Behind the Scenes: Ben Vereen coaxes connections from young performers
Master classes for actors can be as much about personality and psychology as they are about performance.
That explains the tears and sobs that came pretty regularly from several young performers who got to spend a few minutes on stage with Tony Award-winning Broadway and television star Ben Vereen at Venice Theatre.
The master class was one of many workshops conducted during the American Association of Community Theatre WorldFest 2014.
They were tears of relief, joy, worry and frustration brought on by Vereen’s efforts to help the artists knock down the walls they had built up around them.
Walls are an actor’s enemy. They get in the way of being open and free enough to try anything (at least once) for a role.
This master class was a public event, with several hundred theater lovers, Vereen fans and other performers watching.
In a sense, the audience became voyeurs for a kind of public analysis session. Five young people who grew up performing at Venice Theatre sat nervously waiting their turn to perform a prepared monologue and a bit of song.
Vereen then approached them with some questions.
There were lots of hugs and the occasional “What’s holding you back?” or “What did they do to you?” Clearly, events from the past were blocking the artists from moving forward.
We didn’t hear what Vereen whispered to the actors, but they all finished stronger than they started, even if they were still shaking a little bit.
Vereen offered a valuable lesson for any growing creative artist. You have to tear down the walls that hold you back.
It could be taunts from childhood, family issues, betrayals, abandonment or good old self-doubt. Whatever it is,
Vereen encouraged these performers to use those challenges for their own benefit.
“Embrace your fears. Inside your fear lies your strength,” he told the audience and the performers.
I’ve seen many master classes over the years, and most of “star” leaders focused on helping younger artists connect to the material they were working with.
All actors who pick up a script or a song have to understand the character they will be playing, what the lines or lyrics tell them about that person, and how to best interpret it and convey it back to an audience.
In short, it’s all about finding the truth of the character within yourself and how to bring that out every time you say or sing the words.
In audition situations, it’s always best to choose material that is appropriate for you and shows you off to your best advantage to help you get the job. It’s clear from my limited experience of watching auditions that more actors need help picking scenes that serve them.
In his class, Vereen worked on a primal and intimate level. I felt a little embarrassed to be watching at times, but fascinated by the results.
One of the participants, Tony DeNiro, presented a short monologue and then sang a bit of “Heaven on Their Minds,” a song that Vereen introduced in the first Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Vereen set to work on figuring out how to get DeNiro to better relate to the scene. They spoke softly to one another, and then he had DeNiro sit facing an empty chair, representing his unseen antagonist. Instead of reciting the lines from the scene, Vereen had him just talk, to respond to whatever questions or comments he was whispering to him, until he could see the tone shift.
Noelle Oxboel sang and acted as well, but when an audience member suggested that she dance, a new spirit took over. There was a freeness evident that was missing earlier. Then he had her sing again, and there was a different emotional life to the song.
“Every emotion I have has been here on this planet since the beginning,” Vereen told the crowd. “I just have to tap into it with my own resources.”
After just a few minutes in this public/private analysis, he had these young artists set on a clearer path.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.