“Why Return to Rydell High?”

Talking about acting in Grease with Volunteer Actor David Symalla

Part of what makes Grease so lovable is its cast of believable characters. David Symalla, the Volunteer Actor assuming the role of Vince Fontaine in GREAT’s upcoming production of Grease, has been involved with the show five different times. He’s directed the show once, and he’s been cast in it four times– each time as a different character. We talked with David about the audition process, what it’s like to prepare for a role, and what makes Grease a show worth returning to. GREAT’s production of Grease will take place at the Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park, July 21, 22, and 23!

Episode Transcript:

Breana: Have you ever watched a show and wondered, “How did they do that?” There’s a story behind it all. And that is what theatre is all about. Exploring and reflecting on humanity through shared stories and bringing people together. From the talent onstage to creative collaboration backstage and community building on all levels, we’re here to share with you how each story becomes part of our greater story. How theatre brings our community together and makes it greater. Welcome to HOW GREAT: a GREAT Theatre Podcast.

Keenan: We hope you’ll join us at the Ledge Amphitheater for Grease July 21st, 22nd and/or 23rd. The 23rd of July will be our American Sign Language performance. These shows will all start at 8:00 PM, which differs from some of our other evening shows because we need the sun to go down before the lights can come up. All tickets are going to be through Ticketmaster. The easiest way to get to the page is through GREATTheatre.org, where there’s a direct link to the event on Ticketmaster. You can download the Ticketmaster GoMobile app and show your tickets at the gate from your phone. You can also have them mailed to you. If Ticketmaster isn’t your thing, they do have availability on Fridays at The Ledge box office. You can go in person. It’ll also help you skip the Ticketmaster fees that are applied to tickets that are purchased online. That would be Fridays from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. We’ll see you at The Ledge!

Breana: Today we’re joined by volunteer actor David Symalla. David is playing the role of Vince Fontaine in this upcoming production of Grease and he has been involved with GREAT since well, since when David, how long have you been here?

David: Been at GREAT since 1998.

Breana: Since the beginning, he has been in a bunch of productions as well as … you’ve taught with us, you’ve directed with us. You’ve …

David: I’ve done quite a bit.

Breana: You are part of the GREAT family.

Keenan: Many hats on that one head.

Breana: Which makes you a great person to ask then– what is it like? Let’s start from the very beginning. What’s it like auditioning for a GREAT Theatre production?

David: Oh man. Nerve-wracking, like everybody probably understands and feels when they go into an audition. Cause you’re going in and you’re putting yourself out there to be judged. So to say, can I be part of this, am I good enough for this part? And most of the time, yes, you are good enough, but you may or may not fit the vision of the director or directing staff. And that happens. So it is, it is stressful, but it’s a lot of fun.

Keenan: What do you prepare going into it?

David: Every show’s a little different. Sometimes, because we’ve done different iterations of auditioning, sometimes you have to prepare something that the directing staff has put together, like reading the lines they have put together, singing the song that they have, doing the choreography they have. But other times we’ve had where you prepare something, you come in with a monologue, you come in with a song. Choreography is always, probably whoever the choreographer is, has something set up for you, but yeah, different, different auditions have been… more stressful if it’s put on you to come up with the choice of piece.

Breana: Right, especially if you’re not familiar with theatre. I remember I used to have to go online to try to find monologues, and it’s really stressful. So I like what GREAT does in providing the sides and everything. Do you have any like tips or tricks or exercises you like to do to prepare yourself for auditions and for that, that mindset?

David: Prepare prepare, prepare over-prepare. Go over those lines a million times then do a million more. Go over the song. Same thing. Just keep working through it because the more comfortable you are with it, the less nervous you’ll be to do it in front of someone else. That’s the only thing I can think of.

Keenan: Do you ever practice or yeah, read through the lines in front of like a practice audience?

David: I have before, but I don’t always. And that really does depend on like who’s around, where I’m at, what I’m doing, and what I’m going for. If it’s one of those roles that I’m like, I need this part, I need to do this, then I go in and I work it as many times and with everybody I can possibly find information to help me out with.

Keenan: Yea, any feedback.

Breana: Yeah. Do you usually familiarize yourself with the show first or do you…?

David: Yes. Yeah I will look into past productions. I will look at different versions of the show if they have stuff online, I will read the synopsis. I’ll read character descriptions online. All of that stuff and just to be better centered on what that character is going to be.

