Why does it matter if we do good work?

Singing today from the hymnal of Seth Godin:

As Jony Ive said, “When you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”

Practice is not the answer here. Practice, the 10,000 hours thing, practice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.

Starting with subtext

“There are two aspects to the technique of the [Stanislavski] ‘system’; one inner, where the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character; the other outer, where the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside. It is no good my carrying imaginative and subtle thoughts and feelings inside me if they are not reflected in the minutest detail in my body.”

Benedetti, Stanislavski and the Actor, p. 13.

I’ve just begun work with a new crop of freshmen students, who are justifiably proud that they have been taught to understand the importance of creating a subtext, which is the first of the two “aspects” Stanislavski describes above: “the mind and imagination create the thoughts and feelings of the character.” I asked them, “How can you tell if someone has a subtext?”  Obviously, subtext itself is invisible, but its presence is manifested in the way Stanislavski describes in the second half of the passage quoted above: “the body expresses and communicates what is going on inside.” I would go farther (as does Stanislavski, in fact) and include the voice, face and eyes along with the body as the expresses tools that the actor can use to make his thoughts and feelings evident. In my approach to actor training, I refer to this as “behavior”: all the ways in which the face, eyes, voice and body can communicate and express one’s thoughts and feelings.

I go a step further in my approach, and stipulate that the ability to create behavior can (indeed, must) be cultivated and developed with the same kind of deliberate purpose that students invest in the cultivation of subtext through forensic investigation and imagination. Experience has taught me that behavior doesn’t just “happen.” It is a fallacy to suppose that the whole work of acting is to figure out the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, and simply trust that those will be evident to the spectator in performance. There are several reasons why this isn’t the case:

  1. For reasons of nature or nurture, some people are less expressive. We are taught that, in public life, it is appropriate to conceal our feelings rather than reveal them. Much of the experience of our early years makes us expert in the repression rather than the expression of emotion.
  2. For some, being onstage invites a certain self-consciousness or fear, which diminishes our ability to express ourselves freely.
  3. Being onstage arouses feelings of excitement, and the increased flow of adrenaline muddles our thoughts and distorts our behavioral expression. (Note that these feelings of excitement and the fear referred to in the previous item can happen at the same time.)
  4. The act of singing requires complex, coordinated and highly focused effort, and the effort of singing often produces unwanted tension and distraction that diminishes the ability to create dramatically expressive behavior.

Some fortunate individuals have a natural vividness of expression and feel easy about expressing themselves in front of others. For others, it will require diligent effort to reclaim the lively and vivid ability to express oneself that we were all blessed with as small children. And some lucky few may be able to sing with a minimum of behavioral distortion, remaining easy and authentic in the face, body and vocal delivery. For the vast majority of singers, this too must be reclaimed, and a patient, persistent regimen of conditioning and studio experiences will prove enormously beneficial.

Break the spell!

I’ve spent the past few days at the Danish Musical Theater Academy, teaching workshops and coaching students for a concert they will present later this week.

They’ve participated bravely and eagerly in classes and rehearsals, exploring new ideas and taking risks in order to grow as artists.

Last night, after a full and rewarding day of rehearsal, I thought back to see if any sort of theme or recurring motif had emerged from my work with the Danish students, and I recalled a note that I gave several times in the course of our work that seemed to produce some fairly remarkable results:

“Break the spell.”

cartoons_53In watching a run-through of the concert, it occurred to me that the students seemed to be under the spell of the music. They often seemed to move and sing as if they were on a sort of auto-pilot, singing each phrase and each lyric accurately but in an oddly lifeless way.

I explained to them that, in order to seem truthful and real, they had to find a way of discovering and embodying the inner impulses that occur before each phrase, the “pinch” of thought or feeling that led to an “ouch-y” expression of that idea or emotion in the next phrase of the song.

To do that, I said, required “breaking the spell,” rousing themselves from the comfortable state of going through the motions and expecting the song to do the work for them. It requires an impulsive burst of energy, a kind of fearless departure from the choices made in the previous phrase, no matter how well those choices were working, no matter how good they felt, boldly attacking the new phrase with the confidence that, though it may be new and to a certain extent unknown, it will be great BECAUSE it is new, because it represents a change from the previous moment.

