V Is For Variety

The V of SAVI stands for Variety, which is not only “the spice of life,” as the saying goes, but an essential ingredient of all successful singing acting.

In a way, variety is part of the particular patrimony of the musical stage. It is not a meaningless coincidence that the variety show is one of the ancestors of the modern musical, and to this day, variety in an important consideration in the construction of most musicals. In the late nineteenth century, variety forms like vaudeville, burlesque, minstrelsy and revue enjoyed great popularity with audiences, who experienced a performance as a steadily unfolding banquet of sensory pleasures – a pretty girl followed by a beautiful singer, followed in turn by a magician or a comedian or a talking dog. Variety is a way of beguiling the audience by constantly introducing the new, the fresh, the unexpected. The art of successful musical dramaturgy is, in part, a balancing act, weighing the audience’s appetite for novelty against the importance of maintaining focus and coherence in storytelling.

This same principle, one that operates on the “macro” level in the design of a musical and the contours of its “tunestack,” can be successfully applied by the performer at the “micro” level, who faces a similar balancing act with each successive phrase. How much should what I do with the next moment be consistent with what I just did? What is the potential advantage of surprise if the next moment is different? Does it engage the spectator or confuse them?

Creating variety is an important component of making meaning. Variety in a performance provides the contours, the highlights and shadows; in short, it means the difference between an experience that is flat and two-dimensional and one that has richness and verisimilitude. If our goal is to reproduce life on the stage, to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, then it is important to recognize that the ability to bring variety and nuance to one’s choices over time is a crucial element in delineating a life-like character.

Making a clear and specific choice for each phrase of a song is the most productive way of achieving variety in performance. It sounds simple enough, but there are forces at work that seem to make an actor disinclined to act upon the opportunities to make change when they occur. What are those forces? First among them, I think, is THOUGHTLESSNESS, a failure to be sufficiently attentive to the clues that present themselves in the text and the unfolding dramatic circumstances that surround the actor. Failure to be observant, or inattentiveness, can be the result of laziness or insensitivity, and it is imperative that the actor be both diligent and sensitive in looking for opportunities to create variety, to discover what is distinct and different about THIS CURRENT MOMENT in comparison with the PREVIOUS MOMENT.

Singers can often be DISTRACTED, which is another factor that impedes variety. It may be that the technical elements of singing occupy so much of the performer’s awareness that inattentiveness to the dramatic event is the inevitable result. Or it may be that the execution of a particular passage is technically complex in a way that demands the performer’s complete attention: a tricky bit of coordination with the accompaniment, or the interplay of overlapping lines and cues, or some detailed bit of blocking or choreography onstage that consumes the performer’s attention, leaving little room in the actor’s consciousness to be attentive to the ways in which the next moment might be different that the present moment. Routine is both a blessing and a curse; as the performer practices to make something routine, it can be executed with greater ease and less deliberate attention, but the performer who makes the mistake of “going with the flow” of a well-routined performance will also miss out on those opportunities that bring it to life. It is the onset of new thoughts and events, the occurrences that disrupt the flow of the drama, that bring the performance to life, and result in work that is varied and truthful.

FEARFULNESS is another factor that can limit a performer’s capacity for variety. We all have an understandable tendency to stick with what is known; if we hit upon a choice that feels right in a particular moment, the impulse to keep doing that thing is understandable, since it is done in the expectation that it will continue to be right. Similar to fear is the sense of PANIC that can seize a performer, that gnawing sense that, even though something may be going well at the moment, every new moment brings with it the likelihood that things will go wrong, that some kind of mistake will occur. Is it possible to turn this notion inside out, and embrace the possibility that mistakes are our FRIENDS? When something goes in a way that you didn’t expect, it brings the opportunity to discover something new, as long as you manage your panic and don’t freak out. As musicians who are scrupulous and attentive to the myriad details and technical challenges that a score presents, we know there are countless ways to get something WRONG, and it is perhaps inevitable that we tense up slightly, bracing ourselves for the mistake that is lurking just around the corner. But as we brace up, stiffening ourselves for the disastrous error about to happen (even if only slightly), we diminish our ability to recognize the possibilities for creating new life that inhere in the coming moment.

