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Audition opportunities abound for local thespians

Think acting is reserved for only the theatrical elite? Not when Community Theater is concerned. Area actors attest that when it comes to auditions, more is definitely merrier, especially regarding the Fox Cities theater scene which some worldly performers claim rivals that of — gasp! — New York City.

Name in Lights

Angela Ramey has been married to the same man on three separate occasions. Well, kind of.

“David Oliver and I had an affair in ‘Lunch Hour,’ we were husband and wife in ‘A Shot in the Dark’ and we both did ‘Rumors,’ but he was married to somebody else,” she says.

Despite what it may seem, the 34-year-old marketing professional is not a woman with a serious case of divorce remorse, even if her after-hours hobby makes it appear that way.

By day, Ramey works in the office of continuing education at UWFox Valley in Menasha, but sets, costumes and stage makeup rule her nights. Her torrid love affairs with fellow actors all occur on stage, as do the inevitable break-ups and make-ups.

“I’ve been married a lot,” she says.

Ramey’s passion for plays spanned state lines, taking her to the unofficial world headquarters for all things theatrical — New York City — after graduating from Middleton High School. Ramey spent six years pursuing acting in the Big Apple, getting by on income mainly from waitressing while attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Eventually, Ramey decided to earn a Bachelor’s degree in theater from UW-Madison which brought her back to her home state. Upon relocating to the Fox Valley nearly six years ago, Ramey discovered something unexpected.

“I was pleasantly surprised that there was such a strong theater community here,” she says. “When I was moving I had no idea that there was.”

The Fox Valley is home to a treasure trove of theater troupes, both big and small, veteran and rookie, that provide abundant opportunities for residents with the itch to act. According to Ramey, an actress who has performed for theaters of all sizes, local aspiring talent should count their blessings as the Valley provides a few important advantages.

“When you do Community Theater in Appleton, everyone knows everybody. In New York, no one knows you. You stand in line for hours just to get in front of someone and they tell you ‘I’m sorry, too fat. Too white. Too black.’ You don’t have that sense of family. Here we are a community. I felt welcomed with open arms and have opportunities galore. Here we are one, big, for the most part, happy family.”

Acting Rivalry

Ramey’s observation is an important one to note, but just because theater may operate on a smaller, more friendly scale in the Fox Cities doesn’t mean it’s devoid of competition.

Laura Schlichting would never shy away from healthy competition in her young acting career. At a crowded coffee shop in North Appleton, it’s a cinch to pick her out. Odds have it, she’s the girl immersed in a copy of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

That’s exactly what gave away the petite 18-year-old Appleton West High School graduate who has an envy-inducing schedule filled to the brim with theater. She is in the Summer Shakespeare Program sponsored by the Fox Valley Summer School Consortium as well as playing the lead of  Dorothy in the Little Chute Community Theater’s production of “Oz,” a musical adaptation of the timeless story about a girl on a fantastic homeward journey.

For young actresses like Schlichting, there is no role more plum than that of spirited, spunky Dorothy and the audition process proved it.

“It was a pretty competitive audition. That’s obviously the big staring role,” says Lisa Thyssen, director and founder of Little Chute Community Theater which is in its fourth season. “I had several girls tell me they always dreamed of being Dorothy. It was hard to decide because I had lots of talented girls try out.”

According to Thyssen, the chosen production and its offering roles determine just how competitive an audition will be. Typically she might have 60 actors show up at auditions, but it varies by the production. For popular shows like “Oz,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent,” acting hopefuls may possibly be one of hundreds breaking out their biggest guns to show the director just how powerful a triple-threat (theater jargon for a skilled performer who can act, sing as well as dance) they can be.

This is especially true for competitive roles such as Dorothy and, coming in as a close second, the cowardly Lion.

A variety of factors come into play when Thyssen makes casting decisions. Besides the obvious considerations of physical appearance and singing strength, Thyssen keeps other criteria such as availability and devotion to the rehearsal schedule in mind when casting parts.

