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.

Speaking at the Stanislavski Centre

On Monday of next week (October 21) I’ll deliver a presentation on “Stanislavski and the Singing Actor” sponsored by the Stanislavski Centre, in association with The American Theatre Arts program at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. The talk will be held on Monday 21st October at 18.30 on the Lamorbey Park Campus of Rose Bruford College, Burnt Oak Lane, Sidcup, Kent.

Here’s a brief precis of what I plan to discuss:

The contemporary singing actor faces a paradoxical challenge: truthful expression within the artificial strictures of song. Charles Gilbert, who has been training singing actors at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for more than twenty years, examines the ways in which the Stanislavski system remains useful on the musical stage, including some consideration of Stanislavski’s own work with singing actors. He acknowledges the influence of Stanislavski in the development of the “SAVI System,” a pedagogical approach Gilbert has devised to provide his students with a fundamental “grammar” of musical theatre performance technique.

The Stanislavski Centre at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance is a unique initiative within the UK to create a home for both academic research and practice/performance events based upon the work of Konstantin Stanislavski. Originally conceived by the late Professor Jean Benedetti (former principal of the College, an internationally renowned expert and author of several major books on Stanislavski’s work), the Centre hosts a series of important lectures, workshops, study days and other events throughout the year.

The talk is just one of the events that are planned for my week-long residency at Rose Bruford College. I’ll also be teaching an intensive master-class called “Three Places in America,” using three iconic works from the American musical theater repertoire, Show Boat, Carousel and Guys and Dolls, as the focus for an integrated curriculum of musical theater history, cultural history and performance practice.

The review I wish all my students would get

11audra-SUB-popupA few weeks ago, Audra MacDonald sang at Lincoln Center’s spring gala, and Stephen Holden from the New York Times was on hand to review her performance. I’m not surprised by his praise – I’m a fan, too, after all – but I was struck how some of his observations appear to reflect my own values about singing-acting.

Ms. McDonald’s soprano [...] seemed to unfurl in ever-richer textures as she imbued songs with a sense of bursting possibility. The familiar songs “First You Dream,” from the Kander and Ebb show “Steel Pier,” and the Styne-Comden-Green ballad “Make Someone Happy” from “Do Re Mi,” were infused with the excitement of discovery, as if Ms. McDonald and the audience were together realizing how humble Broadway songs delivered with passion and intelligence could convey basic emotional truths.

Okay, so we’ll let “humble Broadway songs” pass without complaining that it’s a condescending remark. His reference to Audra’s “sense of bursting possibility” reminds me of a comment from composer Adam Guettel I read over a decade ago: “People like Audra have an innate instinct for the opportunities in a song.” Such opportunities inhere in classic Broadway showtunes (“humble” or not), and “songs delivered with passion and intelligence [can indeed] convey basic emotional truths.” Near the end, Holden observes that:

One of Ms. McDonald’s greatest gifts is to find the story inside the song and deliver it with immediacy and clarity, in a voice that finds a flexible, intuitive balance between storytelling and singing — a defining voice of our time.

Indeed, I agree that Audra’s approach to singing-acting – which he describes with words like “immediacy,” “clarity,” “intelligence,” “passion,” and, above all, a “flexible, intuitive balance between storytelling and singing” – is definitive, the gold standard for integrated singing-acting to which I hope all my students aspire.

When Meisner is not enough…

A student writing a research paper in the UK recently presented me with some provocative interview questions, including the following:

How can acting techniques such as Meisner be translated into acting through song? Can you explain the objectives of the SAVI technique? How does it differ from other techniques and is it applicable to all styles of musical theatre song ie, operetta, to golden age, to rock musical?

The phrase “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is a direct quote from Sanford Meisner, but my experience is that this pedagogical approach by itself is not sufficient to the singing actor’s training needs. I have observed that students capable of success at living truthfully under imaginary circumstances can still be incapable of crafting successful performances in plays and musicals, and I set out trying to figure out what it what else it was they were lacking.

I named the four key attributes that the acronym SAVI refers to – specificity, authenticity, variety and intensity – after considering over a considerable period of time what what else was missing that kept them from crafting successful performances. In addition to being truthful (an elusive concept in itself and one subject to a wide range of interpretations), the performer must also be able to make choices which are specific to the dramatic circumstances and that vary in response to the changing circumstances of the drama. In addition, I observed that students needed to have the ability to create a greater intensity as singing actors that they might otherwise be called upon to create in non-singing repertoire. Though the study of Meisner/s technique is highly effective in cultivating authenticity – enabling students to “sing their truth,” if you will – the SAVI technique provide some tools and strategies for achieving greater specificity, variety and intensity.

SAVI promotes the idea that the singing actor’s job is to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.” This, as you’ll see, is substantially different from Meisner’s “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The SAVI singing actor takes an active approach to the notion of “creating behavior” – it’s not something that magically or providentially occurs, but is crafted or authored by the performer, with painstaking “phrase by phrase” detail.

It is a short step from the idea of “creating behavior” to the notion that different musicals from different eras require different “behavior vocabularies,” a term that can incorporate physical behavior, social mores and manners, and even vocal behaviors (like the use of “vocal dirt” as a gritty signifier of truth in contemporary musicals which would be wildly inappropriate in an upperclass nineteenth century milieu). In my studio, students study the “behavior vocabularies” of different eras as they explore the repertoire of those eras.

What’s your experience? Did the Meisner technique give you everything you needed to be a successful actor? Leave a comment below.

It’s just a three-letter word…

butBut often the word “but” is the most important word in a song lyric. Why’s that? “But” is a “coordinating conjunction” and it “coordinates” the meaning of the phrases it comes between; specifically, “but” is a signal to the reader or listener that the statement about to come (the one following the conjunction) is different from or contrasts significantly with the previous statement.

Look at the opening of this post, for instance:

It’s just a three letter word, but often “but” is the most important word in a song lyric.

The first phrase (“just a three letter word”) seems to suggest that small words lack importance, while the information after the coordinating conjunction contradicts the original implication.

The truth of this was made evident to me in class last week when a student of mine presented her work on Adam Guettel’s song Migratory V.

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together –
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Notice how the word “but” serves as a pivot, a turning point in the argument of the first two stanzas of this song. In each case, the first part of the stanza provides examples of things that single individuals can accomplish. After the “but,” the content of the lyric turns to group accomplishments (“fly together,” “all as one we sound the everlasting sound”), and argues these are also important – perhaps even more important, since they earn God’s favor and hold the key to “our salvation.” In the note Adam penned for the CD booklet and published vocal selections, he speaks of how the songs in Myths and Hymns (the song cycle in which “Migratory V” is featured) address our “desire to transcend earthly bounds, to bond with something or someone greater.”

Over the course of analyzing hundreds of songs with student performers, I have found that the transitions between phrases (the “dings,” if you will, using the SAVI term that refers to the onset of a new thought) fall into a handful of categories. One significant category is the “but ding.” Oh, go ahead, say it out loud – it sounds vaguely bawdy, but it plays a crucial role in the architecture of thought in many songs. Right now, off the top of your head, I’ll bet you can think of a song lyric in which the word “but” figures prominently as a transitional or “hinge” word. If you can, leave me a comment!