Keenan: And that relates back to something you described before with… it may not be that you’re not good enough or that you’re not comfortable enough with the role, but just that you’re not a fit for what the directing team, creative team thinks is good for this role, but you have been in a bunch of different roles with Grease. I guess that, like, would you speak to that? Cause that feels like a testament to me to… if there was one good role for you, you would think you would get one role, right?

Breana: I think the biggest, one of the biggest disservices to theatre is that idea of not being cast is some sort of form of rejection or that you’re not good enough, but a lot goes into the casting process, and it depends on the production team. It depends on the vision. It depends on availability and the age of people who try out, just making sure everyone fits together. So that’s something that I like to try to ingrain into people is that it has nothing to do with you not being talented enough. It’s a certain way of doing things. We all have a certain way that we approach things. We have a certain way we learn, we have a certain way we do anything. And in casting it’s a similar experience.

David: And sometimes you’ll go and you’ll audition for a part that you really want, and you’re still cast, but you’re not cast in the part that you wanted. So you just have to be really flexible with that and just be willing to work at being something that you may not have expected.

Keenan: Has that happened to you?

David: Oh, tons of times. You just kind of look at it, look at it and go, all right. So I didn’t get the part I wanted. That’s fine. I’m gonna have my emotions, going to feel upset, feel hurt, but then I’m still in the show, so I can’t let that hinder the performance. I have to get in there and do the best performance because they trusted me with this part. So, just have to do the same thing except for post having been cast versus, you know, like I studied what part I want. This is the part I want. I didn’t get it. Now I have to go back and go, okay, now this part, what are the expectations of this character?

Keenan: Yeah. And I guess you’ve got a kind of nice a diving board with the one character you know really, really well now, and the research you’ve done on the show and the interactions with other characters, right?

David: And again, in rehearsal process, all of that builds better and you make the connections with your cast and you are able to tweak characters, especially after you’ve been cast with, and working with your fellow actors and the production team.

Breana: Do you have a certain way in which you approach characters? Like, do you do a certain type of character study? Are you a script analysis guy? Are you a person who like writes down their biggest obstacles and their goals? Or what do you like to do to get into character?

David: Sometimes I’ll go into the, like handwriting of those background things, but sometimes I just think about them. And I put them into context of what’s going on in the show. A lot of the times it does build a lot depending on who I’m working with, and in that scene building with my scene partners. I remember one show where we were two characters put together, I was with the other person and we were like, ah, this isn’t quite working for us. And we went to the director to say this isn’t quite working. Can we adjust this? Because this doesn’t feel like how our characters would interact with each other. And we tried a couple different versions and we made a compromise. So it worked. And that’s the nice thing about working with GREAT too, is a lot of the directors are willing to work around like what those views are. Because the directors trust you with your part.

Keenan: So it can be collaborative too, to some degree. So a lot of the character work then happens after you’re given the role.

David: This is a lot of the thought process beforehand is kind of like, okay, know where this is, know where they’re going and then kind of build more as you, as you go.

Keenan: So we were talking a bit about the roles that you’ve taken with Grease before… what roles have you taken with Grease before?

David: Um, so my very first experience with Grease um, I was Eugene, the nerd.

Keenan: How old were you?

David: Oh, gosh. Uh, I think that was… 15? 16? Somewhere in there.

Breana: So weird cuz’ you’re only 18 now.

David: If only!

Keenan: It’s weird to me because now you can’t be in our production of Grease unless you’re 18.

David: So I am trying to remember, I think ’cause the first summer outdoor show that was under the banner of GREAT was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And then the second one was Grease. And that’s when I played Eugene. We were outside. So similar to this where we’re again outside, but we were at the courthouse Plaza downtown.

Keenan: What a different venue … both outdoors, but…

David: And then I played Sonny. But the other actor was not comfortable singing “Magic Changes.” So they gave that to me. The person that they cast as Doody, who has the solo of “Magic Changes,” had a lower voice and couldn’t hit the higher notes. And I have the falsetto, or had the falsetto. I’m probably not as uh, in tune as I once was. So I ended up singing “Magic Changes” for that as Sonny. We just kind of fudged the name a little bit. And then the next time we did the show, I played Doody. So I got to sing “Magic Changes” again. And then the next time, GREAT did it, I directed.

Keenan: What was that like?

David: Ah, it was cool. That was kind of fun to give an entirely new experience to the show. Being in it has a different feel than trying to visualize, put people in places and, um, fit the venue. Cause this was the second time we did it, at the Paramount but like…

Keenan: This is 2016?

David: I don’t remember… 2005 is the one I was thinking of was the one before.

