Putting It Together: The Art of Making “Herringbone”

DibbleHerringbone1Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” and Philadelphia actor Ben Dibble clearly has taken the former First Lady’s advice to heart. Known around town for his versatility and his chops as well as his sang froid, the plucky Dibble acknowledges he was plenty scared by the challenge of Herringbone, an unusual, little-known musical produced by Flashpoint Theatre Company earlier this summer. “This show … scared the living s@&t out of me,” he confessed to his Facebook friends, and in a pre-opening interview, he described it as “more nerve wracking that most shows I’ve done.”

Then again, who wouldn’t be daunted by a musical in which you have to play ten different roles, by yourself, without ever leaving the stage?

Dibble’s efforts were rewarded with a unanimous chorus of praise, and standing ovations became routine at the Off-Broad Street Theater. “All hail Ben Dibble!” trumpeted critic Neal Zoren.”‘Tour de force’ is too light a praise to let it suffice to encompass all this brave, virile, agile, expressive triple threat performer. … Ben Dibble … did everything but swallow fire and prepare a soufflé. I’d bet neither of those tasks would daunt or distract him.” Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer concurred: “Ben Dibble giv[es] a performance of stunning virtuosity,” she observed, adding, “Everybody who goes to the theater regularly in Philadelphia knows Dibble’s range, from Shakespeare to children’s shows; he sings, he dances, he acts in comedies and tragedies. But in Herringbone, he does it all at once, playing multiple characters–dead and alive, male and female, old and young– while narrating the story.”

Okay, reading rave reviews for a show that’s already closed is a poor substitute for first-hand experience, but take my word for it: it was a rare occurrence to see work this masterful, and the experience leaves one feeling privileged and stirred. In my case, proud, too, since Ben is a former student, and though I can’t take any credit for his remarkable talent, I could see the evidence of his training in the technical mastery he displayed onstage nightly. The work Ben did in this production was the embodiment of everything I teach about singing acting, and there’s much to be learned by examining the creative process with the artist himself.

I asked Ben what his thoughts were when he realized the challenge he’d gotten himself into with this show, and he replied:

I spent a good part of May reading the script and having no idea how in the world I was going to tell this story. I wanted to learn the script in advance, but felt quite blocked and overwhelmed. The first several days of rehearsal as we read and sung the show, I think [director] Bill Fennelly, [music director] Dan Kazemi and I were all putting our best game faces on while inwardly trying not to panic over what seemed an impossible puzzle to solve.

So how does one go about the task of preparing a performance this complex? Each character required a distinctive vocal, facial and physical characterization, and many scenes called for Dibble to switch characters frequently and instantaneously. What’s more, one character, an eight-year-old boy, is “possessed” by the ghost of a middle-aged actor, and the ghost’s voice appeared at times to come from the boy’s body as the action culminated in a the climactic battle of wills between the two. As you can imagine, diligent preparation and patient drill went into the crafting of each moment, so that the sequence of individual moments could be executed with dexterity and panache. Looking back on the process of preparing to play the role, Ben recalls:

I think the key for this show for me was finding the voice for each character. Once we locked in on certain cadences, timbres and accents (guttural rural drawl for Arthur, plantation lilt for Louise, etc.) then the physicality became more apparent. And once I was able to find keystone physical shapes (fanning of the face for Louise, suspenders for the lawyer, thumbs in pants for Arthur, etc.) then the scenes started to make sense to me as they played out. Bill was really astute to keep my movement through space economical. At first I was trying to act each character where they would be in the given room, but that quickly became too much and Bill kept encouraging me to keep the scenes open and let the audience follow my shifts as part of the joy within the structure.

In a scene early in Herringbone, the aged vaudevillian “Chicken” Mosley tries to teach eight-year-old George how to be a performer, and the process is mechanical and laborious at first: one word, one step, then the next. Performing in a musical is nearly always like this, mechanical at first, as one struggles to learn the songs (fiendishly complicated in this case), memorize the text and master the staging and choreography. After a bit, the execution of the “routine” (a vaudeville term that seems particular fitting here) becomes more flowing and requires less conscious thought – more “routine,” as it were. Relegating the mechanics of a performance to the “background,” where mental processing is nearly automatic, is like mastering the skill of driving a car; as you gain proficiency, the activity requires less conscious thought, leaving you free to devote more of your attention to other things. In this case, it allows the actor to fill the words, melodies and movements with emotional truth and focus on bringing the story to life.

DibbleHerringbone3“The art of making art,” observes Stephen Sondheim, “is putting it together, bit by bit,” and that’s a fitting description of the process Dibble undertook in collaboration with director Bill Fennelly and the “Herringbone” creative team. “Every little detail plays a part” in Dibble’s performance, from a flick of the eyes to a flutter of the hand. I asked Ben to describe a couple favorite moments from the show, and he replied:

One of my favorite scenes is a scene in Act II that takes place entirely at the (invisible) mirror where I use only my face and voice to depict the character changes while putting on eye makeup. When Bill told me this idea I felt terrified and exposed. He kept telling me to slow down and trust that facility and pace was not helpful, which was hard for me to do. Once we found the rhythm I came to absolutely love the power of taking the audience deep into the first big psychological turns. I also love the Louise number. After keeping the show so compressed and leaping from one character to the other, it is such a release to be myself and just sell the hell out of a real showstopper. And I added some of my own riffs up to show off a little of my high notes, which makes it a total blast to sing (even though I am still managing my breath as I get winded from the choreography!)

