She didn’t know it at the time, but Andi Chapman’s first encounter with legendary playwright August Wilson was prophetic. “He said ‘hello’ and told me I had hands like his mother,” said Chapman—who, 22 years old and beginning graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, wasn’t sure what to think. Today, however, “That’s a special thing to me because I feel like a mother, a nurturer, of the kids here at the August Wilson Program.”
Chapman, a director, actor, and educator, holds the title Program Advisor on the August Wilson Program Faculty at Center Theatre Group. But as so many young people and their families know, she is much more than that. Since the program’s inception in 2011—when she also helped create the curriculum for the August Wilson In-School Residency—she has trained, taught, and supported every single Regional Finalist to come through the Los Angeles August Wilson Monologue Competition.
The Competition is an educational journey for local 10TH, 11TH, and 12TH grade students, who hone their acting skills while receiving an introduction to Wilson’s work. Each year, approximately a dozen advance from Preliminary and Semifinal Auditions to the Regional Finals at the Mark Taper Forum, at which point they work closely with Chapman as a group.
“I have a passion for education and students and storytelling,” said Chapman. “I know what it feels like when your voice is heard. It was important to me to pass that on.” Chapman also passes on her experience and training as a professional director (who directs the Antaeus Theatre Company production of Native Son at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre April 18–28, 2019) and actor. “The confidence a teacher gave me in the seventh grade to have my own voice, to know my voice mattered in the world, also gave me the confidence to do something as fearless as Native Son and all the work I’ve done,” she said. “If I can somehow, some way, pass that on, somebody else will have the same experience.”
The win is for a student to feel as if they have fulfilled the telling of the story—and they used themselves to do so. That’s the great beauty of this program.
This is the goal of the 20 hours of training and rehearsals she leads the Regional Finalists through in the weeks leading up to their performances at the Taper. “The first thing I ask them in the workshops I do is what drew them to the monologue they selected,” said Chapman. “They’ll say, ‘I identify with Booster,’ ‘I identify with Bertha.’ I ask them why. There was something in their song, in these characters’ voices, that spoke to them. And then I encourage them to tell it within the context that August Wilson has set up. That’s what’s most important: their voice is heard, but it’s heard through the lines of August Wilson. The challenge is to ensure that the authenticity of the monologues is honored and the voices of the students are honored.”
In all of the activities the students do, Wilson is at the center. “I show them who he is, show them his work, let them hear his voice in different interviews and things so they can see the kind of man he was,” she said. She helps the students see the context in which their monologue lives, ultimately preparing them to perform the entire play rather than just one piece of it. “We keep building so the characters shine through—they have different colors, different levels of emotion, so the characters aren’t all angry or sad or crying. We give them humanity,” she said.
Also at the core of the students’ learnings is that “working together is key and ensemble is key. I know it says ‘August Wilson Monologue Competition,’ but it’s really ensemble,” said Chapman. “We’re one voice trying to tell a story of this particular artist.” That feeling carries through the Regional Finals and beyond, including the National Finals in New York. Chapman travels there with two Regional Finalists, who perform their monologues on Broadway.
“Every group we’ve had has been very supportive of each other. Backstage when we’re doing the show, they’re all hugging, they’re right there with each other. Whoever’s going to go on to New York, the whole village goes along. We all go with them.” She added, “The win is not so much the trip to New York. The win is for a student to feel as if they have fulfilled the telling of the story—and they used themselves to do so. That’s the great beauty of this program.”
The August Wilson Monologue Competition enables students from all walks of life to discover August Wilson's profound and deeply relevant works of art, study the craft of acting, explore their own creative voices, and learn more about our shared history and themselves.Learn More