Breana: I don’t know why you’re looking at me. This was before my time.

David: Um, cause I think 2005 cause that’s when I met Erin. Yeah. We met in Grease. So I met my wife in Grease and she played Frenchie and I played Doody. The love interests.

Breana: That’s what they call a showmance, ladies and gentlemen.

Keenan: So you’ve been, you’ve been in the show twice. You’ve directed it once.

David: Three times. I’ve been in the show three times.

Keenan: Oh right, because you were–

David: Eugene, Sonny, Doody. I directed. And now I’m back as Vince. Five times at Rydell High.

Breana: So why Grease? What draws you to this at least five times?

David: I don’t know. I think the first time I did the show, it was a lot of fun and just felt energy, the nostalgia of the fifties and Grease is just so enticing. I’ve always loved it. As you know, everybody loves the movie, but for me, I’ve always loved the stage show more. Like the script is different and I’ve always loved that. Being there always felt different than just sitting and watching it. I don’t even like, I don’t sit and watch that movie. I go back and like, remember this show or find versions of the stage show to watch.

Breana: Can you pinpoint any moments in the show that make it more enticing, as you said, than the movie?

David: I mean, there’s just, I think just the idea of growing up in the, I think the movie doesn’t do as much of a service to that because no offense to that cast… They were all so old. I know like you want to cast a little older than what they actually are because you want that life experience. It’s hard to cast Grease with the actual age of the characters because they haven’t gone through all of that. So like with Grease going back a little bit and going, oh yeah, I remember what it was like to go through this type of romance situation or argument with teachers or wanting to fight that other person that you didn’t like being able to reflect on it versus experiencing it now. I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel the same.

Breana: I mean, the stage version itself starts with that memory piece. It starts as a reflection. So I guess it would make sense that you would want your actors and your characters to be in that mindset of how something was versus it happening.

David: Isn’t that kind of Grease in general too, at this point? It’s all reflective. And it was written in the 70’s, so it’s already reflective. The show itself is reflective of the fifties cult. So yeah.

Keenan: Very nostalgic. Nostalgia for nostalgia for nostalgia in this show.

Breana: You said nostalgia in three different ways. No-stahl-ja, na-stal-ga, nostal…. Maybe it was two different ways.

Keenan: I think it was only two.

Breana: So, what do you think is going to be special or different about this particular iteration of the show? The 2022 Grease at The Ledge?

David: Um, one, venue is huge, comparatively. Like the Paramount is big, but this… I’ve never been out there yet. So, but I hear it’s huge. Um, so that’s going to be something different. The way that our director, Kendra and our production staff have been talking about their vision of the show. It’s just. They have a view of it that’s slightly different than the ones we’ve always had. And I think every director brings something different to the show. So I’m excited to see how this all plays out. For the couple of rehearsals I’ve been to, the cast sounds phenomenal for their performance in their characters and in their singing. I’m really excited to see where like when it’s all up on its feet, I haven’t seen the dancing yet, but based on the audition dance, it’s going to look awesome.

Keenan: Yeah. I watched the audition dance and was very intimidated. There was no way.

David: I was too. I haven’t danced in years!

Breana: Well, that’s good because you don’t have to dance as Vince Fontaine. He’s the radio host, yeah?

David: He’s the radio host, yeah. So I will probably… you’ll hear my voice before you’ll ever actually see me. You’ll see me, but…

Breana: Is he the one that charges the dance contest?

David: Yes, he’s the one that judges the dance contest.

Breana: I’m like that was Grease right? That wasn’t like West Side Story or another. I feel like there’s so many like that.

David: They’re very similar, but that is the, that was the, that was a big culture of the fifties was the school dance setting.

Keenan: And yeah. Thank you.

David: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.

Breana: Well, we’ll catch ya this summer at The Ledge. June.

Keenan: July. Yeah. We’ll see you this summer at The Ledge, July 21st, 22nd and 23rd!

Breana: It’s literally on the calendar in front of me. You know what? There’s so many things there.

Keenan: Yeah, that calendar is covered in Grease. Who could read it anyway? All right. Bye!

Breana: For twenty-five years, GREAT Theatre has been transforming lives through the power of the arts. As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, GREAT Theatre is known for its Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts, as a leader in youth arts experiences through Central Minnesota, and for its commitment to community partnerships. It’s the generosity of our community of volunteers, donors, participants, artists, and audiences that make GREAT possible. To learn more about GREAT Theatre, visit GREATTheatre.org .