main hobby, the main thing I spend my free time doing. So I have no qualms running all over the place keeping my hand in it. And going to see my friends in it as well. That’s always really important to me.

“I mean, there are certain bucket-list roles that I would go to any length to be able to do, but I just love the community-building aspect of theater, so I’m not especially picky about what show it is.

“I love working with my friends, so I do shows that I don’t necessarily care very much for just so that I can work with people that I want to work with. So it’s really just an overall passion for me rather than like ‘Oh, this is a lead role that I want and this is the only show I’m going to audition for.’”

Amanda Petersen was asked to come up with three roles that hit a sweet spot for her.

“I had to think on this because I have something like 150 things on my resume from the past 20 years.

In “The Spitfire Grill.” (Max Hermans/Thompson Photo Imagery)

“One of the first ones that always comes to mind is the first time that I did ‘The Spitfire Grill’ with Attic Theater in 2005. Before I did that show, I had never played a character my own age. I’m a plus-size lady, I have a very mature voice, and so all through high school and college I was always playing character roles, mothers and fairy godmothers and witches and whatever. And in ‘The Spitfire Grill,’ I was playing someone my own age and someone who struggled with the idea of motherhood and infant loss, which is a topic that’s near to my heart, and a character who’s looking to find a place called home.

“It was my first summer back from Stevens Point, and so there was definitely that feeling of that transitional period of college where you’re trying to figure out what it is you’re going to do with your life, who you are as an adult and who you are on your own. There’s a lot about that role that resonated with me.

“But most of all, it just opened up a whole new realm of roles that I hadn’t really even considered accessible to me. We are really lucky in this area. There’s a lot of directors who are willing to cast outside the box and have been for a long time. So I’m really fortunate to have worked with a lot of them who really cast the best fit for the role regardless of an actor’s body type or race or whatever. So I think that we’re really fortunate in that, and ‘The Spitfire Grill’ was really my first big experience playing something that I didn’t think was possible.”


Side note: The musical “The Spitfire Grill” was created by Wisconsin authors. Fred Alley was the co-founder of what is today’s all-original Northern Sky Theater in Door County. Also a singer and actor, Fred Alley died of a heart attack in 2001, just before “The Spitfire Grill” premiered in New York City. James Valcq continues to compose, perform and direct and is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay.


In “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with UW-Oshkosh Theatre. (Mick Alderson)

“Both of the times that I played Mrs. Lovett (in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’) were big. They were kind of life changers for me.

“I love to play a villain like that who I think has so much driving her beyond just the typical mustache-twirling baddie. She has this obsessive love for both Todd and Tobias really, so she has to choose between them. I think it’s so interesting to really dig into that. She’s such an interesting character study.

“Both of the times that I played her – very different points in my life – it really was kind of eye opening to disappear into her on stage. She’s a character that just gets into your head – at least for me – and sets up shop. Especially the first time, I learned a lot about getting into character and more importantly getting out of character, which wasn’t really something that I had to deal with before. I never really did someone who … I’ve always been able to leave it on stage. I’m usually pretty quick to get in and out of character, so I’ve never had to deal with one that didn’t want to go anywhere after. You know, you don’t want to go home with Mrs. Lovett in your head. So definitely that first time doing it with Oshkosh Community Players was quite a learning experience with a character like that.

“Then I got to do it at UW-Oshkosh two falls ago, and that, too, was such a cool experience working with so many students. I had never worked with (director) Merlaine Angwall before. That was really wonderful. I would work with her again in a heartbeat. It was really cool to get to re-explore the character from a different point of view at a different point in my life. This is too personal, but during the show I was going through a divorce, had just lost my job and was about to move out of my home. So it was a period of huge upheaval in my life.

“I really love to play her from the point of view of just diving into that love – that too much love – but that love that she has for Todd. And so it was nice to sort of be able to lose myself in that and then set her aside before I left the theater – just kind of have that escapism. She’s been a pretty important character for my resume.

With Ericka Wade, left, in UWFox Theatre’s “Shrek: The Musical” (Aaron Geller)

“Most recently and on a more fun note of performing is the Dragon in ‘Shrek The Musical’ at UW-Fox as a kind of personal renaissance. It was the first show I did after my divorce, and playing a character who really comes to recognize her own beauty and her value and singing that song (‘Forever’) that is a sexy was really reaffirming for me and really helped me in the healing process.

“I think it’s another example of how lucky we are in this area to have directors who cast outside the box and let a plus-size character actress strut her stuff as this sexy, seducing dragon character. That was a really fun role to play.”

Amanda Petersen also directs, for which challenges are multiplied. How did directing start?

“In Theatrics, which is now an organization called Jubricosa in Oshkosh. When I started in high school, it was a summer theater program for a ka-jillion kids, and you put on a musical. The gentleman who directs it, Jim Hart, was my high school director as well.

“I definitely attribute my life-behind-the-scenes passion to stuff that I learned at Theatrics. It was very much, you know, everyone comes together, we all work together to make the things work and to overcome whatever obstacles are in front of us. So I feel like I have a good mentality for just kind of like, ‘Okay, let’s all throw in and get this done’ because of how we did everything during Theatrics.