DibbleHerringbone2How hard is it to allow yourself to become emotional while executing a demanding score of musical and behavioral details? In a particularly memorable scene, little George finds himself in a hotel room with a floozy while the spirit of The Frog, the ghost who possesses him, tries to use the lad’s pre-pubescent body to consummate a tryst with the woman. It’s a musical trio in which each of the characters – the boy, the Frog and the woman he has marked for conquest – have distinct character traits and strongly differing points-of-view. Dibble delineates each one masterfully – the urgent, grotesque desire of the Frog, the panic and confusion of the innocent boy, and the woman by turns charmed, aroused and bewildered by a seducer who looks like a child and sounds like a satyr. We hear from each in turn as Dibble writhes and changes positions, passionate and yet precise, building to a climax that left the audience hushed and shattered. I asked Ben what went through his mind during the scene with Flo in the hotel room, and how he managed to balance technique and emotion in a scene like that:

Great question. This play is structured so specifically as to help the actor; even in its extremity of emotion and rapidity of character changes there is a logic to the way the scenes play out. Bill was incredibly helpful the day we staged the hotel scene of finding the thread that would keep clarity and allow me to really live in each moment. It took a long time for me to know it well enough to let it flow and trust that the next words would come out of my mouth! And I like to always find the infrastructure of a given scene or song (music, physical shape, vocal range) first because then I feel free to let the emotional life arise in a visceral way.

Ben’s search for the “infrastructure” of the scene is a process that begins with externals (music, voice and body) which, in time, unlock the key to an inner life. In other words, it’s an “outside-in” process, one that the best singing actors endorse. While this may seem contrary to the “inside-out” process advocated by actors working in the Stanislavski tradition, my experience suggests that these two approaches are complementary, not contradictory, and that the singing actor is well-served by a technique that recognizes the value of both.

A one-man show presents challenges of stamina and endurance that a performer doesn’t encounter doing a more typical show. There’s never a moment to relax, never a moment when the show doesn’t rest entirely on your shoulders. Describing the challenges of performing the show repeatedly, nightly, over a period of time, Ben said the key issues were:

Stamina and pacing! You could easily give an entire show’s worth of vocal and physical energy in the first act, and have nothing left for the emotionally draining second act. I really had to keep in touch with my whole physical instrument in a moment-to-moment way during the performance to know “hey, you are over-singing cuz you have friends here-ease up” or “you are dragging the pace and your legs are tiring…dig in pal!” In some ways the constant activity of the show is helpful as I never have a chance to worry about my mistakes or how much show is still in front of me-it is the most in-the-moment I have ever been on stage, which has been really liberating.

However, with repetition comes efficiency and greater ease, and Ben found the show easier to do as the run progressed. He took advantage of this opportunity to explore individual moments more fully, curious about how far and how deep he could go with their content. Of course, good health and self-management are key under these circumstances. Ben got a little panicked when he discovered his “cords getting a little crunchy” after a grueling three days that included four shows plus three ninety-minute master classes for high school students. The father of three, he was also alarmed to experience symptoms of a cold that was affecting his young children. It required enormous mental focus and the life-style of a monk to survive a feat like Herringbone. Looking back on the entire experience, Ben says he feels

Very proud and grateful. I would never have sought out this role, and now I can do it and it feels so affirming to climb this mountain of a role and survive. There is no role that could scare me right now. And I guess it says something about my unique gifts as a performer if my most iconic roles to date are Bat Boy, Toad and Herringbone. And this team, with Bill and Dan and [choreographer] Jenn [Rose] in particular, was a dream team. I could never have flown in this without their artistry and support.

I owe a thousand thanks to Ben for his thoughtful responses to my questions, along with a chorus of huzzahs in recognition of his accomplishments. I know that Ben and Bill are exploring the possibility of recreating this production of Herringbone at other regional theaters, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see it yourself one day.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Take steps now to achieve Maximum SAVI in the new school year!

On the rifle range, the command rings out: ready, aim, fire!

Rocket launchShimmering on its launchpad, the school year waits like a rocket, ready for liftoff at the start of September. Now, as the countdown dwindles down to its final days, we must READY and AIM ourselves. A new year begins; do you want to do better work this year? Have more rewarding classes, more satisfying lessons, more successful auditions, more fruitful creative projects? Take steps to READY and AIM yourself now and you’ll be more likely to achieve your goals this year.

Happy New Year!

My whole life has been organized according to the academic calendar, and September is a time of bright beginnings. A new school year brings new students, new classes, new opportunities to learn and grow. Whether you’re currently a student or a teacher or not, the season has an unmistakable feeling of promise.

