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FOR THIS TEEN, THE PLAY'S THE THING

Sword in hand, Michael Amico hums a tune to himself as he enters a town square decorated with flat benches, hanging flowers and an elaborate fountain. But this isn't any town square. When Michael, 17, of Orchard Park, begins to speak, a sold-out audience at the Irish Classical Theatre listens.

Captivating an audience is not easy. It took this Canisius High School junior many weeks of hard work to prepare for his role as Horace, one of the lead roles in the Irish Classical Theatre's acclaimed "School for Wives" production. Amico expanded his acting skills in the play, which finished its run Oct. 21.

"There's always those roles that require actors to be funny, comedic or loose," Michael said in a recent interview. "But I've never had anything before where I've had to sustain that for the entire performance. That's harder because the audience's reaction is a huge part of it."

Michael's interest in acting began at a young age from an unlikely source: magic. While in elementary school, Michael became fascinated with famed magician David Copperfield and saw him perform eight times. "He's like, 'Look at me, look how cool I can be, look at me with my hair blowing in the wind,' " Michael said with a laugh. "He has real showmanship, and that's what made me interested in performing for audiences."

At age 11, Michael decided to audition for Nativity of Our Lord School's production of "Ducktails and Bobbysox" and was cast as both Buddy Holly and Mr. Grimes. Two years later, he started taking acting classes at Studio Arena Theatre School.

Debra Cole, a Studio Arena theater educator, taught Michael for three of his six years of training at the school. "He was probably one of my favorite students because he loves the work so much," Cole recalled. "He's really enthusiastic and he's always looking for a new challenge. (Teen actors) generally want to take their time, and they feel a little bit of embarrassment doing the really difficult character studies, but (Michael) is interested in jumping in with both feet and getting to the heart of the matter."

In addition to taking classes at Studio Arena, Michael continued to gain theater experience in both professional and school productions. During the summer before his freshman year at Canisius, he became involved with Shakespeare in Delaware Park and its Shakesperience program.

"I'm obsessed with Shakespeare," said Michael, who also attended the Stratford Festival of Canada's first-ever Shakespeare School in 2000. "His works are meant to be performed, and I like understanding and interpreting the texts."

During the summer, Michael performed the opening chorus from Shakespeare's "Henry V" during the pre-show for Shakespeare in Delaware Park's production of "Romeo and Juliet." One of his former teachers, Paul Todaro, was in the audience that evening and saw his act. He suggested that Michael call the Irish Classical Theatre because it was looking for young male actors who could perform verse-based plays.

Michael followed Todaro's advice and auditioned with several other actors. He was called back to read for the part of Horace. Within several days, he got the role.

Fortunato Pezzimenti, associate artistic director for the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed "School For Wives." "His relationship in age with Tim Newell (who played Arnolphe, the lead character) and his youthful, gawky look were important for this comedic role," Pezzimenti said. "(Michael) is very intelligent. He handles the language very well and he made quite a commitment to the play."

Under Pezzimenti's direction, the entire cast of "School for Wives" began an intensive, four-week practice schedule in August. "The first thing we did was lie on the floor and breathe because (Pezzimenti's) main focus is voice," Michael recalled. "He wanted to make sure that we were grounded, and that we were connected with our fellow actors. Then, we built upon those sessions."

Michael further prepared for the role outside of scheduled rehearsals. Since Irish poet Derek Mahon adapted the comedy from the original French play by Moliere, Michael needed to learn some French words. He also studied paintings from the period, read about Moliere and worked on understanding his character's purpose and motivation.

Michael wasn't nervous during any of his preparation for the play, but he was on opening night. "I knew that a lot of people who were there wanted to see how I was doing," he recalled. "You know, here's this high school kid over there, and is he going to ruin the show? I had to prove myself, but it turned out wonderfully."

Earlier this year, Michael worked on "The Palace Thief," an upcoming Universal Studios movie starring Kevin Kline and Rob Morrow. After his agent submitted him for the role of a student trumpet player in the film, Michael auditioned for director Michael Hoffman in New York City. "I don't know how to play the trumpet well," said Michael. "I went for a costume fitting, and they gave us big, old-fashioned bugles without valves, and we had to play them in front of a camera. The one kid could play every note. I had to go next, so I played three notes, going down a scale. Then the next kid played, and he was a little bit better than me. Fortunately, they wanted to use us all."

Michael and the two other young actors were filmed with Kline, who plays a professor in the movie, in a church-turned-school hall near Harlem. "We were all standing on a stage with the trumpets, and Kevin Kline was sitting nearby, staring at us," Michael remembered. "They wanted us to play so they can see our mouths moving, but they said they're going to dub it."

Though the scene may end up on the cutting room floor, Michael's role in "The Palace Thief" paid off. He earned union wages for his three days on the set, which allowed him to get his Screen Actors Guild card.

"I was very lucky that I got a role in ('The Palace Thief')," said Michael. "People in New York who are over the age of 17 or 18 spend years trying to get a SAG card. That was, fortunately, one major obstacle (in acting) that I did not have to encounter."

Though Michael now has film experience, he wants to focus on pursuing a career in stage acting. Next year, he plans on applying to the top American drama schools, with a particular focus on programs in New York City. Given the unpredictable world of acting, though, Michael has not ruled out other possibilities.

"Maybe something will come up, such as a role, that might take me in a different direction," he said. "I'm open to anything that will lead me in the direction of becoming a successful stage actor."

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