An Interview with Amanda Prasow

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts

Amanda Prasow, an American actress trained in Canada, is soon to play a dog on Auckland’s North Shore in A.R.Gurney’s Sylvia (The PumpHouse Theatre, Takapuna, June 3-12). The multitalented writer and documentary maker talks about her pathway to acting.

RENEE LIANG: Tell us a bit about your background and how you became an actor.

AMANDA PRASOW: I was born in New Jersey and when I was seven moved to Toronto, where I lived until four years ago when I somewhat accidentally found myself signing on as a Peace Corps volunteer and moving to Vanuatu. Since Auckland was literally “on the way” home to North America, I decided to get off the plane and look around… and haven’t left yet!

I’ve always wanted to be an actor, so there’s no real ‘story’ to tell. I started pre-school drama when I was three, theatre camp when I was seven, a (publicly-funded) arts school at eleven… I was pretty certain of that aspect of my path from a really early age.

I did a conservatory-style drama degree at the University of Toronto, and for one year went to Lancaster University in England to focus on contemporary dance and dance theatre. In that time I really discovered a passion for physical theatre, clown, dance and collective creation—all of that informs a lot of what I do now.

RL: So, I know everyone asks but what’s the Auckland “scene”” like compared to bigger centres like Toronto?

AP: Well, in Toronto you can go to a different theatre every night of the week and see top-quality performances by decently-paid, unionized actors you’ve never heard of who more often than not were cast from open auditions… so that’s pretty cool.

On the flip side, in Auckland you can go to a different guild function every night of the week and meet top-quality practitioners from every stream of the arts who will happily share their story, answer your questions and introduce you to whoever’s standing next to them at the bar. So, that’s pretty cool, too. There seems to be a culture of mentoring here that you don’t see in the larger ponds.

Also in Auckland you can be like, “Hi, I’m an actor-writer-director-producer…” and then the person next to you will be like, “Oh, hey cool—me too!” whereas in North America I think if you have your fingers in too many pies, you’re more likely to be dismissed as not focused or serious enough about your craft.

Here there really is a (comparatively) warm and fuzzy, mutually supportive community that you just do not get in bigger cities like Toronto or New York. There is a constant stream of networking events here that work because people in the upper echelons of industry keep showing up.

Reviewers are kinder here, too.

RL: How have you approached playing the part of a dog on Sylvia?

AP: In many ways playing a dog is surprisingly like playing any other character, and it becomes just another part of Sylvia’s ‘given circumstances’. It’s like, “Okay, let’s see… she’s homeless, she’s street smart, she’s a canine, etc.”

Of course, there is a physical vocabulary that has to be developed and refined. I think of it like two tracks in an editing program. You’ve got your pale green track where she is expressing herself verbally and moving the linear story along, and then in light blue you’ve got the physical or ‘aesthetic’ language track playing at the same time. If they go out of sync, it looks awkward and disjointed, so you’ve got to tinker until they’re mixed right for the final cut.

RL: You’re currently core cast for Playback Theatre in Auckland. Can you explain the concept?

AP: It’s almost alarmingly simple. The audience shares moments and stories from their personal experience, casts actors to play each role, and then watches in delight, confusion, horror or all of the above as the essence of their story is played back to them. Depending on the story and the teller the playback may be healing and cathartic or an uproarious piss-take… and/or something in between. No stories are ever alike and no two shows have quite the same energy.

RL: What are some of the more memorable stories you’ve told in Playback theatre?

AP: Hmm… this is a tricky one. Part of the ethics of Playback include creating a safe space for our audiences to share without fear of being judged or gossiped about or (gasp!) discovering their deepest darkest secret is someone else’s anecdote!

Of course there is no official confidentiality policy as everyone is welcome at our public performances—you’ll just have to come along to one and see for yourself! We have public shows the first Friday of every month at the All Saint’s Church Hall on Ponsonby Road. More information available at aucklandplaybacktheatre.com.

RL: Do you think that theatre should play an active role in society?

AP: Theatre is one version of what happens when people gather together to try to make sense of their universe. Of course, there are many other ways groups of people can define and explore themselves en masse: playing rugby, meditating, finding cures for cancer, fighting wars, etc.

For me, theatre is particularly satisfying.

Augusto Boal’s book Theatre of the Oppressed provides a really interesting and inspiring perspective on how and why the role of theatre has evolved in western society over time, and his work over the years shows how to harness the power of theatre to go beyond ‘reflection’ of a society into real transformation. So…what he said.

RL: What’s your next project?

AP: As an actor, the short answer is… I’m not sure yet!

As a filmmaker I am ready to put a lot more time and effort into finishing my documentary, Kokoru-Kamam. I shot it over a 15-month period in Vanuatu, and it follows my remote island community through ritual, domestic drama, a major earthquake, a federal election, and the proliferation of the mobile phone. I hope to go back to shoot an ‘epilogue’ sometime in the next year or so.

When I get around to it I will also write a play I’ve started called Baker’s Man, about an eccentric Ponsonby professor and his “differently-functional” family.

Acting is my priority, so if a role comes I will enthusiastically dash all other projects to the wayside. If my film takes six years to make and my play takes a decade to write, so be it!  (I really hope this film won’t take six years though.)