(This kind of “pinch” is rightfully experienced just before the onset of the new phrase. To introduce that kind of “spell-breaking” impulse at any other time during the phrase creates a kind of randomness or disorderliness that will mar the clear communication of the phrases of the song.)

I had them shake themselves, like a dog would shake water off his coat, and practice taking sharp, sudden breaths, both of which are concrete physical exercises that replicate the experience of shaking off the “spell” of a certain mood or moment.

Once they understood my note (which they did quickly, since they’re not only bright kids but possessed of remarkable English-language skills), the results of the adjustments they made were immediate and profound.

Even though they were singing the same words and doing the same movements, suddenly the stage event came to life, crackling with little details like a kind of electricity. It was as if their words and behaviors were etched with a new clarity and vividness. I saw their faces and eyes come to life with new expressions, and each new choice was imbued with a surprising sense of ease and fullness. It was, in a word, magical.

Later, I got to thinking about the idea of “breaking the spell” in a broader sense, as a kind of life lesson worth revisiting.

We all get caught up in the “spell” of the quotidian, going through our routines in expected ways, “comfortably numb,” as the Pink Floyd song says. Taking a moment to “break the spell” means embracing the possibility that our next choice has immense potential – IF we’re willing to make a change. “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.,” said Henry Ford – or Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain, depending on which Internet pundit you prefer, though I’m pretty sure I first encountered this quote in Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Individuals.” Regardless of who said it, it’s a powerful quote, and one that challenges us to shake off the spell of the moment and choose again. Doing so creates a powerful magic.

The Twelve Days of SAVI

To help with the holiday spirit, here’s a DIY Christmas Carol for Singing Actors

On the first day of SAVI, my teacher gave to me
A lesson in specificity.

On the second day of SAVI, my teacher gave to me
Two moving eyes
And a lesson in specificity.

(You know how this goes, right? So I won’t write out every verse in full.)

Three shish kebabs
Four action verbs
Six truthful moments
Seven varied choices
Eight different levels
Nine chunky choices
Ten kinds of gestures
Eleven funny faces

On the twelfth day of SAVI, my teacher said to me
Let’s go gesture shopping!
Eleven funny faces
Ten kinds of gestures
Nine chunky choices
Eight different levels
Seven varied choices
Six truthful moments
Five GOLDEN DINGS (massive harmony here)
Four action verbs
Three shish kebabs
Two moving eyes
And a lesson in specificity!

Have a great holiday, everyone!

The Stanislavski Centre talk – Part I

NOTE: I’ve been invited to deliver a talk at the Stanislavski Centre at Rose Bruford College in London on October 20, and have chosen the title “Stanislavsky and the Singing Actor.” Below, a draft of the first part of my talk. I’d love to hear your comments; add them in the “Comments” section at the end of the post!

75 years after the death of Konstantin Stanislavski, the systematic approach to actor training that he devised has had a widespread and profound influence on the theater. His influence extends beyond the training of actors and extends even to the literature itself, as playwrights have come to count on the Stanislavski-trained actor’s ability to communicate texts and theatrical events of increasing complexity and subtlety.

Tonight I want to focus on the impact that Stanislavski has had upon the training of singing actors, which is my own field of professional endeavor. For over thirty years, I have taught musical theater performance classes in a studio setting, and had the happy experience of devising and implementing the undergraduate musical theater course at the University of the Arts over the past twenty years.

The connection between Stanislavski’s pedagogy and the work of the singing actor might appear a bit tenuous at first glance. We associate Stanislavski’s approach to actor training with the works of playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev and with a sort of nuanced approach to truthful realism on the stage that is a far cry from what many musicals seem to require. In the words of Bella Merlin, who has written extensively on Stanislavski and the value of his approach for the contemporary actor, “Stanislavsky’s ‘big thing’ was ‘truthful’ acting,” and it can be difficult to reconcile the notion of theatrical “truth” with the sort of heightened and stylized theatrical expressions that characterize the musical theater repertoire.

Yet it is precisely this paradox – finding a way to create and express oneself truthfully within the artificial strictures of song and dance – that lies at the heart of the training of the singing actor, and I am one of a number of pedagogues who are exploring this paradox in ways that will help young singing actors achieve technical proficiency, artistic excellence and professional success.

