Friday, January 17, 2014

Theater faculty Ami Sallee tackles another Homer classic

On the heels of directing a modern day version of Homer’s The Odyssey at the Patel Conservatory, theater faculty Ami Sallee recently took on another Homer classic, An Iliad.

Sallee directed Gorilla Theatre’s An Iliad, which runs through Feb. 2, 2014.  The show runs one more weekend (January 17-19) at The Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin, one of our community partners, and returns to Tampa January 23rd at the Springs Theater.

Known throughout the Tampa Bay theater community, Sallee teaches several theater classes at the conservatory, including the Beginning Adult Acting and Techniques of Acting.

A three-time Creative Loafing “Best of the Bay” winner, she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to theater, from acting to directing and everything in between.

Enjoy a behind-the-scenes perspective in this conversation with Sallee...

Ami Sallee, right, with Brendan Ragan, talks about
Gorilla Theatre's An Iliad on WMNF radio.
How did you come to direct both of Homer’s epic poems in one season?
I had chosen May Zimmerman’s The Odyssey for the conservatory’s fall season early last year. In October, the president of the Gorilla Theatre’s board came to see our production and we talked about the potential of directing An Iliad for their first play of the 2014 season. It was purely coincidence but like to call this my “Homeric Year.” Epic things are happening this year.

What are the similarities and differences between the two productions?
The Odyssey and An Iliad both have a close place in my heart. I treated both processes with a great sense of respect for the dramaturgy. An homage to the story teller, each were an opportunity to think outside of the box in terms of movement and staging.
But they were vastly different in terms of casting and rehearsal dynamics. The Odyssey was a full ensemble piece, whereas An Iliad is a one-man show.
The Odyssey went up in only eight weeks, with just 11 rehearsals, but I had an amazing 8-person design team of dedicated artists to pull such a beautiful production together. With An Iliad, we had 11 rehearsals and the design team was just me! Thankfully, I had Nicole Smith (stage manager for The Little Mermaid Jr. at The Conservatory this summer) by my side through it all.  Add Brendan, our 1-man, and we are a mighty trio. 

In addition to directing An Iliad, you were also the lighting, sound costume and scenic designer? What was that like?
Due to a miscommunication of schedules, we lost our lighting and scenic team about halfway through a VERY short process. We reached out to a handful of designers, but so close to the holidays, we didn’t have any luck with that. On the 3rd day of rehearsal, I decided that I could design the lights, too. No problem. I do it all the time at the Straz Center’s Shimberg and TECO Theaters. By the 5th day of rehearsal, I had also assumed the scenic design. The vision was so clear in my head that it just seemed pointless to bring on someone else.

I wanted to fully transform the atmosphere of the audience so that stage was just an extension of the pub in which the poet finds himself. I wanted the lighting and scenic elements to stretch beyond the simple into the “full experience”.  I got in my van and hit up every local theater’s scenic storage spaces and have borrowed the entire stock of chairs for the set from Tampa Bay, including from my own house. I have nothing to sit on at the moment. Thankfully I’m hardly ever home this month.

It was an absolutely exhausting experience, but, if I do say so myself, I am proud of my designs – individually and as a collective, serving the story.

What else do you want to share about the show?
Brendan Ragan, recent Asolo Repertory MFA grad is the star of the show, playing The Poet and a handful of Greeks, Trojans and gods. I was blessed to be working with an actor who brings equal, if not double, what I brought into every rehearsal. It’s breathtaking, refreshing. Working with someone so physically aware and emotionally astute, who gives so generously of his abilities to serve the story, it inspires you to do the same. I really hope that all of my students can see Brendan perform so they can give themselves the gift of seeing the outcome of working with a consummate professional.  If you do come, stay after the performance.  Brendan and I would love to answer any questions or hear what you have to say.

You recently transitioned out being the chair of the Patel Conservatory’s theater department. Can you tell us why?
When I assumed the position of theater chair two and a half years ago it was with the knowledge that I would eventually pass on the hat to a new chair who would take us to the next academic level.

This is from the announcement we sent out, “It has been an honor to have been able to lead the department through significant years of growth. The theater department has transformed from a series of unconnected classes to an accredited program with vertical curriculum, and a certification program for students on a pre-professional track.”

This is 100% true.  I was good at the job, at building the structure that the department so desperately needed, but there was also a nagging need to get out from behind the desk. When a full-time faculty position become available, to make a Homeric reference, it seemed the right time to step aside and begin the search for our next leader.

I am ecstatic to be back in the classroom and in the director’s chair, and back on stage this spring in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and working on my own one-woman show. All of these opportunities feed me as an artist, as well as fulfilling The Patel Conservatory’s goal of employing working professional artists on our faculty.

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