Meanwhile, August is a time for laying low, denying that the school year will start soon for as long as possible. Those syllabi, those advising questions, those artistic projects about to commence, they can wait just a little longer, while we cling to summer’s luxurious idleness. But though I feel the sand between my toes, my thoughts inevitably stray to the imminent onset of the academic year, and I want to get my shit together.
Continue reading “Ready, Aim, Fire!”

The Magic of Songs

Reflections on the power and pervasiveness of song, on the occasion of a new class

musicnotes-thumb-400x400-335656What is it about songs? If you’re a singing actor, you’ll spend your lifetime performing them, interpreting them, living inside them, so surely you must be curious: just what, exactly, is the deal?

Songs are ubiquitous, that’s for sure. Everywhere you look, people are plugged into their headsets, going about their daily business with a secret soundtrack. But songs are public, too, and public songs permeate our culture: they’re playing when we wake up, worship, make love, get married, put our children to sleep, bury our dead. In stores, restaurants, cars: there’s no escaping them.

As someone who writes songs and teaches others to perform them, I am fascinated by their power and influence, and constantly curious about what makes them tick.

That’s why, this fall, I am preparing to teach a new course called “Enchantment Studio.” This is a multi-disciplinary studio experience designed to explore the expressive nature of song. The enrollment in the class reflects a variety of disciplines: a voice major, but only one; a handful of animators; a couple film makers; a graphic designer; a music business student; and a theater-maker. It’s a great diverse group, and there’s still room for a few more.

Each week, I propose to undertake a collaborative studio project with these students, introducing a concept, discussing it briefly (with examples), then proposing an activity or process based on that concept. Some will be done quickly, as “sketches,” others more fully developed. Every student will work in image, word, sound and movement.I envision processes where the student will be assigned to respond in one medium to a “provocation” in another media.

It’s a crazy, art-school sort of idea for a class, but it’s got me genuinely excited. I think of the work we will be doing as research that will feed back into my own understanding and my personal artistic process regarding the creation and performance of song.

For this reason, I’m going to be writing a series of reflective posts, which I’ll publish here, and solicit comments on those posts. I’m not quite sure what form the contribution will take, but I anticipate that there will be some exciting discoveries shared during the next few months.

In this introductory post, let’s examine the title I invented for the class: why “enchantment?” The centerpiece of this long word is “chant,” which means “sing” in French and a particular sort of song or intoned speech in English; trace it back etymologically and you reach the Latin verb “cantare,” to sing, and the related noun “cantus,” meaning song. But an “enchantment” is not just a song; it’s a kind of spell that gets cast, using song (and movement, in some cases) to beguile the senses, summon a certain spirit, and make something happen. Spells aren’t chanted randomly, but have a function – they are designed to produce results.

“Rain, rain, go away…”

“Rock-a-bye, baby, on the treetop…”

“My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.”

“You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know, we all want to change the world.”

Songs are compact, both decorative and functional. They have a kind of singularity: that is, the mood, the sound and the ideas of a song all can inhere as a single expressive unit, and the title of the song is a short verbal phrase that not only refers to but evokes the experience of the song: “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Satisfaction,” “After the Ball.” This singularity is often achieved through devices like rhyme, repetition (including phrases, refrains and stanzas), transformation and association, all of which serve to create mental connections between separate but sequential moments of experience.

Within that singularity, however, songs have a vigorous, almost disorderly energy, as the impulse to express collides with the constraints of form. Ideas and sounds introduce a series of disruptions and counter-proposals that expand upon the song’s central premise. Certain moments, in particular, are charged with greater expressive force, for instance: the first utterance, the first time repetition or rhyme is used, the first big change (verse to chorus), the beginning of the contrasting middle section (variously called “the bridge” or “the release” or “the B section”), the recurrence of the original idea or motif, and, of course, the ending.

I think that performers who are more alert to this phenomenon, the diversity or variety that exists within the tidy package of the song, are equipped to be more expressive. They can fashion their behavior, their vocal, physical, facial and emotional choices, in a manner that responds to and reflects the dynamic of the song.

For that reason, one of the lines of inquiry I’ve proposed for this class is an investigation of what makes a song “song-y.” How do we recognize when something is a song? And just as important, how do we know when a particular concatenation of music and language is NOT a song? Are there particular defining elements that separate songs from other forms of utterance? Does it have to have rhyme, repetition, a “hook?” Does it have to have words? A tune? An accompaniment? What about birdsong, whale song, coyotes howling? Does it have to be short? Does it have a minimum length? Does it have to tell a story, or have a purpose?

How about you?

Do you ever wonder about songs? Do you have any stories about a particular song and the role it played in your life? Does the class I’ve described strike you as an interesting way to spend a few hours together each Friday morning? Which of these proposed activities sound most intriguing to you?

The single most important thing to do in your college audition

My interview with Joe Deer (published in three parts, here, here and here) generated a ton of traffic and response on the site, which leads me to believe there are a lot of serious singing actors with college auditions on their minds.

As a followup, I want to tip you off to the single most important thing you must remember to do in your college audition:

Show ’em you can sing and ding!

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what song you sing, or what you think or feel about your song, if you don’t ding it when you sing it!

