Arena Stage Is Auditioning Publicly for Key Role in 'Crowns'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In a nod to the era of reality TV, Arena Stage will let an audience watch the first round of its auditions to fill a key role in the company's spring revival of "Crowns" (March 27-April 26 at the Lincoln Theatre).

Arena is in search of an African American woman between 16 and 24 who can act, sing and dance; no previous professional experience is required. The winner will play the role of Yolanda, a teen from Brooklyn sent to her grandmother in South Carolina for safety and edification. Reluctantly at first, she learns about African American history, the civil rights struggle, and traditions of faith, music and the wearing of divine hats to Sunday worship.

The day-long audition process at the Lincoln (1215 U St. NW) will begin at 8 a.m. on Jan. 3, when "contestants" can sign up to try out. Auditions will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and will be open to free public viewing. Callbacks -- which will also include young women whom Arena staffers recruited over recent weeks at local schools, churches and community organizations -- will run from 4 to 8 p.m., minus the audience. Arena plans to announce the winning Yolanda the following week.

Judging the tryouts will be cast member Marva Hicks and director-choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson. Roberson doesn't expect too much amateur hysterics, thanks to the popularity of such shows as "American Idol" and "Grease: You're the One That I Want," which last year allowed TV viewers to "discover" the amateur stars of the latest Broadway revival of "Grease."

"Because of these reality shows, people are pretty sophisticated and privy to how these things work," says Roberson, who just choreographed "Caroline, or Change" at Baltimore's Center Stage. "I don't think there's much to do to put them at ease."

At New York's Apollo Theater in 2002, Roberson worked as choreographer for the revue "Harlem Song," which cast two non-professionals. "We did a big open call and we invited people to show up and it really worked out quite well," he says. Both the amateurs "became professional and got their union card."

The spring production will mark Arena's fourth run of "Crowns." The first three played in Arena's intimate Kreeger space; this time, with Arena's campus under renovation, it'll be in the vast Lincoln. The entire staging will need to have "a little more shine to it," says Roberson, "so the way it's staged and even the way it's costumed give people things to 'read' from the back of the house."

A Natural Stylist

Hair and wig designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer is a font of follicular factoids. Did you know that the wigs worn by such characters as Mrs. Potts and Lumiere in the musical "Beauty and the Beast" are made of yak hair? Apparently it's excellent for character wigs. And did you know that American hair is considered too full of harsh chemicals from our water to be wig-friendly? Asian and/or European hair is preferred.

Rampmeyer worked in the Washington area some 20 years ago at dinner theaters and at Arena Stage, where he was wig master for Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." He long ago moved to New York, getting his first gig as a substitute stylist for "The Phantom of the Opera." He's back in town now to design the hairdos and style the wigs for the revival of "West Side Story" at the National Theatre. The show began previews last week and will run until Jan. 17, prior to a planned Broadway opening.

Director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original "West Side Story" book, is going for a less theatrical, more naturalistic telling of the tale this time around -- and that applies to the hair as well as the dialogue and staging, Rampmeyer says. There'll be no permed or ratted 1950s dos. "We're using a lot of the actresses' hair" instead of full wigs, to suit the fresh young cast, he says. "These people are all very true, very real, and we're trying to stay as close to that as we possibly can."

That doesn't mean hairstyles won't change as Rampmeyer, Laurents, costume designer David C. Woolard, scenic designer James Youmans and lighting designer Howell Binkley get a gander at how it all looks onstage, and throughout Joey McKneely's re-staging of Jerome Robbins's choreography.

"We'll see, is this person's hair going to hold up for the first week? Do they need to be wigged for the matinee and not for the evening?" says Rampmeyer. Even in a show that's going for the natural look, he adds, doing the hair is still a production: "There's a crew of four running the hair for the show at the National -- supervisor and assistant and two other stylists. And they work directly with me creating these looks each night. . . . Then their responsibility is seeing that that stays consistent eight times a week."

A Delaware native, Rampmeyer apprenticed backstage at the Allenberry Playhouse in Pennsylvania at the age of 13 and got his Equity card while still in his teens. His first experience with wigs was at a "side job" back then in a wig shop for women undergoing chemotherapy. To his surprise, Rampmeyer recalls, he learned "something that I thought was so theatrical was such a part of life. . . . Maybe it's because of those early experiences [that] I like things, like 'West Side Story,' that are supposed to be very real. I like creating that illusion that you could run into this person on the street, this character, and not know that it's a wig."

In Memoriam

Washington actor Shane Wallis, who died last Thursday in a motorcycle accident in Maryland, was to be buried in his home town of Bogue Chitto, Miss., yesterday. Wallis, who would have turned 33 on Sunday, acted in shows at Rorschach Theatre ("Dream Sailors," "Behold!"), Washington Shakespeare Company ("Royal Hunt of the Sun," "Macbeth," "Henry V," "Henry VI"), American Century Theater ("Cops," "Moby Dick -- Rehearsed," "Machinal," "Mister Roberts") and Folger Theatre ("Macbeth," "The School for Scandal"). Wallis directed "Spoon River Anthology" for American Century and was also a combat choreographer. He was associate technical director at Theater J, where a memorial service will be held for him Monday at 7 p.m.

American Century's Jack Marshall wrote of Wallis via e-mail: "He was one of the many multi-talented actor/director/behind the scenes individuals with big dreams and the ability to back them up when given the chance. They don't get noticed that much, but the theater community is very dependent on their versatility, passion, and hard work. Shane was one of the best of the breed."

Follow Spot

ยท A cast of top Washington actors has recorded a radio theater version of Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales." It can be heard via the DC Theatre Scene Web site ( through Jan. 16. The site is encouraging listeners to donate to N Street Village, a shelter for homeless and low-income women.

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