July 4, 2008

Greek Theater Inspires Indiana Native to Pen Play

By Gina Delfavero, The Blairsville Dispatch, Pa.

Jul. 4--INDIANA -- Transitioning from the high school stage to becoming a professional theater actor can be complicated. But, in addition to that, Indiana native Matt Amendt recently added playwright to his resume.

That first foray into writing resulted in good reviews for Amendt, 26, a 2000 graduate of Indiana Area High School. "The Comedian's Tragedy" was performed at the Theatre Garage in Minneapolis, Minn., where Amendt now makes his home. A theater critic for a Minneapolis newspaper raved about the production, in which Amendt also took on the lead acting role.

"It's something I've been working on for a very long time," Amendt remarked.

"The Comedian's Tragedy" is the story of a young Aristophanes, widely considered the father of comedy. Set in ancient Greece, the play depicts Aristophanes as a disillusioned young man falling in love with a girl who convinces him to write a tragedy.

"It's a comedy, a tragedy, a love story all in one," Amendt said.

His mother, Susan Amendt, a former drama teacher at Indiana Area, taught him the nuances of Greek comedy at a young age, and he learned to love the genre.

After he became a stage actor, "I started dabbling in writing," he said. With his admiration for Greek comedy, "The play coalesced from that."

Along with some friends and colleagues, he began line-reading from his script. Encouraged by the response, "We felt...maybe we should try to do this, bring it on stage," he said.

With donations from family, friends and fellow theater-lovers, he was able to raise the $16,000 he needed to bring his play to life for an audience.

With help from Actors' Equity and a cast and crew of colleagues from the University of Minnesota's Guthrie Theater, "The Comedian's Tragedy" opened May 31 at the Theatre Garage for the first of 12 shows.

"We had a great opening night," Amendt said, noting the play received several good reviews from local theater critics.

But he was even more gratified by the response of audience members, who grew in numbers each night. Many people of all ages approached him after the curtain dropped and encouraged him to keep writing.

"All professional artists go through a jaded phase when they think that what they do doesn't matter," Amendt said. "This experience restored everyone's faith a little bit."

There has even been some interest expressed in taking "The Comedian's Tragedy" to other venues, but Amendt said he's not sure that's the path he wants to take. Feeling a strong attachment to the piece, he doesn't want to just hand it over to anybody, yet he doesn't have enough free time to follow it.

"That would be strange," he said of giving someone else control over his play.

Amendt noted he has begun working on a few other writing projects, but he doesn't want to make that the focus of his career at this time.

He said there is often a stigma attached to an actor who wants to write or direct, or vice versa. "I'm trying to avoid that," he said.

Playing the lead role of Aristophanes gave Amendt something to do other than watch from the wings as the curtain opened. That helped him keep his cool during the run, especially on opening night.

"It was an overwhelming panic," he said of his nerves that night. "In a way, (being on stage) was better because there was nothing I could do other than say those first lines."

Amendt's father, Don, and grandfather, David Purdy, were able to make the trip to Minneapolis to see the production.

While she didn't see "The Comedian's Tragedy," Amendt's high school drama director, Mary Jo Bowes, was able to take in another of his performances in February, at the Guthrie Theater.

"He was always incredibly talented," said Bowes, who retired from Indiana Area in 2004. "He is a charming, kind young man."

Bowes, who has known Amendt since he was a baby, accompanied him to Washington, D.C. when he was chosen as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts his senior year of high school. Amendt performed at the Kennedy Center, offering monologues from Shakespearean and contemporary works.

"I was the first person to put him on stage," in the high school's production of "The King and I," Bowes recalled. Amendt, then three years old, was one of the child cast members.

Locally, Amendt said he might be remembered most for his performance in Indiana Area's production of "Oklahoma," and for some work he did in the Pittsburgh Public Theater Shakespeare competition, which he won three times. He also did some stage work with the Indiana Players when he was younger.

"I'm thankful that I grew up in a town that supports the arts, and I hope that continues," he remarked.

After high school, Amendt became one of the first students in the Guthrie Theater Actor Training Program..

During his junior year at the university, he had the opportunity to study for six months in London, at the National Theater.

"That was a profound experience because the scope broadened so much," he said. "I had been kind of myopic in my focus before that, focusing on myself and what I needed to do to get better."

He said the experience helped him learn more about the art of acting itself, as well as new techniques to use in his craft.

Graduating in the fall of 2004, Amendt soon received his Actors' Equity card on an international tour of "Death of a Salesman" in Ireland, arranged through the Guthrie Theater.

He returned for a stay in his hometown before going back to Minneapolis and becoming a company member at the Guthrie. He's worked there for the past four seasons, and will begin rehearsals for his 10th show at the theater.

"I've had the opportunity to work in some amazing shows with some amazing people," he said. He has shared the stage with some industry heavy-weights, including Angela Bassett and husband Courtney B. Vance, and Mark Rylance, who just won a Tony Award for his performance in the play "Boeing Boeing." He worked alongside Ian McKellan, sharing a theater with him while he was on an international tour of "King Lear."

He has also had the opportunity to work under some well-known playwrights, including Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lee Blessing ("A Walk in the Woods") and John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation").

In 2006, Amendt portrayed lead character Nick Carraway in a production of "The Great Gatsby." It was the first show staged at the new Guthrie on the River complex.

"It was amazing because he's such a vulnerable guy, with a good heart," Amendt said of the flawed Carraway character. "He's not the most intelligent when it comes to relationships, and those are fun people to play, people with enormous blind spots."

This winter, Amendt will begin a national tour of his most beloved play, Shakespeare's "Henry V," in which he will take on the lead role. The production will take him off-Broadway, to the New Victory Theater, and will also bring him into Pennsylvania, to Penn State University and Harrisburg.

Having a firm foothold in the theater industry, Amendt said he has no real aspirations for a switch to movie or television, or even the Great White Way -- Broadway itself.

"I feel so blessed in the career that I have already," he said. "I get to tell people stories for a living. I'm going to ride this thing as far as it goes. I feel that I've already made it."

Information on Amendt's play can be found at www.thecomedianstragedy.com. More on his acting career can be found at www.guthrietheater.org.

Gina Delfavero can be reached at [email protected] or .


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