I witnessed something so beautiful, courageous and moving in my scene study class this past Thursday. So much so that it inspired today’s blog post.
A very talented and beautiful 15-year old actress named Juliet started scene study class about a month ago. I actually interviewed her and was blown away by her maturity and clarity with what she wanted as an artist. Her attitude was great and I knew she was a “yes” in my book to be a part of the Richard Lawson Studios.
This past Thursday, she did a Song & Dance exercise in class. The Song & Dance exercise is drawn from Milton Katselas’ book, “Acting Class: Take A Seat”. This is the book we use to understand the acting approach at this studio. The point of this exercise is to get the student present and relaxed so that they are emotionally available. This exercise combines singing and dancing as tools to break down and free the student from ticks, nervous movements, tension, habits…basically anything that will prevent the student from experiencing the emotions that are underneath. And experiencing emotions can only happen if the student is absolutely relaxed. This exercise is great for understanding how to be relaxed in a performance or for a close up on camera.
This exercise is not about being a great singer. And many people already have a button or a consideration about singing for a VARIETY of reasons. I have seen people flinch from this exercise just because they did not want to sing in front of an audience. Juliet got up on stage and as she began singing, she broke down into tears. The tears continued throughout most of the exercise, sometimes to the point of hyperventilation. However, under the masterful and nurturing supervision of our teacher that night, Doug Spearman, he was able to keep her present and to push through the tears.
My heart went out to her, but at the same time, I was quietly rooting for her. As was everyone else in the room. We were all on her side. We were her cheerleaders. The reason she inspired me and this blog entry is because of the courage she had. To be 15 years old, to be a teen, is not an easy thing: Peer pressure, hormonal changes, demanding school work, etc. But despite all of that, she had the courage to stand in front of a group of adults and work her way through her Song & Dance. She could have run away. She could have quit halfway through the exercise. She could have not shown up to class. But she showed up and she kept fighting through to the end.
And I said to myself, “If she has the courage to sing, then I should too.” Why? Because I love to sing. Music is a big part of my life. But I buried my love for singing a long time ago. Which is a shame because I grew up doing musicals. My senior year in high school, I was cast as Tulsa in “Gypsy”. “Gypsy” is my second favorite musical of all time. I worked my ass off in rehearsals. At home, I would rehearse my song, my lines and all the dance numbers for HOURS. I wanted to put out the best product possible.
The show ran for several performances and we had sold out audiences each night. On the final night, one of the drama teachers told me that I was so excellent and professional in the role, that I could be on Broadway right now. He said my performance was Broadway-level. That same night, after we took our final bows, the director of the production introduced me to an agent that was blown away by my work. He gave me his card and I set up a time to meet with him. The agent really liked me and represented me. I was now signed to one of the top agencies in NYC. One of the biggest auditions he sent me out for was “The Lion King” on Broadway.
I knew musical theater was my path. I applied to different musical theater conservatories during my senior year in high school and got into prestigious programs at the Tisch School of the Arts and Syracuse University. In the end, I decided to go to Vassar College. During my freshman year at Vassar, I auditioned for a major, off-campus production of “A Chorus Line”. This is my favorite musical of all time and I could not believe how fortuitous it was that they were holding auditions for it. And I loved that it was a production outside of Vassar because it felt more legitimate and important. In other words, real-world experience.
The first round of auditions included a singing and dancing component. I believe I also performed a monologue. I knew I wanted the role of Paul (the soft-spoken, gay, Puerto Rican dancer) I got a callback and read for Paul! I really thought that I had Paul in the bag. When they finally cast the show, I got in! But I was cast as Richie instead (the more street, sassier, dynamic black dancer) I soon figured out that the only reason I got cast as Richie was because I was the darkest person who auditioned for the production. So on one hand, I wasn’t too disappointed because Richie is a great character and I got CAST in “A Chorus Line”. But on the other hand, I was disappointed because he’s not my casting. Plus, his solo numbers are WAY TOO HIGH for me to sing. As soon as I got cast as Richie, I knew that his solos would be a struggle.
Rehearsals began and I was doing great on the acting and dancing fronts. We were doing the Broadway choreography for most of the show and I loved it. On the singing front, I was doing really well in the group numbers. We rehearsed for five months straight and I was also balancing a full, demanding course load at Vassar. When rehearsals finally began on my solos, I struggled. I tried hard not to freak out when I was not hitting the high notes. Richie has two solos in “And” and “Gimme The Ball”. “And” was just painful and “Gimme The Ball” was okay. My confidence started to decrease every time we would rehearse those solos. And man did I try. I really gave it my all.
About three months into rehearsals, the director pulled me to the side and told me that she was giving my “And” solo to another person. She knew I was struggling with it and was looking out for the production as a whole. I remember being crushed. It felt like I had been shot in the chest. If anyone knows me, I work my ass off. And so to have something taken away from me was devastating. I walked away from her and locked myself in the bathroom. I sat down on the floor and cried my eyes out. It took her 20 minutes to finally convince me to come out.
Another reason why it took me so long to finally come out of the bathroom was because I didn’t want to confront the entire cast. I knew that today’s rehearsal was starting right after the opening number, “I Hope I Get It”. That meant that the 19 potential dancers we follow throughout the show were already lined up on stage and facing out into the audience. All of them, plus the musical director, were waiting for me to get out of the bathroom. The bathroom was at the back of the theater. I was like, “Oh fuck. On top of this awful news, I now have to walk down the aisle towards the stage with everyone looking at me and knowing what just happened.” So, I braced myself, opened the bathroom door, and with my eyes blood-shot red from crying, I marched down the aisle with my head up high. With everyone looking at me from the stage, the walk down the aisle felt like an eternity. I finally walked up the stage and passed by the person who now had my solo. I gave him a death stare and he took two steps back (He later confessed to me that he was afraid to talk to me for a while because he thought I was going to kill him.)
