The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Acting: JVS on ACT

JVS. While those three letters don’t make much sense to the average person, you’ll hear them spoken numerous times a day by the members of All College Theatre (ACT). This acronym spells out the name of their president and theater veteran, James Van Strander. Van Strander, a senior philosophy major, recently discussed his experiences as an actor, his opinions on ACT and his thoughts on both his own future and the future of the American stage.

The Signal: When did you start acting and what was your first role?

James Van Strander: My middle school would do a musical every year, and sixth grade was the earliest year you could audition. So I started out as Bill Sykes in “Oliver Twist.”

S: Can you talk about your performances with ACT?

JVS: I’ve done quite a few by now. As far as acting goes, I’d have to say “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was my favorite. “All My Sons” was my favorite script, however.

S: How did you first get involved in ACT?

JVS: A friend of mine, Lindsay Gelay (who now serves as treasurer of the organization), approached me and asked if I’d be interested in directing a one-act play for the “Evening of Shorts” production my sophomore year. I hadn’t had much experience with directing, but I thought I’d give it a shot. So I wrote up a proposal and presented it at my first ever ACT meeting. The membership voted for it and I had the privilege of directing the show. Since then, I’ve been involved in every production either acting, directing or behind the scenes.

S: Many people have told me that the non-competitive nature of ACT has created a family-type atmosphere among the group. Can you elaborate on this?

JVS: That’s absolutely true. In many ways we do act like a family. We’re as much a social group as we are a theater group. Although auditions for any given show are competitive by their nature, there’s a real team spirit to it. It’s not cut-throat at all. Participation in the technical aspect of a show is open to all, whether they’re a member of the organization or not. We try to be as inclusive as possible and I think we succeed.

S: What do you plan to do with acting after college?

JVS: As much as I can without giving up my day job, so to speak. I’m pursuing a career in academia, so with what little free time I might have I’d still like to fill with theater as much as I can.

S: With our generation’s focus shifting more toward materials and money, most students now want to focus on business-oriented careers. How does that affect you as an actor?

JVS: I haven’t really had much experience in the professional acting world. I think there’s always the stigma against the artistic careers that they don’t make any money – but if you want to be an artist of any sort simply for the purpose of making money, you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons. So, I think it might actually be beneficial in that it keeps people out of the field who aren’t wholly dedicated to the value of their art.

S: Name any actors, writers or plays that have influenced you.

JVS: Christopher Durang and Samuel Beckett are my favorite playwrights. John Malkovich has always been one of my favorite actors because he generally challenges people to recognize him in any role he plays. He’s the character first, and John Malkovich second, and I think that’s important.

S: Movies and other forms of electronic entertainment seem to have surpassed literature these days. It seems as though this generation has laid the age of the novel and the play to rest. What are your thoughts on interest in the American stage today and the American stage in general?

JVS: A lot of people are saying theater is dead. I personally don’t really watch TV since 99 percent of it is completely worthless, but the Internet is hard to avoid. I think the problem with theater is that it doesn’t transcend geography as well as TV and the Internet do. To go see a play, people still have to get in their cars and drive. They can’t TiVo it.

I think that’s unfortunate as it’s basically living art, and people are given the opportunity to come view it. If they don’t, I really think they’re missing out. It’s live, it’s interesting and it’s unpolished. There are no second takes, editing, special camera effects, etc. If an actor blows his line, he’s got to make the best of it. I could go on. I guess in short, I still feel theater is vastly superior in both artistic and entertainment merit to TV and the Internet.

S: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your high school and college acting experience?

JVS: How to make decisions. In life, we have the opportunity of experience. In theater, we do not. I’m given a character who’s of a certain age, experience, education, etc., but I don’t have the advantage of having all of the experience that would create such a person. So, you have to make decisions based on how you think your character would be influenced by such experiences.

I have to decide whether or not I like another character in the play, how I walk, stand, etc. Maybe I have an accent, but why would I have that accent? I have to decide what kind of environment my character grew up in to make him the way he is, and I usually only have a few weeks to make all of my character’s decisions, as compared to real life – where I’ve had my whole life to make all of mine.