Featured Story

Pumped-up Players

Monday, January 26, 2009

By: Michael Muckian

Physical Training Regimens Vary for Madison Performance Artists.

Katrina Oeffling. Image courtesy of Deb Heneghan.


If John DeMain, artistic director and maestro of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, has a personal trainer, it must be Gustav Mahler. The diminutive, late-Romantic period composer, known for his lengthy symphonies and runaway musical emotions, puts the veteran conductor through more strenuous workouts than anyone else in classical canon.


John DeMain, Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Jamie Young.

“Mahler is the most taxing composer to conduct because he’s so musically complex and emotionally intense,” says DeMain, 64, who prepares for the podium by working out three times a week at Princeton Club on Madison’s west side, eating a high protein diet and napping before each performance. “The stürm und drang and the angst in Mahler just isn’t found in a Mozart symphony.”

Mahler’s demands aren’t the only elements driving Madison-area performers into specific training regimens to stay physically fit for their art. Regardless of whether the discipline is conducting, acting, dancing or singing, each artist pursues his or her own program, either rigorous or not, for the body as well as the voice to strengthen the physical aspects necessary for a successful performance. And like music, acting isn’t exempt from the exercise equation.

“A play is not just the text a playwright has put on paper, but the physical text as well,” explains Anthony Simotes, a former actor and now head of the University of Wisconsin-Madison theater department and a master teacher of fight and movement. “I take actors through a training methodology that builds in small increments. In fight, that includes tumbling, falls, throws to the mat, punches, kicks and hair-pulls which become a new language that the actors must learn.”

Such physicality will highlight the second act of Madison Repertory Theatre’s production of TRUE WEST, Sam Shepard’s dark comedy that opens March 6. However, neither James Ridge nor Scott Haden—the two actors playing the roles of Lee and Austin, respectively—reached far beyond their normal workout regimens to train for their roles.

“We need to remember that actors are playing people, not athletes,” says Ridge. “A lot of us go to the gym just as part of staying healthy, but there are actors who feel the need to bulk up out of vanity.”

In fact Ridge, rail-thin most of his life, at age 45 is experiencing a slight middle-age spread, a facet he finds fitting for his role as the desert-dwelling hobo-thief.

“I do spend part of the second act with my shirt off,” he admits. “And I will be loosening up before each performance.”

Haden, 32, agrees: “There are a few moments of combat in the script, but those will be choreographed in rehearsal. As a result, I haven’t altered my daily exercise regimen, which is circuit training at the UW-Madison gymnasium, but I will work on my flexibility.”

Haden’s views change based on the nature of the show in which he’s appearing. The most challenging show? Haden says its performing in an old-fashioned musical.

“Singing and dancing are hard enough to do on their own, let alone at the same time,” Haden explains. “All the aerobics instructors in the world can’t beat a choreographer with a mean streak.”


W. Earle Smith.
Image courtesy of Andrew Weeks Photography.

W. Earle Smith, artistic director with Madison Ballet, might smile at Haden’s assessment. As the one of the most purely physical art forms, ballet requires strength and stamina in addition to talent. Without the first two, in fact, talent doesn’t matter no matter what role you play.

“It’s different for female dancers than for males,” says Smith, himself a former dancer. “Generally, females have to be in better physical condition because the requirement for females on pointe is very tough. Men have to have upper body strength for partnering and leg strength for jumping, but females on the whole are in better shape than males.”

Ballerina Katrina Oeffling fits the classic mold. She practices a minimum of 90 minutes every day, not counting half-hour stretching periods before and after her practice. She also does Pilates exercises for core strength, practices Bikram yoga for flexibility and takes Epsom salt whirlpool baths to relax muscles and joints. Specialized training regimens vary depending on the nature of the ballet itself, the ballerina says.

“You’re going to focus on whatever ballet you’re performing in during practice,” says Oeffling, 25. “If you’re doing SWAN LAKE, then you’re going to focus on your arms.”

Smith would agree, not only with the variations required by each show, but also each dancer. “Different types of performers require different types of regimens,” he adds. “Dancers tailor their own conditioning and strengthening program to suit their body types and preferences.”

The same variations, and the need for strength, hold true for singing, particularly for operatic soloists who have some of the most taxing jobs in the performing arts. Sun Prairie resident Kyle Ketelsen, a bass-baritone with an international pedigree, maintains a rigorous regimen to keep himself in shape for long evenings of performing some of the world’s greatest operatic music.

“It may seem like easy work, but singing opera is an absolutely athletic event,” says Ketelsen, 37, who has performed on stages worldwide, including London, Madrid, Paris, Rome and Madison. “I am usually drenched with sweat after huffing and puffing for four hours. What’s more, I am called upon by directors to fling myself around the stage running, jumping, dancing and fighting, often while singing.”

To stay in shape Ketelsen plays five-on-five pickup basketball games two to three mornings a week at Prairie Athletic Club in Sun Prairie, a regimen he is able to keep up in many countries where he performs. “It’s a passion for me and I love it, despite what it’s done to me,” says Ketelsen, acknowledging the sprains, strains, twists, tears, torn left and right anterior cruciate ligaments, forehead stitches and broken foot the game has caused. He also walks and rides bikes while on the road.

“In addition to the aerobic exercise, I’ve also done 60 pushups every day for the past 17 years,” Ketelsen adds. “This is a residual of my time in the Army National Guard. They sure like their pushups.”  




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