I was only 17 years old. I was incredibly young and vulnerable. I was the youngest person in a cast of adults. I felt invalidated. I felt that my singing voice was no good. I felt like I failed. I got a taste of the real world and had no support system to help me up. Rehearsals continued and I worked even harder to make sure nothing else was taken away from me. The show opened in May and we were sold out every single night. My “Gimme The Ball” solo had improved, but it was still something I did not have complete confidence with. One night, after a performance, a representative from a major record label approached one of my cast mates and gave him his card. I remember being jealous and hurt because I knew that I had worked harder than him on every level. But because he was a better singer, the record label representative approached him instead. So, I was even more convinced that I was a terrible singer (Ignoring of course that the record label rep did NOT approach any of the other fantastic singers in the production as well.)
In the end, my dream show turned into a bittersweet experience. I had wins with it on the dancing, acting and singing levels, but not with my solo numbers. After “A Chorus Line” ended, I never did musical theater again.
Looking back at all these years, I’ve only sung a few times in public. And it sucks because music is a big part of my life. I love music. I believe I was a pop star in another life. I would love to have a career like Madonna, Jennifer Lopez or Justin Timberlake (modern-day artists who act, sing and dance) What a wonderful fusion of disciplines!
I recorded one of my favorite songs recently in one take (“The Girl and the Robot” by Röyksopp featuring Robyn) and was really pleased with what I heard. I was like, “Wow, that’s me????” I even uploaded the song onto Youtube, but I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I totally flinched. But for fuck’s sake! Why?! I have a good voice. I got into conservatories for musical theater, I had a great agent in NYC, I was auditioning for Broadway. But I experienced such a loss with “A Chorus Line” that it wiped out all of my previous statistics and influenced the rest of my life.
But when I heard “The Girl and the Robot”, I realized how much I love to sing. And that I can sing. What I experienced with “A Chorus Line” does not mean I can’t sing. It was just WRONG casting. Which is why CASTING is so fucking important. If you’re cast in the wrong role, you don’t have a chance to shine. You don’t hum like fine crystal because the role doesn’t fit you like a glove. Wrong casting means that you could potentially walk away from the experience with a tremendous sense of loss. An actor cannot play every role out there. A singer cannot sing every song out there. I shine best as a singer when it’s the right casting and in the right genre of music. I can’t compare myself to other singers. I have to embrace my unique voice and maximize that in the right arenas.
I had a similar experience with acting. I almost quit acting when I was new to LA. I got an agent and they turned out to be really good. They got me out on a lot of auditions…for gang bangers, cholos and prisoners. They saw that I was a Latino male with a buzz cut, and because I didn’t understand the concept of driving my own career bus at the time, I let them call the shots. They sent me out on so many big TV auditions and I would be in the waiting rooms with people who actually looked like they just got out of jail. I worked as hard as I could to be those guys, but it’s just not in my nature. It’s not my CASTING. I would leave each audition feeling okay about my performance, but never with a feeling of a SLAM DUNK. I started getting discouraged and thought that I couldn’t act.
Finally, I stopped the madness and took control of my career. I got real clear with my agency about my casting and what I could play. Once they heard me, I started going out for things that I could really play. And I started producing winning results. Today, I would not accept the role of Richie. I’m clearer on my casting.
Seeing Juliet in her Song & Dance inspired me to action. Seeing her cry at the age of 15 reminded me of ME crying at the age of 17. The only difference is that she is part of an incredible community of people who will support her and hold her up. I wish I had artistic supporters when my event occurred. Things could have turned out differently for me. If Juliet at 15, starting out brand new with acting, could have the courage to cry through her Song & Dance in front of a room of seasoned, trained, professional adults, then who the fuck am I to keep hiding my own singing?
So here is what I am doing to take action. And I hope that my actions will inspire you to reconnect with something you have let go of or something you have a failed purpose on.
1) I am including links to two songs I recorded in one take. The first song is “The Girl and the Robot” and the second song is the ending of “I Don’t Care Much” from “Cabaret”. I LOVE the role of the Emcee. It’s one of my dream roles. But because I had such a failed purpose on singing, I heard “I Don’t Care Much” and freaked out over how high the ending part was. I was so convinced I was a bad singer that I could never sing the song. Every time I tried to sing it, I failed. Until two weeks ago, I finally said fuck it. I’m going to nail this ending part. I gave it my all and the notes came out…beautifully. I shared “I Don’t Care Much” with my good friend Lindsay Hopper and she said, “Dude…You need to sing more…WTF? Why do you hide that?”
2) How do I move forward to destroy this failed purpose? Do I sing songs in scene study class? What are my current castings in musical theater? What other genres could my particular voice shine best in? Do I begin vocal training to rebuild my voice? Do I sit down and figure out how to incorporate singing into my overall picture and business plan as an artist? Where does singing now fit in, if any, within the bigger picture of my career?
3) I am going to send a Facebook message to the director of “A Chorus Line” to finally address what kind of impact that event had on me. Writing a letter or sending an email communication, without blame or anger, is an effective tool that I have learned at the studio to handle something. It worked beautifully for me before on another occasion and so I am excited to do it again. In the message, I will let her know how I’m doing and that I hope she’s doing well. I will let her know why I’m writing, how the event affected me and what I’m doing now to reclaim my love for singing. And I’ll end the communication by sharing the two links with her as well and wishing her the best.
I look forward to sharing with you all how action number three turns out.
And thank you Juliet for your bravery and inspiration.
Here are the songs I recorded in one take:
The Girl And The Robot: https://youtu.be/ItV-n4iMSAc
I Don’t Care Much: https://youtu.be/81uwLM7mRSM
Onward and forward.