Sunday, November 18, 2007

HC: Thank You Victoria Clark and Friends

On Sunday night, November 11, Victoria Clark taught a master class at the 92nd street Y in Manhattan. Victoria Clark won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards for her performance as Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel’s musical The Light in the Piazza, and has also appeared in Titanic, Cabaret, Urinetown, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Her first solo CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, has just been released. She’s also had small roles in movies (Cradle Will Rock and M. Night Shyamalan’s next film The Happening) and television shows (Law & Order, All My Children). Ms Clark is also a voice teacher.

At the start of the master class, Ms Clark thanked the audience—there were about 60 of us—for coming and told us we were privileged to be a part of something very special: a look into an actor’s process. She cautioned the audience about being judgmental about any of the four actors—explaining that what they were all about to do in the front of the rehearsal space was very difficult—and that we should “send waves of love” to the performers. She also told us that even though we might see an improvement in the performers, we weren’t allowed to applaud. Applause might make the singers feel like they were performing, rather than learning and experimenting. We had to hold our applause until she, “Queen Vicki” as she referred to herself, felt a major shift. Victoria Clark is very funny.

The first actor/singer was Robert [not real name]. He sang, very beautifully, Kiss Her Now from Jerry Herman’s Dear World. Ms Clark stopped him after a few lines, saying, you have a very beautiful instrument, now let’s get to work. She had him stand differently, and stop a certain distracting eye movement he had…sort of keeping his head to the left while his eyes slid to the right. She asked him who was singing and to whom. Robert explained that he was telling his brother to ‘kiss her now.’ Ms Clark suggested that Robert should sing the song to himself. As an incentive, she asked one of the other singers, Christine, to stand down the isle from Robert, so he’d have someone to focus on. Robert’s job was to sing the song so that it HAD to end in a kiss, whether he walked to Christine or drew her to him. Already the song and performance was getting better. Calling two men up from the audience, Ms Clark had Robert get physical with the men, playing catch and enacting working out at a gym. She’d yell, “Treadmill!” and the three men would start jogging; “rowing machine!” and they sat on the floor and rowed invisible oars; “weights!” and one man spotted Robert as he lifted an invisible barbell, all the time Robert was singing the song. It was very entertaining, and enlightening to see how the physical actions not only loosened Robert’s body, but also his singing, and to see the different take on the words once Robert was no longer just standing there.

The next performer was a young dancer, Tommy, who wants to audition for the lead in Billy Elliott on Broadway. He stood in his dance attire and sang Where is Love from Oliver! He had a very little voice and seemed so young and inexperienced. Ms Clark took him under her wing, helping him see and hear the difference between “a playground voice” and a sweet singing voice. She had Tommy sing “mommy”: instead of “Where-e-e-e-ere is love?” he sang “mom-om-om-om-om-mommy!” as if he was trying to coerce his mother into bringing him something he was too lazy to get for himself. She had the boy feel her diaphragm to understand how powerful one can be. They had a contest to see who could sing Happy Birthday louder and longer. This kid was so beautiful, with smooth skin, curly dark hair, and such a love of performing. When Vicki wanted Tommy to have a certain feeling in his voice, she told him to act as if he were complaining to his mother that she made him come to Vicki for lessons. Tommy shot back, “I wanted to come.” He had a tight dancer’s body, and at one point did a smooth, slow, elegant cartwheel that was poetic. Ms Clark had Tommy come over to the piano (which she played very well, of course) and do some scales with the “mom-om-om-om-mee” notes. She had him dig his fingers into her face as she sang so he could feel the vibrations there, and then try to replicate them in his own face as he sang. After working with him for a long time, Ms Clark asked him to choreograph his own dance to the song, and had the accompanist play it. The kid was amazing.

The most valuable thing I think Clark gave to Tommy, who was obviously a very physically strong, hard-working kid, was the knowledge that much in the same way you can train your body to be athletic so it can dance, you can train your body to be athletic so it can sing.

The third singer, Christine, started with Glitter and Be Gay, which Clark asked her to stop. Too many layers upon layers in the song, she said, and in the limited amount of time allotted, she wanted a more workable song, a song that was exposing and raw. Christine then sang If I Loved You, from Carousel. Although she had a very strong soprano voice, Christine wasn’t getting the song across due to old style hand and arm movements. Ms Clark said Christine’s voice was beautiful, but that she didn’t believe a word she sang. Christine then went through a long process with Ms Clark, first discussing the thoughts behind the song (the intro being the girl babbling to her boyfriend before she can get settled down to tell him what is really important), then talking the song through slowly with the music, to really understand it, then sitting on her hands to avoid the distracting gestures. Ms Clark told Christine that while her voice was beautiful, Christine was stuck in a rut and needed to take acting classes and comedy improv classes to loosen up. I so admired both women: Christine standing up there in front of 60 strangers, trying to get better, and Clark, not coddling but teaching and advising. I can’t imagine Christine not feeling a little depressed after the master class. This is a woman I suspect has been praised and applauded in other settings, but New York is a tough town. Clark told it like it is, praised her voice, made suggestions and recommendations. I hope Christine meets her potential.

The fourth and last performer, Mary, sang What More Could I Need from Saturday Night by Stephen Sondheim. This woman had a fabulous voice! What Ms Clark worked on was Mary’s action, her verb. Mary tried “adapt” and “seduce” and the song changed. Mary’s “seduce” action version of the song was spent lying on her side on the floor with Robert as the person being sung to. This woman took direction beautifully, and every “what a…pretty…town” was different. I wanted to see her in a real show. The few criticisms Vicki talked about with Mary were, I thought, minor. Mary had little tics that she did with certain words in the song, that she did no matter what her “action verb” was. Vicki said it’s important NOT to feel stuck to one thing like that, that you should be open to however you’re feeling that day, whatever you’re bringing to the song/role that minute. (This certainly explains why every time I saw The Light in the Piazza Vicki played it differently. Sometimes the difference was slight, sometimes bigger, always poignant, thanks too to Adam Guettel’s words. I’ve seen her sing Dividing Day with dread, or much sadness, or sudden realization, or, most powerfully for me, numbness.)

The other point Vicki made to Mary was to thin out her voice in the final few notes of the song, which were coming across as too strong. I don’t know any of the technical terms for this, not being a singer, but Mary sang the last few notes again and there was a noticeable improvement.

This was a powerful night of learning. I tried to send waves of love, as directed, and not be judgmental, which is a hard thing. I did admire the older performers for what they tried and accomplished. They were all better for the master class, no doubt. Vicki’s teaching was no nonsense, technical, yet warm and smart. I hope the four people at the master class learned even half as much as I did.

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