Encountering Peter Amster right before the opening of a show is like venturing into the eye of the storm: He is the calm core of the creative hurricane circling around him.
The director/choreographer is completely at ease as he goes into tech and dress rehearsals for Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” which opens Jan. 6 and runs through April 11.
He saunters into Asolo Rep’s Koski Production Center, the theater’s massive set and prop fabrication warehouse, as craftsmen add final touches to giant theatrical set pieces, and prop masters retrieve the proper piece of furniture or knickknack.
“During a production my brain just tries to loosen up and let itself be a receptor for everyone around me,” says Amster.
Amster, who has directed some of the most comical and cunning plays over the past 40 years, has a perpetual-soothing aura. Maybe it’s to countermeasure the chaotic atmosphere that directors must face. It could be a natural defense mechanism to having dozens of actors and theater administrators looking to him to know every conceivable facet of a production.
Amster wears many hats and makes numerous decisions during the course of a rehearsal process all the way until opening night.
“I need to be the decider, cheerleader and sometimes peacemaker for everyone involved in the show,” says Amster. “I’m there to validate everyone’s artistic process.”
Amster was born in New York, but dove into the theatrical world in the communal atmosphere of Chicago.
“I originally attended Northwestern seeking a medical degree,” says Amster, “but one day I stumbled into the college’s Gilbert & Sullivan Guild, and I was enlisted into its ranks. By the time I reached senior year I was directing ‘The Mikado.’”
The performance bug nestled deep into Amster, and he ended up receiving his Ph.D. in performance studies from Northwestern University.
From there, Amster’s talents grew with the Windy City’s rapidly expanding theater scene. He has crafted and directed roles and plays at Chicago theatrical sanctuaries such as the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre, the Court Theatre, the Pegasus Players, the Lyric Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre and Light Opera Works. As Amster has matured and grown as an artist, so has Chicago’s theatrical scene.
“Chicago is a singular and extraordinary theater community,” says Amster. “There is a familial and supportive environment, lots of creative cross-pollination. Unlike New York City, we are free to take more risks there. It’s the birthplace of large ideas in the theater.”
After traveling around the country, directing at theaters from Ohio and New York to Oregon, California and Utah, Amster has nestled into his own personal slice of home in Sarasota, bringing his big ideas along with him. Asolo is now the playground in which he experiments and plays with both stage classics and obscure treasures.
Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” is popularly known through its bright and glamorous musical adaptation, “Hello, Dolly!”
But Amster’s production stays truer to Wilder’s vision of the connection between love and money. It’s a vision that conveys more grit and realism than its musical counterpart.
“For audiences, it will be a process of the familiar and the new,” says Amster. “There are little reminders of songs from the musical in the dialogue, but by the time the show is over the image of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ will be completely jettisoned from the audience.”
IF YOU GO
When: Jan. 6 through April 11
Where: The Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: $22 to $54
Info: Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.