Their eyes were watching gods

Three University students get to realize their acting dreams at the Guthrie

Amy Danielson

The principal characters in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” now playing at the Guthrie Theater, are obsessed with money and notoriety. So much so that they fall for the ruse of a young man who cons them with name-dropping. These people, purportedly experts in identifying authenticity in “high art,” are likewise incompetent at recognizing a facade of personality in front of their faces. Sadly, they will do anything just to appear as extras in a movie version of “Cats” purportedly produced by Sydney Poitier, supposed father of the con artist.

While these obsequious characters pray to Hollywood celebrities, three University students who play their college-age children worship the actors behind the shallow personas. On stage, the students play all-knowing kids, able to see through their parents’ hidden agendas and flawed ideologies. Behind their characters, they are passionate young students with an intense respect for their craft and their mentors.

Leah Curney, Ryan Lindberg and Santino Fontana are juniors in the University’s BFA Guthrie Theater Actor Training Program. The program is almost like a vocational school which focuses on acting in text-based theater. While the program shares some of the curriculum of the University’s theatre program, students have a unique opportunity to receive specialized training from Guthrie Theater actors and staff. “We have access to all the resources that the Guthrie does,” said Lindberg in an interview before Sunday’s performance.

Their schedule is beyond hectic. Mornings are spent in academic classes. In the afternoons, they participate in specialized seminars covering a wide range of subjects: dance, circus, yoga, clowning – even Shakespeare. Then, in the evenings they rehearse for a show or perform. This schedule varies from week to week, and things are constantly changing as the program adapts. It’s a new program, so they’re the guinea pigs.

Yet this program couldn’t have begun at a more opportune time for these three. As members of the first admitted class, they have to adjust to the myriad changes associated with a new program, but each student seemed assiduous in his or her decision to pursue it. For Curney, the choice to enter the program was almost effortless. Exposed to Twin Cities theater at an early age, she was inspired by the acting she saw at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre. By the age of eight, she was certain about pursuing acting. Curney said when looking at the Actor Training Program, “I felt like this was right. It was serendipitous.”

Fontana said, “I never wanted to be anything else except a baseball player.” He started out performing in shows in his garage during his preschool years. From then he went on to community theater. Later, Kenneth Washington, the Guthrie’s director of company development, became his mentor. “Ken is Yoda,” he repeated several times.

Perhaps Lindberg wasn’t as sure about his love of acting at as early an age as his classmates – for a while he wanted to be a paleontologist – however, it was the little influences that seemed to push him to act. His mother, for example, used to say, “Good night sweet prince” (a quote from “Hamlet”) when she put him to bed.

The three began to radiate excitement when they talked about their experience in the production of “Six Degrees.” They play small, supporting roles, so they have plenty of opportunity to focus their energy on honing their parts. Of course, it’s also enjoyable. “It’s great fun getting to play someone who’s really confrontational,” Curney said. The three of them are frequently seen storming the stage with clenched fists while moaning in frustration. They get to yell at their parents on stage, but in a second they’re offstage again, watching the seasoned actors as if they were gods.

“Six Degrees of Separation” plays through April 6 at the Guthrie Theater,

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Amy Danielson welcomes comments at [email protected]