I’ve been in the audition room with thousands of hopeful candidates over the years, and for me, this is the one single attribute that’s most likely to get you an offer. It helps me see you as a promising applicant, and makes you stand out from the clueless crowd. It gets you into the “yes” pile.

If you’re not familiar with SAVI lingo, you’re probably scratching your head, so please let me explain.

DeskBellTo “ding” a song means to break a song down phrase-by-phrase, and create expressive behavior that changes noticeably at the beginning of each phrase.

The first ding – the first change – is the impulse that compels you to begin singing at the beginning of your song. It launches an action, an intention that animates the entire phrase.

The second ding is the beginning of the second phrase, and offers the first opportunity to make an adjustment, a change in your behavior. The quality of that adjustment will reveal something about your understanding of how the new phrase differs from its predecessor. Ditto for every subsequent phrase, every single ding.

Each ding is specific to the text, the music and the dramatic moment; a new phrase requires new behavior, some sort of variation or disruption of the previous. That change may be a response to something external – your partner’s behavior, the environment – or it may be internally triggered, the result of a realization or an impulse that has just occurred. Just like the sound of a bell, however, a “ding” happens all at once, and is slightly startling.

Singing and dinging requires insight as well as the technical ability to execute a range of choices. Proficiency at making impulsive changes – “I was doing this, but now I’ve decided to do something different” – is a fundamental skill that any singing actor must possess, and it can be mastered through patient, persistent practice.

In case you’re worried – you don’t have to be an Olympic-level dinger-singer at your college audition. You just need to show that you understand the importance of dinging while singing, and that you’ve devoted some time and effort to it in preparation for your audition. You’ll gain proficiency and the ability to apply this principle to a variety of roles and repertoire with time.

By the way, does this pertain to monologues? Hell, yes! And to every performance you’ll prepare for the rest of your life!

Ding Cash RegSo get busy! When you sing your songs, ding your songs! Be on the lookout for my Sing and Ding Tutorial, on its way soon. It’ll soon become a habit for you, an indispensable tool you’ll use with confidence and flair! And before long, you’ll know the truth of this SAVI Saying:

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that “ding!”

So You Want To Sing Music Theater?

There’s not much literature on voice training specifically calibrated to the needs of the singing actor, and that makes the arrival of “So You Want To Sing Music Theater,” a new book “developed in coordination with” the National Association of Teachers of Singing, something to sing about! NATS has taken considerable strides in its approach to the training of singers for the stage. It seems not that long ago that many voice teachers regarded “belting” as the devil’s work, and musical theater programs were encumbered with tenured voice faculty whose old-fashioned pedagogies were incompatible with the needs of the musical theater. Nowadays, musical theater specialists routinely give presentations at NATS regional and national conferences, and the organization sponsors an annual Music Theater Competition. Their sponsorship of the development of this volume confirms that the tide has turned at NATS.

Cover_Karen-Hall_WEB_250px“So You Want…” is a book that appears to have been planned by a committee, and in this case, it’s a good thing, since it gives specialists the chance to provide compact, detailed chapters on subjects that have been covered in book length studies on their own. The principal author is Dr. Karen Hall, and her preface quotes a famous lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, “By your students you’ll be taught.” Faced with the challenge of teaching young students eager to master the musical theater repertoire, she responded resourcefully and re-examined all aspects of her pedagogy. Her philosophy is a pervasive one among the best teachers in our field: there’s jobs to be booked and art to be made here and now, and we owe it to our students to give them the best possible training in the most efficient and effective manner so they can do those tasks well.

Serious voice pedagogues may be surprised to discover how much of this book is actually about repertoire. The first chapter is a brief overview of the history of the musical (one that relies heavily on John Kenrick’s history of the musical), and the book devotes several chapters at the end to lengthy lists of repertoire organized by style and voice type. Those lists are indicative of the bewildering diversity of styles that are part of the commercial musical theater in the present day, and the historical overview helps provide an understanding of why that is the case. Musicals tell stories about all sorts of people in all sorts of worlds, and songwriters have risen to this challenge by creating songs that require many different sorts of vocal technique. What all these shows have in common is the phenomenon of characters expressing themselves through song in dramatic situations, but the singer-actor seeking maximum employability is well advised to pursue proficiency in as many of vocal styles as possible.

A chapter on the singer as athlete by Dr. Wendy LeBorgne (who has just published her own two-volume book, The Vocal Athlete) is full of practical information. Though its tone is a bit clinical for the lay reader, her authorial voice gave me confidence that her recommendations were solidly grounded in scientific fact. Readers of The SAVI Singing Actor will also know that I am much enamored of the singing-actor-as-athlete metaphor, and this perspective is one that I know generations of students have found useful: train to gain, patiently and persistently.

Larynx anatomyA “how it works” chapter on vocal anatomy by Dr. Scott McCoy provides useful information about the physiological basis of singing. Again, the lingo gets a bit technical, and talk of formants, Boyle’s Law and muscular antagonism may be daunting for the lay reader. This is invaluable knowledge for the teacher, of course, though there’s plenty of Broadway stars who’ve built successful careers without knowing any of this. Is it appropriate knowledge to cover in an undergraduate musical theater course? Given the number of former students of mine who’ve gone on to teach or coach young singers (often alongside a performing career), I think there’s an argument to be made in favor of equipping aspiring singing actors with some rudimentary knowledge of vocal anatomy.