“I look at the girls’ commitment level. I ended up giving the role to [Schlichting] who has been involved with Little Chute Community Theater from the beginning,” Thyssen says.

Among Community Theater groups, emphasis on reliability and commitment is a common theme. Having prior experience with a particular group or director doesn’t hurt either. Schedules fill up quickly, so actors who wish to be considered for a role need to make sure their personal itineraries can accommodate roughly six weeks of rehearsals, averaging 23-30 rehearsals in total, followed by at least three or four performances.

For the girls who weren’t cast as Dorothy, there was no time wasted sulking. They have their own lines to memorize.

Eighteen-year-old Paige Friebel, who also auditioned for the part of Dorothy, often finds herself competing with Schlichting. Both girls are regulars in the Community Theater circuit and are frequently typecast in similar roles.

While Friebel didn’t land her dream role this time, Thyssen did cast her as Glinda the Good Witch of the North.

“It’s always really close between Laura and I,” Friebel said. “I always wonder ‘What’s she going to do?’ but after whoever gets [the part] you’re happy for them. During rehearsal we joke about it and we’re actually good friends.”

New to the Scene

For young theater groups striving to make a name, such as Appleton’s Parking Lot Players (formally the Fox River Valley Theater Company) in its second year of existence, auditions can prove challenging for a different reason.

“The first show we did had a cast of seven and I think we had seven people audition,” says James Lawrence, the group’s founder. “Actually one of [the people who auditioned] ended up not taking the role, so I had to cast myself. Not because he was turned down, but because he turned me down.”

This should be encouraging news to the rejection-phobic. Smaller troupes often are in need of more actors and encourage everyone to try out, regardless of experience level.

“When you audition with us, you’re almost guaranteed to get a part. My whole reason for doing this is to have fun. I want the volunteers to have fun too,” Lawrence says. “I’ve been known to write parts in to include everyone.”

When you’re the playwright and director, you are allowed these creative liberties. Lawrence will add parts in order to include all the siblings in a family or he might switch the gender of a character to fit the actor auditioning [editor’s note: The groups interviewed for the purpose of this story all noted a significant lack of male participants].

Thyssen also admits to doing her best to include the whole family. Literally.
“If parents try out with their children, I try to find a spot for everyone,” she says.

Lawrence has even written entire scripts with a specific actor in mind or based on a request from an audience member. While that wasn’t the case with last year’s production of a Lawrence original, “There’s No Such Thing As Ghosts,” for Rachelle Kirk it may as well have been.

Kirk, a recent Fox Valley Technical College graduate and sales associate at Guitar Center in Appleton, has had an affinity with all things spooky ever since she was young and worked on her father’s Halloween haunted yard, “Kirk’s Kreepy Korner.” When she heard about Lawrence’s fright-focused production, she knew she had to try out, despite her hectic work and school schedule.

Kirk contacted Lawrence who agreed to meet her at the now closed Wave Ballroom in Appleton for a special audition to accommodate her busy lifestyle.

“Rachelle auditioned in the abandoned warehouse connected to the building. She met me there and it was dirty and weird, like an empty warehouse with a lot of dark corners,” Lawrence says. “I just thought ‘How am I going to not make this weird?’”

Lawrence brought his two children along as a peace offering which seemed to do the trick. Kirk landed a lead role at what was her first audition since high school.

“[Lawrence] is doing ‘There’s No Such Thing as Dracula’ this October and I’d love to be part of that, too,” Kirk says. “I think I’m going to audition for that one.”

A Part in the Action

The varying levels of acting experience found in the Fox Cities truly runs the gamut. From seasoned professionals to never-acted newbies, the wide range of talent makes it easy to find a place in the spotlight.

“There are people you have degrees in theater, who have worked professionally around the world, right here in the Valley. Just amazing, awe-inspiring talent,” Ramey says. “Then there’s the mother whose kids have finally left the nest. She always thought about trying it and now finally has the opportunity. That’s the spectrum. Trust me, you’ll fit in somewhere.”

—By Amelia Compton Wolff

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