While reciting lines from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in his high school English class, James Kautz didn’t imagine a future in the arts, yet his life would come full circle upon becoming enveloped in the burgeoning metropolis that is New York City.
Kautz, a 1999 graduate of Chautauqua Lake Central School, moved to New York City right out of high school to study at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While studying, Kautz met two guys, Derek Ahonen and Matthew Pilieci, who would later become a powerful driving force behind his success in the world of theater arts.
According to Kautz, Ahonen and Pilieci were like-minded hooligans who gravitated toward realistic, gritty work. They all had a love of 1970s film, particularly the type that portrayed antiheroes.
“We bonded through college and after we got out we all went our separate ways,” Kautz said. “We went on to be cast in other people’s projects, commercials, film and TV stuff here and there. But, we weren’t quite as happy as when we were making art together.”
It wasn’t long before the three hooligans reconnected. In 2007, Kautz, Ahonen and Pilieci took a trip out to Los Angeles to give the West a try.
“We decided we needed something different in our lives because we were really restless and bored,” Kautz said.
Unfortunately the triple threat found that they hated Los Angeles, but the excursion did however solidify their will to move forward. Instinct began to roil their guts, and a crystal-clear vision of the road ahead dawned up their weary minds.
“We decided on that trip to form a theater company and start making our own work,” Kautz said. “So, in 2007 we produced our very first show under the theater company name The Amoralists, ‘While Chasing The Fantastic,’ which was written by Derek Ahonen. It was the first time in our lives that we’d ever really taken creative control in our own hands. As an artist you’re always kind of at the whims of other people, especially in the theater and acting world. Of course we did everything wrong, and we almost didn’t survive it. We may have lost all of our money and almost killed each other, but there was something there – so we did it again.”
The next show The Amoralists produced, “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side,” completely changed the course of the theater company’s future.
“We were all at personal crossroads, and we had decided to sink a lot of ourselves into creating this theater company that highlighted people a little more realistically than some of the other theater we were seeing,” Kautz said. “We called ourselves The Amoralists because we focused on characters of moral ambiguity – good guys with hypocritical hearts and bad guys who love their kids. So, by the time ‘The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side’ came around, we all had a big hand in shaping what the story was about. It was a love story about these four people trying to survive their own ideals in a world that doesn’t allow that. It resonated with us, and more importantly it resonated with audiences.”
For the next couple years The Amoralists continued working on the show, and running it as much as possible. In 2009, the theater company hired a publicist, and “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” took off. The Amoralists became a New York Times Critic Pick, began receiving rave reviews and performing for sold-out houses.
“It was all new for us, and we were kind of on top of the world,” Kautz said. “We all wanted to say something with theater, and with our art. We wanted to connect to other people across lines of political, religious and sexual orientation. We believe people can appreciate a story and learn something instead of being force fed. So, we found with the story of ‘The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side’ we were able to say a whole lot, generate a whole lot of really important questions and conversations – it felt great.”
Although for the time being “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” isn’t currently running as a permanent engagement, it has had two very successful limited engagements in the past. So, The Amoralists are looking at opportunities to open the production in other cities. But, The Amoralists are by no means a one-hit-wonder, rather the group has generated a following that has supported its numerous original productions.
“Producing theater is hard, but the bittersweet beauty of it is that you work on something for an entire year, putting every penny you can raise into it and it only lasts for six weeks,” Kautz said. “Yet, each performance is different, and it only lasts for that moment. Theater is so dangerous because it lasts right now, and then it’s gone. So, we live in a world where everything is pirateable: music, TV, films, books and art can be stolen online, but if you’re not in the theater that night – you missed it. It’s really an exciting artform in the sense that its incorruptible and you have to be there to experience it.”
When Kautz attended Chautauqua Lake Central School it didn’t offer a drama program other than hosting a show or a musical once a year. Instead, Kautz’s English honors teacher, Pete Smith, a former thespian himself, had his students read Shakespeare aloud.
“I had some rough stuff going on in my house, and I was a mess as most teenagers are,” Kautz said. “But, I’ll never forget that when he made me read aloud that I felt good afterward – I felt better. I felt like I had gotten some of those emotions out in a way that I’d never experienced before.”
Thus, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” became the first escape, or release, for Kautz. And, several years later, Kautz managed to land a role as Hamlet in New York City.
“It was really potent, and we worked so hard on it,” Kautz said. “It was maybe the most rewarding time I’d ever had as an actor because it returned me to that time when I was sitting in Mr. Smith’s English class, and falling in love with these lines.”
Since then, in addition to acting in the majority of The Amoralists’ productions, Kautz has also become the artistic director. His responsibilities and lifestyle only occasionally allow for him to return home to Chautauqua Lake to visit his mother, Deborah Kautz, or to Hartfield to visit his grandparents James and Betty Dascoli. Kautz’s father, Forrest “Doc” Kautz, passed away in 2005.
“Every time I come home I have a ritual to touch base with my past and who I am,” Kautz said. “I don’t have a car in the city, so whenever I come home I rent one, and I usually spend one whole day driving around during the summer to reconnect with it. I always drive up Elm Flats Road because that’s where I grew up, and down around Bemus Point because that’s where my mom lives. I love going down to Chautauqua Institution, and sometimes I’ll stop in the Lakeview for a drink. It’s nice – it clears my head.”
For more information, visit www.theamoralists.com or search for “James Kautz” on Facebook.
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