“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God!”
This is the oath that you’re asked to make on the witness stand, one hand on the Bible.
It’s also what is expected of you as an actor, or at least according to Stanislavski, whose “big thing,” according to Bella Merlin (one of the expert scholars writing about his pedagogical approach for modern students), was “truthful acting.”
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.
The importance of truthful singing acting and the role it plays in artistic and professional success has changed considerably over the past decades, in tandem with changes in ways in which musicals are written and staged. A major shift in approach occurred in the 1940’s, coinciding with 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 (“If I Loved You” is a perfect example), what is unsaid is far more important than what is said. Hammerstein’s protege, Stephen Sondheim, embraced that fundamental principle and took it a step further, depicting modern characters who were neurotic, ambivalent and ironic; the remarkable body of work he created challenges and inspires singing actors to express a complex, multi-layered sort of truth. 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.
So nowadays, audiences expect a substantial element of authenticity from singing actors. Not that we don’t still dig virtuosic performances, money notes, flash moves and outsized personalities – it’s just that also want to believe that the character we see onstage is an authentic human being, living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It creates a tremendous challenge for the singing actor.
Cue the “Magic If”
For Stanislavski, the “magic if” was a core concept and a skill that could be developed. In his view, all actors needed to learn to act “as if” a certain circumstance or set of circumstances were true. How would you act IF it was cold? IF you were hungry? IF you were in the presence of your infant son, or your brutal, intimidating boss? IF you were preparing to leave home and elope with your beloved? Having a specific understanding of the circumstances of a scene (or song) is important, yes, but something else is required: the ability to imaginatively behave as if those circumstances were really affecting you.
Improvisation is an invaluable tool in the acting studio, giving students a chance to “playfully” experience what it’s like to live under imaginary circumstances. A variety of pedagogies, from Stanislavski to Meisner to Spolin, incorporate a prominent component of improvisation, and the experience of dramatic improvisation is unarguably useful for singing-actors of training. This is how you liberate your imagination and strengthen your ability to bring fantasy to life.
But how do you bring those experiences, and the knowledge gained from improv, to work that is highly structured and artificial in its manner of expression? This is where many students falter, in my experience; they can’t marry the naturalness of improvisation to the artificiality of song, and need help learning how to integrate these two dissimilar skills.
Finding ways to understand and untangle this paradox was an important contribution of teacher and director H. Wesley Balk, whose seminal work “The Complete Singing Actor” was a bright light of insight for me in my own development as a teacher and coach. He brilliantly described the paradoxical, seemingly contradictory demands of the worlds of acting and music, and proposed a regime of training experiences that give students the chance to explore what happens when the two are intentionally mingled. (By all means, read his book, and the other two he wrote, if you can find them, but be prepared; some of my students have found his writing style a little daunting.)
As an experiment, for instance, construct an imaginary circumstance (using Stanislavski’s Fundamental Questions as a framework) and then see what happens when you sing a song under those circumstances. For training purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the circumstances fit the song; indeed, there’s much to be learned from stretching your imagination and exploring the wide diversity of possible behaviors that emerge from both appropriate and provocatively inappropriate circumstances.
Some of the most useful improvisational experiences a singer can have involve introducing a second actor as a scene partner or provocateur. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that many improvs come to life because of the chemistry between two characters onstage; the give and take, the reactions and responses that occur when two individuals interact truthfully, are what bring an improv to life. The singing actor, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time alone onstage, standing solo in front of a class or an audience, lacking the kind of provocation that brings a scene to life.
For this reason, another simple but effective procedure to experiment with is to reconceive a solo song as a scene, an interaction with another individual. This can be done randomly or with thoughtful preparation, and both can be useful for the purposes of discovery in the studio. If you’re singing a song to your imagined beloved, find someone willing to pretend to be the object of your affections and sing the song to them. Better still, give them free rein to respond to what you’re singing and doing to them, and then respond to their reactions as you sing.
Stanislavski described these exercises as “etudes” when they were applied to scenes being rehearsed. It’s a kind of reverse engineering: you analyze the scene to determine the given circumstances, then take the scene away and practice living truthfully under one or more of those given circumstances until you hit on the knack of doing that believably. Next, you bring back the text of the scene and seek to incorporate what you discovered during the “etude.” Do this as often as time permits, with thoughtful attention to detail and vivid imagination, and eventually your scene comes to life. It works for singing as well; you just have to make the time to do it.
It’s possible, though, to speed the process along by addressing a few fundamental technical issues that may be preventing you from living truthfully while you sing. Even worse, they may be causing audiences to think you’re not living truthfully even when you’ve done your best to imagine the given circumstances, build a subtext and follow the psychological procedures that Stanislavski so insightfully laid out in his training regime.
Spotting a Fake (The Three Warning Signs of Inauthenticity)
It’s been my observation that there are a few behavioral phenomena that occur while singing that scream “fake!” They are things that many of us can’t help doing when we sing, and we may not even be aware that we’re doing them, but by doing them we send a signal to the spectator that our behavior is inauthentic, not life-like. By becoming aware of them and addressing them at the technical level, it’s possible to make considerable rapid progress toward greater authenticity in stage expression. Here are three prime offenders:
- a rigid, fixed gaze
- a blank, distorted or frozen face
- a tense, braced-up body
If you’re a singer, you’ve surely experienced any or all of these as you work on your singing. Every one of these problems is entirely understandable, given the concentration and effort that good singing can require.
Notice that none of these phenomena are an issue for recording artists or concert singers. If you sing in the choir at school or in church, nobody cares what you’re doing with your face, eyes and body, and if you sing in the recording studio, nobody will even know. Nor is every singer plagued by these problems; some people are blessed with a natural, intuitive ability to remain alive and expressive while they sing. This, of course, is the great mystery of talent, a gift that is inexplicably bestowed upon certain lucky souls.
The good news, though, is that there are things anyone can do to address each of these, restoring a more natural and expressive use of the eyes, face and body when you sing, and we’ll explore some of those procedures in the coming chapters. You’ll learn to “get ouch-able” so that you can initiate behavior impulsively at the onset of a phrase; you’ll learn to “mobilize your eyes” and develop a mastery of the “thinking eye.” You’ll come to realize that “it’s no disgrace to use your face,” and experience ways to bring greater vitality, variety and truthfulness to your facial expression. All of this can be practiced, patiently and purposefully, on your own and in a group, and when you practice these things, you’re conditioning yourself so that, when the time comes in rehearsal or performance, you’re prepared to express yourself with greater authenticity.