The importance of truthful singing acting and the role it plays in both artistic and professional success has changed considerably over the past decades, in parallel with changes in ways in which musicals are written and staged. David Craig observes that “up until the early forties the segregation between a ‘legit’ and a ‘musical’ career was total. In the late thirties, when I first dreamed of making my way in musical comedy, it was a light year apart from its other half, and fraternization was almost unknown. I do not ever recall meeting an actor professionally, and on the rare occasions when we met socially there was a benign disdain implicit in the greeting, the actor holding the opinion that he was considerably higher up the achievement ladder than the hoofer, the belter, the comic, and the denizens of Shubert operetta country.”

This began to change in the 1940’s, not least because of the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and their revolutionary “integrated” approach to creating a musical. Among Oscar Hammerstein’s innovations as a librettist and lyricist was his understanding of the importance of subtext, and in many Hammerstein songs, what is unsaid is far more important than what is said. Hammerstein’s protege, Stephen Sondheim, embraced that fundamental principle and built a remarkable body of work that challenges and inspires singing actors. Choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, who studied the acting techniques of Stanislavski and his American acolytes, effectively incorporated subtext and intention in their dances for works like “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity,” and Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” was built on an ensemble of triple threats – performers who could act, dance and sing with compelling truthfulness.

College courses offering professional training for the musical stage began to appear in the 1970’s, with the goal of promoting excellence in singing, acting and dancing as well as the successful integration of those three component disciplines. As such artists entered the field and matured, they have inspired a new generation of writers to build works which demand virtuosic singing-acting and inspire performers to reach new heights of artistic achievement. Meanwhile, the segregation that David Craig observed in the forties has all but disappeared, and artists like Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison can have careers that span the range from musicals to plays to television and film.

Achieving integrated singing-acting begins by treating the song as a dramatic text. Whatever other delights a song may provide, whatever enchantment it may work upon the listener, it is also a text that can be investigated – “mined,” in the words of Bella Merlin – in ways that will provide the actor with useful guideposts for interpretation and performance. Stanislavski was a pioneer in his development of procedures for probing and investigating a dramatic text, and provided the world with an invaluable set of concepts and terminology to frame that investigation. Terms like “subtext,” “given circumstances,” “physical action,” “verbal action,” “intention” and “motivation,” all introduced by Stanislavski and now a permanent part of the vocabulary of the actor, are widely used by teachers, directors and students in the musical theater, and Stanislavski’s “six basic questions” can be as productively applied to song repertoire as they can to scenes and monologues.

A quick survey of the literature of singer-actor training will confirm this. Joe Deer and Rocco DalVera’s “Acting in Musical Theater” (published by Routledge in 2008) draws heavily upon Stanislavski’s terminology and procedures. When I queried Joe about his view of the importance of Stanislavski’s approach, he replied:

“I use Stanislavski’s fundamental precepts as the basis for integrating acting with singing, absolutely. Objective, obstacle, tactic, personalization. Whether strictly from Stan (sic), or assimilated from his many followers, it is the most practical and reliable means of “consciously accessing the unconscious” I’ve seen. And it continues to work with my students after almost twenty years of using it to directly address the issue of connecting the work they’ve done in traditional acting classes with that of the singing actor. Once they have a foundation of truthful, personalized, specific work, then we can move on to issues of style, performance, expanded expression, etc. that MT work invites and requires.”

Tracey Moore’s “Acting the Song,” published by Allworth Press in 2008, presents a variety of procedures for exploring the song as a dramatic text, and Tracey also acknowledges the influence of Stanislavski on her approach.

An interesting dissenting voice among the singing-acting teachers who valorize Stanislavsky’s system is H. Wesley Balk, whose work has been highly influential to my own development. Balk’s “The Complete Singer-Actor,” first published in 1977 (the same year I completed my graduate degree), hit me like a lightning bolt of revelation when I became familiar with it in the 1980’s. During the ensuing years, I made a close study of this book as well as his two subsequent books, “Performing Power” and “The Radiant Performer.”

Equally important, I had the opportunity to observe Wes teach and, eventually, to bring him to UArts for a guest artist residency. Though it was late in his life and his classroom demeanor was compromised by symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, I consider that residency to be one of the watershed experiences in my development as a teacher.

