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Feature

Santino Fontana

Santino Fontana

Fortune far from outrageous

Guthrie's youngest Hamlet is U Alum

By Deane Morrison

From M, winter 2006

As he auditioned actors for the role of Hamlet, Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Dowling was set on finding a young actor who could bring "the insecurities of youth" to the role. That's easier said than done, because the role demands a bruising level of technical virtuosity, physical stamina, and emotional maturity. But Dowling found it all in Santino Fontana, a 2004 University graduate who at age 23 will become the youngest Hamlet in the Guthrie's history when he takes the stage next spring. Shakespeare's classic tragedy was the Guthrie's first production when it opened in 1963, and it will be the last on the theater's Vineland Place stage. The sense of history is not lost on Fontana, who finds the prospect both exciting and intimidating. But he has had the best possible training for the task. As a member of the first class to graduate from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, Fontana has worked for four years with top-notch professionals at both institutions, even winning a featured role in the Guthrie's production of "Six Degrees of Separation" in his junior year.

Tickets for the Guthrie Theater's March 4-May 7, 2006, production of "Hamlet" are on sale now. Contact the Guthrie Theater Box Office at 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis MN 55403, or call (612) 377-2224 or toll-free (877) 44 STAGE. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.guthrietheater.org.

Click here for more information about the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program.

Now a busy actor in New York, the Richland, Washington, native almost enrolled in the University of Michigan as a music major. But while competing for a scholarship he met one of the judges, Kenneth Washington, who steered the high schooler toward the fledgling program, a joint operation of the College of Liberal Arts and the Guthrie Theater. Washington, the Guthrie's director of company development, soon became a mentor to Fontana. So did Dowling, Scott Freeman, the program's original acting instructor, and the University's Judy Bartl, the program director. Fontana, a gifted singer and pianist as well as actor, has no doubt that he made the right choice.

"It's the only real training I've had," he says of the program. In a 2003 interview after the "Six Degrees of Separation" run, he stated there was "no other school in the country that has a program for undergraduates where you can do what we just did at the Guthrie and have that kind of connection to American theater. ["Six Degrees" playwright] John Guare came to our opening, and Arthur Miller was here last summer."

"I think what Hamlet wants is for everything to go back the way it was." But of course it can't, and Hamlet is caught between a rock and hard place. "He must be 'a man' and avenge his father's death, but 'a man' is not passion's slave."

Also at the Guthrie, Fontana has appeared in "As You Like It," "A Christmas Carol" and "Death of a Salesman," which played at the Dublin Theater Festival. He was assistant director for Dowling's production of "His Girl Friday," also by Guare, and has composed original scores for five plays, including "The Madwoman of Chaillot" at the University this year. He has sung in "La Traviata" with Washington East Opera and has won Outstanding Male Vocalist honors in 2000 at the national Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. That same year he was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, which led to a performance at the Kennedy Center. When Fontana arrived at the University, he was "one of those students you knew would be successful," says Bartl. "He's ambitious, and he was always very interested in going 'above and beyond.'"

These days, in between rehearsals Fontana can be seen reading "Hamlet" on the New York subways, immersing himself in the world of a young man whose life has been shattered.

"The circumstances this character has been put into are amazing," he says. "I think what Hamlet wants is for everything to go back the way it was." But of course it can't, and Hamlet is caught between a rock and hard place. "He must be 'a man' and avenge his father's death, but 'a man' is not passion's slave." Fontana says. "He's totally alone and doesn't know whom to trust. He has only his reason, then doesn't know if he can trust that.

"It's a big tragedy, but it's also pretty funny. Hamlet is both a clown and a tragic hero. One teacher said that most actors get the clown part right or the tragic part right, but not both." To prepare for the role, Fontana has been working with Dowling, who is currently directing a play in New York, and also drawing on what he learned from Marcela Lorca, the head of movement at the Guthrie and Fontana's movement teacher for four years. "She set up a kind of regimen so that I'm physically ready--both for the plain endurance of being on stage for that long every day for nine weeks and to make sure my body is freed up in a way that it can be openly expressive," Fontana explains.

Another source of strength is Andrew Wade, an internationally known voice/text coach who coached, among other Hamlets, Kenneth Branagh in his recent film of the play.

"In terms of voice and speech, I have to get in shape like an athlete," says Fontana. Wade also set up with a regimen "to make sure I will be able to keep up the stamina for the entire show vocally--which involves lots of breathing exercises--and resonance work, making sure I'm not getting in my own way muscularly and cutting off sound."

Fontana credits the BFA program's liberal arts curriculum as a major factor in his development as a well-rounded artist. But he is not its only graduate to succeed. Classmate Leah Curney, who also appeared in "Six Degrees of Separation," is currently on a season contract with American players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. And 2005 graduates Eric Holm and Elliot Eustis launched a professional theater company last summer in Provincetown, Mass., hiring many fellow BFA students as actors.

"Hamlet" will run from March 4 to May 7, 2006, closing on the 43rd anniversary of its 1963 opening. That inaugural performance featured Tyrone Guthrie directing and George Grizzard in the title role.

For the future, Fontana plans to help BFA students with a production next year, and he will probably work with Dowling again soon. But whatever happens, he isn't worried about whether his agent will call; he's more concerned about finding projects that challenge him and allow him to use his many talents. After playing the melancholy Dane, he'll be looking for something different, perhaps a musical. It's the work that matters, not the stardom on Broadway or in Hollywood. But with talent like his, any or all of that could happen. Only time will tell if it is meant to be or not to be.