“Once I aged out of being in the classes stuff, Jim Hart asked me to come back as an assistant director. I helped run the program for a couple of summers, and that led to directing shows for the kids. And then I directed ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?’ as part of his community theater programming.

“And then when I moved back here after college, I started getting more opportunities to direct. I directed for Attic Theatre, for Oshkosh Community Players, for Riverside Players eventually.”

And she was a kid, right?

“I was pretty much, yeah. I was 20 when I directed for Attic. And I was 18 or 19 when I started directing the Theatrics community theater stuff. And directing people – like Jim was in the show, and other actors that I had been looking up to for years – was definitely daunting at first. But the more that I got into it, the more comfortable I got and the more passionate I got about it.

“I’m a very detail-oriented person in real life, and I find that it’s one of the things I love about directing is finding all these little threads that connect the characters to the script and finding all these motifs and themes. When I think of myself as a director, I imagine this crazy person with a giant chalkboard with clues taped on it an pushpins and yarn tying it together, and it probably looks like an insane person. But I love how all those little things dovetail and crisscross throughout the story. If I can find a way to help an audience feel that even if they don’t know what the tiny details are, that’s the thing that I love. And I love how the actors find those things that help with the emotional connections.

“One of the examples that I think of is when we (Hysterical Productions) did ‘Little Women’ last spring. We had this big shawl that the sisters passed. Amy used it when she fell into the water. And then Meg gave it to Marmee (the mother) to take to their father when she went to visit him in Washington. And then Beth had it when she was sick. The shawl is what Jo is wrapped up in when Beth passes. It’s the idea that this item is tied to everyone in the family. And then Jo is wrapped up in her whole family when she realizes that’s what she needs to write about. Those are the little things that I love.

“I look for those things when I see a show as well. I don’t know, maybe only two or three audience members recognize it, but I feel like it’s a nice little piece of storytelling.”

Amanda Petersen was asked to come up with productions that hit a sweet spot for her as director.

“I already spoke of it a little bit, but ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is absolutely the first thing I think of. It was a project that originally Angela Ferlo was going to be directing it, and then we decided to swap.

“Taking over that and it being my first Shakespeare – I was pretty daunted about the project and then really, really delighted with how it turned out. That was definitely toward the top of my list.”

Poster display.

‘Legally Blonde’ at Riverside Players was probably one of the most fulfilling experiences I ever had as a director.

“One of the things I love as a director is bringing out the weird, the individual uniquenesses, the storyteller in every actor. That show had such a huge ensemble, and you never want everyone in the ensemble to be blank faces and blend together and look the same.”

“I want everyone to be involved in the story and really be invested in what’s happening and have a personality on stage and to feel safe doing that – because it can be scary.

“A lot of people do theater because they want to be someone else, and I like to cast people because I want who they are. And ‘Legally Blonde’ was one of the first times that I really felt like everyone in the cast embraced that idea and pushed themselves to be important to the story and just have a personality and a unique point of view on stage.

“I watched that show every night just smiling like an idiot because there was always something new to see from the ensemble. There was never anybody zoning out or phoning it in. It felt very alive as a performance, so I really loved that.”

Scene from Hysterical Productions’ “Little Women: The Musical.” (Catherine McKenzie/McKenzie Images)

“And then ‘Little Women.’ It was the last show I directed for Hysterical Productions, and it felt like a very suitable closing of that chapter for me. So many of my Hysterical Productions family were involved in that show, and getting to be in the show myself was just very emotional for me.

“The story is a favorite of mine. I’ve always really loved the book and the movie from the ’90s, and I just felt everyone really invested emotionally in the show. It felt like it came together really beautifully, like it looked the way I want to. It felt like my vision was fulfilled by the costuming team and by the technical team, and so I was really proud to have that be the bookend of my time at Hysterical Productions.”

Finally, Amanda Petersen’s thoughts on this thought: The director who performs is not advised.

“Yeah, I’ve done it a lot actually. Honestly, I think that it very much depends.

“I would never cast myself as Hamlet and direct it, or anything that grandiose. I think the one that came closest for me was doing ‘Godspell’ with Hysterical Productions. Everybody’s on stage the whole show. For the most part, if I’m going to cast myself or allow myself to be cast in a show that I’m directing, I would never choose something that large again because you want to be able to see what’s going on.

Scene from Hysterical Productions’ “Godspell.” (Max Hermans/Thompson Photo Imagery)

“I know that it’s kind of taboo, and a lot of people have opinions about it, and that’s fine. It’s not unusual in the sense of traditional theater. I mean, Shakespeare and his troupe did it, and so did many others in history.

“But I know that we look at it from a different point of view now in modern theater. And I get that. Hollywood does it all the time, too. “But I always try to have a really strong production team whenever I’m going to do it. I always make sure that I have assistant directors or co-directors who are not afraid to express their opinions. It’s really important for me to have people on my team, whether I’m on stage and directing or just directing, who know what they’re talking about and aren’t afraid to tell me that I’m doing it wrong. I don’t ever want to work with people who are afraid to say or cowed by whoever they’re working with. I want people who are going to give me their honest opinion.

“Having people that I know are going to tell me, ‘This look is bad when you are on stage, you need to do this differently,’ is really important to me. I need those people around me.”

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