Balk writes, “Anyone teaching Acting in America, whether for singers or for actors, must finally come to terms with Stanislavski, or, more correctly, with the naturalistic doctrine based on his teaching. Every young person in our country seems to have acquired either educationally or osmotically an unconscious but voracious appetite for realism-naturalism, whether from films, television or acting classes. The confusion that exists about the terms realism, naturalism and believability has created a swamp of acting systems and jargon surpassed only by the morass of religiosity and terminology surrounding vocal pedagogy.” Balk goes on to discuss how Stanislavski’s precepts have been misinterpreted and oversimplified by a generation of teachers and misunderstood by a generation of simple-minded students.

Balk goes on to conclude that “one must acknowledge that inner truth is vital, as much as external truth. Stanislavski oversimplified does not invalidate Stanislavski. The best thing one can do is follow his example: that of a lifelong search for ways of achieving total artistic truth in the theater, knowing that although the goal will never be attained, it is the process of searching that is important.”

During the time that Balk was creating his book (and I was studying for a graduate degree), Theater Arts Books published “Stanislavski On Opera (1975).” Of course, it comes as no surprise to those schooled in the full scope of the life and work of Stanislavski that he dedicated considerable time and effort in the last twenty years of his life to the training of singing actors, notably at the Opera Studio of the Bolshoi Theater starting in 1919. But to those of us who (as Balk observed) mistakenly associated Stanislavski’s pedagogy with a naturalistic, hyper-personalized performance style, this book was a revelation.

The book consists of a detailed account kept by Pavel Rumyantsev, a student in the Bolshoi Opera Studio, of his experiences training under the master, along with extensive quotations from letters, articles, diary entries and manuscripts by Stanislavski himself. It details Stanislavski’s attempts to mentor his students in their efforts “to combine the art of living a role with its musical form and the technique of singing.” Although the examples cited in the book come from the operatic repertoire rather than the commercial musical theater, the precepts and procedures it describes are equally applicable to the training of singing actors in a wide range of styles.

I suppose at some point in any discussion about “musical theater,” one has to come to grips with the terminology used to define and describe the genre. How can accounts of acting instruction and analysis of scenes from La Boheme or Eugene Onegin be useful for the student who wants to perform in Rent or The Book of Mormon? My particular approach to musical theater is eclectic and wide in its embrace of a range of styles and musical languages, and I think that reflects our current cultural norms. The term “musical theater” is used to describe a wide range of works, ranging from pieces that require voices of operatic scale (Candide, Street Scene, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, Light in the Piazza) to pieces that embrace vernacular modes of expression like rock and soul music (Hair, Dreamgirls, Rent). Particularly fascinating to me are the works that mix elements of elite and vernacular musical theater, like Street Scene, Show Boat, Les Mis and so on. I have always maintained that stylistic open-mindedness and technical versatility are keys to a varied, interesting and successful professional career. People who limit their notion of musical theater (“It’s this but not that”) ultimately limit their own employability.

Welcome to The SAVI Singing Actor!

This site has been a while in arriving, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably among my first visitors, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you and fill you in on what this site intends to be.

I’ve spent my entire professional life, nearly four decades, making musicals and training people to perform in them. I’ve taught at universities (most recently, at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which has been my home base for over twenty years), helped to found a professional organization (the Musical Theater Educators Alliance), and taught clinics and master classes at conferences and schools in the United States and Europe. This website “The SAVI Singing Actor” is an opportunity for me to extend those efforts, a way of reaching out to the growing community of singing actors and share that knowledge with fellow enthusiasts.

I envision this site growing into a leading resource for serious singing actors, a place where you’ll find useful tools and valuable information and make contact with others who share your passion for performing in musicals. I encourage you to join the SAVI mailing list by entering your email address in the widget on the right; that way, you’ll get regular updates from me delivered directly to your inbox. I also hope you’ll make comments and respond to the posts you find here; I’m eager to get the conversation started and find more ways that this site can be a useful resource for you.

I know it’ll take a little while to get things going, but I have big ambitions for this site. I take inspiration from the lyrics of Dorothy Fields, who wrote: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” No matter what happens, I know “The SAVI Singing Actor” will be at the heart of my professional endeavors for the next decade.