The chapters on vocal pedagogy provide a valuable overview of some of the best work being done in the field. The teaching approaches of Jeanette LoVetri and Mary Saunders Barton are featured prominently, along with other pedagogues like Robert Edwin, Jo Estill and Seth Riggs. Professional practitioners like conductor Lawrence Goldberg and coach/accompanist Robert Marks also provide recommendations that will be of value to students and teachers alike.

One aspect of the book that seemed particularly promising was the availability of supporting material on the NATS website that presented vocalizes, exercises and examples. However, I immediately ran into a dead end when I followed the instructions for accessing the online resources that are supposedly available (“on the NATS Website, click on the ‘Resources’ tab and follow the instructions”), since I couldn’t find the “Resources” tab. I did find a link here (http://www.nats.org/Music_Theater_-_Resources.html) that included some material from the book as well as Spotify links for the listening examples, but it looks like a work in progress. It’s a good idea whose execution is not yet well implemented.

Despite this one complaint, “So You Want To Sing Music Theater” is a comprehensive and useful addition to the literature, a worthy addition to any musical theater singing teacher’s library. It will also has great potential value for the undergraduate student of musical theater, especially those who anticipate finding themselves one day in a teacher’s role. Educators can preview the book on the website of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, by requesting an e-inspection copy.

Keys to Success in Your College Audition

Part III of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre.

Joe DeerJoe’s book has the well-deserved subtitle “A Comprehensive Course,” and he recently shared his comprehensive knowledge about the training of the singing actor at the Educational Theatre Association conference last weekend. Prior to that, though, he was kind enough to give me a preview of the presentation he would be giving high school teachers about preparing students for college theater auditions. If you missed them, here are links to the first and second parts of our interview. Now, on to Act III!

It Matters To Everybody

The process of selecting a college and getting the right match between the school and the prospective student is as important to the school as it is to the student. Joe emphasized that schools nowadays go to considerable time, effort and expense to get the right mix of students; if the student’s goals and expectations aren’t well-matched to the school’s offerings, it’s bad for everybody. That’s why, if you’re a student, it’s so important for you to articulate your personal goals and pick schools based on how well their offerings match those goals.

Audition Requirements

Many schools, particularly those offering a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree, require an audition, either live or on video; some require a video audition as a preliminary screening to the live audition. There’s no denying there’s a great deal at stake in these auditions, but following Joe’s advice will make the process less stressful and increase your likelihood of success.

Each school will provide information on their audition requirements: how many songs, how many monologues, what types of material and how long your audition cuts should be. Gather that information for every school you’re applying to. Some schools publish a “do not sing” list or a list of over-used audition monologues. Pay attention to guidelines like these; if the school went to the trouble of publishing them, then it “matters a lot to them,” Joe says. Monologues you are likely to need could include one or two contrasting contemporary pieces and perhaps a classical monolog (that is, one in verse or “elevated text”). You’ll also need two contrasting songs, but the specific guidelines (ballad? uptempo? classical? length of cut?) will vary from school to school. Your goal should be to come up with the minimum number of pieces that will satisfy every prospective school’s requirements; this will allow you to prepare your material efficiently and effectively. Whatever you do, start this process as early as possible, and don’t leave it til the last minute!

Choosing Good Material

Good audition pieces, both scenes and songs, allow you to “show yourself in your best light,” says Joe. Don’t choose material that will force you to go beyond the limits of what you feel you can do confidently. Your material should be appropriate for someone your age, and not so quirky in its characterization that it hides your personality from the auditors. Most importantly, choose pieces you actually care about, songs and monologues that “awaken an inner passion” and stir the artist in you. Auditors will regard your choice of material as a clue to your artistry, your curiosity and your passion.

The search for the perfect audition material is a challenge that singing actors face throughout their careers. The problem for most high school students is that your experience is limited – you haven’t read or seen that many plays or musicals. This is a place where a more experienced coach or teacher will probably be able to help, but expect to spend some time searching and digging if you want good results.

Homework and Preparation

Once you’ve chosen your material, you need to master it on the technical level. Learn the songs cold, both the text and the music. Practice reciting the text of your songs as a monolog, which is one of the simplest and most effective procedures for improving comprehension and memorization. “Technique should not be your focus in the audition,” says Joe; the auditors are interested in your ability to tell the story and to live truthfully in the imaginary circumstances of the story, he says, and that means practicing your material til the technical challenges of execution can take a backseat to your artistic expression.

Joe recommends that your homework include asking and answering what he calls “the basic acting questions” about your songs and monologues. Who am I? Who am I talking to and why do they matter to me? What are the important given circumstances? What I am fighting to make happen in this moment? What is my immediate need right now? What is my imaginary partner doing in response to that? Do your homework and the results will be evident in your behavior; skip it and that’ll show, too.

Certain kinds of practice can be especially helpful, Joe observes. Try delivering your audition material under stressful circumstances: in front of a class, in a recital or open-mic night. Get used to coping with the pressure of performance. Get someone to pretend to be your scene partner so you can speak and sing to a real person instead of an imaginary one; notice how this influences your behavior, and put those discoveries to use next time you’re alone.

Shall We Dance?

Many musical theater schools have a dance audition, and the preparation for this is different. Unlike the singing and acting, where you’re presenting material you’ve prepared previously, the dance audition requires you to learn new material (a “combination”) on the spot and then execute it in a way that demonstrates not only your skill and your personality but also your ability to “pick up” the choreography. If you’re an inexperienced dancer, there’s no way you can cram in enough classes in a short period of time to make yourself an expert; that kind of development takes time. You can, however, get yourself into classes and brush up your skills, so that you can confidently exhibit whatever dance ability you have.

Some time spent in the dance studio in the weeks before your audition will have the added advantage of enhancing your physical tone and vitality. You can do yourself a favor during these weeks by paying attention to how you eat, too; cut back on the soda and junk food, and load up on salads and whole foods if you want to feel and look your best.

Dress For Success

Check out the guidelines regarding how to dress for the dance audition, and suit up accordingly. You don’t have to be Baryshnikov to get into a musical theater program, though a high level of dance skills will give your standings a boost at many schools; you do, however, need to look like you have a clue about how dancers train, and show that you’re eager to do so. How you dress will make a difference in the acting and singing auditions too. Don’t dress like you’re going to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s, the prom or a job interview. Choose clothes that you feel you look good in, like you might wear on a first date – clothes that express your personality and show you respect yourself. Be prepared to change between your dance clothes and your acting clothes, and to do so quickly in a place that’s not very convenient, probably a bathroom.

Finally, you need to recall that, when you audition for a school, it’s as much a chance for you to check them out as it is for them to check you out. Take the time to talk to students or teachers who might be available while you’re hanging out waiting. Don’t be so caught up in the stress and drama of your preparation that you forget to breathe and look around. Think of it as a chance to let your light shine, I like to say, and I know Joe would agree with that.

Bonus links for further reading

There’s plenty of worthwhile material written on this subject, first and foremost among which is Chapter 18, “Auditioning,” in Acting in Musical Theatre, the book Joe co-authored with Rocco DalVera. Jonathan Flom’s Get The Callback: The Art of Auditioning for Musical Theater is well worth a read, and Amazon also offers several articles by Jonathan (who teaches at Shenandoah Conservatory) in Kindle format. VP Boyle’s Audition Freedom is a breath of fresh air that reminds us to be human in the audition room, and Mary Anna Dennard’s I Got In (2014 edition) bills itself as the Ultimate College Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theater. Get reading!

Choosing Your Target Schools

Part II of my conversation with Joe Deer, co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre.

Joe DeerPreviously…

The estimable Joe Deer, co-author of Acting In Musical Theatre: A Comprehensive Course, author of Directing in Musical Theatre, and Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre at Wright State University, graciously gave me a preview of his upcoming presentation for the Educational Theatre Association’s national conference about helping high school students prepare to study theater in college. In the first part of our conversation, we reviewed the difference between the BFA and BA degrees and other degree options.

Let’s assume, now, that you’re ready to begin a search for the school of your dreams. You’ve thought about your goals and the type of program that would be right for you, but now you’re faced with an overwhelming array of options. Which schools should you apply to? And how many schools should be on your list?

It may be a comfort to know there are consultants ready to assist you with this daunting task. They’ve got considerable expertise, and they work hard to keep their knowledge up-to-date, but their services aren’t cheap. (Of course, neither is college, so some extra dollars spent choosing wisely isn’t hard to justify.) Often, you can pick up a few free pointers in the “blog” area of their websites. You’ll also find books on this topic on Amazon, but make sure you choose one that’s up to date, since this is a dynamic landscape where the schools, the players and the requirements change from year to year.

The pointers that Joe will be offering in his EdTA presentation, however, make it possible for an applicant (perhaps with a little help from a teacher, parent or well-organized friend) to get the job done without a price-y consultant. Let’s get started!

I’ve Got A Little List

When making a list of schools to apply to, your thoughts may go first to “marquee” schools that have well-established reputations, the ones you’ll find on lists like this. Because of their reputations and notable alumni, these schools have thousands of applicants every year competing for a dozen or so slots in the freshman class, so the odds of getting in are pretty slight. There’s no reason not to apply to one of these schools, even if it’s a long shot; however, it’s a good idea to get a teacher or trusted advisor to help you assess your likelihood of getting in and make sure you have other viable options.

Apart from the super-famous schools, where do you look? Teachers, guidance counselors, graduates from your high school and friends will have suggestions, and maybe even some opinions or anecdotes to share. Word of mouth is sure to bring you some good leads, but take the time to research the schools they recommend to you. Visit college fairs and regional theater events (like the International Thespian Association’s regional conferences) to see who’s represented there. Many schools offer a summer pre-college program, which is an ideal opportunity to “test drive” a particular school (and gather information on its competitors from your classmates).

You’ll quickly discover there’s a wide range of schools in every part of the US (and many other nations) that have well-established, highly-regarded training programs for serious singing actors. A resource Joe suggests that you may not have thought of is the membership list of the Musical Theater Educators Alliance, an organization that he and I helped create. While MTEA’s site does not offer comparative details on the programs of its member schools, you can feel confident that any school that belongs to MTEA is serious about providing a quality education to its students. As a plus, their site provide links to those schools’ main web pages, which makes it a useful shortcut in your search.

The Peterson’s Guide is another popular resource that allows you to search colleges of all sorts; a search on “Musical Theater Colleges and Universities” turned up nearly 250 hits. Other specialized guides have been compiled by industry publications like American Theater magazine (in their annual Education issue), Backstage, Show Business, PlaybillEdu.com, BroadwayWorld.com and CollegeExpress.com. The diligent searcher will find more than enough information online.

One online resource that Joe suggests you use cautiously is the forum at College Confidential. This site relies on the efforts of parents and students who are eager and well-intentioned but seldom experts in the field. Over the years, the forum members have compiled a sizable body of useful information, including lists of schools that offer a degree in musical theater, but there are no moderators, and you’d be well advised to treat whatever information you get from such sources with a dose of skepticism.

Compare Apples to Apples

If you’ve done your homework and cross-referenced all your sources, you probably have a substantial list of possibilities to consider and compare. When comparing schools, don’t let yourself be seduced by glossy brochures, college-fair trinkets or a starry roster of alumni. Dig into the website, ask faculty and students at prospective schools, and take a close look at these four key factors, advises Joe, so you know that you’re comparing “apples to apples”:

1. Curriculum.

What courses are offered, requirements and electives? How many hours per week and how many students in a section? Any musical theater curriculum will offer a mix of voice, acting and dance, but how much of each is offered, and what kind? Is the singing instruction compatible with the specific demands of the musical theater repertoire? Does the acting instruction embrace the notion of singing-acting, or does it condescend to the musical stage? Does the dance instruction include ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater styles, and contemporary vernacular dance? Are there opportunities to “put it all together” in integrative studio experiences? Are there opportunities for project-based learning? What about electives? How do the academic courses offered serve to enhance your development as an artist and a human being?

2. Faculty.

What is the mix of professional and academic experience in the faculty? How many full-time faculty are there, and what fraction of your education is being delivered by part-time “adjuncts?” Do the faculty have the particular qualifications you seek? For instance, are the singing teachers expert at teaching the vocal techniques required for the musical theater? What connections to “the business” do the faculty have?

3. Opportunities on campus.

What range of opportunities will there be for you to practice your craft? How many plays and musicals are produced, on what scale, and how are they cast? Will there be a chance for you to direct, choreograph, get original work produced? What about student films? Are you allowed to pursue off-campus opportunities? Are there student organizations where you can get experience with collaboration and leadership? And, equally important, are there opportunities to see first-rate professional work that will excite you and give you an awareness of the “state of the art?”

4. After graduation.

What is the success of alums and how does the university help them get there? Does the school help you make connections to the industry – guest artists, casting directors, guest directors? Can you begin building a professional orientation and a professional network there? Is there a showcase, either in New York, Los Angeles, or in places where there’s a professional “critical mass?” Many BFA program are likely to say they do a showcase, but is it effective? Are there measurable results? What has happened for recent grads?

Sticker Shock

As you gather information, you will also be looking at the tuition cost of each school. While every school publishes an official figure for tuition price, nearly every school offers discounts to that price in the form of grants and scholarships. This is especially true if you’re talented or represent a part of the student demographic that’s in demand. Making an objective assessment of the relative cost and value of your school choices will be hard, and you’re right to worry about the prospect of excessive loans to be repaid in the future. Still, there’s no avoiding this important step in your college selection process.

It’s a big job, and it requires a fair amount of organization and determination to complete it successfully, but diligence and patience will pay off. According to Joe, you’ll want to use your findings, along with information on geography and price, to narrow your search down to a list of 6-10 schools to apply to. Your list may well include one or two “marquee” schools but will also include a healthy mix of lesser-known schools offering BFA and BA experiences.

What next?

Once you’ve chosen your target schools, it’s time to prepare your auditions, and that’s be the subject of Part III of my “Joe Deer Sessions.” Please jump in with a comment if you’ve been through the experience of the college search yourself, or if you have questions I haven’t answered to your satisfaction!

Bit By Bit

I’ve got a new favorite catchphrase – “Just do your bits” – and it comes from a fascinating profile of the comedian and actress Maria Bamford that appeared in the current New York Times Magazine.

Among its many insights, the article offers a behind-the-scenes view of the amount of labor – surprising, no doubt, to the casually curious observer – that goes into the crafting of a successful performance.

Each “bit” in Maria’s comedy performance is painstakingly crafted through thoughtful development and testing.

That means that, even if the prospect of performance is frightening and overwhelming for her, she knows that if she just does her bits – each one in its turn, each one the product of a meticulous process – the chances are good that she’ll connect successfully with her audience.

This one, and then, when it’s time, the next one. Each one with integrity, duly delineated and differentiated from its predecessor.