Performers often underestimate the degree of variety that can be successfully employed in a performance. Certain songs have a sort of singularity in their musical and verbal expression: the songwriter tends to strike a particular mood or tone or attitude and then maintain it for the duration of the song, developing and perhaps deepening that mood but not swerving from it. This is as true of Tin Pan Alley standards as it is of “emo” indy-rock songs, both of which present a certain trap that can ensnare the performer, who mistakenly believes they need to be ruled by the consistency and singularity of the song’s atmosphere. This, in turn, may translate into generalized behavior choices, an excessive reliance on a single focus, facial expression or physical life.

It is my experience that any performance, even a performance of a song like this, can benefit from a diligent and judicious dose of variety, and that the song is enhanced, not marred, when the singer finds opportunities to “disrupt” the overall mood of the song with changes in focus or behavioral expression. These disruptions call attention to themselves, which in turn provide the highlights and shadows, the contours of expression from which a spectator will derive greater meaning from the experience. The wise performer knows not to fall under the spell of the music, even though the spectator in the audience will inevitably be subject to its enchantment. “Don’t go with the flow” is worthwhile advice under such circumstances.

Of course, there are plenty of other songs in which the variety is “baked into” the composition, making them inherently more “quirky” and theatrical. In cases like that, the songwriter(s) have provided the performers with distinctively useful raw materials, a vivid map full of possibilities for a vivid, varied and memorable performance. Such songs make the task of creating variety easier for the performer.

In addition, it is my observation that some individuals have a limited innate CAPACITY for variety. Let’s say it bluntly – some people are dull. Think about behavior as a closet full of different options, different outfits that can be donned and doffed at will. The sad fact is that some folks’ “behavior closet” is bare, stocked with only a few simple or over-worn choices. The Yankee virtue of thrift is of little use to the performer, who needs to be extravagant in stocking his closet, filling it with all sorts of options. Luckily, this can be remedied through the pleasant activity of SHOPPING, work done in the studio, either alone or in groups, which enables us to stock our behavioral inventory with a wider range of options, to fill our crayon box with a rich and diverse array of colors.

All the factors I have named – finding greater ease, being less fearful about mistakes, filling our behavioral closet with options and growing more proficient at switching between them, and becoming more attentive to the opportunities to change – can be addressed through the work of studio training separate from any particular piece of repertoire. These are muscles that need to be stretched and strengthened, and the would-be virtuoso will recognize the necessity of devoting considerable effort and time to that task, just like would-be olympian spends hours and days in the gym and on the training field.

Of course, the work of cultivating a capacity for variety continues in rehearsal, where the performer has the opportunity to open up her behavior closet and put this expanded capacity to work. A good director or coach will be attentive to the absence of variety, and try to identify which techniques and tactics will be most useful to remedy the situation. Is it simply a lack of familiarity with the material? Is the performer distracted because memorization is insufficiently thorough, or because technical issues (diction, rhythm, vocal range, stamina, etc) have not be adequately prepared for? In this case, repetition is a key strategy. Both opera singers and ballet dancers know the value of working with the “repetiteur,” the person whose job it is to be patient and steadfast while the musical score or choreography is mastered, gently guiding the performer a little bit closer to the desired result with each repetition.

This is a process that requires time, and time can often be a precious commodity in theater rehearsals (especially when working under the time and budget constraints of commercial theater in America). Good technique and studio preparation can help minimize the need for repetition. The SAVI singing actor comes to rehearsal with a fully-stocked inventory of behavior options. He has studied the “map” of the text and the score, doing his homework by scanning the text thoroughly in search of the clues that indicate an opportunity to create behavior and change it. He has trained his body to become flexible and fearless, buoyant and responsive and light on his feet, attentive to the environment and the behavior of his fellow actors and alert to all the stimuli that can provoke a change in behavior at any given moment.

NEXT: The “I” of SAVI is Intensity.

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