Acting is a demanding job. But for a lot of Twin Cities actors, it started out as a fairy tale. Specifically, a fairy tale at Children’s Theatre Company.
Max Wojtanowicz, who recently played the lead in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at Old Log Theatre. Rajane Katurah, from Ten Thousand Things’ “Thunder Knocking on the Door” and “Marie and Rosetta” at Park Square. Sandra Struthers, a mainstay of History Theatre’s “Glensheen” who was just in “Spamtown” at CTC. Emily Gunyou Halaas, who played the lead in “Twelfth Night” at the Guthrie and in last year’s “Matilda” at CTC, where she is scheduled to be Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”
All got their professional feet wet as performing apprentices at CTC.
Artistic Director Peter Brosius said the 40-year-old program — whose alums also include Meghan Kreidler, Kory LaQuess Pullam, Tony nominee Laura Osnes and Emmy nominee Adam Shankman — puts the “perform” in “performing apprentice.” (CTC, like most theaters in the Twin Cities, has placed most of its staff on furlough.)
“They’re not getting coffee for people or sweeping floors. They’re paid a salary and they get health care, and it’s a nice, juicy contract and we ask them to act,” said Brosius, who auditions actors here, in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and is in the midst of making offers to potential 2020-21 apprentices.
The yearlong gig is a whirlwind introduction to an actor’s life: Apprentices play roles and understudy other roles; current apprentice Janely Rodriguez went on as the lead in “Cinderella” last December when Katurah was out. They participate in new play readings. They create an original piece to showcase their talents. They work with youth performers. In their spare time, they see lots of theater. And they get help on audition skills.
CTC’s is not the only actor preparation game in town — this story could easily be about the University of Minnesota/Guthrie BFA or the theater programs at St. Olaf, Augsburg or Macalester colleges — but it is unusually wide-ranging.
If all goes really well, the result can be what happened to Katurah, who has worked nonstop since her apprenticeship ended in 2018. “She is an immensely talented person. A hard worker. A joy to work with,” said Brosius of Katurah. “She’s creative and she brings it, both vocally and in terms of acting.”
Those are good footsteps to follow in, and Rodriguez seems to be doing that. Literally. When she slipped into Katurah’s glass slippers for a couple of “Cinderella” performances, “she was ready,” Brosius said. “And she killed.”
The Miami native, along with fellow PA Marc Gill, still has work to do at CTC — she’ll play Grace in “Annie” when it opens — but she already booked “String” next September at Artistry and has a bunch of auditions lined up.
Wojtanowicz said that as an apprentice from 2007-09, after graduating from St. Olaf, he thought of CTC as a sort of master’s program, where performers were some of his best teachers.
“When I walked into a room with people like Gerry Drake, Autumn Ness, Reed Sigmund and Dean Holt [all current company members, the last three also were apprentices], I met people who made this kind of work their lives: incredible, inventive clowns and beautiful artists,” said Wojtanowicz.
The young audience also helps sell a performer on the joys of acting. Wojtanowicz recalls walking away from a “Wizard of Oz” performance that bummed him out because it had not gone well. Then, he saw a mother and daughter on their way to the parking lot, singing the songs.
“I thought, ‘OK, universe, I get it. This place brings joy to people. It connects old and young. How mad can I be at the world?’ ” he said.
Gunyou-Halaas agreed that the audience is a big part of the education at CTC. Believed to be the youngest apprentice at CTC, Gunyou-Halaas was chosen right out of the rigorous, conservatory-like theater program at South High School.
“Learning to be a professional in a theater for children, you really understand that the audience is the final collaborator in your work. You learn to communicate with them,” she said. “Their feelings are so immediate and so transparent that they will tell you if you’re not being authentic. They take their storytelling seriously.”
Ready to be hired
If the rate at which former performing apprentices get cast is a guide, Twin Cities directors like what comes out of the program.
Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theatre, has cast many performing apprentices, ranging from Maria Asp and Leif Jurgenson, apprentices in 1991-92, to Wojtanowicz and Katurah.
“Someone like Maria, or like Max has great theater training from St. Olaf and CTC and he’s fun to work with because some productions might want to erase his quirks or whatever, but I am more likely to go, ‘Is there a way we can use those quirks that serves the production?’ ” said Knox, who thinks actors tend to come out of CTC with a comfort in physicality that suits the stylized pieces she’s often attracted to.
Wojtanowicz gets that.
“In one year at Children’s Theatre, I was asked to play an elephant and do cartwheels over a yoga ball and play a unicorn. The sky’s the limit there on the physical worlds you will go to,” he said.
After her apprenticeship is done, Rodriguez plans to stay in town for a few years at least before moving to a larger city.
“There are a lot of people of color here in theater, but I haven’t seen a lot of Latinx faces. I look around sometimes and think, ‘Am I the only one?’ Although now I know there is a group and I’ve been invited to meet for coffee,” said Rodriguez. “And I consider myself a queer person. I classify myself as bisexual, so it’s nice to be in a place that feels welcoming and open about that.”
Maybe like Wojtanowicz, she’ll become a salesperson for the performing apprentice program.
“I always sell it as a great place to become the most playful, inventive actor you can be. I don’t know of another place I’ve worked that demands such invention, so much reaching for every possible idea,” said Wojtanowicz.
Brosius is thrilled to nurture that.
“The apprentices are essential to what we do as a theater. They connect us to a generation that is just starting out in the field. And they keep us, I think, nimble and alive,” said Brosius. “Seeing them change and grow — it’s a thrill to be some small part of helping them on their journey and adding these wonderfully talented folks from across the country into this theater community.”