Young actor navigates virtual performance

·4 min read

Amanda Sum always knew she liked performing—but didn’t always realize a future as an actor was in the cards.

Sum, who grew up splitting her time between Richmond and East Vancouver, got her start on stage in Gateway Theatre’s 2003 production of The King and I.

“My mom wanted me and my older sister and herself to audition for it, so we all prepped our song,” says Sum. “Once we got to the audition I chickened out and didn’t want to audition—and she didn’t force me—so my mom and my sister got into the show.”

Midway through the rehearsal process, the opportunity arose again for Sum to perform.

“Because my mom and dad were separated, and because my sister and my mom were at rehearsal (when) it wasn’t my dad’s weekend, I would come and sit on the side and they asked ‘who is that little one’,” she explains. “But little six-year-old me was a little disappointed, because my sister got to play my mom’s daughter and when I got into the show I had someone else playing my mom.”

A few years later, she and her sister both auditioned for Annie. Her sister got in, but Sum didn’t—which she says was her first taste of not getting a role. She was able to make more time for theatre later in high school, and decided to go to Simon Fraser University (SFU) for her post-secondary theatre training.

“(At SFU) they tell you straight up from your first day that they’re not training you to get an agent and work for others,” she says. “They’re training you to have these bases to be able to create your own work—so that was always at the top of my mind, out of school and during school, was ‘what do I want to make’ as opposed to ‘how do I go to all of these auditions’?”

Early in the pandemic, it was uncertain how long the shift online would last for the live theatre industry. But now, more technologies have been used to help create the live show experience in a new and different way. Sum says the possibilities of new mixed-media performances are exciting.

“I’m really interested in how to marry theatre with music in a way that’s not quite musical theatre, because those are two areas that I have always looked at separately, and I think my music, I’ve focused on that a bit this year,” she says. “I kind of do it as a separate thing from what I do for theatre, but now I’m drawn to how to let them be in dialogue with each other.”

The pandemic has given Sum more time to work on her music, recording and releasing a few songs late last year. Amid working on her music, Sum also appeared in A Craigslist Cantata, a show mounted by the Cultch last fall that was re-formatted for an entirely online delivery. She says the show was very different than anything she’d worked on previously.

“It was so quick—typically with a show you would do three weeks’ rehearsal, but we did one, and we would get called in separately. I wouldn’t see the (other) cast members unless I was leaving and another cast member was coming in—we’re doing this show together, but we never see each other.”

Sum was also in the Cultch’s annual Christmas pantomime. In that show, actors were masked and distanced, filmed using creative angles to create a unique performance. She says the energy in the room was a mix of excitement and caution.

“It’s not quite acting on film, but it’s not quite straight up theatre,” says Sum. “So, how to engage the camera—the awareness that it’s there, but we don’t want it to look like an archival video.”

Virtual shows, Sum says, involve a lot of trust. The audience is there, but not visible or audible for performers.

“It’s a bit harder, especially with funny shows like this when you tell a joke and you have no idea if it lands or not,” she says. “The people at home, if they want to clap they’ll clap, but if they don’t they don’t, and we can’t tell.”

Sum is also starring in the encore performance of A Craigslist Cantata, staged for live online viewing from Feb. 5 to 7. For tickets or more information, visit thecultch.com/event/a-craigslist-cantata/.

Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel