Considering that it was our inaugural year at Cleveland’s Hathaway Brown Theatre Institute, a pre-professional summer training program, things went exceptionally smoothly. The kids swarmed in, far exceeding my expectations. I suspect that this was due, in part, to the excellent reputations of our staff of instructors, and the work many of us did when I was Artistic Director at Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory. Excitingly, this means that our plans for next year will include expanded offerings, more students, and more productions!
Here are a few reflections on my experiences as a teacher this summer:
PLAYING THE POSITIVE – GIVING ACTORS A TOOLBOX TO MAKE SOUND ACTING CHOICES
One of the best parts of training young actors in a conservatory-style setting is introducing them to the basic actor’s toolbox of objectives, obstacles, stakes, given circumstances, etc.–and awakening them to the fact that good acting is “living truthfully within imaginary circumstances.” Seeing them begin to understand and absorb these concepts, and watching their work flower as a result, is intensely gratifying.
Good young actors will often want to show the pain their characters are experiencing. But of course, in real life, no one but an exhibitionist just trumpets out what they’re feeling, except in moments of extreme breakdown or breakthrough. So the truthful choice as an actor is usually to attempt to cover that pain so people don’t see. This was true for many of the characters in The King and I, one of our student productions. Anna, played by Klara Hricik, was furious at the King’s attitudes but struggled to hide those feelings in order to achieve her objectives. Tuptim, played by Lauryn Hobbs, also had to hide how unhappy she was. Each actress had a song to let out those true feelings–but their initial choices made their feelings so obvious that the King would have instantly known how they felt and reacted quite differently. The actresses successfully made the adjustment to “lie well” to the King and avoid the impulse to “show” the audience the pain they were in. It was a great lesson in not indicating emotion and “living in the obstacle,” and helped them clarify what their true objective was in each beat.
I always include an “Acting The Song” class in my theatre programs, because so many actors–young and old–make the mistake of not playing objectives in songs, but rather just emoting. In our class this summer, I worked with several young actresses on the song “Maybe” from Annie, and tried hard to get them to understand about playing a positive action–the fact that nothing we do as humans is intended to produce a negative consequence for ourselves.
The trap in “Maybe” is the impulse to play it “sad.” The girls played it that way initially because they (as actors/audience member) felt bad for Annie. But as her “I want” song, ultimately this piece is hopeful–it’s more about “I’m going to find my parents” than “I’ll never find my parents.” Good actors and directors know the ironic truth that often the more hopeful and positive a song is played, the more moving it is. It was wonderful to watch our young actresses make the adjustment in the song, bringing it to moving, vibrant, truthful life. They will now be able to continue making positive choices in the roles they play in the future.
The goal of the training at HBTI is to give young actors the tools to make insightful and well thought-out acting choices in order to not only make them better artists, but make them more competitive as they move into the professional world. It has always been so exciting when my students move on to careers on Broadway, regional theatre, television and film, and have them send me back a note that says, “Thank you, Fred–your program gave me the skills I needed to get where I am!”
See where some of Fred’s former students have gone on to in their careers: Former Students Speak