Just do your bits.

Bits, beats, dings, phrases – different people use different words, but they’re all meant to identify and describe a single act, a single statement, the smallest unit of emotional and intellectual transaction possible. When it’s broken down into small parts, a large, complex task is less intimidating. It’s like the old riddle: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The extra added advantage is that working this way results in performances that are articulated and nuanced in a way that mimics the subtle and delicate arrangement of details in life. For the singing actor, that’s what it’s all about.

SAVI Video Clinic – “The Sound of Music”

There’s a lot to be learned from watching someone else perform, and online video has made a trove of riches available for study. Your first viewing of a clip will yield valuable first impressions, but repeated viewings with a more analytical approach will yield exceptionally useful insights. Even inferior work can teach us useful lessons if it is thoughtfully examined; ask yourself, what could have been done differently?

With this principle in mind, my plan is to feature video clips on the site from time to time, and to offer my comments about the work and the performer’s success at exploiting the opportunities the song presents. Here’s a clip of Carrie Underwood singing the title song from The Sound Of Music.

I have no desire to join the legions of haters who materialized when it was announced that Carrie, an accomplished musical performer with little theater experience, would play the starring role in this live telecast. I daresay that the producers of the broadcast felt vindicated in their choice by the large number of viewers their program attracted, and I sincerely believe that the success of the broadcast is a good thing for our industry. That said, I do also believe there are lessons to be learned from Carrie’s performance, which makes a strong case for the importance of well-developed singing-acting technique.

I’m going to focus on the first minute of the clip, so take a couple minutes to view that several times. As you do, pay attention to the editing of the song, and the moments when director Beth McCarthy Miller chooses to cut from one shot to the next. Do you see how the video cuts to a new camera angle at the beginning of each new phrase – at the “ding?” The director recognizes that the audience craves some variation, some new information or point of view, with each new phrase. The responsibility for this doesn’t rest solely with the director, though; the performer shares some responsibility in the task of creating Variety, the “V” of SAVI.

Here are the lyrics of the introductory “verse” of the song, the lines that precede the first “refrain” and the memorable title phrase.

My day in the hills has come to an end, I know.
A star has come out to tell me it’s time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows, there are voices that urge me to stay.
So I pause and I wait and I listen for one more sound,
For one more lovely thing that the hills might say!

I’ve arranged them so that each new line begins with a “ding,” the onset of a new thought, and this differs slightly from the published libretto.. In deciding how to lay out the lines on the page, I’ve made some interpretative decisions about their inner logic which I’ll explain in due course. First, though, I want to get you involved in the discussion. What is interesting to you about this clip? What pleases you or puzzles you? What does it teach you about the craft of singing acting? Take a few seconds and jot down your thoughts in the comments area, below. I’ll be back in a subsequent post to probe the choices Carrie has made in her individual phrases more deeply.

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5 Things We All Can Learn from Elaine Stritch

Photo by Todd Heisler, New York Times

Stritchy has left us, and fans everywhere are hoisting a vodka stinger in tribute to this feisty, salty-tongued singing actress. I saw her in Company on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London more than 40 years ago, and the Pennebaker documentary Original Cast Album memorably captures her in the studio struggling to nail a good take of her signature song, The Ladies Who Lunch. It’s an unforgettable clip.

Years later, I saw her as Parthy in Show Boat, directed (like Company was) by Hal Prince, who understood that Parthy, like Stritchy, had no tolerance for bullshit, not even when it came from her charming bullshitter of a husband, Cap’n Andy, played by the equally memorable Robert Morse. Sublime casting, especially when it meant audiences got to hear her croak out “Why Do I Love You?” to her infant granddaughter Kim in an unexpected moment of tenderness at the top of Act II.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you already know and admire Elaine Stritch. If you need some schooling, start with this tribute in the Times, and for fun, check out the documentary Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me, currently streaming on Netflix.

Now then, as promised, 5 Things We All Can Learn From Elaine Stritch. Shut up and pay attention.

1. Stritchy was FEARLESS.

That’s right, she didn’t give a fuck. And that mean’t she didn’t fear self-exposure, which is an actor’s stock-in-trade. Warts and all, that’s what you got when Stritch sang.

2. Stritchy TOLD THE TRUTH.

“You cannot tell an audience a lie. They know it before you do; before it’s out of your mouth, they know it’s a lie.” Even when the truth was scary, or unflattering, or both – she told it.

3. Stritchy was DANGEROUS.

Phyllis Newman describes her as “dangerous, completely original [and] achingly funny.” Of course, this follows from #1 and #2, above. But, as Newman recalls, “You’re never sure what she’s going to do with a song, a scene or even a line. So you best keep your eyes on her, lest you miss something.”

4. Stritchy could LAND A LYRIC.

Her tempos were slow, but the content LANDED. It was a combination of impeccable diction and her megawatt personality.

5. Stritchy HUNG IN THERE.

Still going strong in her 80’s? My god, we should all have her tenacity. An indomitable spirit, surely kicking ass in the afterlife. God bless her.

If you have time on your hands, here’s more than two hours worth of Stritchy.